Music has always been a pretty big part of my life. When I was a little boy my dad was a football coach. During August two-a-days, while he was drilling his players late into the dusk of the evening my mom would put us four kids around the piano and teach us a song to perform for my dad when he got home. It was weird. What’s even weirder is that we didn’t even pretend to not enjoy it. We straight up loved it; at least I always loved it. I love to sing at the top of my lungs. I love to play music and perform for an audience… a strange thing for an introvert.
When my life got hard, or when I was in pain, music was my comfort, my safe place.
Music was the way I entered the church, and the way I understood myself in the communion of the saints.
Music also became the means through which I made my living for a long time, fifteen years or so. Inevitably it seems, the involvement in the business of music changed my relationship with music itself. It became harder to find a place of innocence from which to write songs, make music, and even to listen to it. I couldn’t hear the notes for the sound of cash registers ringing in my ears. I couldn’t enjoy the songs–my songs even–because of the grief of disappointing royalty checks, and the nagging feeling that other people were making a lot of money off me and my friends, when we could barely make a living. The older I get the more I realize that this has always been more about me than any external reality, but that doesn’t change the experience. The hardest part was that music ceased to be a comfort.
I have my bands that have always held that spark of in your face, screw-you, rock and roll rebellion. They saved me for a long time. Folks like Wilco, Beatles, Petty, Sheryl, Radiohead, U2, more recently Arcade Fire, Sigur Ros, Beck… but these were more of an outlet than a comfort. For a long time, music was no longer the innocent joy it once was, the source of strength, my entry point into the world, the safe place to run and hide. It became harder and harder to find my place in the world when my conduit into the world had become so convoluted and complex.
You have to understand how disorienting this was for me. It was all very strange for someone who, as a kid, would spend full days in my closet with my keyboard or guitar learning how to play the songs I loved. When I needed a place to run, a place to lick my wounds when the world had just kicked my tail and I needed to rest, music was it for me. Music became what Phyllis Tickle calls “a being place,” the place where I could just be, no hiding, no pretending, fully in the moment, locked into rhythm and melody and harmony and lyric. That went away for a long time.
Now music and I have this complicated relationship. I know that I must be wary of how much energy I give to it, how much of my life and my heart I allow it to dominate, because it has a tendency to take over, and it if takes over, to disappoint. If it lives deep down in your soul, music will take everything you will give it. So you have to keep a close watch on your heart.
A few months ago I was teaching a class at Seminary with my friend Mike King. We would pray the morning office together each day of class, and Mike would bring music for the time of meditation. Somewhere in the first few days he played this song–O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen, conducted by Robert Shaw, and sung by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers. I don’t know if it was the setting, the Latin, or just grace. But listening to this song… it was a singular experience for which I do not have adequate words. This song, it undid me. I nearly had to leave the room. It’s like music came back for me, just a little bit. It was innocent again, pure beauty, I was there in the moment and my mind was turned off while my heart was full and still. The being place returned, and some of the enchanted mystery and love of music returned.
This song has come to mean a lot to me over the past few months. I find that when I’m in pain, this is what I listen to now: O magnum mysterium–Oh great mystery;
O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum–Oh great mystery and wonderful sacrament;
ut animalia viderent dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio–that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger;
beata virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare dominum Christum. Alleluia–Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!
Lauridsen starts out by introducing the refrain with clarity and just a hint of power. It’s declarative, but in a doxological way that doesn’t lose it’s invitatory quality. They are just stating the facts. This is a great mystery. It’s a responsorial chant from the Christmas mass. They declare it again, Oh Great mystery and wonderful sacramentum. They show a little leg (2:11), and you realize the sopranos have some game, but so as not to overwhelm you, they back it back down and state their case with reserve (he’s messing w/the order of the Latin, btw). Back into the refrain, building these harmonies and movements as they repeat the refrain and your mind really starts to lock in. At 2:58 he starts to introduce the tension, the minor moment, discordant, dissonant–beatu virgo. More tension, and even darker hues, you can almost hear a kind of pain in their voices. Then at 3:48 they find their way back into the refrain. It’s almost like they stumble back into it, this time with great power–the sopranos soaring (I’m usually crying by now), and my heart is singing with them. Then suddenly they are soft again at 4:25. And then they finish with this reverence, this attendant beauty holding the words so gingerly on their tongues. Oh great mystery, and wonderful sacrament; that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger. The Alleluias. The final note lingers. And then my favorite part: the 7 seconds of silence after the song is over. I live for those 7 seconds.
My heart is full. My mind still, my soul balanced in the fleet space of pure being.
It is genius; sheer beauty; and I feel better.