In our last post, we discovered that music is far more than mere entertainment or recreation; in fact, music is a form of knowledge. It communicates answers to the deepest and most fundamental questions we are capable of asking: What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of existence in which all things participate? These are questions that cannot be answered by flow charts, lab reports, user’s manuals, or balance sheets; they can only be answered by listening.
Hence the church developed a rich sonic tradition known as ‘transformative listening,’ where sermon and song combined to awaken within the listener a moral map of the cosmos as it was reimagined in light of the redemptive life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The soundscape of the church transformed into a space wherein the hearer could once again be caught up in a world reoriented toward God.
Life is Beautiful
There is a particularly apropos scene that exemplifies this conception of sound and music in the 1997 Italian film, Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella). The story revolves around an enthusiastic and charismatic Jewish man named Guido Orefice living in Nazi occupied Europe. We meet Guido as he falls in love with a beautiful young woman named Dora. Guido pours all his humor and enthusiasm into courting her, greeting her every day in the market square with the words “Good day, princess!” They eventually marry and are soon gifted with a baby boy whom they name Joshua. Guido loves Joshua with all his heart and pours the same enthusiastic humor and joy into the life of his son.
However, on the day of Joshua’s fifth birthday, Guido’s family is forced into a concentration camp. Guido and Joshua are both separated from Dora, as she is sequestered along with all the other women at the female side of the camp.
At one point in the movie, when Guido is assigned the duty of serving SS officers supper in the large house that overlooks the concentration camp, he gets a moment to himself, and goes into a room that has a phonograph and records. He quickly sifts through the LPs, and finds the song that he sang to Dora when he was courting her. He places the record on the turntable, points the shell-shaped speaker outside the window, and the song proceeds to fill up the evening sky. Dora hears the song from the other side of the camp. She stands and looks up; she realizes that Guido is still alive. At that very moment, as Guido gazed out of the window and she from far away looked up into the night sky, the echoes of music became for both of them what Franz Liszt called an “aural sacrament,” a means of grace by which their hearts embraced each other in shared love and indescribable joy, as if they were both caught up on the wings of angels and lifted into paradise itself.
We, too, can still hear the echoes, gaze at the refracted beauty, smell the fragrance, and taste the food of paradise, for it is through Christ that the beauty of our heavenly paradise, our original and future home, has been awakened in this world. Sacred sound sanctifies our hearing to remind us that the darkness of this age is no match for the splendor of the world yet to come. The melodies of redemption thus bridge together two Advents, two heralding choirs of angels, preparing us and our world for their cosmic transfiguration.
My grandfather used to tell me that music was the only thing in this world that lasts forever. His elderly wisdom was anticipated centuries earlier by the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote: “He who carries God in his heart, bears heaven with him wherever he goes.” Through music, we embody the echoes of eternity. This was my grandfather’s lasting legacy for me, a legacy that has ever since oriented my life toward a very real Narnia-like paradise, one that even now is just a song away.
In our next posts, we will explore the profound relationship between music and creation.
Until then, here’s another example of music as revelation from the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Enjoy!
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