Religious faith and the power of music and song

Religious faith and the power of music and song

Andrw Kania

The power of music and song is universally felt within the human person, capturing the imagination from the very moment of entry into the world. When a baby cries, the mother or father turns to a lullaby to soothe the child's anxieties and encourage a peaceful slumber - usually with success.

And history - both sacred and secular - is replete with examples of the power of music and song. Hence the Second Vatican Council placed great emphasis on the role of appropriate music in the liturgy.

In 1745, Flora Macdonald (1722-1790) would never have entertained the possibility that one day she would enter the annals of history by ferrying a royal passenger perilously 'over the seas to Skye'.

In 1745 the Catholic armies were confidently massing behind Charles Edward Stuart (1720-1788) - 'Bonnie Prince Charlie'. Eventually, however, they would suffer a devastating defeat at Culloden, pleading to their Prince, 'Will ye no come back again?'

Christmas carol

In the same year, John Francis Wade (1711-1786), a Catholic layman, Jacobite, and talented music teacher, had decided to flee religious persecution in his English homeland and arrived on the shores of France, eventually settling in the French town of Douai.

In a short time Wade was to become one of the many intellectuals who gathered at Douai's English College, a bastion of exiled Catholicism. It was here, and in such circumstances as a refugee, that Wade is said to have sat down and penned in 1743 one of the world's best loved Christmas carols, Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful).

But it seems to have been deliberately written to have a dual meaning.

Ian Bradley, in an article titled, 'Sing Choirs of Angels' (History Today, Vol 48, No 12, 1998, p. 42) notes how the original manuscript published by Wade, who was by then the plainchant scribe at Douai, has the dedication, 'Regem nostrum Jacobum' and 'Stuart cyphers' on the manuscript, indicating that the hymn may have been written not only as a Christmas carol, but as a powerful anthem, 'intended to rally Jacobites in Britain on the eve of Bonnie Prince Charlie's rising'.

Now sung with gusto all over the world by Protestant and Catholic choirs each Christmas, Adeste Fideles originally had a much narrower focus as to who were the 'faithful' that should come and adore the King of Angels. Thus from the heart and mind of one man devoted to his Church, and to a political cause he saw as inextricably entwined with that Church, came an 18th century carol that today can stop even atheists in the street when they hear it played in a store, or move a believer to tears when it is sung at midnight Mass.

So powerful is music that anthems such as the La Marseillaise and L'Internationale have fired up revolutionary movements and armies.

And the authors of a history of the American Civil War detail how on hearing a band strike up The Battle Hymn of the Republic, 'A southern major ... admitted, 'Gentlemen, if we'd had your songs, we'd have licked you out of your boots'' (Ward, Burns and Burns, 1990, p. 104).

Most of us can also bear witness to the fact that whenever gold medals are won at an Olympic Games, the athletes, on hearing their anthem played, invariably struggle to hold back the tide of emotion swelling within them - as if the twin sentiment they have for their achievement and their homeland is encapsulated in a few bars of a song.

If the human spirit and music are inseparable, so too is the relationship between divine revelation and music.

The Old Testament sets the foundation - with its Psalms and Song of Songs - of a tradition of putting into poetry and music the highest and innermost stirrings of the human spirit's thirst for God. We are even told in Psalm 137 of exiles fearing that their predicament of being in an adopted homeland is so painful that they may not be able to find voice to give adequate praise to God.

Christ's birth

St Luke reveals in the New Testament how the birth of Christ is not only ordained by a bright star over Bethlehem, but by choirs of Angels singing: 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those he favours' (Luke 2:14).

St Paul tells us we should 'Sing psalms and hymns and inspired songs among yourselves, singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts, always and everywhere giving thanks to God who is our Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ' (Ephesians 5:19-20).

Again in Colossians he teaches his audience: 'With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms and hymns and inspired songs to God' (Colossians 3:16).

With music such an integral part of Christian tradition it is little wonder that Metropolitan Andrii Sheptytsky (1865-1944) discouraged the celebrating of spoken liturgies, emphasising the importance of music in the giving of praise to God (Pospishil, 1989, pp. 201-225).

Examples of the powerful effect that song and music have had in Christian tradition are innumerable. When the Ukrainian Catholic priest and martyr, Roman Lysko, was being bricked alive by Soviet guards, we are told by witnesses to this horrific crime that 'they heard him singing psalms at the top of his voice' (Church of the Martyrs, 2004, p. 25).

Moreover, long after the Ukrainian Church was forced underground and its priests and bishops imprisoned or murdered, what fed the spirituality of the faithful was neither the golden dome nor elaborate icons of the iconastasis, which had been taken from them, but the hymns of the Church, hymns such as those written by a Confessor of the Faith, Fr Iosyf Kysakevyc (1872-1953).

Such hymns, in their sincerity and simplicity, challenged the strength of the bars and shackles of the concentration camp:

Flow out throughout the world, O song of love,
Let your voice resound like a hundred thunders.
Over us there streams a marvellous happiness,
Christ, the Lord Himself, in glory is coming.

Higher reality

The American philosopher William James (1842-1910) once wrote about the connection between music and mysticism. Music, he said, 'is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystical truth', adding, 'many mystical scriptures are indeed little more than musical compositions'.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) also emphasised in his Purgatorio the importance of music taking precedence over other artistic forms in the attainment of mystical awareness: 'This harmony of sounds made me recall just how it seems in church when we attend to people singing as the organ plays: sometimes the words are heard, and sometimes lost' (Dante, 1985: II, Canto IX, p. 100).

For Dante, there comes a point with music when the words and voice become so intertwined that one is lifted to a higher reality that transcends both forms of communication, if they are left in isolation, one from the other.

Perhaps this is the underlying logic behind St Augustine's famous teaching in Sermon 336: 'To sing once is to pray twice', that is, when music is added to the spoken word of praise for God, a marriage exists between two sublime spouses, between prose or poetry and the secret meaning locked within a melody.

In such a union, the human voice is transformed with a new voice then heard, a voice that all men and women, wherever they are in the world, and despite their native tongue, can sit back and understand that indeed there must be a God in heaven to have willed that mere man could be brought towards him by something so rich, so pure, so ethereal - so divine.

Dr Andrew Kania has been Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College, Perth. He is the author of numerous articles on religious topics and is currently studying at Oxford University.

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