Music & Spirit
Where would we be without music? Music enriches life in so many ways: it is thrilling and joyful to make, and can be life changing to listen to. Perhaps music of all creative activities lends itself to participate in the life of the Spirit. Singing, especially in worship, opens up avenues of expression for the praying heart and mind. St Augustine famously wrote in is commentary on Psalm 72 ‘he who sings prays twice’. Augustine’s reference to psalmody is a reminder that all the psalms were written to be sung. Movingly, in his Confessions (which recount his journey to faith in Christ) Augustine recalls the effect of the singing of the congregation in Milan: ‘those sounds flowed into my ears distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face- tears that did me good.’
It is important to note the wisdom of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this topic. It outlines three principal criteria: ‘beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments,’ ‘in this way they participate in the purpose of the liturgical words and actions: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful’. I draw attention to the necessity of ‘unanimous participation.’ Like many other readers I do ‘enjoy’ attending Choral Evensong, or even a Mass will marvellous choral singing, but it does not have, I suggest, the same spiritual value as singing together.
There is also good reason to be careful about the spiritual nature of the experience of singing together: football supporters and rock gig crowds experience the same emotional ‘lift.’ There is a danger in seeking a spiritual ‘leg up’ by attending worship merely because it is a ‘good sing’. Nevertheless, the experience of the prayerful singing of thousands in a setting like Taizé or Lourdes clearly does the soul a power of good! As in all things it is important to ‘discern the spirits’ and make sure one is not mistaking an emotional high for a spiritual experience!
That is not to say that listening to music in worship (or in any other context) cannot strengthen and inform our own life in the Spirit. Although J.S. Bach’s great choral works always included regular opportunities for congregational singing, they were primarily written to be listened to. I once knew a Sister in a religious community whose vocation began in listening to a recording of a Chopin prelude. The ancient Christian Choral tradition has grown out of and continues to enable rich and fruitful communion with the Lord. I have known several people for whom Choral Evensong on Radio 3 has provided spiritual sustenance in isolated and challenging circumstances. A priest friend of mine uses recordings of choral settings of the psalms in his praying of the Offices. There can be no doubt that music is one of God’s greatest gifts to us: it can have an almost sacramental quality as a means of grace. Through music the depths of the heart and the heights of heaven connect. Let us pray for guidance to discern its place in our own spiritual lives.