The following was a college essay written by Cecilia Garvey. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.
By Cecilia Garvey, Christendom College
The call of God can only be heard in the silent soul attuned to God’s voice. Yet, the clamor of the world, the flesh, and the devil clash like gongs in ceaseless efforts to steal the soul from the presence of God. Only the song of a contrite heart can quiet the din of the world and the cacophony of pandemonium through humbly responding to God’s call. Music elevates man to devotion and contemplation of the divine through its mystical power to move both the body and soul. Whether secular or liturgical, this art of movement retains a mysterious element which transcends the visible. Just as we can never know the origin of the wind nor where it is going, we can never fully understand the nature of music unless placed in the celebration of the Catholic Church and the interior life of grace. Music retains a preeminent place in both the sacred liturgy and sacred scripture, and its ultimate end lies in the glorification of God and the sanctification of souls. It illuminates the inner life of prayer, unifies and transfigures our natural cognition of sound, and perfects our nature as relational and spiritual creatures. Sacred music, expressed through the liturgy of the Mystical Body and the activity of the physical bodies of men, transfigures our minds and hearts to contemplation of the Divine when animated by the inner life of charity in the soul.
Music holds a preeminent place in sacred liturgy as solemnly proclaimed by His Holiness Pope Paul VI. In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, he testifies that “Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven.” We participate in the intimate song of the bride to her Bridegroom in union with the participation of the Divine Office and in the celebration of Holy Mass. Hymns of praise, sung in the Divine Office, are a mystical participation in Christ’s own unity with the Father through “this canticle of divine praise.” Pope Paul VI exhorts the faithful to pray the Divine Office as perfectly as possible. This perfection consists both in the internal devotion of their minds, but also to the external manner of celebration. He states, “It is, moreover, fitting that the office, both in choir and in common, be sung when possible.” Singing is both the culmination of internal devotion and the perfection of external celebration. Sacred music is an integral part of the solemn liturgy, and accordingly, “the musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.” While retaining this primacy in the liturgy, in line with the orthodox teachings of the Church, music serves a fundamentally ministerial role. Pope Pius X emphasizes this particularly “ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.” The external and ministerial character of sacred music subordinates its role to the salvation and sanctification of souls. In the words of St. Thomas, “The use of music in the divine praises is a salutary institution, that the souls of the faint-hearted may be the more incited to devotion.” Guided by Holy Mother Church and her extraordinary magisterial decrees, sacred music moves the hearts and minds of men to increasing devotion and facilitates the contemplation of the Almighty.
Through sacred music, we join our voices to the angelic hosts in Heaven, and yet, man is of the flesh. Our human nature introduces a particularly physical element of song. Since grace never destroys nature, but rather transcends and elevates the natural, we can further understand the mystical role of music by first understanding its physical foundation. Our whole personality, body and soul, is engaged in musical expression, which begins with listening and ends in vocalization. According to Roger Scruton’s account of The Aesthetics of Music, he states that “listening is a relation, between a sensitive organism and a sound.” This sentient understanding of music scratches the surface of our apprehension, for we ultimately engage in music, on the natural level, for its own sake. Thus our perception of music, like all other knowledge, begins in the experience of the senses, and the apprehension of physical movement, and ends in our active participation. Our particularly human appreciation of music undoubtedly relies upon this sentient apprehension, yet ultimately ends in a mystical movement of the soul. Musical apprehension and composition resembles the understanding and constructing of language. From the earliest stages of human development, a child picks out the voice of his mother amidst the tumultuous din and responds to her voice alone. According to the mysterious guidance of nature, he internalizes the sounds of his mother’s voice with an inner light of understanding and eventually responds with his own words. The reality of man’s participation in music reverberates and magnifies the mystery of the Incarnation. By means of our senses, we receive something that transcends the merely sentient, and through a mysterious and internal process, we reproduce sounds and construct a melody through the vibrations of our vocal chords or manmade instruments.
There remains a hidden mystical power in music that surpasses natural apprehension and external expression. Music, in its most perfect sense, is an expression of love. St. Paul warns, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). The interior song of a pure soul is like the theme introduced at the beginning of a symphony. It introduces the melody in its simplest form. Through her immaculate heart’s fiat, the Virgin Mary introduces the first sweet notes of this salvific symphony. With her unique and pure melody, received by the Spirit and addressed to the Father, she shatters the sinful cacophony of fallen men and angels. Thus, intoning the melody of the queen of heaven and earth, saints and mystics harmonized with Our Lady’s melody in their interior dispositions which overflowed into countless acts of love. Saints and mystics describe this interior song of the soul born up by an overflowing of God’s love in their hearts. St. Therese of Lisieux exhorts St. Cecilia as the queen of harmony “because of the song she sang in her virginal heart to her Divine Spouse.” Yet this inner song, which shatters all discord and surpasses secular understanding, may be incomprehensible to those of us living in the modern world amidst constant noise and distraction. We bear the weight of existential anxiety and isolation as the world knits its way into our souls, fragmenting our sense of self, and sowing its discordant theme.
Music can only be born in silence, the silence of prayer. Before we can sing with the psalmist, we must “be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him.” (Ps. 37:7) Before we can respond with the song of the soul, we must first hear the call which summons it forth. When we hear God’s call, it must resonate within us before we can outwardly express our love. We cultivate this stillness of soul by practicing the presence of God, defined by the New Catholic Encyclopedia as “a spiritual exercise in which a person cultivates a habit of recalling the presence of God, with silent acts of love, without interrupting one’s other occupations.” Practicing the presence of God begins in an intellectual recollection of God, and culminates in our affective response. Rather than merely thinking about God, we are loving God through His creation, through His divine indwelling in our souls, and through the Eucharistic presence. St. Francis de Sales exhorts us in his Introduction to the Devout Life, to begin all our prayer, “whether mental or vocal, in the presence of God.” This meditative foundation, when consistent and sincere, quiets our minds and opens us up to more intimate encounters with the Lord in mental prayer. When we are still, we hear the well-spring of faith, the call of God.
In his papal encyclical Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis links the light of faith to the hearing of God’s call. The man called by faith is roused out of the stupor of concupiscence through an initial unsettling. “God speaks to him; he reveals himself as a God who speaks and calls his name.” Faith is thus linked to hearing. Yet, hearing presupposes a kind of understanding. We must internalize what we hear in order to understand. Much like a child recognizing the voice of his mother, “Faith’s hearing emerges as a form of knowing proper to love: it is a personal hearing, one which recognizes the voice of the Good Shepherd (cf. Jn 10:3-5)” The man with the inner ear of faith hears the call of Christ through the divine initiative of grace, and subsequently “the whole of creation begins to sing for him the glory of the Creator. Then he hears the harmony of the universe, like the summons to the new world into which the Savior wills that all flesh should enter.” In an earthly symphony, we fix our eyes on the conductor, breathing in unison, before we begin to play. So too in the Divine symphony, we fix our eyes on our Beloved Conductor, breathe in the inspiration of the Paraclete, and begin to play in communion with the angel choirs and saints of Heaven.
This interior disposition, formed in silence and rooted in faith, culminates in the outward expression of pure love, song. Although we are merely flesh, we are sanctified in the Spirit who lives in us “in order that our singing may not be wasted breath or hollow word.” The act of singing, like the interior life of prayer, is fundamentally a mystery, that is, “a sacred sign, perceptible by the senses, which reveals and communicates an invisible reality of the order of grace.” Thus, whenever we sing, we are participating in the operative perfection of the inner life of grace. Fr. Gelineau spiritualizes the natural understanding of song, stating, “In the history of salvation, song takes on a significance deeper than the merely natural; in the voice of Israel, and especially in the psalms, the cry from the human heart is spiritualized, and within it there sounds forth an echo as from the surface of a new world that draws near.” Music transforms and transcends the physical world, operating as a sign of the reality of things unseen, echoing through song the glory of the Incarnate Word. Christ deifies our human expression and sanctifies our songs. Tertullian states, in his exhortation of the psalmist, King David, “He sings to us of Christ, and through his voice Christ indeed also sings concerning himself.” These songs, initially sung by David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and literally sung by Christ himself, lay the groundwork for our participation in the sacramental element of music.
The beauty of true musical expression, most properly seen in the context of liturgical music, lies in the symbiotic relationship between its outer expression and the mystical, inner dimension. We reflect this mysterious union of the human and the divine. Because of its naturally external expression, true musical expression is contradictory to the solipsistic tendencies of false mystics and gnostics. Salvation, in truth, “was sent by God, not to each man in isolation, but to a people.” Therefore, the perfection of the song of the soul lies in its communion with and participation in the liturgy. Sacred music can accordingly be viewed as the culmination of our affective response to God’s call, assisting our own sanctification and enabling the salvation of others. The beauty of communal participation in music is echoed in every ensemble, whether secular or religious, because it participates in the truth that union of voices expresses union of hearts. Yet, the transcendent element of song is deeper than communal participation. Rev. Gelineau reveals the mysterious response of man as an inspiration of the Holy Spirit responding to the Word of God. He states, “And when at last, surrounded by the hymns of the Church, the neophyte goes forward to his meeting with the living God, the voice which comes to his ears is that of the Word of God; the prayers which rise to his lips are the inexpressible groanings of the Spirit which says ‘Abba, Father.’” In one sense, musical expression is fulfilled through the communion of souls, but ultimately its purpose lies in the movement of the soul toward God.
Drawing upon our natural understanding of music and our communal participation in it, the act of singing takes a relational and purposeful character. Would music exist if there was no one to hear it? A song without a listener, much like a conversation without an interlocutor, conveys a certain absurdity in its isolated, hapless expression. Thus, sacred music finds its inspiration and ultimate purpose in Him to whom we address all songs. The hymns of praise or thanksgiving, in contrast to the cries of misery originating from man, come from above and are inspired by the divine. This gift from God is brought forth in earthen vessels in order to “show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Furthermore, through our earthly engagement with divinity, we join the angel choirs in heaven singing “Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:14). Ultimately, music is for the glory of God. Father Gelineau confirms these scriptural exhortations by articulating that “the world of music is used by the Church to surround her worship for the greater glory of the true God.”
Music, in our immediate experience, moves our souls to increase devotion and facilitate contemplation of the Divine, and yet, this movement is almost always accompanied by some longing or absence. Music in a metaphysical sense is a kind of moved mover which serves to lead us to the Unmoved Mover. We feel this movement in our sensory, emotive, and even our strictly intellectual encounter with music. Music moves the musician and it contains an intrinsic movement through its form, a kind of tension and resolve, which indicates its imperfect nature. Music is instrumental, a means to an End. Thus, in properly understanding sacred music, we must conjoin these accidental qualities of music with its animating source. The fullness of musical expression is realized in a believer engaging in the sacred liturgy. The unity of a soul enkindled by the Holy Spirit outwardly expressing his praise in the liturgy is the closest analogy we get to the mystical union of the Beatific Vision while in this vale of tears. Thus, “the richness of liturgical art is not that of the senses, nor of the intelligence, but that of charity.” To extend Pope Francis’s analogy of faith linked to hearing, we recall from St. Paul’s letter that faith and hope give way to love of vision in Heaven, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor 13:12). Our earthly exile qualifies our experience and participation of music, “for through music he is searching for that which no ear has ever heard.” In the words of Fr. Gelineau, “Music can never reveal to us the whole of its mystery until it has become silent and no more sounds reach our ears. For the praise of heaven, pure love, will have no further need for the art of sound.” This silence is not the deafening silence of desolation or loneliness. In Him, we will sing with the eternal choirs of angels, in a song unknown to man. Even hymns of praise, divinely inspired, are reflections of the brightness of Easter, shining forth from the Cross. The Eternal Word resolves every human song ever composed. He breathes His last, sending forth His Spirit. All is consummated in the resounding silence.
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The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. Edited by Mother Agnes of Jesus. Translated by Michael Day. North Carolina: Saint Benedict Press, 2010.
Edited By: Ariel Hobbs
Pope Paul VI, Sacrosanctum Concilium (December 4, 1963), Vatican Translation: Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, “IV: The Divine Office,” The Holy See Online (accessed April 13, 2021), 83.
Sacrosanctum Concilium, “The Divine Office,” 83.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 2nd rev. ed., Secunda Secundae, Question 91, article 2, corpus. New Advent (accessed April 13, 2021).
 Joseph Gelineau, Voices and Instruments in Christian Worship: Principles, Laws, Applications. (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1964) 21.
Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997)218.
Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, (Canada: Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd., 1995), p. 24.
The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, ed. Mother Agnes of Jesus, trans. Michael Day, (North Carolina: Saint Benedict Press, 2010)
K.J. Healy, “Presence of God, Practice of,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., 681-682 Vol. 11. (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2003) Gale eBooks (accessed April 15, 2021) 681.
Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout life, 82.
Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, (June 29, 2013), Vatican Translation: Light of Faith, The Holy See Online (accessed April 13, 2021), 8.
Introduction to the Devout Life, 81.
Lumen Fidei, 30.
Gelineau, p. 21.
Gelineau, p. 13.
Gelineau, p. 13.
Robert A. Skeris, Musicae Sacrae Melethmata, vol 1, p. 42
Robert A. Skeris, Musicae Sacrae Melethmata, vol 1, p. 42. “The pneumatic psalmist “sang” his prophecies of Christ, and in this respect differed from the Platonist heretic and the apostate Valentinus.
Gelineau, p. 14.
Gelineau, p. 18.
Gelineau, p. 13