February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
November 7, 2019
He who sings prays twice.—Catechism of the Catholic Church
The merge onto the KY-9002 and the fifty-mile drive south may not carry with it the romanticism of Thomas Merton’s tales of train rides from New York through my hometown of Cincinnati to what would be his future residence in Kentucky, yet the whispering hills that welcomed me on either side of the highway spoke to a tranquility that only the endemic blue grass of Kentucky can provide. My mind carried me on Merton’s journey to the Abbey of Gethsemani as I made the left turn off the highway, away from the seeming hubbub of the historic town of Bardstown and toward the dreamlike countryside that surrounded the abbey.
When I entered the abbey, there was no fanfare, but when my boots hit the courtyard’s concrete steps, my footsteps echoed like fireworks in the solitude of Cistercian life. Then the church bells rang out, and the low hum of the organ ushered the faithful—and not so faithful—into the sanctuary where the thirty or so men of Gethsemani continue their deliberate stroll through the Psalter. It occurred to me on the third day of my retreat that the only time I used my vocal chords throughout the day was to sing with these men, following their cadence and learning the chants that were older than all but the hills that surrounded the abbey. I wondered if the monks ever grew tired of singing the Psalter. I wondered if they ever grew tired of speaking so little to one another.
The atmosphere of the abbey and its grounds is one of quiet and peace. But as time went on, I became increasingly aware of a conversation occurring constantly in the spirit of these men and soon within my own spirit, a conversation I could only describe as communion with God. Perhaps these men were at times lonely, but it seemed to me that they were present with the spirit of God in a way that I was unfamiliar and that found its bearing between the pages of the Psalter and the breath of their chant.
After I completed my retreat, I journeyed from the monastic enclave back to the noise of modern city life, and I found the transition stark. I could speak again, yet despite the ongoing expectation to communicate, connectivity with others seemed elusive. The advent of the technological age, I realized, has failed to bring a sacramentality to life, much less a sense of being known by those who inhabit this technocratic existence. For many of us, this unmitigated loneliness has been propelled not only by our use of technology but by our use of technology to the exclusion of embodied interactions with other people and, dare I say it, transcendence. For instance, a 2004 survey mentioned in the New York Times showed that 25 percent of Americans claimed that they had no one to confide in.1 I also believe we suffer from a lack of broader religious, cultural, and communal narratives, but even for those of us who are part of the church and who have found our people and our narrative, social media intensifies the pressure we feel to create and carry an individual identity and narrative—our own lifestyle brand that includes no rough edges, a story that is shared through an ideal filter.2
In considering a way forward from this epidemic of loneliness wrought within our siloed society, I want to suggest an innocuous activity, an activity that has become more and more isolated to those rare moments we find ourselves alone—in the car, in the shower, washing dishes at the sink. It’s a practice that has been largely given over to professionals and reality TV stars. It’s the practice of singing—and not just the singing of pop songs but the singing of Scriptures.
The Holy Scriptures are a musicologist’s dream, for in them all forms of song and emotion are recorded. The earliest Christian hymns can be found in Philippians and Colossians, where the profession of the incarnation is waxed with prose of mystery and kenosis. In the Gospels we are told that Jesus sang following the final meal that he shared with his disciples before his death, and it is fair to assume that he sang from the section of the Psalms known as the Egyptian Hallel (Pss. 113–118), these being the psalms of Passover which connect the Hebrew people to a story that is at once their own and, some would suggest, also beyond them, a story of the salvation of the world.3 Or there are the canticles of Mary and Simeon, and the songs of Moses and Miriam are classic pronouncements of the Lord’s rescue set to music.
Early Christians would have used these songs and hymns in their house churches. They would have sung them as they worshipped in the catacombs. And a few centuries later these songs would have found their way into the Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom and the Roman Rite. The songs there told the story of God’s faithfulness and acted as a retelling, a restorying, of God’s redemptive work that invited the people of God into the story of God. This was not a practice of melodic nostalgia for a history past but a communal event in which the story of God’s redemption became the story of a community. These early Christians found their identity in the act of God and the retelling of this act.
Within our modern context, some more liturgically minded congregations follow this tradition of singing the Scriptures by employing the use of the Psalter for their weekly worship gatherings. Likewise, some evangelicals within the retuning movement have sought to put these ancient texts and hymns to contemporary melody. In this way, some contemporary church communities sing with a communal memory as they worship God in song. Karl Barth would call this act of singing the Scriptures proclamation,and it is in this performance, this sung communion, that God acts and we live and move and find our being.4 This is a communal act that breeds connection as the church sings in history the historical retelling of the acts of God’s redemption that formed a people in order to bring God’s blessings to the whole of creation.
In a 2007 NPR interview, the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of Your Brain on Music, describes the effects that group singing has on the human brain.5 Levitin points out that as we sing with others, our prefrontal cortex is activated, and oxytocin is released within our brain. This, he says, gives us a sense of fidelity or friendship. The act of group singing thus has vast implications for whether we see ourselves as alone or as a part of a larger group.
In the communion of cadence and syllables, we find belonging. As we join our voices together, we find ourselves wrapped into something bigger, into the voice of the whole. It is here, as we share breaths and listen for harmonies that contribute to the greater melody, that something is created that could not be created without the service of the other. A story is sung into existence that connects us to the whole, to what is beyond ourselves and the offerings of the individual, and it is in the space of harmonic connectivity that we feel close, known by the other in a way that engages breath and telos, purpose and performance, a true movement of the Spirit.
In his influential Church Dogmatics, Barth attempts to combat a liberal Protestantism that had begun to treat the Bible as simply another historical text to be subjected to critique by inviting readers of the Scriptures to see the Spirit’s work as the Word proclaimed, or, in our case, sung:
If the Bible speaks to us thus of the promise, if the prophets and apostles tell us what they have to tell us, if their word imposes itself on us and if the Church in its confrontation with the Bible thus becomes again and again what it is, all this is God’s decision and not ours, all this is grace and not our work. The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that God causes it to be His Word, to the extent that He speaks through it.6
Thus, this act of speaking is, for Barth, an event of God that takes place through the Scripture as it impacts the reader and they are changed, or “grasped” to use a Barthian phrase, by the Word of God.7 This event occurs in faith and is an act of grace that finds the reader grasped by the Word of God as what has become proclamation for them acts as proclamation to those hearing the Word.
For Barth, this act of the Scripture becoming the Word of God is an event that occurs because of God and acts as a form of liberation for the one reading the Scripture. It is in this event that we are turned toward God in faith and that grace is experienced.8 In a way, the very Scriptures that proclaim the revelation of God are said, or sung, back to us by the act of God, which opens us upward, toward God, and away from the crippling loneliness of the self. Conversely, it is the spirit of God moving within the Scripture as it is sung by us that proclaims the Word of God to the church and the world in the worship of the Father through the retelling of the redemption won in Christ the Son.
In considering these two seemingly disparate observations, the research of Levitin and the theology of Barth, I believe we find that our invitation into the community of the Trinity through the act of song is an avenue for transcendent connectivity. Although it is a bit technical, this Trinitarian theology shows us that as the church sings the Psalter, the church sings with God the Spirit through the Scriptures, which become the Word, to God the Father as we proclaim the gospel of God the Son. This singing of the Scriptures is an act of proclamation that speaks to the redemptive narrative of God that is seen most clearly in the person of the Son; the Spirit is the action of the Scriptures, of this proclamation of the Son, in the becoming of the Word of God which is sung to the Father in harmony with the church. In our singing of these texts in faith, the grace of God joins within the harmony of the church to sing against the loneliness of a monochromatic melody and invites humanity into the communal fugue that is the Trinity.
It is in this fugue that we join with the angelic choir of Revelation in singing “holy, holy, holy,” and we sing to and with God. It is in this act that we have the opportunity to connect to God in the melody of the Word of God. In singing with the Spirit, our minds can be re-formed within the community that is the Trinity, and we are invited into a faith that is relational at its core, a faith that liberates us from the modern epidemic of loneliness. In this singing, we accompany the late Robert Jenson in his pronouncement that, in the end, “God is a great fugue,” and in singing the Scriptures we are singing with God as we enter into the relationship of the Trinity, and it is here that we are finally known.9
One might then begin to wonder if indeed the prefrontal cortex is activated as we join in the harmony of the Spirit who sings the Word of God back to the Father, as we recall the kenotic love of the Son who did not see equality with God as something to be grasped but expressed his love to the Father by becoming the beacon of God’s love for the whole of creation. By joining this heavenly proclamation, we are brought up into the Trinitarian sonnet, which is ever joyful in its counterpoint as the Father proclaims his love for the Son, the Son invites all into his own beatific vision of the Father, and the Spirit expands and enraptures all within the Trinitarian rhapsody that is three in one, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It is in singing that the church stands against the culture of nihilistic loneliness, and it is in the proclamation of the Word of God, sung through the Scriptures, that the Jericho walls of hyper-individualism, consumerism, and idolatry fall and all are opened up to the harmonies heard within the quietist of places and whispered across the hills painted blue by a creator whose very being is song.
N. Ammon Smith
N. Ammon Smith is a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary and serves as the director of Catholic-Evangelical Relations with Glenmary Home Missioners and a field representative for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with his wife, Emily, and their son, Henry.