Paula Bär-Giese, soprano; and Hans Meijer, lute, in character as Katie von Bora and Martin Luther, perform ‘From heaven above I come’ and ‘A child is born in Bethlehem’

agnostic (n.) 1870, “one who professes that the existence of a First Cause and the essential nature of things are not and cannot be known” [Klein]; coined by T.H. Huxley, supposedly in September 1869, from Greek agnostos “unknown, unknowable,” from a- “not” (see a- (3)) + gnōstos “(to be) known,” from PIE root *gno- “to know.” Sometimes said to be a reference to Paul’s mention of the altar to “the Unknown God” in Acts, but according to Huxley it was coined with reference to the early Church movement known as Gnosticism (see Gnostic). The adjective also is first recorded 1870. (Online Etymological Dictionary)

Happy new year!

I know, I know. It’s only November. But Advent begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day — Sunday, Nov. 28, this year — and with it begins the new church year. That, as far as I’m concerned, calls for a celebration.

Or maybe a temporary sigh of relief. Either way, it’s a time to take stock of the past year — it’s been brutal. The past two years have, really, and it’s time to try to look ahead.

All the more so because I’m resuming spiritual direction in December with one of the Dominican sisters in town. It’s high time, too, following a hiatus after my spiritual director died a little more than a year ago. I tend to intellectualize and go down rabbit holes when I’m left to my own devices. If anybody needs direction, it’s me.

So: A new church year, a new spiritual director. New beginnings.

Advent has always been one of my favorite times of the year. Right around the end of November, my father would get out the Advent and Christmas music. I remember especially an LP featuring music of the time of Praetorius on the Deutsche Grammophon Archiv label (it’s long out of print, but there’s a sound file on YouTube). Also: The old 10-inch recordings of F. Melius Christiansen’s chorale arrangements. (This 2018 concert performance of his Advent hymn “Wake Awake, For Night is Flying” is a good example. It features the St. Olaf College choir, which he directed for many years, and they still have the exquisitely blended sound Christiansen was known for.)

Even after I went off to college, left the church and lost my sense of the magic of the season, these memories were what Christmas meant to me.

In fact, one of my first steps back to the church came when I sang with the choir at Springfield College in Illinois, a two-year Catholic liberal arts college on the north end. Our choir director needed another bass (and one who could be counted on to show up for rehearsals), and he offered to teach me to sight-read if I joined the choir. Deal! It was all kind of new to me, and I remember how magical it was to begin the fall semester in September by starting to rehearse for the Advent/Christmas concert.

So I associate Advent with fresh starts and new beginnings.

And this year I’m going to take the occasion — since it’s the beginning of a new church year — to make a new year’s resolution:

To find a viable way to work music into my spiritual practice.

I think it’s something I need to do. Rather urgently, in fact, as we go into the second year of a global pandemic that shows no signs of being over in the foreseeable future. Even more than I realized pre-pandemic, my spiritual life revolved around singing in the choir. Now, with my medical history, it looks like that’s no longer open to me. And the available scientific research on choral singing suggests it isn’t likely to be safe for a long time. Not for me. If ever.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that I may be doing something already I can grow into a spiritual practice if I go about it more mindfully.

Most evenings for several months now, Debi and I sit around the fireplace where we have a couple of comfortable chairs pulled up. Most of the time, she’ll have our cat Olaf da Vinci in her lap and I’ll have an Appalachian dulcimer in mine. And I’ll noodle around on the dulcimer while the cat distracts Debi from her reading. It’s the primary musical outlet open to me now, other than calling up videos on YouTube, in this time of social distancing and forced isolation.

The music: ‘Next to theology’

When our pre-pandemic jam sessions started back at a senior high-rise in the spring, I plracticed mostly Irish and Scottish ballads I wanted to work into the sessions when it was safe for me to go back. But as it happened, Debi and I were able to make exactly one session before the delta variant came roaring up out of Missouri and we went back into voluntary self-quarantine.

More and more lately, I’ve been playing early American folk hymns — most of which I learned singing the Sacred Harp or other shape-note tunebooks — and, more recently, 16th-century Lutheran chorales that come out of a similar vernacular, or folk, tradition. I don’t sing either around the fireplace — I don’t want to scare the cat! — so I play them as instrumentals on the dulcimer or a north German hummel, a box zither similar to the dulcimer.

That’s why at the top of the post, I embedded a video of Luther’s Vom Himmel Hoch, da komm ich her (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” in English) performed by a Dutch early music ensemble. Toward the end, one of the musicians reenacts Luther playing Ein kind geborn zu Bethlehem (a child is born in Bethlehem) on the lute. My hummel sounds nothing like Luther’s lute (Luther was an accomplished musician). But there’s a quiet, meditative sound I admire — and try to capture in my own playing.

I’ve also embedded, at the bottom of the post, a video of Sacred Harpers from Texas singing a shape-note hymn. It’s “Now shall my inward joys arise, / And burst into a song …,” more commonly known by its tune name as AFRICA, with words by Isaac Watts set to a melody by 18th-century New England tunesmith William Billings, who is regarded as America’s first composer of complex choral music. Again, there’s a spirit here I want to capture in my playing.

The last verse, especially, speaks to me today:

Why do we then indulge our fears,
Suspicions and complaints?
Is He a God, and shall His grace
Grow weary of His saints?

Watts’ answer, as hard as it is to believe in a time of of suspicions and complaints like ours, would be no. In much the same vein, Luther famously said “music is next to theology” (I’m relying here on a paraphrase by Robin A. Leaver in Lutheran Quarterly). In the introduction to a 1538 collection of sacred motets, Luther wrote:

Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess (domina et gubematrix) of those human emotions […] which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found—at least not by us.

And in a 1530 letter to composer Ludwig Senfl, he elaborated on the theme:

I plainly judge, and do not hesitate to affirm, that except for theology there is no art that could be put on the same level with music, since except for theology [music] alone produces what otherwise only theology can do, namely, a calm and joyful disposition…. This is the reason why the prophets did not make use of any art except music; when setting forth their theology they did it not as geometry, not as arithmetic, not as astronomy, but as music, so that they held theology and music most tightly connected, and proclaimed truth through Psalms and songs.

Robin Leaver’s 2006 article has much, much more of what Luther said about music; I plan to go back to it and study it at length. Certainly I could use more of a calm and joyful disposition!

The thing is, I don’t focus on the words. I focus on the music.

The practice: ‘A spiritual exercise for agnostics’

But maybe the music can lead me back to the theology, with or without the words.

In an essay in the Guardian, psychotherapist and author Mark Vernon of London suggests that playing an instrument can be “a spiritual exercise for agnostics” because it “takes you out of yourself and is deeply connected with love.” That may sound like new age psychobabble, but I think there’s something to it.

And I think it’s something I can latch onto in the coming liturgical year.

Vernon says music, like poetry, “allows you to remain alert to that which you can’t quite see, rather than being fixated on what is clear and lies straight ahead.” But it allows you to do it without words:

Aaron Copland put it memorably: “The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking: ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer to that would be, ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No.’”

The other part of the equation, of course, is practice. Maybe I’m thinking not so much of spiritual practice here as the hard day-to-day practice involved with learning a melody, working out harmonies and developing muscle memory. However you define it, Vernon says practice pays off:

For if you do enough practice, you’ll reach a moment when the motion of your fingers across the keyboard is itself a pleasure, regardless of the sound. (I’ve often wondered whether some composers decide what to write solely on the basis that it feels good to play.) And then something else happens: there’s the sense that the music is playing you, rather than you playing the music.

Maybe, as Vernon suggests, spiritual practice and practicing an instrument — running scales and repeating the tricky parts of a tune over and over again until they flow naturally and sheer musicality takes over — are pretty much the same thing:

Is that a spiritual experience? It could be construed as such, in this sense: musicians give themselves, via the discipline, to a communication that is far greater than themselves. The source of the music lies elsewhere – in the mind of the composer. But nonetheless, without the discipline and skill of the musician, the music could not be realised, could not be incarnated.

Piano-playing, therefore, takes you out of yourself too. Therein lies much of its satisfaction. […]

The same would hold true, I would submit, of a mountain dulcimer or a north German folk zither playing Lutheran chorales. There’s one final bit, and that’s where love comes in. As I read him, Vernon’s focus is more on discipline than psychobabble:

To be good at something doesn’t just take time. It takes commitment, and that, in turn, must originate in your love of it. Similarly, to know something well, necessitates loving it first – so that you have the motivation to take the time to get to know it well.

Quoting St. Augustine, who spoke of “the pull of the will and of love, wherein appears the worth of everything to be sought”), Vernon goes on to say:

[…]  it seems to me that the “pull of love” is the force that might sustain the regular piano-playing to which [a musician] gives himself. To know that love in your life might be called a kind of blessing, one that reaches beyond the blessing of the music itself. It’s a final thought that lends itself to the notion of piano-playing as an agnostic’s spiritual practice.

I don’t know if I’d call myself an agnostic anymore (in fact you might say I’m agnostic on the issue). But I’ve always admired Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose “cheerful agnosticism” didn’t stop him from editing the Church of England’s influential hymnal of 1906 and composing not only a Mass in G Minor but also a Magnificat, a Festival Te Deum and the melodies for hymns like “For All the Saints” — another tune I play by the fireplace in the evening. I like to say my liturgical tradition is a mixture of Anglican, Lutheran, bluegrass gospel and shape-note singing. So Vaughan Williams, who also adapted folk melodies to religious purposes, rounds out the circle.

And his cheerful agnosticism sounds a chord that resonates with my own spiritual journey. In significant ways, it began when I was singing in the choir at Springfield College and the music nudged me in the direction of organized religion. And I think music can help sustain me now.

[Revised and published Dec. 3, 2021]

AFRICA, by Williams Billings, Cocker United Methodist Church, San Antonio, 2011

2 thoughts on “A new (church) year’s resolution poses a question — is music ‘an agnostic’s spiritual practice?’ My answer: I don’t know yet

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