COLLEAGUE OF MINE shared with me a text he found in a fairly obscure medieval treatise. He was very excited about its content and knew that I would be as well:
MUSIC RULES OVER US, given that we are held together through it. When nature catches in voices what she feels innate within her, she is moved with a deep, wondrous affection, since like rejoices in like. Music endows voices, removes anger, suggests and persuades to clemency. And every age, every sex, and the nature of almost all souls is moved by the judgment of music. And what about thrushes, swans, nightingales, and other sweet songed souls impelled by music to utter their loquacious comfort? Just as they breathe without labor, so too do they sing. This is a sign that music is innate in souls, since those things which have no free will with which to deliberate, produce (led by nature alone) harmonious voices, and celebrate with those singing with them. Through the comfort of music the Theban Isemenia used to heal the maladies of the Thebans. And so too did David with the royal madness [of King Saul]. And we even read that Empedocles with a swaying mode calmed the youth who was rushing at his host, since he had accused his father. The Pythagoreans, also by song, caused a light and pleasant sleep to waft over themselves; just as by other modes they used to shake off the stupor of sleep once they awoke. What shall we say about how such a diversity of souls are pleased by a variety of modes?
The author is Bernard Silvestris; the work, a commentary on Martianus Capella.
When asked the question “What is the best guardian?,” Socrates says: “Argument mixed with music. It alone, when it is present, dwells within the one possessing it as a savior of virtue throughout life” (549b). Argument mixed with music: this sounds to me like a description of Gregorian chant, which artfully combines the Word of God, the , the music of the angels. It can dwell within our souls as a savior of the theological virtues, expressing faith, spurring on hope, fueling charity.
We internalize the music we sing and listen to―it becomes a part of us, it shapes us in its image. You are what you listen to and look at, more than you are what you eat. As Pope Benedict once said, air is to biological life what the Holy Spirit is to spiritual life. What we take into our souls is the food and drink of our souls, and we will be healthy or unhealthy depending on the quality of that food and drink. If our music is that of the Holy Spirit, we will be eating and drinking the spirit of truth, the love of the Father and the Son. If our music is that of the world or the prince of this world, we will be eating and drinking the spirit of worldliness. We cannot be too careful about this dietary discernment.
What is the depth and breadth of the music you listen to? How deep into the reality of God and your immortal soul does it delve? How well does it encompass and echo the grandeur of the world around us?
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