might use in prayer, drawn perhaps from regular liturgical usage, such as the psalms or
the collects of Thomas Cranmer - not just our prayerful use of words, but the way in
which words, in the hands of a poet, or dramatist or novelist - can open up vistas, enable
new understanding, extend our horizons, so that prayer moves beyond the ordinary and
the mundane to a place of wonder, surprise and silence. Of course the ordinary and the
mundane are where we habitually are, and that no doubt is where our prayer begins - in
the trivial round and the common task as John Keble put it, making drudgery divine, or
sweeping a room as for God’s laws as George Herbert proposed. And Gerard Manley
Hopkins, when he was not wondering at God’s Grandeur had some more down to earth
observations to make:
It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, white-washing
a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, - everything gives God some glory if being in his grace you do
it as your duty. To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and
temperance gives glory too. To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dung fork in
his hands, or a woman with a slop pail give him glory too. He is so great that all things give him glory if
you mean they should. So then my brethren live.
G M Hopkins
from ‘The Principle or Foundation’
an address based on the opening of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola
Words, though they can seriously impede our spiritual progress, because they encourage
us to talk too much, nevertheless can move us, inspire us, change us - not just because
they can persuade us by argument, but because they can kindle our imagination. We turn
to the poets, more even than to the liturgists, to find both the words for prayer, and also
words that help to create the arena for prayer. This is an arena of the imagination which
does not shrink from the world as it is, but an arena where old men see visions and
young men dream dreams; an arena in which we may consider the world as it might be.
In creating this arena of the imagination where prayer may flourish, no art or discipline
is more skilled than music: and not simply ‘sacred’ music that interprets words or sets
texts, but music which in its own right interprets the world, registers the whole range of
human emotions, brings heaven and earth together within one remarkable soundscape;
helps to relate us back to the roots of our humanity, and at the same moment gives us a
glimpse of the divine, and a way of holding onto the hem of God’s garment. Sometimes
this release of imagination that brings us to prayer will happen in sacred space -
evensong at the end of the day in some cathedral, for example. Or it may happen in the
concert hall as we hear the dropping figure of the Incarnatus from the Creed of the B
Minor Mass, when we are caught up in a musical landscape that powerfully reveals to us
the mystery of that divine condescension - that the Word becomes flesh and dwells
Incarnatus from The B minor Mass by JS Bach
J S Bach enables a credal statement ‘was incarnate of the Virgin Mary’ to become much
more than a matter of doctrine. Christian teaching has to move from the head to the
heart - however important the head and the intellect may be in appropriating religious
thought. In the movement from the head to the heart we have to become enfolded,
embraced, overcome by the reality we profess. That is what music mysteriously,
powerfully and transformingly, so often effects.
It may happen in the grand sweep and narrative drive of a Bach oratorio or Passion, or it
may happen much more simply, when to use C S Lewis’s phrase, borrowed from
Wordsworth, we are surprised by joy. There needs always to be an element of surprise in
our Christian pilgrimage. Of course we always want to be in control, we don’t really like
surprises. Tales of the unexpected is the terrain of the mystery writer, and we don’t like
the mysterious or the unknown.
I was washing up one day in our kitchen at home, thinking about the next business to be
attended to. I had Radio 3 on to accompany my chores. Suddenly the clatter of cutlery
and crockery was overtaken by very different sounds. I stopped what I was doing, and
my thinking of the next thing, and became transfixed by the music - music so simple, so
repetitive, so mantra-like - that it drew everything - every sound, the ticking of the clock,
the birds singing, my own breathing - into its own timeless tranquility.
Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Part
That remarkable piece of music could go on much longer, and if you listen to it via the
links given at the end of this chapter, you will be able to enter into its sound world. It
was this piece of music which I arranged to have played on Good Friday at Salisbury
Cathedral as the congregation moved at mid day from the cathedrals’ nave to the quire
for the Good Friday Liturgy. It enabled us to make the transition from one space to
another, from the outside world to the inner shrine, and by analogy it helped to still our
busy, restless minds as we came to contemplate the divine reality most exquisitely and
cruelly defined for us in the figure of a man dying on a cross. Music helped us to move
in imagination, as well as in mind and body, into another world that pressed upon our
As you were coming into this room earlier you will have heard some medieval plain
chant taken from the liturgical rite known as the Sarum Use, which was developed and
perfected at Salisbury Cathedral but which by the Reformation was the almost universal
rite used in the British Isles. You would expect me, as a former Precentor of Salisbury
Cathedral, to make some mention of the Sarum Use in a talk about music and prayer.
Of course chant - the ancient music sung in the western church but only really rediscovered
and given new currency in the nineteenth century by Dom Prosper
Gueranger at Solesmes Abbey, in France - has been given a new lease of life beyond the
church in recent recordings by monks of the Spanish monastery of Silos which achieved
success in the popular music charts.
Some years ago a hospice nurse from Montana in the United States came to see me
while on a visit from America. He told me that all the doctors, nurses and carers at the
hospice where he worked were musicians - and music was a major component in the
nursing and palliative care of patients and their families. He said ‘We often use plainsong
when we tend the terminally ill. Because there are no bar lines, there’s a sense of
timelessness or eternity about the chant. We believe it helps those who are dying to
unbind; to let go of time and slip into timelessness - not into oblivion but into what you
and I might call God’s time’. And, there in my sitting room, he sang this plainsong Kyrie
from the Missa de Angelis, to illustrate his point.
KYRIE from Missa de Angelis
Shortly before his death I visited Michael Mayne who after his retirement as Dean of
Westminster moved with his wife Alison to Salisbury. I knew that Michael had only days
or possibly hours to live. He couldn’t speak but his eyes smiled and he took my hand in
his. I said some prayers with him - which I am sure included part of Psalm 139 - and
then I sang. I sang that Kyrie from the Missa de Angelis with the words of that
American nurse in mind: ‘There’s a sense of timelessness about the chant...which helps
those who are dying to unbind’
Of course it’s not only as we approach death that music can evoke this sense of the
timeless and the eternal. And it’s not only the simplicity of the chant that can achieve it,
though the monastic chant certainly has that timeless quality which in prayer we attempt
to recover. And that timeless quality is paradoxically achieved through the most timebound
of all the creative and imaginative arts - namely music.
In this entry into timelessness which our prayer can learn from our experience of music
we may get the impression that prayer, like some music, is an escape from the exigencies
of life, but as we shall see music like prayer roots us in the world as it, in a life ‘nasty,
brutish and short’, while at the same time offering a vision of the world as it might be.
Prayer is not an escape from life’s realities though it has a transcendent quality. In the
words of the hymns ‘it brings all heaven before our eyes’ In prayer we come close to
God : time and eternity meet.
Peter Schaffer’s remarkable play about Mozart called Amadeus is based on the alleged
rivalry between Mozart and his fellow composer Salieri. Here is an excerpt from the play,
where Salieri consumed with jealous resentment at the unmatchable musical genius of
the uncouth boy Mozart, hears the strains of Mozart’s slow movement from the
Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments
Salieri And then right away the concert began. I heard it through the door - some Serenade: at first only
vaguely - too horrified to attend. But presently the sound insisted - a solemn Adagio in E flat.
Mozart Serenade for Thirteen wind Instruments (Gran Partita) Slow Movement
It started simply enough: just a pulse in the lowest registers - bassoons and bassett horns - like a rusty
squeeze box. It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it instead a sort of serenity.
And then, suddenly, high above it, sounded a single note on the oboe.
It hung there unwavering - piercing me through and through - till breath could hold it no longer, and a
clarinet withdrew it out of me, and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling. The
light flickered in the room. My eyes clouded… The squeeze box groaned louder, and over it the higher
instruments wailed and warbled, throwing lines of sound around me - long lines of pain around and
through me - Ah the pain! Pain as I had never known it. I called up to my sharp old God, ‘What is
this?… What?’ But the squeeze box went on and on, and the pain cut deeper into my shaking head
until i was running - dashing through the side door, stumbling downstairs into the street, into the cold
night, gasping for life.
‘What? What is this? Tell me Signore. What is this pain? What is this need in the sound?
Forever unfulfillable yet fulfilling him who hears it utterly. Is it your need? can it be yours?
Dimly the music sounded from the salon above. Dimly the stars shone on the empty street. I was
suddenly frightened. It seemed to me I had heard a voice of God- and that it issued from a creature
whose voice I had also heard - and it was the voice of an obscene child! Mozart!
What is this pain? What is this need in the sound? Forever unfulfillable yet fulfilling him who hears it
utterly. Is it your need? Can it be yours?
Salieri’s question to his ‘sharp old God’ reminds us that the pain of our humanity that is
conveyed even through the beauty of our world, is a pain that finds its correspondence
in the heart of God. How could it be otherwise when scripture tells us that the Christ
who has entered into the heavens has the never-to-be erased wounds of his passion
upon him. Only thus can he be our intercessor before the Father. The pain of the world
is God’s pain; our need is his need. Somehow through the beauty of Mozart’s music
Salieri heard the voice of God and the recognition that in St Paul’s words ‘God was in
Christ reconciling the world - and all its sorrow and hurt - to himself ’.
Karl Barth, the great Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, wrote in his Church
Dogmatics about Mozart that he ‘ conceived and composed a type of music for which
‘beautiful’ is not a fitting epithet: music which is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or
edification, but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music
which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always ‘moving, free and
liberating, because wise, strong and sovereign’. And Barth continues that in Mozart’s
music we hear the ‘whole context of Providence, and the harmony of creation’. Barth
recognises that in that Mozartian harmony, the shadow also belongs but ‘the shadow is
not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot
degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim
In the music of Mozart, Barth seems to be saying, the world as it is is revealed to us, but
also in the transcendent quality of the music, the world as it might be. And the yearning
quality which Schaffer’s Salieri identifies in Mozart’s music recognises this paradox.
Music even when it captivates us with its beauty can also fill us with yearning - a sense of
unfulfilment even as it fulfils us. It’s an extraordinary paradox that represents a profound
spiritual truth. For prayer too is about a hunger and a yearning. It is expressed by St Paul
in his epistle to the Philippians:
I have not yet reached my goal : but I am still running, trying to capture that by which I have been
The sense that even when we have been embraced by God we still yearn for more : to
capture that which has already captured us. It is that sense of yearning and longing that
music - perhaps most of all the arts - instills in us.
That suggestion that beauty can be a piercing beauty which fills us with longing and
brings us, as Salieri suggests. into the pain of God, reminds us that prayer too is a way of
engaging with the world as it is. Prayer does not evade or ignore the world’s pain and
anguish and violence and cruelty - why else would prayer (Christian prayer at least) be
done always conscious of the outstretched arms and fearfully pierced hands of the one
through whom Christians make their prayer.
I often remember a radio broadcast by Mother Mary Clare the Superior of the Sisters of
the Love of God at Fairacres. She was asked about the monastic practice of rising in the
middle of the night to rehearse the Night Office. She said that in the small hours of the
night humanity was most vulnerable. More suicides are committed then, people are
alone and in pain; when the homeless are most alone and friendless, and the desperate
most despairing. ‘ It is for them in particular that we pray in the middle of the night’.
Sometimes it is music that opens our imagination - our hearts as well as our minds - to
the world’s anguish. I was at a Promenade Concert in London in 1968 when
Rostropovich played the Dvorak cello concerto on the day (August 20) when Soviet
tanks rolled into Prague to crush Alexander Dubcek’s liberal reforms. Ironically
Rostropovich was accompanied by a Soviet Orchestra in that performance of a great
work by a great Czech composer. During the concerto’s hushed opening the Royal
Albert Hall resounded to strident yells of protest. In his review of the concert for the
Daily Telegraph Julian Lloyd-Webber wrote:
It must have been a nightmare for the cellist, yet Rostropovich proceeded to give a
performance of such intensity that no one could have left the hall with any doubt about
his feelings towards the invasion….In their very different ways both politics and music
aspire to influence the human condition’. And then Lloyd Webber added words from the
Book of Ecclesiasticus:
‘Pour not out words where there is a musician’
Dvorak Cello Concerto
Music so often takes us to the heart of the human condition - and so music becomes a
vehicle for prayer as we recognise our world as it is, and we pray for those especially who
bear the burden of its pain and violence.
Yesterday January 27, National Holocaust Day, commemorated the seventieth
anniversary of the liberation of Aushwitz and the end of the holocaust in which
millions of Jews, as well as gypsies, gay and mentally ill people died.
Jewish chant from the synagogue
As Howard Goodall writes in his book ‘The Big Bang‘ there are no easy answers to
account for being moved to tears by notes on a page, or of being stirred to anger and
action, or being comforted in our loneliness. ‘It is a mystery how Rachmaninov’s flowing
melodies and ripe harmonies make people feel romantic and amorous… or how
Shostakovitch manages to express all Russia’s Stalinist agony without losing the
essentially unbreakable spirit of the people at the same time. It is a mystery why
Tippett’s use of Negro spirituals in his 1945 secular oratorio A Child of our Time so
perfectly captures of the victims of Nazism in the second World War
Tippett A Child of our Time
It is a mystery - prayer helps us not to solve the mystery, but to enter into it. And music
is often the key that opens the gate and unlocks the imagination and helps us to pray.
Because it engages our emotions and kindles our imagination in the mysterious way
Howard Goodall describes, music will often enlarge and enrich our life of prayer, and
indeed lead us to pray.
Sometimes music in church will do this for us - and it was St Augustine the third century
Bishop of Hippo who is thought to have said ‘Those who sing pray twice’. Sometimes it
is hymnody - wonderful words sung to a fine tune. How shall I sing that majesty for
example, with words by John Mason and the tune Coe Fen by the twentieth century
composer Ken Naylor; or Charles Wesley’s peerless O thou who camest from above
sung to SS Wesley’s Hereford; or When I survey the wondrous cross, sung to
Rockingham - with its wonderful final verse:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all
St Augustine had a point!
Many of us will have experienced the way music brings us to prayer through the worship
associated with Taize - the ecumenical, international, monastic community in eastern
France which has been such a force for renewal within the church and beyond it - not
least in its powerful empathy with young people. Of course professional Church
musicians tend to be sniffy about Taize chanting - too simple, too saccharine, too
unsophisticated. But it’s precisely because of its simplicity and memorability and mantra
-like repetition ‘that the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over and our work is
done’ and we come into an arena of prayer where even surrounded by two thousand
people, when the chant stops there is a palpable silence which enfolds and embraces us -
as though God himself were present and listening and spreading his mantle around us.
As the melody of the chant dies away we are - in company with others - brought to a
place of peace, silence and tranquility - and we are at home; at home with God.
Maybe the last word should rest with the early twentieth century poet Siegfried Sassoon
whose poem Everyone suddenly burst out singing expresses the capacity of music (singing in
this instance - music in which everyone can participate) to express the beauty and the
tears of life, and also allows us to transcend even the worst horrors of our world (and
horror drifted away) so that we come at last to an eternity of song - a kind of vision of
heaven that enfolds us all. - the singing will never be done. That thought has much to teach us
EVERYONE suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields;
on—on—and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but
Everyone was a bird; and the song was wordless;
The singing will never be done.