Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Mystery of Music, Part III

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 26, 2014 | In Reviews

In the next world I shan’t be doing music, with all the striving and disappointments. I shall be being it. —Ralph Vaughan Williams

Our experience of beauty and mystery is often most intense when dissimilar things are united; the supreme example of this is the Incarnation, in which the supreme God becomes a tiny, helpless infant and then dies a humiliating death to make men gods. Attraction and repulsion, tension and resolution: these are secret laws of the universe which could almost be said to be the pure essence of music. With this consideration of contrast and unity I take up the final part of this essay on music, which has been based on a close reading of Sr. Élisabeth-Paule Labat’s book The Song that I Am. (See The Mystery of Music, Part I and Part II.)

Music and Relation

Proportion, harmony, hierarchy, and progression are all found in music and are intrinsic to the cosmos and to human life. The rhythms of the universe all emanate from and flow back to the Creator, whose essence is Trinitarian relation. For Labat, music’s whole essence can be found in relation: melody, harmony and rhythm are essentially the relation of vibrations occurring simultaneously and relating backwards and forwards through time.

It is in terms of relation that we gain some insight as to why beautiful music can move us to tears, a question to which Labat devotes a whole chapter. We live in relation to God, not just as the one who created us at a particular time in the past but as the constant source of our being, the meaning of our lives and our sole rest. It is understandable, then, that when the experience of beauty brings us into contact with God in the root of our soul, we shed tears of joy and relief.

But these tears are more complex because as fallen beings living in exile, we are always at least partially cut off from the source of our being. They do not arise solely from joy but also from a “piercing nostalgia,” a grief for a paradise lost. Thus, as noted before, the experience of beauty is all the more intense for evoking a deep contrast, a “perfect happiness linked with great sorrow.”

As Christians, however, we know that this nostalgia is not merely retrospective, for there is a greater paradise awaiting us, into which nonetheless we cannot yet enter. C.S. Lewis found his life marked at certain moments—often in connection with an experience of beauty—by what he called a sense of “joy,” which he distinguished from pleasure or happiness by its connection with a deep longing. Indeed, the greater our joy in the experience of beauty, the deeper our frustration at the transitory nature of such an experience. In Baudelaire’s words:

When an exquisite poem brings tears to the eyes, these tears are not the proof of an excessive joy, they are rather the testimony of an irritated melancholy, of an insistence of the nerves, of a nature exiled in imperfection that would like immediately to take possession, on this very earth, of a paradise revealed.

Music Transcendent

Relation is one of the transcendentals—one of the attributes of Being (i.e., of God). The word “attributes” should not be taken to mean that God has qualities apart from His essential Being. Rather, we can say that God is relation, that God is life, love, truth, unity, beauty, goodness, etc. Insofar as they participate in Being—insofar, that is, as they exist—all things also participate in all of the transcendentals. Having already looked at music and relation, we will see the special way in which music manifests life, love, truth and unity. That is, we will see how music connects us with what God Is.

Music is the art of movement and rest, and as Labat observes, “In God, life is at once, in the simultaneity of an eternal instant, movement and repose.” The rhythm of Being is the momentum from Unity to Trinity and the consummation of that movement in the mutual indwelling of the Trinity. The more we rest in God, the more energetic our own movement will be. Artistic inspiration itself has a Trinitarian movement, as the artist’s own life “buds forth in an interior word,” which reaches its final, external manifestation as a work of art. While the most “intense life” that a painting or statue possesses is still a frozen life, in music, life takes breath and overflows in movement.

The most perfect fullness of life is eternity, one all-encompassing present. However, man finds his way to eternity not by some “more or less illusory evasion” of time, but precisely through time. Playing or listening to music, we surrender to the present moment, forgetting time, while the whole of the work is united in memory.

To understand God’s life we must know that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Music is the language of love, which expresses itself boundlessly in beauty, delighting the soul and enchanting the senses. Indeed, we often speak of love in musical terms such as “concord” and “harmony,” and those things for which music is often used—celebration, praise, thanksgiving—are themselves the fruits of love. Love may take many different paths, in music as elsewhere, but its essence is always the same.

Love is truth, explaining “our origin, our destiny, and our final end.” Music is the voice of truth insofar as the artist is faithful to the inspiration arising from his inner depths rather than striving for effect or mere technical accomplishment. The kind of “knowledge” that music offers comes not through abstraction but through the senses, “the only kind of intuitive knowledge connatural to man.” The mind “recognizes itself” in the beauty it finds outside itself and in the unique stamp of human creativity. Music is therefore not merely an escape, a world of dreams. It is “the land of the real,” and no less so because its realities are too pure and high for conceptual expression.

Music and Unity

All of the aforementioned transcendentals are one, and unity reaches its mysterious perfection in the three-personed God. Because music puts us in solidarity with all things, Labat likens it to a “sacramental of unity.” When we truly listen to music we are drawn together, body, heart and intellect, and outward, so that all of our faculties are integrated in contemplation and in solidarity with the thing contemplated, all the more effectively as the music itself possesses integrity.

A drive toward unity may be found not just in the beauty and transcendent reality of music but in its elements and techniques. As we must possess unity in ourselves before we can be made one with others according to the prayer of Christ, so in great music, each individual part has its own unity which develops ever outward to achieve the ultimate unity of the whole. Rhythm is the governing element of music, serving the function of “simultaneous development and synthesis.” In this sense the nineteenth-century critic Eduard Hanslick wrote of form as “rhythm in the large.” On a technical level, unity may be expressed in the development of a whole piece from a melodic theme, in the stable ground provided by a harmonic progression or bass line, or in the appearance of a single motif that seems to draw the whole of a work together to a focal point.

Here I would add that as the body is kept unified by the soul, so music is unified by rhythm. Rhythm is not just the overall structural element of music in its composition but its animating principle and source of forward motion from moment to moment in performance. To the degree that music lacks rhythm, its constituent parts are as so many atoms that fall apart when the body dies. The most ingenious melody and harmony without a pulse is like, in the words of St. Paul, a Christian who has all gifts from the Holy Spirit yet lacks charity: “a noisy gong or a clashing cymbal” (Cor. 13:1).

Christ alone possesses the fullness of relation, life, love and truth, crowned with unity. He descends from the divine heights and “reconciles in himself the most violent contrasts,” seizing all creation and carrying it up into the unity of the Trinity. Mystics have seen music as a foretaste of the unity of the Beatific Vision, in which there is

One light (that of God and the Lamb), one life (flowing from the throne of Majesty), one love (of God loving himself in and through his elect, filling them with joy), and one relation (resting on the perfect consonance of God and those who are his, with angels and men forming a single society).

Music and Grace

As our examination of the nature of music and of Labat’s extraordinary book draws to a close, we would do well to recognize that as much as music is a spiritual sign and vehicle of transcendent Beauty, it is not itself that Beauty. The higher a good, the greater power it has to lead us to God, the more dangerous it is to set it up in place of God. The most divine music cannot make us more moral, and despite its ability to put us in touch with our Creator, it in no way reduces the distance between nature and grace. A great artist produces masterpieces that are separate from himself; a saint is himself a masterpiece shaped by God, not just as Creator but as Redeemer and Sanctifier.

The spiritual gifts given by God, improperly received, may actually hold us back from unity with the personal God himself “in the idea of perfection.” It is here that we can see one crucial difference between the operation of grace and the experience of aesthetic beauty:

This is so true that in order to touch God in the joy of contemplation we must first allow ourselves to be torn away from the divine. We must be stripped by grace in the midst of a purifying night that is the mystic’s profoundest pain. Aesthetic beauty, on the other hand, seizes us without any preliminaries of asceticism, as if we were not sinners at all, but already fit for its glorious happiness.

While this insight of Élisabeth-Paule Labat makes it clear that art cannot be a substitute religion, it also reveals all the more the true glory of art, above all the art of music, through which even the most wretched sinner is granted a foretaste of the Beatific Vision and disposed to receive that which transcends nature. For those who in St. Benedict’s words “incline the ear of the heart,” music is both school of contemplation and manna in the desert, opening us to the virtue of hope by giving evidence of and awakening desire for a land yet unseen, where the very core of our being will be transformed into a song of praise.

Previous in series: The Mystery of Music, Part II

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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