Evangelization through beauty

by Rebecca Raber - Director of Music Ministry at the University of Mary/Assistant Professor in Music & Catholic Studies

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“Beautiful music has value in and of itself, but it’s also a very effective ‘delivery system’ for words and finds a quick route to the intellect and the soul.” – Rebecca Raber

“St. Augustine is reported to have said: ‘Those who sing pray twice.’ Music is sacramental. It has the power to evoke the mysteries of life, both human and divine. It has the ability to use objective words and musical forms to reach a place in the human spirit and soul simply beyond description. A sacrament, or sacramentals, symbolize and effect grace. Music can both symbolize and cause people to dance, rejoice, and weep tears of sorrow and joy. It can do what words can only point to. Words can point to a reality. Music can usher people through the door into actual experience.”

This excerpt from Mike Aquilina’s latest book, “How the Choir Converted the World,” is compelling, indeed. It makes one stop and consider music’s gentle power to occupy both heart and mind. Aquilina states that the Church Fathers were keenly aware of the strong relationship between music (the arts, as a whole) and theology, and used it to great advantage to instruct and inspire worshipers throughout history.

“The [Church] Fathers knew the power that music had over our minds—power over thoughts and feelings—and they respected that power. They knew that beautiful music could change the world. It makes us remember, it moves us to virtue, it heals us, and it makes us one.”

Singing was regarded as not only beautiful and inspirational, but also instructive. In an age when illiteracy was widespread, music and art provided the Church a means of reaching out with a religious and spiritual education that was accessible to all people each week—even every day, through Mass. Beautiful music has value in and of itself, but it’s also a very effective “delivery system” for words and finds a quick route to the intellect and the soul. In fact, Aquilina asserts that music was, “perhaps the most effective way of spreading the Gospel in those early centuries.”

Music was able to present and reinforce Church doctrine. Furthermore, it was an opportunity to evangelize and revive the Church! “Part of that revival can come through great music that is fully engaging for folks who want to worship God in a way that both reflects and stirs the spirit and soul. We want to rejoice and dance in holiness through the gestures of the liturgy!” It’s beautiful to realize that this “work of music” in the Church is still going on, just as it has for centuries!

Mike Aquilina maintains that he is not a musician. He is, though, an expert on theology, Church History, and scripture. This perspective affords him an objective, informative, and engaging approach to the subject for all readers, not just musicians. His writing style is pertinent and clear.

“How the Choir Converted the World” is a quick read, full of interesting (and sometimes little-known) facts. It is captivating, in terms of stirring the imagination. He intersperses his commentary on music and the development of the Church with meaningful quotes from Church Fathers on music and singing. When the reader is this easily engaged, a beautiful thing happens: the mind is magically transported back five or six centuries, and suddenly, through our imagination, we are all somehow connected through time, common belief, and shared devotion.

“How the Choir Converted the World” is recommended to all readers who love and are inspired by the Catholic Liturgy, as well as the mystical manner in which music works to elevate the beauty and dignity of the Mass. Musicians will especially enjoy this read, but it is accessible and engaging to those of all disciplines. This book is about the past, but also the present, and the future, as we hope to continue praying and praising “Through Hymns, With Hymns, and In Hymns.”

“How did those illiterate come to know Jesus so well...and love him so deeply? The Fathers couldn’t reach them through philosophical treatises or canons of the Church councils...they reached them through beauty. They celebrated a beautiful liturgy, decorated beautiful churches for worship, and filled those churches with beautiful music. It was beauty that saved the world.”

Aquilina will be visiting the University of Mary Nov. 2-3 to speak on campus about “the early history of hymnography, and how the Christians of the first four centuries went about sanctifying the work of singing. It will be non-technical, filled with stories of the giants of that era: Ephrem, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine.” You are invited to join us at these events. Please email me if you are interested at rlraber@umary.edu.

About the Author: Mike Aquilina and his wife live in the Pittsburgh area with their six children. He is author or co-author of forty books about Church History, scripture or other related subjects, including books written with Cardinal Wuerl and Scott Hahn. He has hosted eight series on EWTN and serves as the Executive Vice President of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio.