Movements of the heart through Music

It’s 1967. I’m in first year university and have attended my first live concert at Alumni Hall at the University of Western Ontario, to hear a solo musician, Gordon Lightfoot,just Gord and his guitar. In the months that follow, every evening after dinner, with my now life-long friends Johanne and Carol, I sit on my bed and listen to Lightfoot. These words penned by Ewan McCall and made famous by Gordie are still in me:

The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes

And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave

To the dark and the empty skies my love

To the dark and the empty skies

My friends and I felt the longing. It reinforced the notion that to feel complete, we just needed to find “Mr. Right.”  At age 19, this was absolute truth.

My understanding — and I hope this is true for you — of a primary love relationship, has changed through experience over the years. I now understand that feeling of ‘longing-to-be-completed-by-another’ in a very different way.  Victor Hugo wrote, “what love begins can only be finished by God.”  At its best a loving relationship teaches us that there is a part of us that no other person can satisfy – a part that can only be satisfied by what we contemplate as the Divine.  Divine love transcends human limitations and ultimately is the only love that satisfies our deepest longing.  Music, it seems, is able to get right to the heart of this.

Twenty years ago as my uncle was dying, his family stood around his bed singing hymns. They sang him to what they all believed was his heavenly home. That experience left my cousin realizing that there is a need for music in health-care, to help people through challenging times. It led her to form “Music Care”, an idea that has developed into an education and support programme for caregivers, on how to use music with dying patients, as well as those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Music can touch our deepest longing for both human and divine connection.

Is this why some of us sing hymns in church?  It is possible the apostle Paul knew this when he wrote to the Church at Ephesus urging one of the earliest communities specifically identified as a ‘church’, to “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.” I don’t know about you, but music has a direct link to my heart in both joy and sorrow.  In the protestant tradition, hymns articulate theology – what we understand about God (which remains Divine Mystery) and the Christian story. As a spiritual practice hymns encourage an experience of God, the Divine Mystery.  Music as prayer, helps us move from our head to our heart, closer to a place of inner stillness.

One of my personal spiritual practices includes, for lack of a better word, a personal prayer playlist.  The list includes hymns that soaked into me in my childhood, such as The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended, along with several bits from the Fauré requiem. Also on this list is I’ll Be There written by Norman Nurmi:

When you can’t find your circle of light
And there’s nothing but darkness beside you
Turn away from the night
And look to the sunrise
Think of me and I’ll be there.

For me, those words are prayer, and I hear these words as if from the Divine.

I had a retreat director say to me once, “Say the word ‘God and God is here!”  Carl Jung, the eminent psychologist took it further when he wrote: “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”

My father loved to sing hymns. He suffered from vascular dementia for the last eight years of his life. During that time, I discovered that a nursing home not far from his home had a Sunday afternoon worship service for the residents. I took him there often during his last years. Even when he could barely speak, didn’t know where he was, or remember anything, when the hymns were sung, he knew every word and would sing along. As he declined, sometimes he would sit through the entire service with his eyes closed and head back, as if he was asleep. One Sunday the minister referred to Fanny J. Crosby, an American hymn writer, who wrote the hymn All the Way my Saviour Leads Me, and many others. Even though my father showed no outward signs of awareness, I noticed a tear form in the corner of his eye and start to fall gently down his cheek. In his days as a lay-preacher, my father had often told the story of Crosby and her life of blindness.  Maybe it was her name or hearing again these words that touched a deep place in my father and brought tears to his eyes – I don’t know.  But seeing his tears definitely brought tears to mine.

Music can touch our deepest longing for both human and Divine connection.

According to John’s Gospel, near the end of his life Jesus prays for himself and for those he is leaving behind.  Will the prayers of music be on our lips or in our hearts as we each near our end?  How do you pray for others?  Perhaps in the music that remains with us when the singer is no more.

In Lightfoot’s own words from “Rich Man’s Spiritual”:

I’m gonna get me a smilin’ angel
Yes Lord to lead me home

And when he takes me by the hand

I know the Lord will understand

To paraphrase the famous words of Shakespeare:
“Good night sweet singer, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”

My prayer for each of us is that we will know deep in our being that we are loved by this Divine Love that will never let us go – and that individually, as did Gordon Lightfoot, and together, we will flourish offering our unique gifts to the world.

Prayer for Tree and Me

I’m having a bad day. While eating breakfast we hear voices coming from our back deck, which no-one can access except through the house. On investigating, we find a gentleman at the top of a ladder against our back wall. He is talking to someone about what large branches he is going to cut from a tree that gives us a generous amount of shade on our back patio.

“What! You can’t cut that tree. It’s a city tree.” My blood pressure has already gone up. I love trees; know we need more, not fewer, to help us save our planet. We definitely need them in the centre of a hot city, especially for shade on this deck.

The neighbour who lives behind is quickly on the spot. Because I’m already upset, my affect is confrontational. To his credit, (maybe), he tries to tone it down while telling us the city does not own the tree. He has permission to cut as much as he wants for more sunlight on his small back garden.

Not only did I loose the “fight,” but I add to the day’s upset by being upset at how quickly I got upset in the first place. Watching the first large branch come down doesn’t help.

When I finally get to my ‘prayer journal and meditation time’, there is much to record and reflect upon. Not the least of it is that I have lost valuable working time I had set aside to consider material for a conversation I will be having soon with someone making a podcast on the topic of prayer.

My journal gets my side of the story; what has and is still happening. I hear the saw as I write. I’m trying to calm down. I ask/pray for “help.” The situation “pushed my buttons” – those labelled “not being taken seriously” by some (self-appointed, male) authority; my concerns not being heard or considered — we need more trees, not less, especially in downtown Toronto; we need shade on our deck. I continue, “How am I an expert on prayer when I so easily fly off the handle. It just shows how much help I need to be my best self. Maybe a simple definition of prayer is a practice that helps me be my best self in the world.”

I recall the text: My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Does this mean that my “weaknesses” – over-reaction when my childhood wounds have been poked or someone challenges something I feel passionate about — is a way in which I am reminded that maybe I’m not in control, and when I turn for “help” to the one I sometimes call God; the Grace I receive is the gift. Almost 50 years ago I was involved with a charismatic Christian group who believed “speaking in tongues” was the ultimate God-given gift. Being “filled with the spirit”, I believed my life would finally be perfect, happy, whatever! The group prayed over me; nothing happened; At home, on my knees, I prayed for the “gift of tongues” through the night; nothing happened. I abandoned the group. I wanted a quick fix for the normal struggles of life.

Now I know there is no short-cut to a “spirit-filled” life – whatever that is! In our culture we seem to want easy answers. We want God, or someone, to fix what hurts or is broken. It didn’t happen for Jesus and it doesn’t happen for us. We have to descend into whatever is our personal hell (self-generated or otherwise) for re-birth or resurrection. Even this little tree incident which took me “down” had to be processed before I returned to an even keel. “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34). I guess this is why we need “daily” prayer practice – and it is just that, a practice. But that it worked for me today, has before, and will again — that is Grace.

Epiphany of Despair

In January 2011, I posted my first blog, which I titled “Epiphany of Despair”. Upon a re-reading, I realize it represented a significant shift at the time in both my thinking and my experience. I had (reluctantly) embraced technology in a new way. Now eleven year later, I am using the same title in the way writer Jan Hatanaka originally wrote about it – as an experience that results from moving faithfully through the process of grief.

When I was in my late 50’s, early 60’s, I thought one would get to an age and stage where life had mostly sorted itself out; the challenges would diminish and it might be smoother sailing. The last year and a half have shown me anything but. Between Covid and the sudden death of my 5-year-old granddaughter in June 2020 (which I wrote about last year), and the subsequent fallout in my family, I have been forced to embrace my grief, deep feelings of loss, sadness, and anger, yet again. The good news, if there can be any, is that ‘Grief Work’, an area in which I have taught for many years, when engaged in, does indeed work to help heal and move us to a different place. This begins to feel at times like having more energy, peace, even moments of joy. It’s not a fixed process and such moments can be quickly overshadowed by the heaviness of grief. Maybe short periods (hours even) of what I referred to as “smooth sailing” are not only the most we can hope for, but must be gratefully savoured when they occur.

When I wrote in that blog eleven years ago of my then epiphany of despair, I said “it was not my first; it is not my worst, and no doubt will not be my last.” How true. I do hope however, that the future does not hold such losses as have the last two years, yet I know life offers no guarantees. I wrote then and it holds true now: “It was a reminder for me, yet again, of what is at the heart of what I believe about life. The only way through the dark times is through them. There are no short-cuts to healing and transformation. We have to be willing to feel the full range of painful feelings in whatever situation we find ourselves in order to receive the learning and ultimate blessings that are there for us.” In the words of an art teacher who was talking about painting, but where I have discovered lurk many important lessons in life: “Don’t be afraid of the dark!” The art piece above was not finished until I went back and made the dark bits even darker. The teacher of grief has herself been re-taught.

Facilitator, Educator, Counsellor, Artist