Last Friday morning January 8 I was at home in Galway sorting through CD’s, deciding which to keep and which to get rid of. Among those I decided to keep was The Best of David Bowie from 1997. I had forgotten I had it and was delighted to re-connect with it again. It didn’t dawn on me at the time that Friday was David Bowie’s birthday and I didn’t realize that he was in the last days of his life.
On Monday morning I got a text from my brother saying it was hard to believe that Bowie had bowed out. That was the first I heard of his death and it occupied my mind and my memories for the rest of the day.
In the Summer of ’72, at the age of 17, with my Leaving Cert done (and failed!) I was working in Southgate in London and staying with my aunt Eileen and her family. I was a music fanatic and always watched TOTP and was watching on an evening in July when David Bowie came on singing ‘Starman’. I had never seen or heard of him before, never saw or heard the likes of him and I was immediately hooked – and, until the late 1980’s, a fan of the man and his unique sound. It wasn’t the lyrics that grabbed me so much as the sound – his voice, the music.
The effect of Bowie on my young life led me to ponder the important place music has in our lives and it’s interesting how music evokes a time, an interior feeling, brings memory alive that touches into the very core of who we are on all levels, including our spiritual life. So many people have said that he provided the soundtrack to our youth in the 1970's - it touched into the very life within us. Music, even secular music can become a prayer that leads us into the mystery of God in our lives.
St. Vincent Pallotti was very keenly aware of how all of creation can connect us with God and eternal life. In his meditation on ‘God The Infinite Love’ he writes:
“You have given us…all kinds of different sounds so that we may fall in love with the eternal canticles of glory in the splendour of the saints. You have given me all that is visible to help my soul to keep alive and ever growing in the kingdom of your holy love and thus be wholly immersed and transformed in your divine love, in your infinite charity and in yourself.” (GOD THE INFINITE LOVE MEDITATION VI)
The positive effects of music are seen in the case of King Saul and David. David was a very good musician. Whenever the evil spirit came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him (1 Samuel 16:23)
A Japanese scientist, Dr. Emoto Masaru, has studied the effects of music on water and has concluded that classical music creates beautiful patterns in the crystals that make up the water, while at the other end of the spectrum heavy metal creates ugly mushy patterns. The implications for our own human lives, our physical being, are very significant since our bodies are made up mostly of water.
So, it’s important for our wellbeing on all levels that we choose wisely what we listen to. We are shaped and formed by what we watch and what we listen to. A Cistercian monk in his book ‘Ascent To Love’ says that each of us stands guard at the door of our soul and to everything that comes our way we need to ask ‘are you for me or are you against me?’
This is a question we need to ask of the music that we listen to – is it good for me or not? And at the deepest level we need to ask – is the music I’m listening to drawing me closer to God or is it taking me further away from Him?
I take the Word of God as my guide in deciding what to listen to, especially two texts from St. Paul – “whatever you do, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17) and “…fill your minds with whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things…and the God who gives us peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8)
When I listened to David Bowie’s ‘Starman’, ‘Life On Mars’ and ‘Space Oddity’ – these brought me beyond myself to the vastness of the universe and from there into the infinity of God. My desire for God was intensified. And of course I know that there is life on Mars, the life of God who is everywhere, present in all of His creation.
We change over the course of the years, our needs change; musicians go off the boil, lose their edge, become flabby internally - as I have done myself - or go down roads that I do not wish to follow, roads that would be unwise to follow.
This happened me with David Bowie – after the 1980’s his music no longer spoke to me. Some of it seemed affected, some of it too dark for me. I’m uncomfortable with the his final album which was released on his birthday – the imagery is too dark for me. Maybe he’s expressing the trauma of his terminal illness and maybe I’m simply uncomfortable with my own mortality and maybe there is something darker still. I’ve never liked the idea of black candles and I don’t like the idea of a black star so I’m leaving this one aside.
What I hold onto in relation to David Bowie is what his music did for my youth; the tears that came down my face when he arrived on the stage in Slane in 1987; I honour the spirit in him at a concert in Wembly in front of 80,000 people when David knelt down and prayed the Our Father*. I agree with him when he said, “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” And I share the same tribute that Cardinal Ravasi wrote on Bowie’s death, quoting the line from ‘Space Oddity’ “…and may God’s love be with you.”
It happens regularly enough that I wake in the morning with a song going round in my head, a song that somehow has relevance or significance for that day or the time in my life. It’s an experience of God speaking to us in the ordinary things of life.
And, sometimes when I’m praying a secular song comes into my mind and it somehow becomes an expression of the prayer I need to make. For many years ‘Endless Love’ by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie expresses what I feel for God and I find myself singing it to God even as I’m going about my daily work. It’s a lovely expression for me of what my consecration as a religious and as a priest means. My first love, the love that is the source of all other love.
“My first love, You're every breath that I take,
You're every step I make
And I want to share all my love with you,
and I'll give it all to you
My love My love, my love, My endless love”
Another unlikely source of a song that became a prayer for me is ‘Love Thy Will Be Done’ written by Prince and sung by Martika.
Love thy will be done
I can no longer hide, I can no longer run
No longer can I resist the guiding light
It gives me the power to keep up the fight
Oh love thy will be done
Since I have found you, my life has just begun
And I see all of your creations as one perfect complex
No one less beautiful or more special than the next
We are all blessed and so wise to accept
Thy will love be done
Love thy will be mine
And make me strive for the glorious and divine
I could not be more, more satisfied
Even when there's no peace outside my window,
there is peace inside
And that's why I no longer run
Love thy will be done
Thy will be done of course expresses the prayer of Mary at the Annunciation and the prayer of Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane. Let it be done to me according to your Word – not my will by yours be done. It is the prayer of perfect surrender to God. So may all of us have the courage to pray in the same way as Jesus and Mary.
May God and fill you with the joy of good music, enrich you with abundant blessings, holding you close in tender, faithful love.
There is something about beauty which has the power to touch us deeply, to leave us breathless in wonder, to move us to the very depths of our being…the sound of waves lapping against the seashore, of a piece of poetry or music or a work of art which speaks to us in ways beyond our ability to explain, of the almost infinite variety of human beings of so many different shapes and sizes and qualities.To those whose hearts are attuned, the beauty of creation is a sign pointing beyond itself. (Gabriela Mistral, Chilean poet, 1889-1957, Decalogue of the Artist)
* Bowie added the prayer between songs, prefaced with words about remembering those who had died or were ill. He explained the moment to the now-defunct British magazine Arena in a 1993 interview:
"I decided to do it about five minutes before I went on stage. Coco [Schwab, Bowie’s long-term personal assistant] and I had a friend called Craig who was dying of AIDS. He was just dropping into a coma that day. And just before I went on stage something just told me to say the Lord’s Prayer. The great irony is that he died two days after the show.
….In rock music, especially in the performance arena, there is no room for prayer, but I think that so many of the songs people write are prayers. A lot of my songs seem to be prayers for unity within myself. On a personal level, I have an undying belief in God’s existence. For me it is unquestionable.
….Looking at what I have done in my life, in retrospect so much of what I thought was adventurism was searching for my tenuous connection with God. I was always investigating, always looking into why religions worked and what it was people found in them. And I was always fluctuating from one set of beliefs to another until a very low point in the mid-Seventies where I developed a fascination with black magic... And although I’m sure there was a satanic lead pulling me towards it, it wasn't a search for evil. It was in the hope that the signs might lead me somewhere."