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“He who sings prays twice” — St. Augustine (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
Maybe I shouldn’t admit this in public, but I’ve had prayer at the top of my B list for quite a while now. After a hiatus of 35 years when I only went to church for weddings, funerals or very occasional newspaper assignments, I’m back in the church. So I’m OK now with corporate prayer — the kind you recite at church — and intercessory prayer — the kind that begins with, “O God, please get me out of this jam …” But even that took me a while. And unstructured daily prayer, not so much. Not even now.
So I tend to do what I’ve always done — to center my spiritual life, such as it is, around music. Lately around the old Lutheran chorales, among other genres. Be forewarned: To sort out how and why I do that, I have get hit the ball off into some theological weeds. But I promise to get back to music — and to the lovely chorale by Paul Gephardt embedded above, in a performance by the same boy’s choir in Leipzig that Bach taught 300 years ago.
But to get there, we have to sort out why I play music — and listen to it — when other people might be praying.
a footnote in William A. Barry’s Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God — a quote from John Macmurray, a Scottish philosopher of the mid-20th century:
The highest, richest and rarest qualities in our experience of human personality, such as creative spontaneity, provide the most adequate basis for our characterization of God. Even these, of course, are inadequate, and we have to use them mythologically. God is beyond the personal, of course, but it is the personal in our experience which points in the direction of God, and provides the most adequate language we possess for references to God.
And this — In a little collection of essays on prayer titled In All Seasons for All Reasons, Fr. Martin suggests that some believers “picture Jesus in front of them, say, sitting in a chair,” and “pour out what they want to say.” I can imagine myself doing that, but I’m not quite there yet. I don’t want to rush that process, either.
In the meantime, there’s always music. In fact, in the last few months I’ve tried to approach it as a spiritual practice. I’ll sit by the fireplace, playing a mixture of Lutheran chorales, early American shape-note melodies, Black spirituals and hymns I learned growing up in the Episcopal Church. I’ve even blogged about it, admitting HERE to deep-seated agnostic tendencies but realizing HERE I can hear the voice of God indistinctly, softly like the south wind blowing through the treetops. Isn’t that part of a personal conversation? If I can hear God in a South Georgia spiritual, where else can I hear it?
None of this came about intentionally, understand. I play the mountain dulcimer by ear, you see, in a very traditional style. I can read music, both standard notation and shape notes, but I set the music aside once I’ve learned a melody. The songs I like best, like the early American folk hymns and southern Appalachian ballads, have the same slightly irregular meter as an Irish slow air. The pulse of the melody, in other words, is determined by the words instead of the strict one-and-a-two rhythms we learned in school. Call me a folk Nazi, but I like it that way. That’s the way the music speaks to me.
And in the interplay of melody and words, I can also hear the voice of God speaking. I’m coming around to think, maybe it’s that simple.
That idea, more of a hunch really, dawned on me lately when I was trying to learn the Paul Gephardt chorale I embedded at the top of this post. The melody is very old, first recorded in 1490 by German meistersinger Heinrich Isaac, who probably composed it for a secular love song called Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen (Innsbruck, I must leave you); in the 1550s, an anonymous musician adapted it to religious purposes as O Welt, ich muß dich lassen (O world, I must leave you); and Gephardt wrote new lyrics for it in 1648. His text, Nun ruhen alle Wälder (literally now rest all the woodlands) has been translated into English as “Now all the woods are sleeping” or, more freely, as “Now rest beneath night’s shadow.” However you translate it, it’s a lovely piece of poetry. (For the record, I like the version that begins with “Now rest beneath night’s shadow.”)
For reasons that may have nothing to do with music, I like the older form (i.e. rhythmic) of the melody as it appears in my grandfather’s old Norwegian Synod Hymnary of 1913, which is available as a page scan in Hymnary.org. The words I use are from the Missouri Synod’s old 1941 Lutheran Hymnal, posted to the internet by Grace Lutheran Church, a very conservative confessing congregation in Fridley, Minnesota.
Now rest beneath night’s shadow
The woodland, field, and meadow,
The world in slumber lies;
But Thou, my heart, awake thee,
To prayer and song betake thee;
Let praise to thy Creator rise.
5. Lord Jesus, who dost love me,
Oh, spread Thy wings above me
And shield me from alarm!
Though evil would assail me,
Thy mercy will not fail me:
I rest in Thy protecting arm.
xxx and the final stanza
6. My loved ones, rest securely,
For God this night will surely
From peril guard your heads.
Sweet slumbers may He send you
And bid His hosts attend you
And through the night watch o’er your beds.
Thomas Braatz & Aryeh Oron, “Chorale Melodies used in Bach’s Vocal Works
O Welt, ich muß dich lassen / Nun ruhen alle Wälder,” Bach Cantatas Website https://www.bach-cantatas.com/CM/O-Welt-ich-muss.htm.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, secs. 1156-58, Catholic Culture, Trinity Communications https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/catechism/index.cfm?recnum=3895.
The Lutheran Hymnary [Hauge’s Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Norwegian Lutheran Church of America] (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1913), 758. https://hymnary.org/hymn/LHPN1913/page/758.
John Macmurray, quoted in William A. Barry, SJ, Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God: A theological Inquiry (Rev. ed., Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004), 19n13.
James Martin, SJ, In All Seasons for All Reasons: Praying Throughout the Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017), 24.
“THL 554: Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadows,” Grace Lutheran Church, Fridley, MN https://clcgracelutheranchurch.org/fridley/hymns/tlh/tlh554.htm.
Wikipedia articles on