Music reveals truths that are not discoverable by any other means.
For many years as a child I took piano lessons. I loved playing piano and would voluntarily practice for hours at a time. Every year, though, all the students had to play a piece in a recital. When I got up on the stage in front of everyone to play my song, I almost forgot how to play. I couldn’t see straight, couldn’t think straight, my face would get hot, and my leg would start shaking uncontrollably. Somehow I would manage to stumble through my piece, played mechanically without a hint of feeling, and collapse in relief. I was like a conquering hero returned from the trenches.
My grandmother played piano, too. She offered to play duets with me which, honestly, I really enjoyed. Maybe it’s strange for a 12-year-old boy to look forward to playing piano with his grandma, but I’m grateful I had the chance. Each year, we entered a competition in which we played our duet for judges. Knowing that my grandmother was on the bench next to me made me feel far less nervous.
Really, though, the fun wasn’t the competition, it was getting to practice together. There’s an intuitive non-verbal communication that forms when playing music with another person, a connection that quietly forms without a word. It’s the shared language of music that creates the bond.
I had a similar experience a few years after that when, as a teenager, I joined a punk rock band. We played shows in tiny little venues where we turned our amps to maximum volume and let loose. We were absolutely terrible, but at least we managed to scare some parents and create some energy. I still think about that band and, even though I’m a middle-aged priest, would probably join a punk rock band again if I had the chance.
Tomorrow is the feast of St. Cecilia, a saint who is very much connected with the idea of music.
Ironically, she was probably not a musician. Her claim to musical fame is an act of silence. It’s said that at her wedding, while the musicians played, she sang in her heart to God alone. She never sang out loud. Nevertheless, this interior act of song cemented her role as the patron saint of musicians.
The story of St. Cecilia seems, at first glance, to be nothing more than a whimsical anecdote and an example of the funny way the Church sometimes has of assigning patron saints, but there’s more here than meets the eye (or ear).
She sang in her heart.
Music is love. Music is knowledge.
Music reveals aspects of the world, human relationships, and ourselves that are, simply put, not discoverable by any other means. As an art form that participates directly in the virtue of beauty, it’s an irreplaceable type of knowledge, every bit as important as factual or scientific knowledge.
Music slows us down. We must listen very closely. As we internalize the song, it causes us to look deeply inside of ourselves. If we’re sensitive to that interior glance and patiently allow beauty to unfold, it creates self-knowledge through contemplation. In looking inside ourselves, we encounter there a reflection of God, the way in which each soul is shaped in the divine image. Then we look up to the source of the reflection, outside of ourselves to the heavens and beauty itself.
My grandmother had a very nice piano in her living room. She later gave it to me because she knows how much I loved playing it. It’s now in our living room where my own children play it. Generation after generation, connected by music. I’m happy to give them this musical education because, in some mysterious way, it connects them to their grandmother and to each other. I consider it essential to their schooling because it’s a form of knowledge that leads to living a happy life.
I, too, still play that piano every single day. Sometimes it’s just a few minutes and sometimes it’s an hour. All I know is that when I play, time ceases to exist. I have no self-consciousness, no thought of my self at all. Music is a pure encounter with beauty, through which I fall more and more in love with the life that has been given to me and the One who gives it.