SPEND a great deal of time thinking about why we church musicians do what we do. Some of the Whys are obvious. There’s the fact that God deserves to be glorified. There’s the fact that those of us to whom He has given considerable musical talent have the obligation to give that talent back to Him. There are the social benefits we derive from the friendships we make in choirs. There are even physical benefits; it is well documented that choral singing exercises the mind and body.
We’re all aware that there are many spiritual benefits, too. But these benefits don’t end after we sing the recessional hymn. They can pervade our spiritual life—to the point where sacred music pops into our head while we’re trying to pray. Next time this happens to you, I invite you to enjoy it.
Sometimes Motets Show Up Unannounced
Here’s just one example of what I’m talking about: one Saturday in March, I was praying the 9:00 AM Mass at my parish, following along in my missal. I immediately recognized the Offertory verse:
Give light to my eyes that I may not sleep in death lest my enemy say, I have overcome him. (Ps 12: 4-5)
The mere sight of this verse plunged me into a favorite motet that uses this text: O Bone Jesu by Loyset Compere. This piece is pure, sweet, and simple. If you can spare three minutes, I think you’ll really enjoy it:
(I love this piece so much that, at the kind invitation of Jeff Ostrowski, I recently discussed it in an online conversation with several of my colleagues here at Corpus Christi Watershed.)
As I let my missal fall away, I couldn’t help but audiate (a fancy word for hearing music in your mind) the rest of the motet, breathing, pausing, moved almost to tears at the unexpected arrival of this innocent bit of beauty just minutes after COVID-19 precautions had been announced from the pulpit. This motet pulled me more deeply into the Mass by speaking to me in my native language. Glancing around the church, I noticed several of my choir members and hoped that the motet was speaking to them, too.
This was hardly a fluke occurrence in my life. In fact, it happened again two days ago. In between my Saturday errands, I dropped into my church around mid-day to pray and ended up including Sext from the Divine Office. The first psalm was none other than Psalm 103: Benedic anima mea.
I don’t know about you, but when I read that text, I can’t help audiating this delicious setting by Claudin de Sermisy:
The Reward of a Life Lived in Music
I used to think that to stop and audiate the many motets I encounter within the Divine Office was to embrace distractions in prayer. But then I realized that it can be an excellent way to meditate on the text. We’re supposed to be praying the words we sing in choir, so why not sing—at least mentally—the words we recite in the Divine Office?
[One might ask at this point: why not simply chant the Divine Office? Yes, this is a laudable practice, but it’s not what I’m getting at. I’m arguing that if you’re silently reading the Office—or perhaps engaging in lectio divina—and a motet creeps into your mind, it might be most beneficial just to let it happen!]
These are moments of grace for any choir member because they can help us avoid “plowing through” Scripture. Suddenly, the psalms jump off our page or screen and come to life. Instead of waiting for our imagination to supply our intellect with a helpful image for meditation, we can immerse ourselves in the sonic experience of a psalm, using the composer’s genius to guide us through the words.
This is the reward of a life lived in music. Music is a language, but it does not supplant our own. Rather, it enlivens our words so that they can penetrate the soul with the fullness of their meaning—and enlighten our eyes in any circumstance.