Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Theology of Sound

As a Catholic musician, I am particularly enamored with two things: theology and sound. I dive passionately into the depths of the Eschaton just as eagerly as I plunge myself headlong into an Eric Clapton album. I find matchless beauty in the Church's doctrines on human sexuality, and I am left breathless by the sheer brilliance of "Blood of Eden" by Peter Gabriel.

Seriously. Check this out. It's UNREAL.

Anywho, I've begun to notice certain things, certain parallels, between theology and music. There seems to be some kind of revelation of the Divine encoded in music, in that which, as Augustine says, is "praying twice." "Cantare amantis est," he writes - to sing is a lover's thing, and since God is love, singing (and, by extension, all music) belongs to the realm of the divine. It is otherworldly. It is not unnatural - it is supernatural, something we could not have developed on our own, but were rather given in an abundant shower of love by Love Himself.

I am convinced, thoroughly and completely, that God intended for music to reveal something about Himself to us, but also something about ourselves to us as well, and it starts with the most basic understanding of sound itself. As a disclaimer, please do not consider my word on this to be infallible truth. These thoughts are simply my understanding, and meant for whatever spiritual edification they might supply – if anything I say should happen to distort or contradict the teaching of the Catholic Church, then I immediately defer to the Church’s wisdom and guidance as greater and infinitely more sound than my own.

To understand music, we first need to understand the general concept of sound. Sound is ultimately vibration, which is ultimately motion. Everything that moves makes some kind of sound, because sound and motion are at their core the same thing. We simply cannot hear the sounds of some things moving because our eardrums aren’t capable of picking up those sounds. On top of that, science tells us that all things are constantly vibrating on a submicroscopic level. That means all things naturally have a constant “sound” of sorts, a vibration that never ceases, though we cannot hear this sound because it is too faint, and humming at a pitch we would never be able to hear even if it were loud enough. We call this constant vibration “resonation”.

So what exactly does all that have to do with us, or with God? Well, God created things this way. He specifically made our universe so that every physical object would be constantly vibrating, constantly buzzing. Have you ever heard of “the song of all creation?” Scripture, other religious texts, poetry, and Christian song lyrics throughout history have time and again spoken of creation echoing the song of God’s glory, the universe proclaiming His majesty, the hills and mountains resounding with praise (Psalms 19 and 29 come to mind). We even read the Song of Songs in Scripture, meant to be the greatest song of all, a song of pure love between the Heavenly Bride and Bridegroom reflected in pure love between a more earthly bride and bridegroom. Could it be that perhaps this “creation song” is more than mere symbolism? Could it be that Heaven’s song is being sung by creation in a much more literal sense than we might have thought?

Heaven’s song is too sublime, too glorious for us to hear. In his book Heaven’s Song, Christopher West tells us a brief legend: “It is reported that St. Francis of Assisi once asked God to allow him to hear the music of heaven. The Lord told Francis he knew not what he asked, for the sheer glory of heaven’s song would spell certain death. The persistent saint pleaded eagerly, ‘Can’t I hear just one note?’ God conceded. As the story goes, Francis awoke from his coma a few days later.” This story may be true or may be simply pious legend, but the message is clear: Heaven has a song, and its sheer glory is too powerful for us to take until we are made ready and finally admitted into the gates of heaven. But the small part of it that we can experience in our hearts, minds, and senses is laid out before us in the beauty of creation. The universe literally does echo the sound of God’s glory. But we are not merely limited to experiencing this echo, in its diminished state... in fact, we are the instruments on which the song is played.

Try this: sit as perfectly still as you can. Be absolutely motionless. Don’t breathe, don’t twitch, don’t do anything. Relax all your muscles and try and remain as completely motionless as possible. Now try really hard – concentrate on it – and make every atom in your body stop moving. Make all electron motion cease. Stop all cell division, stop your blood from pumping, stop your individual hairs from blowing in the microscopic breeze from your air conditioning.

Surely you didn’t actually try to stop your atoms from moving just now. You can’t. It’s impossible, and you and I both know that; it goes without saying. But what does that mean in light of this “song of creation?” It seems to me that no matter what you do, you still resonate with the power of the song. Whether you are running or walking or sitting perfectly still, you are still resonating on a level so far beneath the surface that you cannot possibly control it. Even if you intentionally try to stop it, you can’t. But even if you could stop it, why would you want to? If your atoms stopped moving and froze, your life would cease. You would be dead and your body frozen in the space where it stopped. Your life, your being, your very existence depends upon the song of creation. A person might verbally deny their reliance on God’s glory, might even actually believe that it isn’t real or that they don’t need it, but that doesn’t for a moment change the fact that they are a resounding chamber for His song, a drum ringing from the inside out, and if they were somehow to stop resonating even for a moment, stop manifesting His glory in their very existence, then that would be the end of their existence. That’s the way God made us. Each and every one of us is an echo of His glory and beauty.

Revelation 14 tells us of the song of praise in the heavens: no man can learn it, except those who enter heaven. How is it described? Look at the first half of verse 2: “I heard a sound from heaven like the sound of rushing water, or a loud peal of thunder." It is described precisely in terms of the sounds of the created world, and the most powerful natural sounds we know, at that. What better sounds could there be to describe the resonance of all creation?

Continue on to the second half: “The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps." It is also described in terms of humanity, of human praise, of humanity’s song being the same as that of the rest of creation and yet distinguishable from it, two intertwined melodies catapulting the created into the divine. We are part of creation, yet we are set apart from it, and Scripture makes it clear that we add something unique to this creation song; there is something, some quality about us that the all rest of the universe does not possess.

More to come, when I can manage it. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely, David. Thank you. Abundant blessings!!!