Essay by Bruce Rameker
Don’t all of us have trouble praying sometimes? I often find myself distracted while trying to pray, repeating a phrase over and over again in my mind, trying to invest it with some immediate meaning. My mind easily wanders. Often I’m not even thinking of anything else…just dwelling on the frustration of not being able to concentrate and really communicate with God. I know this is a common challenge when practicing any kind of meditation.
Our parish has some wonderful resources—programs and techniques to help us pray more effectively. You may take part in one of the parish ministries devoted to prayer, or you may have studied the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. I’d like to suggest one more option that might help to breathe new life into our prayer: music.
Sung prayer isn’t new to us. Each time we come to church, we hear prayers combined with music in the hymns, the psalms and the sung Ordinary of the Mass. Whether we consider ourselves decent singers or not, most of us are comfortable participating in the familiar chant of the Lord’s Prayer. But why sing it? What is it that makes singing a prayer different than speaking it aloud, or silently in our heads?
When a composer sets a prayer to music, he or she adds color, atmosphere, emotion to the words, a personal impression of what the prayer means. When listening to songs from the past, we also find an imprint of the era that the composer likely had no idea was being added to the words. How wonderful that we might find new meaning and immediacy in familiar prayers, or find new context while imagining the words coming from a specific individual from another time and place.
Setting a prayer to music significantly slows down the pace of the words. The melodies highlight certain words. Sometimes words or phrases are repeated. And we have more time to savor the words, not only the meaning, but the sounds and the feel of them. All these factors can trigger new thoughts and new insights when considering the words of a prayer.
On February 17, pianist Michael Sheetz and I will present a benefit concert entitled My Prayer is a Song in the church to raise money and awareness for The Ali Forney Center, the largest agency dedicated to protecting LGBTQ youths from the harms of homelessness. Supporting and learning about the wonderful work being done there is reason enough to join us. But there will also be an opportunity to explore this combination of prayer and music.
The concert program is made up of prayers that are sung (or you could say songs that are prayers), and I hope that the listener will have a chance to experience prayer in new ways. There will be prayer-songs from many time periods—from as early as the twelfth century to a brand new piece that will be heard for the first time at this event. The musical styles will also span a wide range: classical music from the past five centuries, chant, folk, spirituals, jazz and gospel.
You will hear settings of traditional prayers used in the church for centuries, and of prayers written by people who may not have considered their words to be prayer at all. Two of the songs don’t even have words. But all of these songs contain a message of supplication or adoration or thanksgiving to God, or at least to what is recognized as some greater force or benevolence.
Maybe in considering the myriad ways people pray and the variety of interpretations expressed in the musical settings, we will find new inspiration in our own practice of praying. And who’s to say contemplating musical prayer can’t become one of the ways we choose to pray in the future? It’s a type of meditation in which we don’t have to feel guilty about letting our minds wander a little!