In my early years as a teacher, I taught a module to students called “Spirituality and Popular Culture” It was a ten week module and a number of sessions involved students bringing in their favourite songs, playing them to the class and then delivering a short talk on how their song was connected with faith and spirituality. I remember one student started playing Shine on you crazy diamonds by Pink Floyd. Now, if you know this song, you will know it lasts about thirteen minutes!! But I didn’t know the song (sorry!). So I sat listening with great attentiveness. About six minutes into the song I am beginning to wonder how long this is going to last. So I had to stop the song and the class burst into laughter when I was told there was another seven minutes to go. The student then told the class how this song was linked to his faith. I can’t remember everything he said but I do remember him telling us that, for him, God was peace. And whenever he listened to this song, he was filled with peace, his worries seemed to melt away and he felt that this was God’s presence. I was gobsmacked.
Like many millions of people on Saturday night, my wife and I sat on the couch and tuned into the Together at Home online concert organised by Lady Gaga. I was not sure what to expect and there was the judgmental and cynical side of me thinking that I was going to be listening to a lot of rich celebrities’ nice platitudes and “Let’s save the world” and “Let’s love each other!” comments from the comfort of their million dollar homes (I will be going to confession when this lockdown finishes!). But I was once again lost for words.
It really is hard to put into words what I felt. Firstly, as we sat on the couch watching this concert, I was very aware that I was, in my living room, connected with the rest of the world. I felt a real sense of togetherness, unity, connection and this really lifted my spirit. I never thought I would have felt this. The performances were at times raw, vulnerable and real. Sometimes microphones weren’t working properly but it didn’t matter. Charlie Puth’s bed was a mess! Some songs I didn’t understand at all. But it didn’t really matter. Some stars were visibly self-conscious while performing, showing a vulnerability that we rarely see. And some were so brave in their choice of song – Taylor Swift’s performance of Soon You’ll Get Better, a song about her experience of her Mum’s illness and death with cancer was hauntingly beautiful. You could also see the hint of tears in the eyes of Michael Buble as he sang “God Only Knows,” the tears of a Dad whose own son had been sick with cancer.
And the messages? Stay home. Save lives. Stay safe. Love each other. Gratitude, respect and love for the NHS staff and all frontline workers. We are one, regardless of our gender, ethnicity or faith.
But what struck me most that night was the incredible power of music. From Plato, the great Greek philosopher stating “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything” to Martin Luther King’s sentiment that “beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us,” we have always recognised this power.
And the reason why I did that module with my students all those years ago was because I truly believed and, still do, echoing Martin Luther King’s statement, that music is a divine gift from God. The very nature of music is transcendent – it takes us out of ourselves to the beyondness of our existence. We can go beyond the limits of our self-limiting mind to an often blissful and inexplicable state. The beat of a drum, the strum of a guitar, the note from a piano; all have the power to change the mood within us and and the atmosphere around us. Songs can often put words to the deepest yearnings of our hearts and help us express emotions that we may find difficult to express. Music can heal, soothe, give us purpose, mend broken hearts and express our deepest longings and desires.
Our faith teaches us that God’s very essence is love and unity. And from the beginning of humanity’s existence, God has wanted us to reflect these back to God and to each other. In the Gospels, we see God, in Jesus, bringing comfort, healing, strength, encouragement and love to all he met. The Holy Spirit sent by Jesus to the apostles, who is given to us in the Church, can bring us the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience and so much more in our lives. More than anything, the Holy Spirit serves to make us one body and one community of love as people of faith.
And music incorporates and expresses all of these amazing virtues and gifts from God. Whether you are singing You’ll never walk alone in Anfield with thousands of others, belting out Don’t stop Believing by Journey in the privacy of your car or singing back the lyrics of Fix you at a Coldplay concert, you are getting in touch with the divine, nurturing and nourishing your soul and lifting up your spirit. And that is God’s essence right there. And I experienced this on Saturday night.
Often we associate praying with speaking or reading from a book, like the Bible or from a prayer book. Could I suggest you pray a bit differently this week? If you are a musician, take up your instrument and play something that will enliven your soul, lift your spirit or express your mood. If you don’t play an instrument (or you don’t feel like doing so), simply put on a song that speaks to your life at this moment in time. And turn it into a prayer. So before you play or listen, just say to God “Lord what I am about to listen to, what I am about to sing, what I am about to play, this is my prayer to you today.” And when you have stopped listening, or when you finish playing, simply say “Amen”.
As the saying goes “Those who sing, pray twice”.
Here is that Taylor Swift song – it might help to have the lyrics in front of you as well. And maybe some tissues.