Music as a Doorway to Prayer
Today’s post is by the late Ann Kulp
Music has called us to prayer through the ages: the shofar, psalm, pipes, harp, trumpet, the peal of bells, the carillon, and symphony. Some of us have been stilled and called through Tibetan bowls, whose sound lingers and leads us into the silence of waiting. There is the music of the gurgling brook, wind in the rustling trees, the chirping of cicadas and other natural sounds. There is the music of Native American flute, a jazz band, a Gregorian chant. It matters not what kind. Each is an echo of some sound heard eons ago, and perhaps remembered. At different times in our lives we may hear sounds that become moments of such recollection, drawing us more deeply into the attitude called prayer.
As I ponder the meaning of music for me, I have a sense of being touched deeply, as though certain melodies come from elsewhere, as though they resonate with a part of me with which I have little knowledge. The melodies seem to possess a power to unlock a part of my emotions through a rhythm or sequence of tones that sounds simply sublime. I feel in tune with a different kind of reality, different from my everyday routine. I may experience solace, release, a “lift” or sheer exhilaration. Music becomes a pathway from my head to my heart. My attention is diverted from ordinary distractions to a language that has direct access to my spirit. Music engages me, stills me, inspires me, and sometimes connects me to the Source of all sound and silence. It becomes a holy moment. It opens me to prayer, sheer attentiveness. My heart is open. Music has become the doorway.
Is there a special kind of music that possesses this power? Perhaps, but I rather think it is an individual matter of preference, timing and environment. What might leave me cold at a concert may move me deeply in a quiet place, or vice versa. One can’t predict when that special doorway will present itself. But it does. I like to think that just as the composer was moved to pen the notes, so the listener can be moved to respond to them. If in the divine economy nothing is wasted, then someone will undoubtedly transmit the inspiration of sound to another who is waiting to hear it.
Music, as a form of creative expression, seems to be a doorway for the composer as well as the listener. Both experience its power to touch places not normally available to the conscious mind. Beethoven wrote his Sixth Symphony (the “Pastoral”) after the onset of deafness, when he found greatest solace in nature. Paul Winter was inspired to write “Return to Gaia” (from Earth Mass) after reading a letter from astronaut Rusty Schweickart who spoke convincingly of his deep longing within for Earth/Home. Mahler’s Third Symphony reveals the composer’s spiritual struggle as he presents a cosmological ascent culminating in a triumph both contemplative and explosive, proclaiming, “Love God alone all your life.”
As Westerners, we tend to choose activities that engage the conscious mind. But with music we can be opened to appreciate the raw material of creativity and opened to something deeper in ourselves. Receptivity to the Eternal Sound, as expressed in music, can lead us into the Eternal Silence, to God, with opened hearts.
Ann Kulp was an associate staff member with Shalem for 17 years, leading quiet days, contemplative prayer groups, workshops with Tibetan singing bowls, adult education classes, series on the mystics, and other miscellaneous topics related to spirituality. Ann was a graduate of The College of William and Mary and Northwestern University. This article originally appeared in the Shalem News, Fall 1996.
Shalem is grateful to offer two contributions that Ann worked on during the last year of her life:
Spirit Windows is a unique and valuable handbook written specifically to assist leaders in planning experiences such as retreats, prayer groups, church school classes, Bible study groups, and more. This handbook is filled with sample prayers, suggestions for music, meditations, inspirational quotations, retreat ideas and a wide array of other resources. It was revised by Ann and is now offered as an updated edition. Purchase your copy here.
Holy Interruptions: An Online Retreat Day to Cultivate Deeper Divine Awareness. Are you ready for a retreat? Busy schedule keeping you from getting away? With Holy Interruptions, you can take a quiet day wherever you are, and be led by a contemplative teacher to a greater awareness of the holiness found in each moment. Gain a deeper awareness of God’s presence in the mundane, daily realities of your life. Find practices and support you can take with you beyond this online encounter. Through teaching audio and guided meditations, reflection questions, art, and intentional silence, Ann Kulp leads you into holy connections in this virtual retreat space. Materials available now through mid-June. Register here.