Saturday, August 29, 2009

I Believe In Music

All the Levites who were musicians—Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun and their sons and relatives—stood on the east side of the altar, dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets. The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang: “He is good; his love endures forever.” Then the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God. (2 Chronicles 5:11-14)

Many years ago, when I was a student in theater school, we had an instructor who taught us his theory of the “levels” of drama. The first level was that of ordinary, naturalistic activity. At this initial stage the action on the stage is indistinguishable from everyday life. Out of this level proceed the next two stages of increasingly heightened reality (I don’t remember all the specifics. Like I said, it was many years ago). Finally, in certain instances, the “fourth level” is reached. At this level, naturalistic action is not sufficient to convey the significance of what is being portrayed.

In a Shakespearean performance, for example, an actor may suddenly step out of the scene and address the audience with a powerful and poetic soliloquy. In a movie, it might be a montage sequence, the juxtaposition of various scenes and images usually held together by a pronounced soundtrack that communicates the unifying mood or theme. But, the medium par excellence of the fourth level is the musical. Whenever the action of a musical reaches a particularly heightened point, someone breaks into song.

Something like this happens in the passage from 2 Chronicles. Solomon and the Israelites have completed the building of the temple of God. Overcome with joy and gratitude and reverence, they break into song. A good friend of mine, who identifies himself as an unobservant Jew who is into God, explained to me once that, “The ancient Israelites used to break into song when they experienced God; it is the perfect expression for the indescribable encounter with the Divine.” But in this scene, things do not stay at the fourth level. The song the Israelites sing is not just the expression of religious feeling. It is an action that causes the Divine to manifest. The fourth level here gives way to the fifth, sixth, seventh and beyond.

It is not the appearance of God that causes the Israelites to burst forth in this great musical performance. It is the love of God, the giving of “praise and thanks to their Lord,” that causes God to manifest. Hundreds of trumpets, cymbals, harps, and lyres, along with countless voices, join in unison to sing thanks to God, at which point “the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.”

Too often, our religious discourse takes place on the lower levels of our human drama. We are far too hung up on the activities and carryings on of our fellow humans, that it seems we forget that religion should be more about eternal matters than temporal ones. We fight about what to believe, how to believe, whether to believe. I wonder where God goes when we start yelling at each other? I doubt at such times that he appears in a cloud of glory. My guess is he vanishes like a wisp of smoke.

Notice the detail of the story describing how, when God’s glory is present, the priests can’t do their job. “Then the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.” God, it seems, is not as interested in our ritual observances as we are in performing them. It is not the forms of our worship and belief that are essential, but the quality of our singing, the fullness of our praise.

Music is one of the ways we sanctify the moments and events of our lives. Whether there be a wedding, or a funeral, or a birthday party, music is a signal that what is taking place is special, set apart from everyday life. Music and song can also be a way to elevate the everyday—it can transform a mundane moment into a joyous occasion. Think of the excitement that comes over a group of people when a favorite song comes on and a spontaneous dance party suddenly takes place.

Often, when I am stuck in a dark mood, the only thing that will shift it for me is to put on some music. What works for me is usually some bourbon-soaked torch song by Frank Sinatra. I’m not trying to make my feeling go away, but to raise it to a different level, to give it meaning, to find the holiness in heartbreak, so to speak, and the sacred in the sad. I believe that we are each building a “temple of the Lord” and that temple is our lives. And the more we can let each moment “sing”—whether it is a song of pain or a chorus of joy—the more we invite the Divine into our lives.

To this end, the Sufi poet, Rumi, offers this advice:

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

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