Songs and silence

Andy Hawes is Warden of
Edenham Regional Retreat House

St Augustine must have loved a good sing. It was he who described Christians as an ‘Easter people’ whose song is ‘Alleluia!’; and he encouraged those daunted by their very precarious situation ‘to keep walking and keep singing’. Singing and music is integral to Christian spirituality: it grew out of Jewish worship, which had a highly developed tradition of singing the psalms. On Maundy Thursday we hear that Jesus and his disciples ‘after singing some hymns went to the Mount of Olives’.

St Paul, in his spiritual counsel to the Ephesians, writes that they should ‘be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord.’ (Eph. 5.19). This is echoed in the Letter to the Colossians: ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.’ (Col. 3.16). Here Paul makes the connection between the word of God dwelling in us and heartfelt singing. There is in the New Testament a very dynamic ‘confusion’ of word and song: we need only bring to mind the canticles that are part of the rhythm of our daily prayer – Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis. There are others, too, as found in Philippians 2 and the texts which are now woven into the Eucharistic liturgy.

It is singing that helps so much of Christian doctrine penetrate our consciousness: as any teacher of young children knows, singing can help us to remember. If one reflects on how the singing of hymns has formed perceptions and understanding of the Faith one sees how absolutely essential it is.

There is a spontaneous element to singing hymns and canticles: it might happen anywhere from, the shower to the drive to the supermarket; but there is also a more deliberate use of singing to gather mind, body, and spirit together as a preparation for more wordless and contemplative prayer. The chants and songs that have come out of the Taizé community can be as well used by individuals in solitude as by large gatherings – most are created to enable a stilling into silence.

This generation has an opportunity to use music in ways that Christians of earlier generations could not imagine. we have access to a wealth of recorded music – which we can put in our pocket – to provide inspiration and solace anywhere we choose. This does, however, produce difficulties if this resource is not managed carefully. There is a thin distinction between being inspired and being entertained. Listening to music may aid reflection and bring us to a ‘place’ of stillness, but it should not be aural wallpaper to our prayer. It is very easy to become dependent on having an ‘eternal music feed’. It is an aid to, and not a substitute for, that quiet in which we can hear the ‘small murmuring voice’. we might remember that after the triumphant hymns to the Lamb there was silence in heaven for the space of half an hour.