Exploring Faith Through Music - Bishop Michael Marshall

Exploring Faith Through Music - Bishop Michael Marshall
Tuesday, 18th October, 2016


I’m so glad to have been invited to give this particular talk this evening as part of your series, because what I am going to talk about with illustrations from both the piano and also from the musical contributions of Fr. Soon Han Choi is part of my own continuing journey of seeking to bring together in one whole experience two sides of myself, in what I believe to be the universal, human  quest for wholeness and holiness – though many would not use those words to express such a deep and inner yearning – a yearning for what some of us call God.

SOON TO PLAY as an invitation to an experience and not just a lecture!

 ‘Why was I created,’ asks the Scottish Catechism? I was created in order to worship God and to enjoy him for ever.’ Or, if you don’t like things branded Scottish, then in Peter Schaffer’s play, - EQUUS – the psychiatrist says to the deeply disturbed teenager,’’ ’If you don’t worship, you’ll shrink, it’s as brutal as that.’’

He might have said – ‘’If you don’t worship you’ll become less than human – less than you were created to be – locked into a culture of secular minimalism.

And, by worship I don’t mean simply worship as in Church (though I would include that).  No! – to use a more wide-ranging vocabulary, I mean – wonder,  self-transcendence – even that precarious experience of ecstasy -  springing the lock on the door of our imprisoned self-consciousness – a going out of oneself to others and supremely and ultimately to the one great Other whom we call God.

So transcendence, as the poet Addison puts it – ‘’And man the marvel seeing, forgets his selfish being, for the joy of a beauty not his own.’’
Schopenhauer – though himself not a Christian, - writes, of transcendence as ‘this aesthetic mode of knowing is a mental mindset in which personal desires and strivings are abolished because the subject has lost himself in the contemplation of beauty.’


Of that triad of the character of the one God – beauty, truth and goodness – at various stages in our history, various Christians have been suspicious of beauty, especially in the arts (unless it was particularly Christian art) and preferred to put all their eggs in the basket of truth, (as dogma) and  goodness (as morality and ethics).
Yet beauty, not least in music, has a transcendent, converting power, indeed a transforming power realized and experienced in transcendence, or in what Hans Kung, the theologian in his book on Mozart calls, ‘Traces of Transcendence.’

He says, ‘There is a wafer-thin boundary between music, which is the most abstract of all arts, and religion. For both, although very different, direct us to what is ultimately unspeakable, to mystery.’

Let me give you an example of what I mean by the transforming power of beauty, appropriated through the medium of music. In the movie ‘The Pianist’, when the Nazi Officer finds the escaping Jewish pianist playing the piano in a bombed out building in Warsaw, he tells the pianist to play. The German officer stands behind the pianist as he plays Chopin’s 1st Ballade with a pistol in his belt – with which, as you watch, you are certain the German will shoot and kill the pianist. Yet, miraculously, it’s precisely the beauty of that 1st Ballade of Chopin which transforms the German Officer, who subsequently gives his uniform to help the pianist to escape and subsequently his life for the Jewish pianist. The officer is transformed from the destructive ideology of Nazi prejudice by the experience of a transcendent beauty – Addison – ‘the joy of a beauty not his own.’


Michael Mayne puts it like this, ‘I am challenged by the transcendent mystery beyond me, and I can only make sense of what I feel about myself and how my outer and inner world relate if, for this mystery, I use the word, ‘God’, - God, as a kind of shorthand for that which is beyond, as well as within. And I believe that it’s precisely this intuitive sense of the transcendent, the muffled presence of the holy, that makes me human.’

So, Karen Armstrong in her remarkable book, ‘The Case for God: What Religion really means,’ writes: ‘the desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic.’ ‘Music,’ she writes, ‘has always been inseparable from religious expression, because, like religion, at its best, music marks the ‘’limit’’ of reason.’ Music goes beyond the reach of words: it is not about anything.’’ And that of course is ‘The Road Less travelled by contemplatives and the contemplative journey into God. (It’s not so easy to project on to music your own subjective impressions: it requires a ‘stretch beyond your reach,’ as Yeats says.

You see, I believe that everyone – whether they call themselves religious or not, (and generally speaking these days they don’t) – everyone is crying out for the release of self-transcendence and to experience the inscape of a larger landscape. Of course, many attempt various shortcuts: the drug culture with its false promise of ecstasy – the word literally meaning to stand outside of oneself; or alcohol, erotomania, or even, as we say, the mind-blowing experience of a football crowd – a dangerous cocktail of hysteria and transcendence, if ever there was one, for there is darkness as well as light in the beyond, as well as with that which is within.

So, I need that sixth sense of which D. H. Lawrence speaks when he says:  ‘The sense of wonder: that is the sixth sense. And it’s the natural religious sense.’
And this is where poets and musicians, the theatre, ballet, opera can be the keys to expand our limited human horizons, revealing the ‘inscape’, as Gerard Manley Hopkins calls it, within and beyond the landscape of post enlightenment reason, as the numinous beckons us, marking us for life, for the divine life which is both within us and beyond us.

The strap line of the Enlightenment is only a half truth, which is the most dangerous kind of lie! ‘’I think therefore I am.’ No! I worship; I adore, therefore I am’ Yes, - I find my true self, by losing myself in something or someone beyond myself.

‘’All true art,’ wrote Thomas More, ‘points beyond itself to the Creator of creators. For God is the supreme artist whose prolific works are all around us for those with eyes to see. The arts give the spiritual life imagination, softening its tendency towards rules and dogma and so deepening its intuitions.’
Dennis Healey in his autobiography says something similar: ‘Without the arts, politics would before long have encrusted me in a horny carapace (hard shell of a tortoise or crustacean) my persona would have taken over from my personality, and the mask would have become the man.’

BEAUTY & GOODNESS BELONG TOGETHER, as Von Balthazar is at pains to point out in his seven volumes of ‘A Theology of Aesthetics.’ For, in Greek, there are two different words for good: one is good, as morally good, and the other is good as aesthetically good, beautiful, attractive. When Jesus says, in the Fourth Gospel, ‘I am the good shepherd,’ the word he uses in Greek for ‘good’ is not morally god, but aesthetically good – ‘beautiful’, ‘attractive’ or ‘winsome’ as one biblical commentator puts it. So, also,  in the Septuagint translation in the Greek of the Old Testament, in creation when God, contemplates his completed creative work, it says,(AV) ‘And behold it was good,’ the word in the Greek is not good in the sense of morally, good and true, but rather beautiful.’ God looks at his creation – he looks at you and me and says – ‘you are beautiful.’ Go on hearing that long enough and you might become ‘beautiful’ with ‘the beauty of holiness,’ as the psalmist says.  

Now the Church has always been cautious on this front. Why? Because it sees the dangers of pantheism – limiting God to his creation, rather than seeing God in it, but also beyond it, - hence the correct word, panentheism, for as Augustine rightly insists: ‘God,’ he says, ‘whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’

As the prophet Isaiah discovered in his vision, much to his surprise when he heard the angel asserting in song: ‘Heaven and earth are full of his glory,’ or as Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts it more poetically: ‘Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush on fire with God.’

True, of course – the creation is ‘smudged’ – to use Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poetic image, by our misuse and our abuse of it – but for those who have found the God within, - the eyes of whose hearts have been opened, -  everything in creation reflects something of his glory and image – that same ‘beauty of holiness.’


It’s my claim tonight that, in all of this, music has a uniquely powerful part to play.
Back to Schopenhauer, in whose vision, all ultimate reality is a unity – all of a piece - in which everything ultimately belongs and is inter-related - the unus mundus of medieval philosophy, which is beyond our human categories of space, time and causality.

So, ‘to appreciate art,’ he says, ‘ the observer must adopt a special attitude of mind, the same attitude required by Plato, of detachment from personal concerns, so that the work of art can be appreciated in contemplative fashion uncontaminated by personal needs or preoccupations.’ Surely that is what we mean when we speak of the contemplative life or contemplative prayer – going beyond words and formula, dogma and doctrine – all these are only the launch pads for take off – the scaffolding of a building – a means to a greater end. And what is that end? It is self-transcendence and release from that culturally conditioned ego which has to die, in order that the true and unique self, recreated in the likeness and image of God can emerge like the butterfly from the chrysalis - – when, in the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn, we are ‘lost in wonder love and praise.’


And all this has a uniquely healing power. ‘Music is the medicine of the mind.’ Says John Logan, the eighteenth century writer. (1744-88).

King Saul, in the Old Testament, like so many, suffered from that Black Dog of depression and at such times he used to summon the young David to play his harp and to sing, during which times, Saul would experience release, and healing. Similarly today, both visual art as well as music, are used in our hospitals to release those imprisoned in the darkness of depression. (I wonder if that’s the reason why art museums in o8ur post Christian world, have become the quasi ‘cathedrals’, providing something of this transcendent experience which in the past would have been found in churches?)

Indeed Michael Tippett suggests that ‘listening to music makes us aware of important aspects of ourselves which we may not ordinarily perceive; and that by putting us in touch with these aspects, music makes us whole again.’

So, ‘To sing is to pray twice,’ said Augustine. Today, we might put it slightly differently – ‘to sing is to pray with both sides of the brain’ – the intuitive and the reflective, together with the analytical and discursive. It’s interesting that in the Eastern Orthodox Churches there is no such thing as a Low Mass or that early 8.00clcok said Eucharist: all liturgy from  start to finish is always sung – indeed you can’t be ordained if you can’t sing.

SOON HAN – to play

Speaking of linking the two differentiated hemispheres of the brain,  the late Oliver Sacks, possibly the world’s best known neurologist in his book Musicophilia, subtitled, ‘Music and the Brain’ speaks of another most intriguing neurological crossover in the brain, which happens to some people on hearing music. It’s called synesthesia. Some people, when hearing a piece of music in a particular key, literally see a particular colour. Stravinsky, as a musician, claimed to have this experience and it is well documented in our own day, when we know so much more about the neurological wiring of the brain.

Different keys have different colourings and this is all because sound doesn’t divide equally into eights or octaves. In fact sound stretches infinitely higher and lower than our capacity to hear it – unlike bats!-  (as indeed does light) But the only way we can handle sound, is to do what we do with all transcendent greater reality: we impose a restricted grid, in the name of reason as an overlay to reality. It is a compromise which is what western music is based on, - the octave of the keyboard.

And the result is reflected in a story about Dr. Arthur Peasgood, when he was lecturing in the Royal College of Music. Suddenly, he stopped his lecture as a taxi passed by, sounding its horn. ‘What note was that?’ he shouted. ‘G sharp’ replied one student. ‘No’, replied another, ‘A flat’. You see, although they are the same note on the piano, in reality they are very slightly different, which is why stringed instruments retune as an orchestra, with the piano’s compromised A note before performing, because all other instruments not tied to the keyboard’s octaves, can play and perform that subtle difference between G sharp and A flat.

And then, when fifths and thirds or major and minor keys are played, it gives a different colouring to the sound which some people can actually name.
Just listen. (Illustrate this with Chopin’s ‘Raindrop Prelude’ with the repeated A flat/G sharp).



‘Music, in its many expressions, is powerful for pointing us to that self-transcendence of which I am speaking. It opens us to worship and adoration, as well as being, in Shakespeare’s words, - ‘the food of love.’ For to fall in love is the necessary result of this going out of oneself – it makes a fool of us in the sense that it defies all analysis and understanding. I am no longer in the driving seat, no longer in control, which for some of us ‘control freaks’ is indeed both fearful and yet wonderfully liberating.

But what we have failed to understand is that all love is of a piece. So called Platonic love is a contradiction in terms. And here again linguistics help. While in Greek there are three or four different words for different kinds of love, with so-called spiritual love sharply differentiated from erotic love, in the Hebrew tongue and indeed in Jewish spirituality there is only one word for love – ‘ahabh - for all kinds of love – I love food, I love my cat, I love music, I love my wife, I love God, and I love making love – and in Hebrew there is only one word for all of that, as love is perceived and indeed experienced as all of a piece.

Both Christianity and much of our western culture have fallen into the trap of  dualism of which I first spoke –dividing human love and sexual love from spiritual love and the love of God. (Sensual versus spiritual – but we are not angels!)This is best exemplified by people’s reaction, to that book in the Old Testament Scriptures – ‘The Song of Songs.’ To many it is just an erotic love poem and they are puzzled by its place in the holy Scriptures. But, it is so important that it is there. Read St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who preached eighty six sermons on the Song of Songs; C. H. Spurgeon 52 sermons; Aelred of Rievaux or Richard Rolle in his book The Fire of Love: all alike point us to that way of transcendence in which the analytical and the aesthetic converge at a point beyond them both; the human and the divine; the sacred and the secular finally converge and are subsumed into a unity and greater reality beyond them both. It is at that point of convergence, that by losing ourselves we are found; where in not knowing in the sense of analytical understanding, we finally ‘know as we are known,’ (to quote St. Paul from his ode to love Chapter 13), and where faith and hope are raised into that love by which and for which we were created.    



So music can draw us beyond ourselves into worship and adoration, not only in Church, but also in the beauty of the natural world around us, it can also be the handmaid of faith as well as the key which unlocks the prison of our self-consciousness, that false ego of self-made men and women, opening us up to the transforming power of God to recreate us in is image and likeness.

And that’s the mission of the Church in every generation: to make the connection between the God within all of us and the God everywhere beyond us; helping people to recognise and indeed to name the God within them somewhere, so that they may as ‘’God’s spies’’ (to use Shakespeare’s phrase) go out and uncover and rediscover him everywhere.

I’ve found that, it’s as I come to know the great mystery of God somewhere within me  - the Jesus of faith, that I’m increasingly aware of his presence everywhere as the Cosmic Christ, risen, ascended and glorified, calling me into the divine embrace of the Trinity - increasingly aware of colour and sound, as I’m opened up by grace, to wonder and worship at the glory of God in the face of Jesus and in his profile reflected in the natural world and indeed in his whole creation.

And yet, there’s also a kind of divine discontent, (a kind of nostalgia) – even a frustration - in the knowledge that the arts, and especially music for me, keep nagging at me that there is still infinitely more and more and more beyond,‘beckoning’ me – that word numinous in its literal meaning - yes, teasing me and beckoning me to go further and to let go of, rather than endlessly trying to replicate, all previous and even great experiences of this reality and presence hovering and resonating around works of beauty, whether in art or especially in music – the Holy Spirit of creativity and love.

You see, the creation at its best is only a sign post, pointing us forward and onward to our true resting place, (homesick for heaven like homing pigeons) lest we make what are only icons into idols and means into ends. At their very best, the arts are only signposts and must not be mistaken for finishing posts – there’s always more. C. S. Lewis maintains that beauty – in the arts or whatever - in this world, is but the ‘’echo of a tune we’ve not yet heard, the scent of a flower we’ve not yet picked and news from a county we’ve not yet visited.’’

PLAY THE E MINOR PRELUDE  OF CHOPIN, PLAYED AT HIS FUNERAL with its sense of yearning and longing.

So I press on to make all this my own, in journey of faith, singing of course as I travel, as all pilgrims always have, pressing on to make all this my own, because Christ Jesus has first made me his own: not because I’ve understood or comprehended it all, here and now– no, far from it! But, rather because I’ve first been apprehended by the shere beauty, truth and goodness of God, - traces of transcendence -  supremely revealed in the person of Jesus and who with the help of those sign posts God has littered around his creation, including the arts,  and by his amazing grace, so that, I will finally be delivered from the shadowlands of this world to that finishing post - my true home in heaven – the City of God, where, then, as St. Augustine says, ‘we shall be still and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love, we shall love and we shall worship. Behold what will be in the end, without end! For what is our end, but to reach that kingdom which has no end.’

Holland Park Benefice