I am the only person I know who schleps a guitar to her book club.
Several years ago, when our Oakland, Calif., group dove into Sacred Heart Missionary Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu’s 2002 book Evolutionary Faith: Rediscovering God in Our Great Story, we interspersed music and chanting with our conversing. The tunes came from Neil Douglas-Klotz’s "Prayers of the Cosmos" CD. These beautiful chants are renderings of the Lord’s Prayer and the Eight Beatitudes from the Aramaic -- Jesus’ native language.
I introduced them to our group because I figured they would move O’Murchu’s thoughts to another layer, embodying them at the level of heart and soul. At least, that’s what they did for me. Our group, skeptical at first, ended up loving the music and verbal juxtaposition.
Douglas-Klotz, an American Sufi and scholar of Middle Eastern languages, is a gifted composer and guitarist who uses "midrash" as part of his creative process. He explains in one of his books, The Hidden Gospel, that "midrash is a type of spiritual translation-interpretation that uses the possible meanings of Aramaic, Hebrew or Arabic words as a basis for contemplation, devotion and spiritual practice, in order to make a scriptural passage or a saying of a holy person into a living experience that can meet the challenges of the present."
Douglas-Klotz’s renderings of the beatitudes have continued to be my go-to musical spiritual nourishment for the past 20 years. Pete McClernon, choir director from St. Brendan the Navigator Parish, in Hilliard, Ohio, was spot-on in targeting the prayerful power of music in a recent Columbus Dispatch article. "There are some pieces that just make you ache when you sing them because they’re so beautiful," he told a reporter.
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Yes, yes there is.
Just what is it about music that brings about this ache? Or joy? A couple of articles by Frank Fitzpatrick, multi-platinum record producer and Grammy-nominated songwriter, offer further insights. In a 2013 Huffington Post essay, he refers to the somatic (body) effects of melody: "Music and sound vibration affect our brains, emotional states, senses of identity, nervous systems and the health and development of the very cells in our bodies."
In another Huffington column that year, also part of his "Why Music" series, Fitzpatrick wrote: "People often ask me what kind of music is more spiritual: Is it Vedic mantras, Gregorian chant, devotional Bhajans, the great symphonies of Beethoven, traditional Gospel hymns, indigenous drums or even rock and roll? I usually respond by saying any music that helps reconnect us to our essence -- to our inner and divine nature -- is spiritual."
Fitzpatrick sees music as a means to "bring the world into greater balance … as an essential component for the conscious awakening of the human race and the well-being of our planet."
He quotes Plato, who regarded music as "a moral law," which "gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything."
When our Simply Catholic house church group here in Columbus, Ohio, met this past weekend to begin discussing Pope Francis’ encyclical "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," we had music -- mostly from CDs as a recent rotator cuff malady has squelched all guitar playing from this guitarist for the time being.
Our bi-weekly get-togethers will include two selections -- a recurring theme song, one with aching beauty and depth, and a closing one that fulfills Plato’s definition of charm and gaiety.
The theme song will be Douglas-Klotz’s rendition of the third beatitude. In the King James Bible, it is translated "Blessed [are] the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." The Aramaic is more expansive: "Healthy are those who have softened what is rigid within; they shall receive physical vigor and strength from the universe." This is such an appropriate and timely chant to pair with Francis’ letter!
Laudato Si' points to the rigidities, the stubbornness in ourselves, the widespread diseases of greedy consumerism and corporatocracy that keep us entrenched in sucking the life from the planet, our only home, for the sake of profit. By staying stuck, we risk destroying everything. By softening into mercy, recognizing that we are all related, and acting with compassion, the earth our mother can give all of us what we need to live in fullness and harmony.
Joyce Rouse, a recording artist who uses the stage name Earth Mama, is an apt companion for accompanying Francis and the Aramaic Jesus during our Lenten discussions. Rouse is a 2002 graduate of the Earth Literacy program at St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana. With 10 albums to her credit, she performs at churches, schools and other venues. A couple of Rouse’s songs were used by a group of Irish nuns, at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris in December.
More: “Earth Mama sings in the key of 'green'” (July 22, 2014)
We plan to use an energetic, bouncy track from her album "Around the World With Earth Mama" to send our group home on an optimistic, happy note, with the reminder that taking care of the planet is a very good idea.
"Who does the moon go dancing with? Earth Mama!" she sings. "Who makes all the rivers flow? Who made all the redwoods grow? Who puts on a springtime show? Earth Mama!"
Douglas-Klotz and Rouse are among the countless musical prophets on our planet who are changing hearts and minds one song, one chant at a time. Who are your musical prophets?