The hardest aspect, for me, about worship in church at the moment is not being able to sing! Singing is an essential and life giving part of worship. St Augustine must have loved a good sing! It was he who described Christians as an ‘ Easter people’ whose song is ‘Alleluia!’ He also wrote that ‘to sing a psalm is to pray twice’ and in encouragement to those daunted by their very precarious situation he exhorted them ‘to keep walking and keep singing.’ Singing and music is integral to Christian spirituality: growing, as it did, out of the worship of Judaism with his highly developed tradition of singing the psalms. On Maundy Thursday we heard that Jesus and his disciples ‘after singing some hymns went to the Mount of Olives.’
St Paul in his spiritual counsel to the Ephesians writes that they should ‘be filled with the spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in your heart.’ ( 5:19)This is echoed in the letter to the Colossians (3:16) ‘ Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.’ Here Paul makes the connection between the word of God dwelling in us and heartfelt singing. There is in the New Testament a very dynamic ‘confusion’ of word and song: we need only bring to mind the canticles which are part of the rhythm of our daily prayer – The Benedictus, The Magnificat and Nunc Dimmitis. There are others too as found in Philippians Chapter 2 and the texts which are now woven into the Eucharistic liturgy.
It is singing that helps so much of Christian doctrine penetrate our consciousness: as any teacher of young children knows singing can help remember. If one reflects on how the singing of hymns has formed perceptions and understanding of the Faith one sees how absolutely essential it is.
There is a spontaneous singing to hymns and canticles that might happen anywhere from the shower to the drive to the supermarket; but there is also a more deliberate use of singing to gather mind, body and spirit together as a preparation for more wordless and contemplative prayer. The chants and songs that have come out of the Taize community can be as well used by individuals in solitude as by large gatherings; most are created to enable a stilling into silence.
Our generation have an opportunity to use music in ways that Christians of earlier generations could not imagine. We have access to a wealth of recorded music we can put in our pocket to provide inspiration and solace anywhere we choose. This does, however, produce difficulties if this resource in not managed carefully. There is a thin distinction between being inspired and being entertained. Listening to music may aid reflection and bring us to a ‘place’ of stillness but it should not be aural wallpaper to our prayer. It is very easy to become dependent on having an ‘eternal music feed.’ It is an aid to, and not a substitute for, that quiet in which we can hear the ‘small murmuring voice’. We might remember that after the triumphant hymns to the lamb there was silence in heaven for the space of half an hour! (Revelation 7 and 8)