Those who know me will verify that I have a somewhat eclectic taste in music. On too many occasions have I leapt for my phone when, for example, I’ve realised that the beautiful Latin plainchant I am playing for my guests is to be followed by the slightly more vivid poetry of Ice-T or Tupac Shakur. Music for every mood, I suppose. As youth chaplain, I’m exposed to a lot of the popular music that is currently on the market, though in true Sun newspaper “old man doesn’t know who the Beatles are” style, I can never remember who is singing the song. One of the things I’ve noticed is just how much better the music is that they are listening to than I was listening to 20 years ago. I mean, at least objectively, after all, we all must retain an affection for the music of our youth, no matter how dire we accept it to have been; Chaka Demus and Pliers will never be up there with Beethoven, but guess which one makes my 25 most played.
Firstly, there seems to be a greater care of the music of the song, if that makes sense. The band or the soloist often play their own instruments as well as sing. This is a sign of authenticity and a declaration of ownership over what they produce. The music is often simpler and more clearly structured, a world away from the synthesised junk which seemed more popular in the 1990s. The music supports the song, rather than overwhelms it, providing a stage for the message of the singer. This brings us to the second improvement, the lyrics. The lyrics are heartfelt, they are real. I believe the singer, what he or she sings touches me and moves me to another place. Remember Adele’s performance of ‘Someone like you’ at the 2011 Brits? These beautifully crafted songs speak to our own experiences and fill us with a longing at once painful yet paradoxically desirable. We all need fun and inconsequential music, just as we need fun and inconsequential moments in our lives, to lighten things up, but if these become the chord that runs through all we think and do, it is a sign that we have given up on finding true fulfillment. It is a sign of deep-seated, numbed despair. So I am happy for our younger generation, the music they bring into the mainstream reflects dissatisfaction with the immediately pleasurable and a desire for a love as yet unfulfilled. We are made for more than that which we can perceive with our bodily senses. Imagine music, art, literature without desire for the immaterial, it just wouldn’t be.
The media by which our souls are opened are often the means God uses to further his own search for us. What more beautiful a selection of songs have we than the Psalms, unparalleled in the depth and range of emotion, revealing of God’s loving involvement in every aspect of our story? Many Psalms start out as a search of man, whether it be for forgiveness, for justice, or the cry of one who feels abandoned or hopeless. One in particular that I love is Psalm 72. It is the hymn of the man who shares with God how close he came to losing Him. He looks on the good fortune of those who have abandoned God, those to whom no trouble seems to come, blessed with the best and occupying the seats of power. No wonder that the psalmist thinks to himself…
‘How useless to keep my heart pure
and wash my hands in innocence
when I was stricken all day long
suffered punishment day after day’
Yet the envy aroused by the good fortune of the evil-doer is precisely the thing which caused the psalmist to recoil on himself, and to remember a deeper desire…
‘Then I said: “If I should speak like that,
I should abandon the faith of your people”’
He recounts how he returned to his senses and saw anew how slippery the path of evil-doers is. Reliant solely on finite persons and perishable goods for happiness, they dangle perilously and unwittingly over the precipice of destruction. So for us too, when we make a god of the thing over the One for whom it is meant to be but a medium, a signal to something more. When the psalmist recounts his near miss, he confesses:
‘I was stupid and did not understand,
no better than a beast in your sight…
Yet I was always in your presence;
you were holding me by my right hand.
You will guide me by your counsel
and so you will lead me to glory’
Notice the shift. ‘I’ secedes to ‘You’, ‘My story’ has become ‘His wisdom’, and the psalmist who was lost in jealousy and anger is found, in the embrace of the all-loving God. The longing aroused by the music of life has brought him to the point where he can say to God…
‘What else have I in heaven but you?
Apart from you I want nothing on earth.
My body and my heart faint for joy;
God is my possession for ever.’
Oh to remember this amazing truth on a stress-filled day, with a broken heart, when filled with anxiety, or when deeply betrayed. We are made unhappy because we are so often led to believe that the happiness we desire is somehow attainable – or at least retained – by our own efforts. Our desires are spot on, we desire the Kingdom of heaven, we want it all, we want a consoling embrace, to be satisfied, to receive mercy, to be called Sons of God, to see God…., but the means are beyond our reach, because they are a gift, a grace, and they need a mediator.
Truth is beautiful, and beauty leads us to truth. It took a moment of graced beauty, a stirring of the heart, to lead me to understand where I had been going wrong in this search for happiness. I was listening to ‘All of Me’ by John Legend on the train back from Buckfast Abbey last Friday. It’s my favourite song at the moment and like anything I’m into, I do it to death (usually driving others crazy in the process). I’d just finished an excellent course on catechetics with the School of the Annunciation. Processing what I had learned, the chorus line of the song caught my ear:
‘All of me loves all of you,
love your curves and all your edges,
all your perfect imperfections.
Give your all to me, I’ll give my all to you…’
Now, I doubt that Mr Legend’s intent was to bring me closer to Christ – in fact, the song is dedicated to his wife – but a moment of beauty had enabled The Lord to sneak something into my heart which I had known only previously in my mind. God loves all of me with all of himself, to such an extent that he sent his only Son to take flesh like mine and to offer that life in sacrifice so that I might share in his divine life by the grace of the Holy Spirit. I already knew that, of course, I’ve meditated on it, studied it, staked my life on it, but it took that ridiculous moment for me to realise that it is not I who achieve this blessed life, but God who achieved it by coming to live within me in all his triune glory. I’ve so often despaired at my own sinfulness as a lack of gratitude towards the one I love – “how could I do this when I know what to do?” – and in this had been my mistake: I had set myself up as the protagonist of my own salvation, responding dutifully rather than being drawn by his love. Convinced by the truth alone, I’d lost the sense of his beauty, by which he draws all men to himself. The great French spiritual writer, Jean Lafrance, puts it like this:
‘To love is not first of all to be heroic in selflessness; on the contrary, this perfection comes only at the end. To love is to be first attracted, seduced, seized; it is to have discovered the face of the tenderness of God. The first free and meritorious act that is asked of us is to yield to this attraction, to let ourselves be taken in, to let ourselves be “had”, to let God have his way.’
God has placed in each one of us a deep desire for him, so deep that mere words are not enough to arouse that desire. A chord must be struck, which awakens and identifies the goal of our longing, of hope that we may one day be truly satisfied. There are many notes, but there is one which is uniquely our own. Try as we might, we can never play that tune until we allow ourselves to be seized by the beautiful music of the one who created us, the composer and conductor of the great symphony of salvation.