Music as prayer - Madonna Magazine

Music as prayer

Susie Hii 27 August 2020

St Ignatius teaches us to apply our inner senses when practising imaginative contemplation. I find the easiest sense to apply is hearing.

Listening to the sounds around me, especially the chirping of birds is calming. Apart from bird song, one of the most delightful sounds is music that touches us. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too music that appeals to each person is in the ear of the listener.

Music has played a significant role in my relationship with God. Some hymns, as well as secular songs, have brought me musical, mystical moments. The words, ‘Those who sing well pray twice,’ are apocryphally attributed to St Augustine. I take singing well to mean singing with our whole being, involving our body, mind, spirit and emotions. Singing goes beyond our conscious mind, beyond thinking, and is indeed praying with the senses. Music opens our senses and touches our hearts.

In recent years, the Holy Spirit has figured prominently in my faith. I think of the Spirit as the breath of God breathing on me, as in the words of a hymn, ‘O breathe on me, breath of God.’ When going through a rough patch, the Spirit dropped a CD containing the song, ‘Breath of Heaven’ into my lap.

I lay on the couch and listened to it. The music soothed me like a healing balm. Someone – Mary – understands whatI am going through. Mary knows what it is like to doubt one’s ability to carry out what one thinks is God’s plan. With Mary, I asked God,

‘Do you wonder as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of your plan.’

These words from the song became a mantra.

‘Help me be strong
Help me be
Help me.’

These days, I pray that the Spirit blows through our world and especially our church, to renew and recreate our church. The words of an old hymn, ‘Spirit of God,’ came to me the past week.

Spirit of God in the clear running water
Blowing to greatness the trees on the hill.
Spirit of God in the finger of morning:
Fill the earth, bring it to birth,
And blow where you will.
Blow, blow, blow till I be
But breath of the Spirit blowing in me.

The hymn speaks of finding God in creation – in the clear running water, the trees, meadows and pastureland, the cattle and sheep, just as St Francis of Assisi found God in nature and St Ignatius expressed in Annotations [235] – ‘see how God dwells in creatures … in the plants .. the animals … how he dwells also in me, giving me being, life and sensation …’

A few years ago, I heard Fr Gerald O’Collins mention John Denver’s song, ‘You Fill Up my Senses,’ in reference to the ‘Application of the Senses’. I have heard that song previously but not for a long time. Listening to it through ears that are opened with this new information and with more developed inner senses, I found my senses alive, tingling with the sense of God’s love.

You fill up my senses
Like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean
You fill up my senses
Come fill me again

Susie Hii, medical practitioner, writer and author of Happy, Healthy, Holy.