|Open Ears, Open Heart
||[Sep. 15th, 2005|12:49 pm]
Music and Spirituality
A few years ago I visited the island of Iona, the mystical home of Saint Columba. As a highlight of my pilgrimage, I hiked to the top of a mountain to Columba’s prayer cell, and sat down to commune with God. In this small stone circle under the open sky, Columba saw visions, and I’d come halfway across the world hoping for the same. I announced, "Okay, God, speak to me now." Well, you guessed it... I sat there for four hours and God didn’t say one word as far as I could hear. |
Of course, the concept that I could dictate the time, place and method in which God speaks to me is laughable. And yet, too often we try to tell God which type of voice he ought to use when speaking to us. We say that God speaks to us through music, but many allow God to speak to them only through a particular type of music. This is, I believe, equivalent to my telling God to speak to me in Columba's prayer cell, which was the only place I was prepared to listen.
Where do we hear the voice of God? Is there one type of music that is more spiritually appropriate than another? Is there one type of music that is the best on which to receive God’s broadcasts?
We benefit when we allow God to speak to us in many ways, not just a few. I know little about the visual arts. Some artworks I know I enjoy; for instance, I like Monet. But I would never presume to say that Monet’s paintings are the only visual means God can use to speak to me. I know for a fact that God can make himself heard even when I’m not expecting it.
One of the more moving spiritual experiences I’ve had came totally out of the blue, and was, in fact, not even Christian, but involved Sufi dervish dancers in Afghanistan. I had another such experience on a concert stage during a choral performance. One service I attended encompassed a wide variety of musical cultures: traditional Anglican, gospel, Native American, electronic, South African, jazz, and others. I found I got at least some benefit from each offering and I felt richer for the experience. Other musical cultures often have much to teach us. Isn’t it better to let God speak to you in many ways, rather than insisting he speak with one voice only?
Familiarity is a key to forming our opinions. We like what we know; we tend to fear and mistrust what we don’t know. Sometimes we characterize our mistrust of the unfamiliar by saying that we don’t “like” something. Great debates ensue about which music is “better,” but in many cases a person likes a certain type of music because that’s what they know; other music may seem strange to them, and it is the unfamiliarity they don’t like.
A person who mainly likes pop music, therefore, initially may be unable to relate to the classics. They may say, "I don’t like this" or "the old music doesn’t speak to me." A person in love with the classics on the other hand may find it difficult to relate to contemporary music, instantly labeling everything in a certain genre as "trash." If you have particular favorites, that’s wonderful. But to say that God cannot speak through any kind of music but the music you know and love is just as ludicrous as my demanding that he speak to me precisely when and where I dictated. If you restrict yourself only to what you already know and like, you are trying to limit God, just as I did on Iona. God has a habit of ignoring limits we try to set for him.
I encourage people to be as open as possible to different musical cultures, and not to condemn unfamiliar music immediately. Musical cultures develop because the music resonates with someone. If you are open to learning more about it, it might come to resonate with you too.