EHAN ALAIN wrote the following in the score of his organ work Le jardin suspendu — The Hanging Garden (1934):
“Le Jardin suspendu, c’est l’idéal perpétuellement poursuivi et fugitif de l’artist, c’est le refuge inaccessible et inviolable.”
“The Hanging Garden is the artist’s ideal, perpetually pursued and eternally elusive; it is the inaccessible and inviolable refuge.”
Despite Jehan Alain’s short life (1911-1940; killed in action during WW II), he created a unique musical language of his own. His influence on composers and organists carries extraordinary weight, quite disproportionate to his brief musical career. What he would have accomplished had he lived as long as his friend Olivier Messiaen is unfathomable. Still, his influence remains unquestioned.
As church musicians, we try to bring beauty and art in service of the Lord and God’s people. Yet, most of the time, it is a challenge to convince others that sacred music must indeed be beautiful. We are tested, sometimes every day. We must find creative ways to catechize and educate. We must slowly introduce the sacred, the beautiful, the universal a little at a time, often over a period of years. Sometimes it takes decades to build a program. It can takes weeks to tear it down.
At one time or another, all artists are tested in the same way that faith is tested. For musicians of sacred music, this reality is intertwined. Yet, with all odds against us, we forge on in faith. In this test—the infliction we will endure at one time or another—our faith is made stronger.
This is where our interior prayer life sustains us. Prayer is the “inviolable refuge” that gives us the strength to carry on. For an artist, prayer can take many forms, including our work itself. How do we know if we are truly in prayer? A simple litmus test is to ask the following question: Are our “batteries” being recharged? If not, we must find a form of prayer that works, or else we will be sapped of our strength to do the Lord’s work.
For Mother Theresa, it took the form of meditating for two hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament starting at 5a.m. How else could she get through the day of helping the poorest of the poor?
OR MUSICIANS, THE INVIOLABLE REFUGE is in our art. Possessing the liberty, or support, to create beauty is truly unusual, so sometimes we must create our own opportunities. This may seem selfish. It is not. If we do not create and pray in that creation, we will surely be lost in our work of ministry. We must at times attend to ourselves that we may attend to others! Otherwise, this work will become nothing more than a paycheck (perhaps a meager one at that) which entirely defies the object of ministry.
We all have unique responsibilities. Our inviolable refuge is a necessity. It may take different forms for different people. With a dozen or so liturgies per week, I often find myself physically present at all—spiritually present at few to none. So, mindful I must be when I can. Certain liturgies give opportunity for more interior prayer. At one in particular, I take the opportunity to improvise on the propers of the day. I meditate upon the text, while hopefully in tune with the liturgical action. Sometimes this is my inviolable refuge, and I hope my prayer helps others. Sometimes, it is composition. Often, it is the diligent work with my incredibly generous choirs.
Always, it is the eyes of my children.
Recognize God in your work. Pray unceasingly. Do what fulfills you and makes you happy. Otherwise, we are of no use to others we serve in ministry. Meanwhile, be joyful that God has a plan for each of us, a plan to carry out his work.
Jeremiah 29:11: “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.”