Spiritual, Traditional, Alive


I’ve been reading Merton’s collection of essays, Disputed Questions (1960). The last two I have read have left me a bit cold. They seem lodged in a moment of time that has passed. Even though I love Merton I found them a bit muddled and dated in their grappling with Communism and the fear of a nuclear holocaust.

I am reading this collection because it contains an essay that was influential in shaping my thinking for years: “Sacred Art and the Spiritual Life.” I think I have mellowed over the years. This is not surprising. Merton has a phrase in this essay that stuck with me since I first read it. “One does not offer lollipops to a starving man in a totalitarian death camp.”
There was a time when I could tell you what I thought the modern “lollipops” of art were. I can remember struggling to perform “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” at a funeral. I did not see the tradition in the song. I heard it as a bit of trivial art. Now I do not.

I can remember riding in a car with one of the editors of the Episcopalian Hymnal 1982 (Alec Wyton). I told him that he and the other editors had included music in it that was insipid (lollipops) and that he could avoid their use at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. But those of us in the parishes would be forced to use them. Now I am very happy to use anything in the extended resources of the Episcopal Church.

I say all this because this morning I read a sentence in Merton’s essay on Sacred Art which got me to thinking.

“The work of art must be genuinely spiritual, truly traditional and artistically alive.” Merton

It struck me how this sums up for me neatly some things I think about in a way Merton may or may not have approved.


Not too long ago I was hired to play for a local Winter Solstice party. The giver of the party was a self conscious anti-church atheist from what I gathered. Kind of a hippy dude. At one point the group was talking and he directly addressed me with a question, “Is the music we have asked you to play spiritual?” To his apparent surprise (since he had me pegged as a church guy who did church music) I replied automatically, “All music is spiritual.”
This even surprised me, but I think it said something that I may think true at a very basic level.

I think of spiritual partly as authentic human meaning. Definitely music is that for me.


I have been disappointed to find so many musicians stuck in a narrow place in music. I am thinking here of people who are entrenched in popular musics. Musicians who don’t read music. Musicians who are interested only in the music they are skilled at. Musicians who ignore music history.

I think its important to widen ones horizon. Personal and professional curiosity is for me one of the joys of life. To ignore vast swathes of one’s own area limits possibilities tremendously.


Conversely, one needs to be aware of the entire present moment. I always thought that’s what Zappa meant by including Edgar Varese’s quote on most of his album covers: “The Present Day Composers refuses to die.” Probably not, but I still maintain a vital interest in music that is being written now.

I also think this applies in church music which brings me back to Merton’s essay on Art and Spirituality. I lurk on many Facebooger church music and organist groups. While there are many commentors who surprise me by sharing my own eclecticism, there are many others who trouble me with a narrowness that confuses me.

At Obama’s funeral speech, the AME organist apparently punctuated the speech like a sermon with organ music. There were comments on Facebooger about the lack of inappropriateness of this. This struck me as possibly narrowness on the part of commentors.

There are parishioners at my church who have said to me how they appreciate singing hymns from their old denomination. Often these hymns are tunes that at one point in my life I would have shuddered to include in liturgy. At another point in my life, they were what we were singing regularly in my Dad’s church. At this point in my life I find it satisfying to include them and other kinds of music with as much stylistic and vigorous integrity and interpretation I can muster.

It feels more alive.

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