I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Ted Witham’s reflection “Knocked for Six.”
In the Australian idiom, I was ‘knocked for six’ last year by my first encounter with depression and anxiety. The mental illness shook me from my center. I closed down emotionally and physically, and only after six or eight weeks of gentle care from physician and psychiatrist I began again to find some equilibrium.
One of my practices that was ‘knocked for six’ was my decades-long engagement with the Scriptures through Morning Prayer from my Anglican tradition. I simply ceased the practice and have not yet found my way back to it. I hope to one day.
In the meantime, I have re-discovered music as the practice of the presence of God. I play keyboard and recorder, and I sometime accompany the hymns on the organ at my local church. In our village, I organize a monthly ‘Songs of Praise’ in the spirit of the BBC-TV program of the same name. We gather on a Tuesday evening to sing. We sing 20 hymns and songs altogether within the hour. The singers are rested after about 10 hymns and I read without comment from the Psalms before we launch out again into the second set of 10.
All music connects me to God; all creativity to the Creator. But hymns and sacred songs have a peculiar power to bring me into the presence. Their texts remind me in words of the qualities of God and of God’s saving actions in the world. The words recall Scripture and may interpret it authoritatively. The music opens my heart along with my lungs as I sing. The ‘foursquare’ meter of many hymns, regular and formal, sets my feet walking on pilgrimage, my heart beating in tempo with fellow pilgrims.
The characteristic sound of Christians singing together is, for me, a peep into the heavenly song. Most church singing is unison, every singer on the same notes. There is unity in singing. Occasionally a brave tenor or alto takes their part and brings a new color to the singing, or some basses rumble along and add to its depth. The singing incarnates unity in diversity.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, the Vatican 2 document Musicam Sacram puts it like this:
Indeed, through this form [of song], prayer is expressed in a more attractive way, the mystery of the liturgy … is more openly shown, the unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by the union of voices, minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rites, and the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem. (Musicam Sacram 5.)
Neuroscientists tells us that singing produces the happiness hormones, dopamine and serotonin. Singing together also encourages the production of oxytocin, the closeness hormone. Singing encompasses these physical and emotional effects which become the foundation for spiritual practice.
Singing with other Christians is evidently part of my practice. But I also find joy in playing Christian repertoire for myself.
There’s a moment when the separate musical elements, the rhythm, the harmonies and the melody all come together and catch fire. This morning I was playing on the piano ‘Sing of the Lord’s Goodness’, Ernest Sands’ modern hymn with its unusual 5/4 time-signature. I played the melody as I sing two of the verses. With the other two verses I sang just with the punchy chords. Of a sudden, the hymn came vividly alive; the swing of the rhythm, the confidence of the text, the jaunty melody and the physical sounds all swirling around each other like flames. There amid the music was an undoubted presence, a Burning Bush with a living Presence whose creativity had caught mine alight.
Sometimes the circumstance of the hymn’s writing weaves itself into this complexity. In ‘Abide with Me’, The Reverend Henry Lyte’s stout words with William Monk’s famous tune ‘Eventide’ build a sense of confidence in the believer’s approach to death: ‘Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee, in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.’
And when I sing Mr. Lyte’s words aware that he knew how close was his own death from tuberculosis, I form an image of him sitting watching the sun go down over the harbor at Lower Brixham in Devon, where he was Perpetual Curate: ‘Fast falls the eventide, the darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide.’ The hymn then stirs my heart to a great affirmation of the Resurrection. My playing and singing become permeated by the Presence of the Risen One.
It is a privilege to be able to play musical instruments. In recent months, playing has become a necessity to keep me close to the Creator, a centering practice which keeps me in tune with the Presence.
Ted Witham is a retired Anglican priest, an amateur musician and a writer of poetry and stories which have appeared in journals in Australia, the US and the UK. He and his wife Rae are professed Franciscan tertiaries (TSSF). They live with their energetic Jack Russell terrier Lottie in the beautiful south-west corner of Australia.