From: Music As Prayer
When I was a teenager, I studied the flute with one of the instrument’s great teachers, John Oberbrunner. I learned all the Handel sonatas and then all the Bach sonatas. I played most of them in church services, and later in recitals during my college years. But when I began to study theology, I put the instrument away for many years.
Now I am playing again, and I have been revisiting some of those sonatas. They are the same collections that I used forty years ago, but it seems the music has changed. I play and I find in the music things I never knew were there before. I begin to think Handel and Bach must have sneaked out of the cloud of witnesses and fiddled with their compositions in the intervening years. Handel seems to have put more lament in the A-minor Sonata with the great arching triplet lines in the largo, and Bach seems to have poured more sorrow into the opening motif of the B-minor Sonata’s first movement. It seems the faster movements, which I used to play at breakneck speed to show off my virtuosity, have slowed a little. It appears that the composers must have done something to the gigues and gavottes, because I do not recall that they ever before had such a sense of soulful joy that emanates from them now.
Has this ever happened to you? Have you returned to some beloved piece of music after a period of absence, only to hear things in it you never heard before, to see possibilities for registrations and tempi that make it seem as though the composer has been reworking the piece? Enough musicians have told me stories like this that I have concluded that to be a musician is to be continually on the way toward a fuller realization of the sonic richness suggested by those flagged notes and measures on a page. We are on the way; we have not arrived. There is always something more awaiting our discovery, something that is in the music yet beckons us onward. To play and sing music, particularly to play and sing in a church, is to feel, to experience, to intuit something of the very dynamic that is part of the journey of faith.
These reflections on music as process arise not only from revisiting the beloved sonatas of my youth but also from revisiting a favorite lyric poem by Alice Meynell (1847–1922). In her own day, Meynell was so respected that she was considered for the Poet Laureateship of England. Here is the poem. It is in the public domain and easily available online:
“I am the Way”
Thou art the Way.
Hadst Thou been nothing but the goal,
I cannot say
If Thou hadst ever met my soul.
I cannot see—
I, child of process—if there lies
An end for me,
Full of repose, full of replies.
I’ll not reproach
The road that winds, my feet that err.
Art Thou, Time, Way, and Wayfarer.
What a revelation there is in the distinction between “way” and “goal”! If Christ were “nothing but the goal,” then the poet might never have encountered Christ, because she is a “child of process.” We often use the phrase, child of, to account for someone’s talents or character. By identifying herself as a “child of process,” the poet explains why it is inadequate for Christ to be “nothing but the goal.” The phrase, child of process, suggests she is always in a state of becoming, always traveling, always moving on. The poet has named something that is true of all of us. We are all children of process, and perhaps that is one of the basic reasons why music matters so much to the church at prayer: as an art that moved through time, it helps us claim our identity as children of process who need not only Christ, the goal, but Christ, the way.