I admit it. I am not a good pray-er. There I said it! It’s not that I don’t want to pray well, or that I am seeking some kind of perfection that is unattainable, but when I hear people talk about their prayers, and how moved and inspired they can be, I am well aware of how I fall short. There are times when I totally will forget to pray at all, or realize most of the day is spent and I have yet to even say hello to my God.
I have been on this quest for more years than I care to admit. My journey has included Charismatic Prayer groups, scripture sharing groups, theology courses, workshops, centering prayer, Taizé, and more. For me, it always seems to circle back to music as prayer. I realize this may not be the same for everyone. The oft quoted saying attributed to St. Augustine “when you sing you pray twice” comes to mind. Since my prayer life is so sporadic, the notion of praying being enhanced when one sings is appealing to me. I often find myself singing church songs in the car, or around the house, and it does take on a prayerful nature.
When I became involved in music ministry, I thought I had found the key to my prayer problem. Then I heard the lyrics of Matt Redman in his song “Heart of Worship,” which said “I’ll bring you more than a song, for a song in itself is not what you have required.” What did that mean for me, who was so sure that my song was exactly my God-connection? It came across as a judgment on the prayer method I had chosen. I was even annoyed, thinking “aren’t I praying twice as good by using music?” St. Augustine of Hippo said so. It must be true!
So what, then, is our worship to be? Where does music fit in?
The key words for me in understanding this better is the part of the lyric that says “song in itself.” I think the cautionary words for us to consider are that just because the song has God or Jesus or Holy Spirit in the lyrics and we sing it, we have not fulfilled our obligation to seek and worship God. It’s a good start, but like the song says later, “I’m coming back to the heart of worship and it’s all about you, it’s all about you, Jesus.” As long as we are focusing on the worship and not on the song, we are on the right track. Singing adds to our praise, but it shouldn’t replace it.
It appears that the church also agrees that music is a valid form of prayer, and it is most desirable when used in the context of liturgy. Sung prayer reaches its high point in the sacred liturgy, the public worship of the Church. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is made more beautiful by the singing of every Catholic, who is called to active participation—through sung prayer, especially—in the Mass.
Further we see that the Second Vatican Council document Sacrosanctum concilium (#113) confirm that “liturgical worship is given a more noble form when the divine offices are celebrated solemnly in song, with the assistance of sacred ministers and the active participation of the people.” The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (#40), the Church’s guidebook for Holy Mass, reminds Catholics that “great importance should be attached to the use of singing in the celebration of the Mass… every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people not be absent in celebrations that occur on Sundays and on Holydays of Obligation.”
There is much more discussion to be had on this topic. It would demand much more space than we have here. Was St. Augustine wrong, or right? Indeed, our song enables us to experience God in a new way, and when our voices are joined, we are amplifying our prayer. Thus, we are praying twice in a sense. There is the prayer expressed in the lyrics and there is the prayer without words that rises from the melody.
I think Augustine is mostly right, but we must be of the right intention when we offer our prayer in this way. We mustn’t be misled into thinking of it as a “two for one” deal. There should be no shortcuts when we approach God to pray. So, let us bring God our all: our song, our hearts, our minds, our whole being. Let us pray!
St. Francis of Assisi ANCC (Glen Ridge, NJ)