MUSIC AS PRAYER
A sermon preached by Brian Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
April 7, 2019
Somewhere between 17 and 19 weeks a human fetus develops an auditory system. If you’re curious, at 17 weeks a fetus is roughly the size of a small pear. What I find amazing about the human auditory system is that before any of us took our first breath; before any light filtered into our eyes; before the aroma of milk or toast or coffee entered our noses, we lived in a world of sound and feeling.
Deep in womb-blackness, just above our tiny, forming bodies, our mother’s heart beat to the rhythm of life. We heard the cadence of her breath and felt the vibration of her steps as she paced for nine months eager for us to get the heck out.
Scientists have no way of knowing exactly what a fetus hears. But we do know that the fetal heart rate elevates whenever music is played. Other studies have shown that when a pregnant mother wears headphones, listening to music only she can hear, music she finds soothing, the baby’s heartrate lowers for as long as the mother listens. If the music is switched to something the mother finds annoying, the baby’s heartrate goes up.
I propose to you this morning that humankind experiences music before we are even born. In fact, we are born in the midst of the body’s own music, in the midst of rhythm.
40,000 years ago, our ancient ancestors traced their hands on the walls of caves; they painted pictures of animals and people, they drew games and hunts and celebrations the likes of which we’ll never know. And somewhere between 40 and 80,000 years ago our ancient ancestors carved the first musical instrument out of the bones of a mammoth. The tiny flute had just four holes, but is able to match the Do, Re, Mi scale.
Ancient peoples preserved their cultures through storytelling. From Beowulf to the Iliad and the book of Exodus, stories have been handed down so that the memory of their peoples’ creation and struggles lives on in the music of lyric poetry. And it has been said that the best lyric poems have the ability to stop time, to seize some tiny eternity with the music of a moment, or so the poet Christian Wiman says.
But what does it mean to seize some tiny eternity with the music of a moment? If you’re willing, go ahead and close your eyes…bring into your mind the last time life itself flashed across your nerves. Think about a time when the weight of a moment stopped you in your tracks. I’m not talking about big adventures. I’m not asking you to remember the last time you managed to string together an ideal day. I’m asking you to remember the last time you felt the grace and pain of life so strongly that it made you wonder if maybe, just maybe life is actually a miracle after all. So, with your eyes still closed…think of something…if you did, then you know exactly what the music of a moment is; and I suspect everyone here has felt the music of life at some point.
In the words of Tom Troeger, “Music is an elemental sensory experience that awakens a host of metaphors that occur again and again in common speech.” Consider how so much of our daily language is filled with music metaphors. We often talk about the need to “live in harmony” with one another and nature; we say how this or that person “marches to the beat” of their own drum; how something or someone is “finely tuned”; we say “Eye of the Tiger” is our “theme song,” or French fries with mayonnaise is “my jam”; when someone does something that brings us down we might tell ourselves that the “beat goes on”; whenever we get a bit of good news we call it, “music to my ears”; or whenever one of our kiddos gets an attitude we tell her to “watch her tone”; and whenever we shop for a new car the salesmen always tells us that for only $5,500 more we can have one with all the “bells and whistles.” Humankind literally creates meaning out of music.
A few years ago, when my daughter started pre-school, I was reminded that almost anything can be set to music. Or, as Rodgers and Hammerstein put it, “When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything!” Half-way into her first year of pre-school she was singing little jingles about everything from zipping her coat to washing her hands. I loved all the cute songs and I’d sing them right along with her. But after a while it got awkward because my daughter demanded that the whole family sing these songs about cleaning up and going to the bathroom. I mean, I love my kid and all, but there are only so many times I want my kid to follow me to the bathroom, singing, “This is the way we take a poo” whenever I’m trying to do my business.
Many of us were taught through music. I learned the letters of the alphabet through that catchy little song we all know and used to teach our children, and nieces and nephews, and grandchildren. When I taught at a Hebrew school, I had the students sing the Aleph-Bet song before every lesson. And whenever I’d assess the kids’ progress, I’d watch them with their heads buried in quizzes singing the Aleph-Bet song under their breath trying to figure out how to spell a word or find the right vowel.
Not only does music have the power to teach, it has the ability repair the pathways in our brains that control language. In 2011, a bullet to the brain left former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in critical condition. It was a miracle she survived at all, and the injury robbed from her the ability to talk. In the months following the shooting that left six people dead, including a nine-year-old girl, Ms. Giffords relearned how to talk through music therapy. Throughout this frustrating and emotional process, Giffords created new neural pathways in her brain by humming and singing songs like “Happy Birthday,” “American Pie,” and her favorite, “Brown Eyed Girl.” The late Oliver Sacks wrote somewhere that “Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music.”
At the children’s hospital in St. Louis where I once worked I observed that there’s something innate in humankind—whenever someone picks up a child, whether it’s their own or someone else’s, people can’t help but hum and bounce to some unknown rhythm, or sway back and forth as they sing and whisper into the child’s tiny ears.
Across the street at the adult hospital where I also worked, graduate students from the university’s music program would travel throughout the hospital playing music for patients in the ICUs. They would sit in the threshold of patients’ rooms and introduce themselves to people who hadn’t moved or spoken for days. They’d ask rhetorical permission to stay and play for them a few songs; a moment or two later you’d hear “Here Comes the Sun” or “Fire and Rain.” I suppose it’s only fair to admit that I have no idea whether those patients could hear the singing. But I can say without a shred of doubt that music had the power to transform a chaotic environment into a quiet sanctuary. You’d notice anxious and sleepless families close their eyes for the first time in days, letting the music take the place of their fear and sadness for a time; busy nurses and doctors and therapists would rest their achy legs; and for a few minutes an intensive care unit, filled with blips and beeps and odors and anxiety would take on the feeling of a sanctuary; and it became a Sunday unto itself. It was as if a small tear in the everyday realities of life and death would allow eternity in for a moment, giving enough time to remember the fact that one day all of us will bow down. If not to God, then to the god forsaken fact of existence at all.
In 1983 the writer and theologian John Hull became blind just a few days before his daughter was born. As time went on, he found that the images of faces and things in his mind slowly faded. No longer could he remember his daughter’s face or the shape of his wife’s waist in a summer dress. Over time he adapted to life without sight. The books he once read with his eyes he now read with his fingertips; his travel slowed down, and his hands learned to do the work of his eyes when looking for this or that.
So much of the world is designed for people who see. So much of what we regard as beautiful or artistic is relegated to the visual realm. Stroll through most any museum and you’ll see amazing pictures and sculptures carefully protected behind ropes that prohibit touch. Close your eyes in that same museum and all you have is a cavernous room filled with whispers, and shuffling feet, and HVAC systems.
And what about the world around us? Most people interact with the world using their vision. We go on daring hikes to watch sunsets; we gaze up at stars and out upon the ocean. Small children point to planes and birds and swing bats at approaching balls. And we assume that this world of vision and color is beauty’s only medium, but it isn’t.
In the years after John Hull became blind, he kept a series of audio recordings documenting his experiences. Some of the recordings are laments; him expressing sadness at no longer being able to see his children run and play or his wife smile at a joke. But over time the world reintroduced itself. John describes how rain had the power to bring out the contours of everything around him, introducing a continuous blanket of sound, an audible environment of the world. The sound of water falling upon the leaves gave shape to the towering trees, the sound of rain upon the wettened pavement gave shape to a road. John liked to imagine what life would be like if there could be something like rain indoors, a way to give audible shape to tables and chairs and plates and coats and hats. It’s as if John was imagining a way to create a musical composition out of life itself. To create a sonic equivalent of the visual world.
But at this point, I suppose since I’m preaching about “Music as Prayer” it’d be prudent of me say a thing or two about prayer.
There is an old joke about us and prayer. It’s said that “the Roman Catholic prays to Mary, Joseph, and the saints; the orthodox Protestant prays to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; and the Unitarian Universalist prays ‘to whom it may concern.’” Even then, we’d end up having to form a committee to help us define what “whom” means. Here in the liberal church we have issues with prayer as it’s often associated with televangelists who pray for fat bank accounts and the reversal of biological fact. Some of you might take an evolutionary approach and think of prayer as something our primitive ancestors did before they knew a thunderstorm is just the meeting of high- and low-pressure systems, or that people get sick for no fault of their own. I expect everyone here takes issue with the fundamentalist Christian beliefs that evil or illness happens because people don’t live or talk or love the “right way.” But if that’s all we think prayer is, then all we’re doing is damaging the reputation of liberal religion. And I’m suggesting that we need not do this.
Prayer, so far as I can tell, has everything to do with our ability to come to grips with life’s reality; it has everything to do with our desire for life to have meaning. Prayer doesn’t have to involve us getting down on bended knee or thumbing beads or crossing ourselves. It certainly can. But prayer can also be a focusing of our hopes and fears and feelings. It can be a moment in which we withdraw from anxiety and panic and selfishness. But more than being something personal, something we withdraw into, it can be an act that enlarges our sense of self and our relationship to others and the world. And if the word “prayer” turns you off, try calling it beauty or hope; call it church, or call it nothing at all.
My guess is that those people in the caves 80,000 years ago, those same ones who carved that flute out of a mammoth’s bone probably prayed to some god or group of gods. You would have too if you were them. History tells us that most of their children barely survived childbirth, and that’s if they survived at all. And let’s not forget that for them middle age was about 15-years-old. But just like us their lives began in womb blackness, nestled below the rhythmic beat of their mother’s heart. I expect that whenever they were born people would pick them up and sway their bodies back and forth and sing and whisper to them the songs their mothers and fathers sung to them. I imagine whenever they were sick and dying that people would sit by their bedside and sing to them songs about the return of the sun and falling rain.
And I bet of few of them would close their eyes whenever they noticed the rain began to fall. And they’d let the world enter into their body in the sound of water falling on leaves and dry ground. They’d put their feet as flat upon the ground as they could, and they’d feel the earth vibrate through their bodies. And perhaps they wondered why we’re here at all; maybe they thought life was nothing more than a mysterious awakening and an eventual return.
That’s as good a definition as any. Some days I wake up an agnostic and that’s pretty close to what I believe. Other days I wake up believing that all our lives have meaning and purpose beyond what humankind is willing or able to define; sometimes I call that God; sometimes I call that the music of life; and other times I call it nothing at all.
What that thing is that lies beyond definition I know I’m not smart or witty enough to create at will. The truth is, it’s beyond my control; because whenever it happens, it’s always in the presence of people who are brave or broken enough to let down all those protective layers of ego that limit our ability to be in relationship with the rhythms of our own hearts and therefore life’s rhythms as well.
But I’ve been lucky enough to experience it in this sanctuary whenever I heard a room full of atheists and agnostics sing “Amazing Grace!” like a Baptist church choir; it happens every time I notice my daughter is listening to the contours of trees in the rain; it happens whenever I see busy people living busy lives stop long enough to let life catch up with them; it happens whenever life’s magnitude brings me to my knees; it happens whenever I have been offered forgiveness; it happens whenever the grace of things gives me a bit of unexpected joy; it happens whenever I’m brave enough to admit that existence is a miracle, and that there really is a music to life.
I accept the fact that eventually everything falls apart; everything returns to ash and earth at some point. I have lived long enough to learn that there’s a goodly portion of life that is beyond anyone’s control. Forrest Church said, “When I pray sic, the answer comes from within, not to the specifics of my prayer, but in response to my hunger for meaning and peace. The answer, Church goes on to say, “is not a what or a how, not a when or a why, but a YES.” Yes to life and to service and love. Yes to thankfulness, yes to laughter and tears and forgiveness. Yes to the possibility that there will be music after all.
 Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 106.
 Thomas H. Troeger, Music as Prayer: The Theology and Practice of Church Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 2.
 Forrest Church, Lifecraft: The Art of Meaning in the Everyday (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 105.