Music and the Divine

There are some things in Catholic and Christian life that are not often discussed, or consequently a regular part of our thinking. It has been suggested, for example, that one will not find a single Christian hymn devoted to the dogma of  “the resurrection of the body.” St.   Augustine said centuries ago that, “No doctrine of the Christian faith is so vehemently and so obstinately opposed as the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh.”

Another orphan of Catholic thought is the diabolic. You will not hear it mentioned in the pulpit. It has been relegated instead to poetry or psychiatry: Yeats’ beast slouches toward Bethlehem and Rollo May’s disintegration of the human personality.

There is also a third: Christian humanism, which means to see the world not as something to free ones self from, but rather as a pathway to redemption and salvation; that the most life giving aspects of our culture, such as great art and music, can serve as armor in the battle against hopelessness, cynicism and despair. And that, they, too, can reveal the beauty of the face of God. It was Thomas Carlyle who said that, “music is the speech of angels.” But angels are already in the presence of God. Great music, however, is a crucible through which we, too, may enter into His presence.

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Music in the church is most often thought of as part of, or as a corollary to the sacred liturgy, all the way from the medium of contemporary guitars to Gregorian chant. But there is a larger truth. Artistic intuition, which is the essence of the creative process, can bring us to a mystical experience in the secular temples of daily life: concert halls, a living room, or even at theBrandenburggate inBerlin.

It is fitting and proper that great art and music, like prayer, can uplift us on the stage of daily life. For every emotive experience, every memory stored in that great mystery of the central nervous system—joy, tenderness, nobility, sadness, hope, majesty—all of these riches of the human personality, can be relived in the flash of an instant through the turn of a phrase, a harmony, or a melody that haunts and lingers. George Sand told Chopin, after hearing him play, that he made her relive every joy and every sorrow that she had ever felt.

Where does this come from: something which we cannot see or touch, yet lifts us up, raises us above our mundane existence and puts us in communion with our humanity? Is this not mystical? Is this not grace? Listen to the final choral movement of the Ninth Symphony with its poetry by Schiller and music by the mighty Beethoven (Leonard Bernstein conducted it at the Brandenburg gate as the Berlin wall fell and communism collapsed around the world); or a Chopin waltz, with its poignant combination of Polish melancholy and French charm—so exquisite and intimate that it is meant, as James Huneker said, “for only the soul to dance;” or Johann Sebastian Bach, who shook the foundation of the civilized world with the B Minor Mass and the St. Matthew Passion, and who said repeatedly that he composed only “for the greater honor and glory of God;” or Lieder by Franz Schubert.

On the cusp of the millennium, John Paul II wrote a letter to the messengers, the purveyors of beauty. It is called “A Letter to Artists.” In it, he says that knowledge in faith combined with artistic intuition is a combination of goodness and beauty, and makes for a transcendent offering.

So being an artist is not unlike being a Catholic priest. First, you are called; it chooses you. And with an instrumentalist, it must be when you are young, when your bones, muscles and sinew are not yet formed, so they can be molded into what they will always be. Secondly, there is sacrifice, because the world will never understand you. Thirdly, there is heroism because you must put love back into a world where it isn’t. And finally, truthfulness: the struggle to realize what lies on that page of music, behind the dots, and over them and through them. No sham emotions and no turning back. Totus tuuem. And what gives us joy and recompense in the end is living out the beauty, which is always there, and the goodness which must be our interior life.

The great Swiss pianist from the last century, Edwin Fisher, said,

“Only art experienced within, in which the personality plays a creative role can be of interest….To achieve this, those of you who are not already in this sense dead, must die an expiatory death of all superficiality, of all that you have already learnt, of all encumbrances and of all that is false. Then, like a seeker, you must go softly down into the darkness of your inmost being, where you were as a child and listen to the whispering of your desires and yearnings; become once more like a child, a tree, a flower,—genuine, pure, filled with abundant life. And when, full of reverence to God within you, you are still and lay your ear to the primeval rock to listen to the mysterious note that sounds through all creation. He will kindle in you the sacred fire of that imagination which draws power from your own being and nature. And if you are both humble and strong, then you will see into the realm of your inmost self, the realm of pure things, strength, too, you will find, greatness, beauty itself and sorrow also, tenderness and transfiguration….You will become a creator.”

This is a description of the pathway to artistic intuition. But there is also a preparation for entering into this immersion, or meditation, in order to perfect the interpretation and offering of a great masterwork, the latter of which I would argue is a prayer. And this preparation involves discipline.

When I was a young boy in parochial school in the 1950’s , before Vatican II, the nuns emphasized something called individual sanctification, which was a sort of spiritual discipline and mastery over one’s self, along with strict catechetics. It was a vertical, up and down relationship with God which frankly was often at the expense of an awareness of others. Today in this “New Age” we have the opposite end of the spectrum which is entirely horizontal. If you care about others, it is less important what shape your personal life is in. If you march for social justice, it doesn’t matter if you’re an alcoholic or an adulterer. If you love your neighbor, you don’t have to love yourself.

Someone once asked George Bernard Shaw why he refused to become a believer. He said, “It’s the cross that bars the way;” the cross being sacrifice and discipline, which, in its immediate moment and aftermath, causes pain. It is painful to deny the body what it cries out for. But listen to what Edward fisher told young aspiring pianists 80 years ago:

“…all talent, all application will not suffice if one’s whole life is not directed towards being a mediator of great thoughts and feelings. Every deed, yes, every thought leaves its trace on the personality. One must live a life of purity in every detail, even down to the morsel one is putting into one’s mouth. Prepared in this way, that something will appear which is unteachable, that grace of the quiet hour when the spirit of the composer speaks to us, that unconscious moment when one is raised out of oneself, call it intuition, grace – then all ties are loosened, all hindrances are swept away. You feel yourself hovering. One feels no longer: I am playing, but IT is playing, and behold all is well; as if directed by a divine hand….in humility you experience the supreme happiness of the interpretive artist: to be only the mediator between the Divine, the Eternal and man.”

Is this not a pathway to holiness, is this not required of all of us? Do we not require discipline in our personal lives and purity of heart before receiving the Eucharist? Are we, all of us, not required to be a mediator of grace with those around us? Is not one of the purposes of marriage, for example, that love between a man and a woman should radiate outward? The radiance of grace, like a pebble thrown into a pool, and the circles moving outward, farther and farther until they encompass a greater circumference than that which began.

Abraham Heschel, the Jewish mystic, when asked what advice he would give young people, said: “…Let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we all can do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments.  And above all, let them remember…to build a life as if it were a work of art.”

In other words, we should consider our lives as a piece of marble and we are Michelangelo. And as we chip away and sculpt, every hammer blow has meaning because what we create in the end, we may have to live with throughout eternity. We must make of our own lives…a masterpiece.

I mentioned earlier the great Irish playwright and humorist George Bernard Shaw. He actually began his literary career as a music critic, and wrote for the London Star under the pseudonym, Corni de Basseto. He is given credit for having written the shortest music review ever in print, and it read: “Madame so-and-so, a mezzo soprano, gave a recital last night in Wigmore Hall. WHY?” That was the entire review. The perils of performance! which is another quite serious subject.

Consider all the preparation and thought that goes into a performance, and standing  before hundreds of people…transmitting feelings with your soul naked for all to see, and being rejected, by your own, by music lovers, colleagues and critics. Rejection is a bitter chalice indeed, but Christ knew something about that, too. It takes courage to live. And, in order to help us live, we are given tools in the physical world. A great variety of tools: a richness of thoughts, sounds and images that were placed here by those before us. Things that are live giving, and therefore a pathway to God.

John Wesley said that the true Christian is a man of one book. But, if so, this would seem to consign to the attic the best of culture round us—art, literature, music. But Hans Urs Von Balthasar says there is a way of worshipping God that engages the world, a world that is God’s own dominion. He uses his great passion for Mozart and music as a metaphor to explain the multiplicity of peoples, religions, cultures and histories. They are not random and pointless, he suggests, but instead, are like a great symphony, “A Symphony of Truth” that has players in the orchestra which are Jews, Christians,  Muslims, Buddhists, Romans, Greeks, and this “cacophonous jumble is only tuning up.  And when the Son comes to conduct God’s symphony the variety becomes clear.”

So, the best of culture does not take us away from God, it brings us to him, it transposes us to a new level, like Aristotle to Aquinas. Nothing is lost or destroyed, it is only heightened. And in the end, everything is reconciled under the span of the cross which stretches its love across time and absorbs like some great sponge, all the sufferings of broken lives, broken marriages, the pain from hospitals and battlefields, the diversities of religion, race, nation states, and culture, and transforms all of this into some cosmic resolution that will become clear to us at the hour of our death.

And at that moment, I believe we will emit a sigh that will equal in decibels the groan of creation, as the polarity between man, made in the image and likeness of god, and man being formed from the dust of the earth, is brought finally into harmony. While we wait for that moment, we are strengthened by prayer, the sacraments, and even Mozart. For there is another great theologian, Karl Barth, whose love of Mozart caused him to have a portrait of the composer hung in his office at the same height and next to that of Calvin. “Mozart,” he said, “heard the harmony of creation to which the shadows also belong but in which shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim victory.”

So, in the end, it may be art that best expresses the mystery of life, and the gifts of God almighty through which and over which as the poet says, “Death hath no dominion.”


  • John Robilette

    John Robilette is a concert pianist who has performed to critical acclaim in 23 countries around the world. His CD recordings, which feature both solo works and concerti with some of the leading orchestras of Europe, have received international distribution and broadcast.

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