God as silent music



I have always been amazed at how everyday things can lead us to faith. That is what music does for me and many other people. Years ago, I read a quote from St. John of the Cross referring to the beloved, to God, as “silent music.” I loved this metaphor. For many years I have played with this image and why it seemed to resonate so strongly. God, as silent music.

Music plays a huge role in our faith life. Think about the time taken to choose just the right music for a wedding; the importance of the music that reflects a person’s life at a funeral; the choice of music to be the soundtrack for the slideshow for graduation; the choice of music we add to our playlists on our phones. Music undergirds our memories, brings them to life and becomes part of our family and community memory.

Music stirs the soul. St. Augustine says, “To sing is to pray twice.” Music has a transformative element. A song, a hymn, a chant can take us to a deeper place and evoke memory. Just recently, I was on YouTube and stumbled upon one of those zoom renditions of “Be Not Afraid.” Now, “Be Not Afraid” is not a new song. It was written by the St. Louis Jesuits in the early 70s. Yet, when I experienced this surprisingly on YouTube at the very first part of the pandemic, I was moved to tears. The song still spoke to me in memory of singing it at Mass and my mother’s funeral but also the message it had for this time. I heard the words in a new way for a new time. Sister Helen Prejean, who is known for her work to end the death penalty, often sang “Be Not Afraid” to inmates on death row.

Music balances the tension between the past and the future. It moves one into mystery. Listening to music – whether it be instrumental or with words – requires attention. Active listening is a much-needed skill today. We live in a distracted world. We listen to a song, and the words touch us or the melody moves us, or both together inspire us. How often do we take the time to sit with a song or piece of music and let it flow through us?

Music is a universal language. St. John of the Cross calls God, silent music. He states that “silence is God’s language.” What does he mean by silent music? We know that silence is extremely important in all music. The notes of the score are interspersed with silence. It is the silence that accentuates the rhythm, the melody and the experience of music. Silent music speaks of God, who moves us in silence and is revealed in that silence, and celebrated in the melody.

Silent music is that gentle breeze that spoke to Elijah on the mountaintop. It is the deep stirring in our hearts when we experience a sunset, the beauty of the earth, the flowers we have planted, and children laughing. Silent music is the hope and inspiration that moves us during difficult times.

My beloved is the mountains

The solitary wooded valley,

The strange islands,

The roaring torrents,

The whisper of the amorous gales:

The tranquil night

At the approach of the dawn,

The silent music

The murmuring solitude,

The supper which revives and enkindles love.

                                                (John of the Cross)