I recently was a part of a team of people who were blessed to give a musicians retreat to a group of college "kids" from the University of Arizona Newman Center. They are an incredibly gifted group of young people — very talented and very intent on serving their community.
We started the retreat by telling them to "leave your instruments in the case." Kind of a weird way to begin a musicians retreat I suppose, but not really. We wanted to start off on the right foot, without an instrument "in hand," just them and God. No strumming, picking or vocalizing. No picking out songs, no capos, no key choices, no questions about how many verses, do we "sing the bridge or not." To quote the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, "Nothing, and upon the mountain of nothing, nothing."
We spent much of the retreat weekend in prayer and meditation, sitting in silence, breathing together in the presence of God. John Michael Talbot started a musicians conference for me in much the same way, years ago. He walked up front, plucked one string several times (with what seemed like minutes in between) and said, "If you can't pray with one note, you won't pray with several." He was, and is, dead-on right! We really can be such "busy bodies" with music ministry; this praise chorus, this acclamation, this canticle and then this song. And be sure to do it "this way" or it won't work!
My wife Tammy recently said to me (again), "Tom, musicians are up there to lead us in prayer. If it isn't prayer, or prayerful or leading us to God, they shouldn't be doing it." Now you all now what I am up against! I am guilty of what she is talking about. I have done it, and maybe at one time perfected it.
As the presidential prayer says at Mass, "Let us pray." Musicians: Let us pray! If we don't pray while we sing, we shouldn't sing at all. And if we don't have love, we are then, simply, a crashing cymbal (my apologies to all drummers and percussionists). Yes, there is a time for everything under the sun. A musician playing at a church carnival has a different role than the musician playing at the church liturgy or worship service. Let us do our best to know the difference.
During this time of Lent, let us go "the way within." Go deeper in our personal prayer so that our music ministry can take on more depth and intimacy with God and others. Listen to Jenny Pixler's pop song, The Way Within. It is indeed a "rockin' little tune" (perfect for a church carnival!), with a good challenge for us all: to go deeper, to sit, to breathe, to pray, to encounter the living God, poured into our hearts at Baptism, and to drink of the living waters deep flowing deep inside the heart of every believer. Then when we sing or play one, or two, or twenty notes, others will recognize a difference. The difference will be Christ and the fruit of the journey within.
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