Over the course of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI spoke extensively on the power of beauty, once stating: “The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes” (General Assembly, August 31, 2011). In this profound way, music speaks directly to the heart of every man. It helps us break free from the ordinary, opening a door to the infinite and, when ordered properly, directing our minds to heavenly things. While many people sense that music can speak to the soul, most don’t sense how to direct this toward good prayer.
As men around the world now prepare for Exodus 90, a focused time of prayer and asceticism where the mind’s attention is more fully directed toward the Lord, we might beg the question: How do I pray with music?
The Personal Nature of Music & Prayer
Do you remember the first time you were moved by music? Enter into the scene for a moment: Where were you? What were you listening to? How did you feel?
I remember the first time music captivated me. My dad was an amateur pianist and music was the centerpiece of our home life. Yet I never truly understood the power of music until at a youth conference, where a simple refrain sung over and over again eventually eroded the rough edges of my heart and prompted a lifelong devotion to the Lord. Almost two decades later now, I still return to this single moment for consolation when the journey gets tough.
We each have a personal experience where, at one time or another, we were moved by music. This is a unique and unrepeatable gift from the Lord; a first encounter with beauty. Whether you yet recognize it or not, this personal experience of yours is a direct reflection of the love the Lord has for you. When this gift is ordered properly, it’s a pathway to relationship with the Lord!
It’s important to recognize that there is also music that distorts this gift. In the opening pages of The Silmarillion, JRR Toklien writes a powerful creation story, where song is the foundation of all that exists (think of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word…”) Yet as the thematic harmony of creation came to be, Melkor (the most powerful angelic being) introduced a discord in the theme through his selfish desire to increase his power and glory. Sound familiar? (Watch) Make no mistake, by its nature music is inherently tied to our heart, soul, and our salvation. Johann Sebastian Bach, largely considered the father of Western music, writes, “All music should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul’s refreshment; where this is not remembered there is nor real music but only a devilish hubbub.” Now, that said, God delights in our fun and joy too. There’s plenty of secular music that justly delights and engages our emotions (hello, Swifties!).
To the greatest extent possible, the call of the faithful is to order all that we experience to Christ as our Head. From the music that delights us to the music that more directly helps us in bringing glory to God, we are to a keen awareness that music is a pathway between our heart and the Lord’s.
Especially in times of spiritual asceticism, I challenge you to create space to appreciate this gift of music, beginning with that first encounter of music that the Lord gave you. Give thanks to the Lord for this gift! From there, find one song that reminds you of the personal ways the Lord has His hands in your life. Allow the beauty of that song, whatever it is, to strike your heart and open your eyes, as Pope Benedict XVI suggests. Furthermore, take a break from the abundance of a seemingly unlimited Spotify universe, and limit yourself to a listening experience that personally prompts a response of the heart: to return love for the Lord.
Need somewhere to start? LISTEN TO THE VIGIL PROJECT’S EXODUS 90 PLAYLIST
The Communal Nature of Music & Prayer
Beyond using music for personal prayer and contemplation, there is something wildly transformative in allowing yourself to enter communal song. Look no further than Exodus 15 to see the power of singing together: the Israelites have just crossed the Red Sea narrowly escaping certain captivity and death from the Pharaoh’s army. The first thing they do? Sing; all of them joining voices together in praise:
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.” (Exodus 15:1-2)
Think for a moment: how often do you sing on an ordinary Sunday morning? As men, we’re quick to exclude ourselves from singing at Mass (or rather, singing the Mass) for any myriad reasons: you don’t like the music, nobody else is singing, you don’t think you can sing, your wife/kids/friend might hear you, whatever it may be. The Second Vatican Council paints for us an important and sobering reality about participation in the song of the Mass:
Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when it is celebrated in song… the mystery of the liturgy is more openly shown, the unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by the union of voices, minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rites, and the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem. (Musicam Sacram, 1967)
When we enter into communal song with fervor – much like the Israelites did – the mysteries of the liturgy begin to unravel before our eyes. Communal song humbles the individualistic desires within us and orders them to the common good of the whole, uniting all to Christ. The Lord, indeed, becomes our strength and our song.
Receive again this gift of music as you journey through Exodus 90 this winter. Listen with intent, and unabashedly participate in the song of the Mass, allowing the Lord to encounter you in new ways as you journey to freedom this Easter.
In Summer 2024, join The Vigil Project in discovering the gift of music in the life of faith. Meaning of Music is an eight-part film series by The Vigil Project & 4PM Media, unpacking these big topics on music with cast members like: Matt Maher, Bishop Barron, Paul Jerngerg, Steven Curtis Chapman, the Monks of Solesmes, and many more. Subscribe to our newsletter and keep an eye out for the film on major platforms.
Exodus 90 starts January 1 — sign up for free:
Andrew Goldstein is the Mission Advancement Director of The Vigil Project and an Exodus 90 fraternity leader. The Vigil Project collaborates with musicians around the world to make music for every moment of the Catholic journey. Their live events visit hundreds of parishes and communities around the globe each year. Learn more at: www.thevigilproject.com