By Rev. David Justin Lynch

At a home for residents with dementia, a music therapist directed each member to bang out numbers and shake maracas to the tune of Yankee Doodle. Some who seemed otherwise non compis mentis could nonetheless tap on cue. Alzheimer’s researchers report that patients unable to speak can sing childhood melodies. Why? People interact differently with music than they do with the spoken words.

Sung liturgy was the norm in the undivided church for many centuries in both Eastern and Western Catholic traditions; in the Eastern Church, it still is. But today, in most churches of the Western Catholic tradition (Old Catholic, Eastern, and Roman) the priest doesn’t sing. Liturgy has become, “words, words, and more words,” to quote Matthew Fox. However, the current preference for spoken liturgy flies in the face of Judeo-Christian heritage over time.

Ancient Jewish Temple worship was largely sung as described in the Old Testament Books of Chronicles and Nehemiah, among others. The New Testament contains many references to singing, such as in Luke’s gospel the “Song of Mary,” the Song of Zechariah, and the angels sang “Glory to God in the Highest” when Jesus was born.

When I celebrate Mass on Sunday, I sing all the priest’s parts. St. Augustine tells us in his Dissertation on the Psalms, “to sing is to pray twice” as he correctly noted that the psalms are replete with references to song in worship, such as, “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the whole earth Sing to the LORD and bless his Name” (96:1-2).

Music, with its tools of melody, rhythm, harmony and timbre, communicates emotions in a way mere words cannot.  At the primordial level, faith is an emotional response to the world, not an intellectual one. It is an encounter between the soul and the universe that is way beyond anything that can be expressed in words alone. Our hearts and souls are what interact with God. Hence, when the liturgy is sung rather than spoken, we not only hear it with our ears, but feel it within us, and it becomes part of us.  Unlike spoken words, music connects with us on a subconscious level.  To imbibe music into our consciousness requires us to let go of our conscious selves and interact with God’s word beyond the level of our brains, deeply into our souls. When we sing, we connect with God in a strong and deep way like nothing else, as we experience a purposeful penetration into our conscience that leads to a warm and close relationship with a God who surrounds and loves us.