I moved to St. Andrew’s, Scotland in September of 2019 to pursue my master’s degree in “Theology and the Arts.” Almost immediately, I was given an organ scholarship at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, which featured a beautiful historic building and a loving community. Serving in music ministry and being a choir member has long been central to my life and it was by far my favourite part of living abroad because anytime we sang together, I felt perfectly at home. This is the power of singing together as saints; we forge community and find communion no matter our age, nationality, or vocation.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to abruptly leave St. Andrew’s in March. Although I love my hometown, it was heart-breaking to leave Scotland and the friends I’d made there. Still, I am able to worship with my Scottish church via virtual services. While it is certainly not the same from behind a screen and 5,000 miles away, singing together remains a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives as believers. As choral composer John Rutter notes, Christianity has always been a “singing faith,” and theologians explain that this is because Christianity has always been a Spiritual faith; the Holy Spirit as the life-giving breath of God is manifest in the breath of believers in singing.
One of the best books I discovered while in Scotland is Creator Spirit by Steven Guthrie. He explains that singing reveals and reinforces the unity of believers in the Holy Spirit, regardless of situation or separation. Indeed, in Ephesians, St. Paul encourages believers to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with [their hearts]” (Ephesians 5:18-19). In this, the unity of believers in the Spirit is manifest in the harmony of song; further, song serves to solidify the communion and fellowship of the saints as a vital form of proclamation and encouragement.
My favourite part of being an organist is facilitating the song of believers. It is my greatest joy to provide the harmonic foundation upon which singers rejoice in the diverse unity of multiple voices singing as one. Perhaps the reason that the organ is so effective for accompanying choirs and congregations is that, like the singers themselves, it has the capacity to breathe. The pipes of an organ are themselves similar to members of a choir, each singing with a unique voice and yet all attuned to the same song.Even the name “organ” indicates a sense of its being alive and active, potentially as vital to liturgical life as our own lungs are to vocalizing. The organ, which exhales its music in a mighty wind, is perhaps even analogous to the movement of the Holy Spirit!
The organ, however, is also otherly. There is an eerie quality to its timbre, which is at once like and unlike other instruments; for instance, the “viol” stop sounds vaguely like a string instrument yet maintains a unique character as part of a wind and keyboard instrument. This is perhaps reflective of the God we worship, for although He became like us in the person of Jesus Christ and breathes his Holy Spirit into us, He is also other—”immortal, invisible, God-only wise.” Although we speak of God anthropomorphically and even familiarly, we must also remember His omnipotent and provident otherness as we worship. The organ, as the immense and powerful “King of Instruments,” may aid us in such reverence.
In intimately supporting our breath with its own, the organ provides a foundation for our song as the church, which testifies to the living and active presence of the Spirit. This theme is particularly prominent in one of my favourite pieces to play on the organ: Bach’s Chorale Prelude, Fantasia on “Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott.”
This piece provides an extended introduction to a Lutheran hymn, the text of which can be translated:
Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God,
fill with the goodness of your grace
the heart, spirit and mind of your believers,
kindle in them your ardent love !
O Lord, through the splendour of your light
you have gathered in faith
people from all the tongues of the world;
so that in your praise Lord, may there be sung
You holy light, precious refuge,
let the word of life enlighten us
and teach us to know God truly,
to call him father from our heart!
O Lord, protect us from strange doctrines
so that we may never look for any teacher
except Jesus in true belief
and may trust him wholeheartedly!
You sacred warmth, sweet consolation,
now help us always to remain
joyful and comforted in your service,
do not let sorrow drive us away!
O Lord, through your power make us ready
and strengthen the feebleness of our flesh
so that we may bravely struggle
through life and death to reach you!
I believe that we can truly take heart in the text of this chorale, which speaks of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, guiding believers to live courageously as they move through time. Although the words of this chorale are encouraging, though, listening to the prelude on the organ can be a breathless experience. The music is in constant motion, sixteenth notes passing fluidly and quickly between hands and only ceasing after five minutes of constant sound. It can feel like movement through time: busy, overwhelming, and perhaps chaotic.
There is hope hidden in the bassline, however, for the actual hymn tune is located in the pedal line and remains a steady foundation for the upper voices. In using the melody as the cantus firmus (the musical layer upon which all else is built), Bach makes a deeply theological statement. Through music, he proclaims the same truth of the chorale’s text: that the Holy Spirit will strengthen and sustain our faith as a sure foundation through all else.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote something similar, using musical analogy to explain the focus of the Christian life:
“There is always the danger . . . that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love Him eternally with our whole hearts—not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer here speaks of our propensity to get caught up in earthly pursuits, just as we may be distracted by the intricate counterpoint of Bach’s music. However, by holding fast to the foundation of our faith, everything else—the “polyphony” of life— begins to make sense, just as listening to the cantus firmus of the pedals draws the rest of the fantasia into harmony and order.
Some churches are reopening but it is still difficult to celebrate musically. Although shared song is intrinsic to Christian life, it is dangerous in the midst of a global health crisis. At this time, it may serve our neighbours best to protect their health and lives through further separation. However, this does not mean that we must fall silent; just as believers still participate as the Church in times of trial, we can continue to worship, trusting that Spiritual communion endures even in times of isolation. We cannot sing in one space, but we can choose to rejoice in one Spirit. As we go about our lives in this “new normal,” may we remember the foundation of our faith and the Spirit which sustains us. May we listen attentively to Christ our cantus firmus and use this time not to fall silent but to truly “tune our hearts to sing His grace.”