Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Being Mindful of the Gaps

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Recently National Public Radio featured a report about why certain popular pieces of music spontaneously set people to dancing.  The occasion was Pharrell’s “Happy” going viral on the internet as people around the world videotaped themselves dancing to the music, even at risk to themselves, such as in Iran, where six teens were arrested for posting their video.

The neuroscientists interviewed have theorized that it’s the gaps between sounds in certain pieces of music that invite us to move, providing the “space” and motivation for our bodies to respond.  I think something similar happens spiritually in the gaps reciting liturgies or the Lord’s Prayer.

The mantra of the London subway, “Mind the gap,” could become in sacred music and liturgies, “Be mindful of the gap,” the silences out of which spiritual movement comes: the pauses in liturgies and psalms and eloquent scriptures (such as 1 Corinthians 13 or 1 John 4) as well as the intervals between notes and beats and rhythms and vocals in everything from Gregorian chants to Gospel songs. 

In my book, Communion of Life, I named it “the thoughtful pause,” the quiet and the calm required to absorb what has gone before (say, in a poetic or musical phrase) and to respond, anticipating what may come next. I believe prayer, contemplation, retreats, and (I’d like to believe) this blog may serve as “thoughtful pauses” that compel us to dance spiritually.

The lead neuroscientist, Maria Witek of Aarhus University in Denmark, explained during the NPR story that “Gaps in the rhythmic structure, gaps in the sort of underlying beat of the music—that sort of provides us with an opportunity to physically inhabit those gaps and fill in those gaps with our own bodies.”

Surveys found that the most effective drum patterns in getting people off their feet, she says, were “not the ones that have very little complexity and not the ones that had very, very high complexity, but the patterns that had a sort of a balance between predictability and complexity.” That balance of predictability and complexity may be needed in our own liturgies, readings, sacred songs, and sermons.

The anonymous fourteenth century author of the spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing (which I’m presently reading in my morning prayers) could be considered among the world’s first bloggers, given the brevity of its chapters. Written for English monks, this mystic observed, “You only need a tiny scrap of time to move toward God. This brief moment produces the stirring that embodies the greatest work of your soul.” (Contemporary English translation by Bernard Bangley.)

Alongside music, the cadences of many preachers, the “call and response” of some African American worship, and the antiphonal responses of the Daily Office may all provide gaps that invite us to fill them with our spiritual dance—and by that I don’t mean “disembodied,” but one that moves our bodies as well as our souls.

When I was in college, the choir of our church sang a catchy Caribbean song. Our staid congregation stayed in their pews, smiling appreciatively, but resisting an urge to rise and sway and clap. To paraphrase Jesus, “If these Christians remain seated, the pews themselves will dance.” That didn’t happen, but when the choir finished, someone spontaneously cried out, “Do it again!”

And they did!

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  1. I once spent a week in a Greek Orthodox monastery, attending all the daily services. Although the liturgy was in English, the monks went through the psalms and prayers so rapidly, I found it difficult to follow what they were chanting. All I could do was let it wash over me, bypassing my critical faculties entirely. Maybe, I thought, this is what is supposed to happen. But that sounded a little too "Buddhist," so I decided I just didn't know how to do it right. A couple of years ago, I took some students to the monastery for Vespers one evening, and afterward we talked with the new Superior. One of the students asked him how he thought about the service, and he said he just let it wash over him. That way, he didn't get trapped in too much thinking! I expect, if someone mapped out the rhythms of the Orthodox liturgy, they might find something similar to what Chris is describing. But I think it may be "not thinking" and letting it "wash over you" that moves us as much as the structure of the music, be it "Happy," Gregorian chant, Orthodox liturgy, or Gospel song. This is something I think the Protestant Reformation, with its over-emphasis on preaching and understanding the Word, and its fear of superstition and "empty ritual," really missed out on.

    1. These are profound observations. Thank you so much! Letting go of the need to understand everything is very important in my spiritual life, though I try to put things in words! After posting, I thought again of those neuroscientists disecting the miracle, as it were, of songs that make our feet happy, while just going with the flow may be the "better portion."