True friendships, the friendships that reach the deepest and most hidden parts of our hearts, always have the shock of surprise. We are journeying on, struggling on the narrow roads of our daily pilgrimage, dragging our baggage with us, when in the streets of our lives we suddenly find that we are being greeted, and the face and the voice, which we have never encountered before, is utterly familiar, and yet, as far as we know, wholly new to us, almost like the story a friend told me of a piece of music he heard apparently for the first time as an adult, which nonetheless felt completely familiar to him.
He couldn’t make sense of his familiarity with a work which up to then he never consciously encountered before, until he spoke about it to his mother one day and she told him that he had indeed heard it before, but only as an unborn child when she was carrying him. At a certain point in his life, through some grace the action of which he couldn’t at that time fully understand or appreciate, the friendship with the composer and his music had been reignited, and he had found another musical friend to accompany him and help him make sense of the confusing cauldron of his experience and emotional life.
So it is that truly great composers are speaking out loud, for all of us, what we can’t acknowledge or face about ourselves and our lives, and what we are desperately struggling with. They articulate our sometimes silent cries of anguish and anger. Composers will show us up as cruel, bitter, sarcastic and wounding, as having sinful, satirical, paradoxical intent towards each other – and it is so liberating to be given the gift of seeing all of ourselves, including the wrecked part of our humanity, with the clarity with which God sees us and knows us. We find we may be all of these things yet acceptable to God, such is the redemptive power working through these works. That, surely, is Bach’s most liberating gift. Here is God, through this music, showing us what we are, and yet also giving us a powerful vision of what we are becoming through God’s deeply creative love.
An encounter with music is not all about our struggle though. Music is also able to express the glory of being ourselves in our full and liberated humanity. Composers release, thorough their music, powers of ecstatic praise in us and overwhelming joy that give us a foretaste of our glorified selves living freely in the presence of God in the beauty of our unique holiness. Music becomes our own singing, and what a wonderful sound we find ourselves making. Maybe we don’t think this as we caterwaul in the privacy of our showers and kitchens, but when we find that we are engaged with other human beings in a remarkably familiar struggle, the combined sound of our searching is that of a genuine and truthful engagement with God.
Thus when we engage fully with great music, praying and longing through it, it draws deeply from all aspects of our humanity. It is thus true, I think, that we reinterpret all works of art autobiographically. Once an artist completes a work and releases it, it ceases to be a private expression and becomes instead the means by which people engage with their own realities. In that sense, a work of art is never completed but lives in a constant process of recreation, of engagement and resolution, in so far as we can fully resolve anything in our lives until we meet with God. This process is partly described by the two time frames in which we live, linear time, the traveling from A to B, from minute to minute, day to day, month to month, year to year, and maturation time, the time of our growing and changing in God, which has a more circuitous quality as we return again and again to issues we avoid until we have made some sort of peace with them and are able to move on from them to new life and new growth. Maturation time, like the holy season of Lent, is where we live in remembering, recalling to mind what must change, and in active response to God we make a passionate engagement with that issue in order to change the stuck and unredeemed parts of our lives. Praying with music can be a key part of this remembering. Great music, such as the music of Bach’s St. John and St. Matthew Passions, make us remember our humanity and the organic nature of our spiritual lives as we are prompted by the message of the works to free ourselves. This is the ambiguity of remembering, that we live most creatively by recalling ourselves, yet at the same time are moved by that remembering to change and become more fully human.
Music will speak to and for us and accompany us on our journey. We will find a particular composer mirrors the struggles we are going through at a particular moment – thus sometimes we might love the music of, say, Beethoven but not want to listen to a note of English music, and then we find the wind in our emotional and spiritual sails changing and Howells becomes the friend who greets us from his own frail coracle. I think this accompaniment is something very strongly akin to our relationship with God, to the gift of the Holy Spirit’s constant, but still small voice. “The Spirit will remind you of all that I have taught you” Jesus tells us (John 14.26), and in the renewal and rediscovery process that is our life long journey, music becomes one of God’s instruments of love.
Bach’s genius has made him so mythical that we forget the very ordinary life that lay behind it, namely, that of a professional musician who sometimes had to struggle to find jobs, while at the same time trying to maintain and love a very large family. He worked for most of his career for the still young Lutheran Church, so the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion speak in the language of his hearers, which is why to translate them into the your own language is to live in the heart of the original. Bach also included in his work the familiar faith songs of his congregations, the hymns in which they would have joined, so these Passions are not concert works as such, but part of a collective cry to God on Good Friday when they were first performed in his Leipzig churches in the 1720s.
The works follow the narrative thread of their respective Gospels. The story of Christ’s suffering and death is largely told by the Evangelist, with the chorus and the soloists taking the various crowd parts and the parts of individual characters. Chorales and arias then provide the individual human response to the story of God’s total identification with us through Christ’s Passion. The story of God in the Gospels is indeed of the ever deepening identification by Divine Love with human experience, that we are led by the hand on our journey by a tiny and helpless Holy Child, by a Sinless One who nonetheless, humbly before God’s children, follows them to Baptism, by a Jesus who went through the worst and most humiliating suffering a human being can go through so that whatever we ourselves live through, we will be with a God who has been there before us and has not just sat on a throne judging us.
The experience today will therefore be like entering a great interior space of worship in ourselves, an interior pilgrimage starting at the main entrances of the two great opening choruses, before you discover how Bach portrays our humanity throughout the work. The day will be divided into four Waymarks, and between Waymarks, you will have space to look at your personal response to the holiness of these musical Gospels. While much of the focus will be on the St. John Passion, extracts from the St. Matthew will act as “side chapels,” and we will fill our interior worship space with our own prayerful and creative response to gift of love that God is giving us.
So Ammerdown’s Praying with Music retreats aim to help introduce a new perspectives to our engagement with music, namely finding in it a way of life praying: music as a medium given to us by the Creator Spiritus, our Creator God, through which we are able to bring the struggles of our lives with full honesty before a God who loves us utterly. Euan Tait, Lent 2012, Ammerdown.