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Sighing Through Song

Today’s post is by Jeff Nelson

It’s different for everyone, yet all know this experience. A woman driving home after receiving good news at work finds an uplifting song on the radio that speaks to her newfound joy. A man back from a hard visit with his mother in the nursing home starts his Spotify playlist of slower, reflective tunes that names his sadness and frustration. The hymn “Abide With Me” causes tears from within a grieving granddaughter who didn’t expect them. A father and toddler son dance playfully to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” allowing them to share laughter together.

Music has power to tap into or produce emotional responses. We use it to evoke desired reactions or to help sustain a mood. We play it for others to tell them how we’re feeling. We play it for ourselves to figure out what’s happening within us.

And we sometimes use it to draw closer to the divine presence within and around us.

A quote I often see on social media comes from Thomas Merton: “If we have no silence, God is not heard in our music.” It’s thought-provoking by itself, but the context from which it comes enriches it:

Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence, there would be no rhythm. If we strive to be happy by filling the silence of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth.  If we have no silence, God is not heard in our music.  If we have no rest, God does not bless our work.  If we twist our lives out of shape in order to fill every corner of them with action and experience, God will seem silently to withdraw from our hearts and leave us empty. (from No Man Is an Island)

In other words, the notes and silence within a musical piece work together to create something that just the notes themselves cannot do. The empty spaces within a song contribute to the overall feel, whether it seeks to communicate delight or despair, love or longing. If there is no silence, we cannot hear what the notes really want to say.

In Romans 8:26, Paul reflects on those times when we can’t accurately pray what we are feeling, so the Spirit assists us “with sighs too deep for human words.” Many often find that music can be a means by which the Spirit accomplishes this. Those mentioned above might not have been able to convey their happiness or sorrow to themselves, to others, or to God through words alone.

Through music, God can bring latent feelings finally to the surface, or to give name to the inward churning that seems to defy description. Songs can serve as our sighing, lifting our prayers to God in moments that otherwise render us silent.

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