The Spiritual Dimension of Music

Some years ago I had the privilege of chairing a search committee charged with the task of identifying a new professor sacred music.  As lover of music of all types (or most of them, anyway) and as someone who had been surrounded by the best of musicians and choristers at the National Cathedral, I accepted the responsibility with relish and enjoyed every minute of it — not least of all, the conversations with the candidates themselves.

We had great success.  We invited a fine musician to join our already accomplished faculty.  He is already making his mark on the school, his students, his discipline, and the church.

One of the questions that I asked everyone in the course of that process was to describe why or how music moves and changes us spiritually or helps us to worship.  I had no one answer in mind, but I felt it was an important question and as a lover of music I continue to be intrigued by the role of music in drawing us closer to God.  Put another way, I could have also asked: What makes sacred music “sacred”?  Is it simply the subject matter and its uses, or is there more to it than that?

My own evolving answer includes these observations:

One: Part of the spiritual power of music lies in its beauty.

We don’t talk much about a theology of beauty and, thanks to puritanical influences, asceticism, and some latent gnosticism, I suspect that most of us don’t really believe that there is a place for conversations about beauty in theology.  But we are the poorer for it.

I am not only convinced that there is a place for a theology of beauty, but that our understanding of God is incomplete without a re-appreciation of beauty in the light of faith.  I am not talking about beauty of a sexualized nature — though I am not convinced it is unrelated (see, for example, the Song of Solomon) — and I am certainly not talking about the commercialized notions of beauty that are imposed on an entire generation in the name of selling “a look.”

But we can and should talk about the beauty of God that is marked by balance, harmony, color, and texture that draw us to the world around us, to one another, and ultimately to God.  Understood in that way music, then, has spiritual power because — at its best — in intersects with and gives expression to divine beauty.  It stirs something deep inside of us that is one with God.

Two: Music also has power that lies in its ability to end run the limitation of words and our spiritual defenses against them. 

I love words.  But truth be told conversation and preaching can feel a bit like a frontal assault.  For good and bad reasons, words without music can raise our defenses and create resistance before we have heard the message.

But music — even music that includes lyrics and, therefore, words — can end-run those defenses, connecting us with truths about God and about ourselves that we would otherwise resist.

I am not sure why this is the case.  It might be in part because music enters our minds by a different route and remains there in a way that words alone can’t and don’t.  In part, perhaps, it is because music invites us to consider truths more gently and gives us the space to consider spiritual realities that other venues seem to force.

But whatever the reasons music connects us in a different fashion with our Creator.  It draws and comforts our souls and it can also challenge them.

Three: Music offers a vision.

I confess that the whole image of heaven as a place that looks like the choir, clothed in white robes and standing rigidly in front of a congregation leaves me cold.  I am more likely to visualize the choir surrounded by carved, wooden stalls, robed in cassock and surplice anyway.  (Oh, and don’t forget the candles.)

But it’s not for nothing that images of heaven often involve singing.  I don’t recall any text in Scripture that tries to account for why that is — but I have my suspicions.  For one thing, that image echoes something of images conjured up by the heavenly council that surrounds God — angels, singing God’s praise as they rush from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven.  But back of that powerful image are other reasons as well — millions, singing one song, focused on one object of worship, sharing a common commitment and passion, a single view of heaven and earth, focused on a single Creator — a Creator worthy and trustworthy of that devotion and delight.

We don’t unpack it in that fashion very often and, when music becomes too much a performance — or when we become sidetracked by the imperfections in our performance — perhaps on this side of heaven it is inevitable that from time to time we lose track of that vision.

I am sure that in trying to tease these factors apart something is lost. But it is my hope that my musical friends will live (with delight) into the privilege and responsibility of the gift that they give us.


About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.