Sunday, June 30, 2013

Lessons from the World of Music

For as long as I can remember I've had unusual tastes in music. I've always tended to prefer the traditional folk musics from all over the world. This fascination has led me to explore the worlds of traditional Irish, Scottish, Chinese, Japanese, and American musics more-or-less in-depth. Growing up, as I did, in the Greater Cincinnati area near the Ohio River in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains I've never wonted for exposure to folk music. Bluegrass and Appalachian music abounds, as does a thriving Irish and Scottish music community, and, I've come to find out, a Chinese music community as well. My family used to make fairly regular trips to Music Hall to listen to some of the great Classical composers, and every year we would sell our wares at the Appalachian Festival in Kentucky, where I'd walk around listening to some great Bluegrass bands and eavesdropping on Bluegrass sessions.

Most recently I've been exploring the world of Tuvan and Mongolian throat singing. This exploration has led me to rediscover a band that I'd actually heard at an Irish music concert years and years ago. The band is called "Huun Huur Tu." At one point in time they did a concert tour with "The Chieftans," one of the classic Irish music groups of the past couple of generations. Why a group of Tuvan throat singers was touring with a group of Irish musicians is beyond me, but I'm sure glad they did.

Why am I bringing up my odd musical tastes? It's not just for curiosity's sake, and it's not to make a big deal over the fact that I have such unusual tastes in music. This morning I was re-watching a concert performed by Huun Huur Tu that has been posted on YouTube. While watching the musicians perform I realized something. Here they are, a group of men that have been performing these songs for years and years, they've performed them so many times that they could perform them in their sleep. And yet there is still a great deal of heart and soul in their music.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that this is true of musicians across the board. The longer you play music, the easier it becomes, but also the more the music transforms you and you transform it. It becomes a part of you. It enters your soul and transforms you. But at the same time it becomes your own and you have a certain impact on it. I've been playing Irish music since I was eleven. Most tunes that I play I could play in my sleep, or hold entire conversations while I'm playing, if I didn't have to blow into my flute. I can play without thinking about it. It's more like I'm listening to someone else play than actually playing the music myself.

I realized here that there is a great parallel between music and the Jesus Prayer. In The Way of a Pilgrim  the anonymous author mentions the difficulty in beginning the Jesus Prayer. His spiritual father recommended he pray the prayer first 1000 times a day, then 2000, then 3000, then to just keep praying it all day long. After some time and great effort the pilgrim found that the Jesus Prayer became automatic, self-actualized, constant within him. He was always praying it even when he wasn't fully aware. He could be having conversations with others and still be praying the Prayer. It was almost as if he wasn't praying the prayer, but Someone was praying within him. Obviously the implication is that the Holy Spirit was praying within him. Isn't this the ultimate goal of prayer; that we cease to be the ones praying and that the Spirit is constantly praying within us?

I find the similarities to learning and playing music striking. The musician dedicates hours and hours to learning the fundamentals of their instrument and some basic simple melodies. Over time more complicated melodies are introduced. Techniques become easier and easier. With a little more time and practice it isn't long before the musician can learn a new melody with little effort. Eventually, after years of practice, playing, and performing the music has become so much a part of him or her that they barely have to think about it when they are playing. This doesn't mean that their heart is not present in the music, but that the music itself has simply become an extension of themselves. Every note they play flows from the heart.

How true this is in our pursuit of prayer as well. At first it is difficult. We have a hard time focusing. We don't have the attention span to be able to concentrate on long prayers, so we must be content with the "short and sweet," those little arrows that are simple to learn, but packed with meaning. We must be content with constant repetition. In our daily prayer we practice the Jesus Prayer or the Rosary over and over again. We delve into the repetitious liturgical cycle, whether that means we follow the cycles of the Liturgy of the Hours along with Sunday Liturgy, or we simply participate in Sunday Liturgy on a weekly basis. After years and years of this sort of practice and repetition prayer becomes a part of us, an extension of ourselves. We are constantly praying. We are constantly with God, aware of His presence. The Spirit moves within us enabling us to engage our relationship with God all the more, while at the same time reaching out to our neighbors. At this point it doesn't take much effort for us to learn a new prayer and for that prayer to simply flow from our hearts. The prayer is already there in our hearts, it has now just been put to words.

Time, practice, patience, perseverance, focus. This is all it takes to learn to pray. I don't mean to imply that the effort is solely on our part. Of course, we must await for our Lord to grant us the gift of prayer. But if we put in that effort, the gift will be given. Whether it is in a day, a year, or sixty years doesn't really matter. I've seen musicians who just seem to pick up an instrument and be brilliant at it within a matter of days. For others I've seen it take them just a little longer. And then I've known others who have put in years and years of practice and yet never seem to improve. But those who persist, whether it take more or less time, the rewards have always been great. The music they've produced has been brilliant. The same is true of our prayer life. We can't worry about how quickly some people seem to "get it," or how long it's taking us. We must simply persist. The fact that it may take us longer doesn't necessarily mean that we are less holy than others. It simply means that the Lord has a plan for our lives and is perhaps working out something deeper within us. May heaven consume us.

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