Music as prayer (featuring Abraham Joshua Heschel and Harry Secombe)

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Gosh, is it time for another Heschel-related post already? It seems no one can stop me, so the answer is yes. I’ve been reading yet another of his great books, this one titled Man’s Quest For God. It is in major part a reflection on the way in which human beings reach out for God through prayer. I suppose that it easily qualifies as the most moving book on prayer I’ve read. It includes reflections on, among other things, the power and nature of words themselves, and the special nature of scriptural and liturgical words.

The paragraph I’m pulling out here, however, is in reference to that special quality of music to express that which cannot be said with words alone.

In no other act does man experience so often the disparity between the desire for expression and the means of expression as in prayer. The inadequacy of the means at our disposal appears so tangible, so tragic, that one feels it a grace to be able to give oneself up to music, to a tone, to a song, to a chant. The wave of a song carries the soul to heights which utterable meanings can never reach. Such abandonment is no escape nor an act of being unfaithful to the mind. For the world of unutterable meanings is the nursery of the soul, the cradle of all our ideas. It is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.

Naturally, I love everything about what he says and how he says it there, but consider that last sentence in particular. To give oneself up to prayer in the form of music, Heschel says, “is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.” What a wonderful way to meditate upon our origin: this idea that we have come from that same place from which music comes, and the thought that music is ultimately our true language.

People have always sought and found glimpses of the transcendent in music; this surely dates from the moment in which the first human being sang. (And certainly people have been annoyed by music since the time that the first human stomped on the floor to tell his downstairs’ neighbor to turn it down.) We might look around the world sometimes and wonder if the scientific reductionists have it right, if human beings really have no special purpose in any transcendent order, but are merely freaks of nature—nothing more than chipmunks with swollen brain cavities. But how many chipmunks (other than Alvin, maybe) sing like Ella Fitzgerald, or even like your mother or grandmother used to in the kitchen? We credit birds with song, and whales, and frogs, and the sounds they make are wonders of creation, but we humans seem to be pursuing melody and harmony on a very different level. And even if we don’t make music ourselves, we cannot resist listening to it (I deeply pity the rare soul who just never listens to music).

Yours truly spent some years without any easily definable or shall-we-say-biblical beliefs, but never shook off a belief in a God at the bottom of it all, and there’s no question that a love of music was the major reason for that. And it was purely popular music which I listened to during those years, and indeed that remains the form of music I’m happy to listen to most, hour for hour (albeit that some of it stretches the definition of “popular”). Being able to detect some shred of the transcendent in a song and performance which brought tears to my eyes for reasons that were ultimately inexpressible kept me in mind of the fact that there was, after all, a transcendence out there. Many are happy enough to concede the reality of an impersonal transcendence, but to me at least it’s always felt very personal in those moments, shot through with mercy and with hope.

Music can be composed specifically for the praise and worship of God—which is I think the kind of music Heschel has in mind in the above passage—but I happen to believe it’s true that music which is purely “secular” in original aim is also capable of hitting those heights and becoming in a fleeting moment a kind of prayer.

Enough half-baked philosophy from me. Considering a musical reference with which to punctuate this post, there is naturally no shortage of profound prayerful music, depending on one’s taste. However, I’ve been on a big Welsh kick lately, and so that will be my guide. Indeed, although my background is Irish (American), there have always been rumors in the family that there might be Welsh origins, due to the strange and very un-Gaelic spelling of the paternal surname. I’ve always dismissed this kind of stuff, having greater faith in typos than in anything else. Recently, though, I’ve decided to wholeheartedly embrace the theory, and I am determined to become the Welshman I always truly was.

Someone who never had to work at it was the great Harry Secombe, comic genius with the Goons, and in another incarnation a tremendous tenor who delivered especially-inspiring renditions of many great old hymns, becoming a staple on British television doing just that kind of thing.

You cannot get better than “Amazing Grace,” itself an intensely personal song with a remarkable and moving history. But watch out; if you should listen to Harry Secombe sing this without properly bracing yourself, it might just blow your cranium clean off. (In a good way, mind you.)

(The slideshow on the above-embedded YouTube clip is related to the man who wrote the lyric, John Newton.)