Listening to the music deep within
By guest columnist George R. Merrill
Spirituality exerts an enormous influence in our lives. It’s often disguised. Sometimes you hear only its music.
“Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop.” So, begins that wonderfully soporific lullaby that has soothed infants for generations, and probably you and me, too. But wait: listen to what mom’s saying. “When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all.” My question is why the baby isn’t terrified?
As mom sings, a whole complex experience is evolving. Baby feels the warmth of mom’s body. Mom feels baby’s warmth while baby hears the gentleness in her voice and senses the love she has for him. It’s a moment in which its total equals more than the sum its parts. It’s a moment in which bodies and souls are engaged. Intimacy is one of the ways we engage in the music of spirituality. Words can’t tell the whole story. Music helps.
Spirituality is the music of our souls — that peculiarly divine essence that gives meaning and purpose to who we are and what we do. Our interior lives, our souls, typically guide and sustain us. They aid us in finding some measure of equanimity — a sense of peace.
Another is the soul’s propensity to help us find meaning and purpose in daily life. The soul helps us transcend adversity; even though life might get ugly we feel that unexplainable assurance we’ll get through it all.
Finally, the soul communicates to us how our whole being belongs to something greater than we are. And with that, there comes an abiding certainty that we are not alone in this universe. For the privileged or impoverished, a functional spirituality and a healthy soul sustain. When the music goes from the soul, a feeling of inner emptiness will rapidly grow. The consequences can be loneliness, depression, alcoholism, addictions of all sorts, and generally speaking — losing our compass.
This past year, a great-grandchild was born into our family and, for safety concerns, we could not hold her for about four months. It was as if history passed us by. Somehow, we wanted desperately just to touch her. If there was a collective experience Americans shared this year; it was living and dying with the reality of the coronavirus. Those who had the most to give, like health care workers, firefighters, and police gave their all. Most of us were bystanders but deeply moved by the sacrifices they made. While some introverts rejoiced in the lockdown, I think most people felt confined and isolated. Human contact is so much a part of our social nature, we suffer considerably when we lose access to it. Contact with one another is among the spiritual activities human beings treasure.
The normal social activities we engaged in before the pandemic may not have considered spiritual needs as such. But they contain that fundamental hunger we are constantly trying to sate: being with one another, enjoying stimulation, sharing affection, reaffirming our sense of belonging, caring while staying informed, and feeling the sense of safety that being a part of a larger community offers.
One of the casualties of the pandemic has been that alcohol and drug abuse have increased. Substance abuse quickly surfaces where a people’s way of life is disrupted by things they cannot control. In 2019, individuals suffering from alcohol abuse were estimated to be one in every eight Americans over the age of twelve. Ten million were addicted to opioids and fifty thousand suffered overdoses in 2020 alone.
As chaplain to Connecticut’s rehab and recovery programs for drug-dependent persons from 1965 to 1973, I felt as helpless in the face of this suffering as the addicted did. The failure of intoxicants to feed the soul is soon evident in disintegrating lives. By the time alcoholics or other drug-dependent persons hit bottom, personal situations seem hopeless. What is a priest to do, if quoting scripture, saying prayers, or otherwise offering reassurances did nothing? I eventually took the first step; I accepted that I, too, was powerless — except for one thing and this made all the difference in the world. I learned to listen for the music.
I listened to the stories of men and women with horribly broken lives. Whenever I thought I’d heard music somewhere in their story, or that I caught a note of that plaintive, cello-like tone of deep longing crying out for wholeness, I’d urge them to listen for it with me. We’d listen together –– hard to hear at first –– and I noticed how we were being strangely guided. I didn’t have to know or say anything. I only had to listen as deeply as I could. Over time I came to understand that a higher power was listening, too, and was guiding both of us as we struggled to hear the barely audible notes coming from the music of the soul’s spirit.
Another significant way we experience spirituality is through acts of kindness. One day my wife, an artist, commented that she’d become increasingly aware of how many people were out there trying to meet our material needs serving us in retail establishments and restaurants at considerable cost to themselves. How might we thank them? She came up with this idea: she would paint small scenes on paper about the size of a postcard. Whenever we’d shop, or see the postal worker, or when we got our shots, out would come a small painting and she’d hand it to the person. Some viewed the card cautiously as if it might be an unpaid bill or perhaps a complaint. When the person “got it,” he or she would break into a smile and thank her. I can’t be sure as I did not accompany her every shopping expedition or outing, however, a recipient may have understood Jo’s gesture, it was clear to me what it was doing for her. Simply put, it made her happy.
When it comes to the substantive spiritual values that govern and inform our inner life, the ones in which we take the greatest delight, I believe that gratitude is the most compelling. It is so closely related to love that I’ve never been able to distinguish clearly between them. It’s as if these were two spiritual twins joined at the hip. Expressions of gratitude began appearing throughout the country. It was touching to see how first responders had come to be regarded and how their values of service, dedication, and self-sacrifice were energizing a depressed population.
The substantial values I refer to here will never earn praise and status, but they will, when carefully expressed, make our lives and others as well, much easier to live. And there’s real music in knowing you’ve lightened someone else’s burden.
Internalizing enduring spiritual values can take us safely over some torturous terrain. It’s a little like having your own flashlight so when the streetlights dim or go out, in a few minutes you can reorient yourself and have some idea where you are.
For people seeking non-denominational spiritual guidance, The Retreat House at Hillsboro is a dependable resource. 410-364-7069. For people struggling with mental health or addiction issues, contact For All Seasons at 410-822-1018 or visit forallseasonsinc.org.