By Robert Rife
On that rare occasion when comes a song that catches in your throat and your moistened eyes lift; your heart swells and your tongue cleaves in silence to the roof of your dry, gaping mouth, one can only listen…
Music has wafted its way through the corridors of this boy’s life without either asking permission or signing a release form. At any given moment a particular song or sonata or ambient guitar piece has bored a hole into the otherwise forbidden regions of my soul where God doesn’t even like to go. And it stays. It stays and plays, disturbing the water, leaving manuscripted ripples of memories repressed or forgotten, faces attached to long lost friends, pieces of time squandered and scattered on the floor.
I don’t mean to sound sullen for music has also drawn, even driven me, by the Spirit into all manner of delightful wilderness as well. It leaves its mark gently, but insistently, borrowing from what it knows will always push my heart into the deep end where my affections direct my thoughts and together, meet my will.
And I am changed.
It does seem a little more than mere serendipity when just the right lyric encased in the perfect package of notes, irrepressibly good and right, finds its way to my hungry ears. There is that moment of instant recognition. Someone knows this, has felt this before me and I am not alone. At these times a kinship is unveiled. Someone is already walking with me along pathways I had thought previously untraveled, and soothes me in the knowledge that they’re only unknown to me. Others have traversed these waters, even successfully, and been found by God, waiting on the other side; the same God you may have inwardly chided for his conspicuous absence, barely perceivable as you stumbled and groped along.
I remember the first time I ever heard Bridge Over Troubled Water. It occurred to me how duped I had been into believing I had already heard the best song ever, which at the time might have been the Thomas, the Tank Engine theme song. I was seven years old and nothing would ever be the same. I begged my parents to purchase the album (now extinct, flat, black disc-like things with countless grooves magically holding music).
The next similarly visceral encounter was my discovery of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by…well, I had no idea then. Cliché as it might be among the classical music elite, no one can deny, in good conscience, the genius and mystical profundity of the piece. To this day it shatters me every time I hear it. (If you feel nothing at all, you’re either at the pre-coffee stage of your day, a grumpy pragmatist, or a zombie, but, no pressure).
I was captured again when, on a drive from Calgary to Cranbrook, B.C., I encountered Bach’s Wedding Cantata and the opening Kyrie of Schubert’s Mass in Ab for the first time. To say I was captivated would be an understatement of hyperbolic proportions. I had to pull the car over, so spellbound was I at the unforgivably beautiful refrains. My love affair with this music continues unabated.
Of all the muses, music appears to have some of the best bylines. For example, this gem coined by William Congreve in The Mourning Bride (1697):
Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
And, of course, these famous words from Twelfth Night by Uncle Bill:
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
Euterpe herself would be so proud.
The great medieval feminist and Christian mystic, Hildegard von Bingen, composed a famous choral work, entitled “Ordo Virtutum.” It is really more of a musical narrative in which she weaves sublime choral and instrumental music punctiliously around ominous interjections of a sinister speaking voice, that of the devil, who utters hateful words towards the Almighty. As such she makes the metaphoric statement that all of God’s creatures were created to sing God’s praise. However, only the enemy of God, and by extension, good, is denied the gift of song. Melody bespeaks our common humanity. It defines our existence. It narrates our story. It proclaims God’s story. It enshrines community and it is the food of glory.
Music, like the people with whom we share it, comes at the most unexpected times. And, when it does, my self-imposed melancholy is banished if only for a moment as the notes probe places left unexplored and I am placed under God’s laser-specific microscope. Now that’s theology. If I were to say at those times that I now knew this song, it is then God reminds me that, in fact, it is the song that knows me.
Da signe al fine.
Robert Rife is Minister of Worship and Music at Yakima Covenant Church in Yakima, Washington. A multi-instrumentalist (including Highland Bagpipes), singer-songwriter-arranger (his CD, Be That As It May, is available on iTunes), studio musician, choral director, and liturgist, Rob holds a B.A. in music and an M.A. in Spiritual Formation and Leadership. Find his writings on innerwoven and Robslitbits as well as at Spring Arbor University, Conversations Journal for whom he also writes the print magazine study guide, and CenterQuest, an ecumenical school for Spiritual Direction. His poetry and music are featured on the new ALTARWORKS website.