Music can touch us in ways that words simply cannot. On November 22nd we celebrate the feast of St Cecilia, patron saint of music. In an intriguing poem by W.H. Auden, set to music by Benjamin Britten (who himself was born on St Cecilia’s day in 1913) we read:
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.
The words that capture my imagination are ‘visions,’ ‘inspire’ and ‘startle.’ Other words might strike you!
God offers us beautiful music such as Britten’s composition to effect movement within us. I’m sure you can recall a moment when a piece of music has struck you, stopped you in your steps, tugged at your heart. There will be pieces of music which are special to you because they represent an important occasion or memory.
A piece of choral music dear to my heart is Totus Tuus by the polish composer Henryk Górecki. I recall the first time I heard it – the music captured me, absorbing my senses, mind and imagination. I was certainly inspired and had visions, and felt that I became at one with the text ‘Totus Tuus’ – I am all yours!
It is through our encounter with God’s creation that we become transformed. The French writer Paul Claudel himself experienced a transformative encounter with musical beauty during the singing of the Magnificat at Vespers on Christmas Eve one year in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris:
It was then that the event happened that has dominated all my life. In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such force, with such relief of all my being,
a conviction so powerful, so certain and without any room for doubt, that ever since, all the books, all the arguments,
all the hazards of my agitated life have never shaken my faith, nor to tell the truth have they even touched it.
Like Claudel, we are each called to journey into the Divine. The music is an opening not a closing, a revealing rather than a concealing, depths that emerge gradually, not instantaneously. As scriptures tell us,
No one can come to me
unless he is drawn by the Father who sent me
(John 6: 44)
Beautiful music is not something which simply pleases our senses, but first and foremost a form of revelation, an encounter between God and his Church through Jesus Christ. This beauty serves to illuminate God’s goodness and truth into our world.
Music has a particularly privileged evangelical role in our modern society. Authority and facts are old news, relativism and the turn to self are all, church attendance is down.
Religious art however still continues its popularity, and indeed sacred music from the church’s treasury is arguably more popular today in the world than it has ever before been.
Gregorian chant sells CD’s in the millions, groups like The Sixteen and Tallis Scholars make a living out of recording and performing renaissance choral music and modern day composers such as Henryk Górecki and Sir James MacMillan are imbued with a Catholic sensibility in all that they write.
Such music certainly captures the imagination of a wide cross section of the public, bringing to them what Saint Pope John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, described as an ‘epiphany of beauty’ which guides them, knowingly or unknowingly, towards the source of all being.
An encounter with music illuminates our faith.
Music has the power to inspire, startle and transform us. For the believer this leads to Christ, for the non-believer it can be the catalyst for an encounter with the form of Christ, the first step on the road to evangelisation. Following the way of beauty through music allows us to be drawn beyond ourselves, from our daily routine and the ordinary, to the beautiful, the transcendent, to God the source of all being.
Christopher McElroy is the Director of Music at the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Awarded a PhD from Liverpool University for his thesis on the reception of Vatican II here in England & Wales, he teaches on the MA in Sacred Music at Liverpool Hope University.