Sensing the Presence and Majesty of God in Music and Song
Have you ever sung a song or listened to one that uplifted your spirits and gave you a sense of transcendence? Music and song have the power to capture our hearts as well as delight our minds. In the Celtic tradition, they refer to ‘thin places.’ These are spaces where the spiritual world and the physical world are thought to meet, where literally the veil between the two worlds is so thin that a person can sense the spiritual in a powerful way.
Music and song can help us deepen our sense of God’s presence and serve as a way for us to both praise and pray to God. Fanny Crosby (1820-1915), a hymn writer in the 19th and early 20th century, suggested that “a hymn is a song of the heart to God” (1).
The importance of music and song is evident in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, especially in the Psalms and in the letters to the New Testament churches. In the letter to the church in Colossae, the people were encouraged to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in [their] hearts” (Colossians 3:16, CEB). Likewise, those in the church of Ephesus were urged to speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in [their] hearts” (Ephesians 5:19, CEB).
Recently, I experienced the power of song in helping me recognize God’s presence in my life during a time of loss. At my mother’s funeral, we sang four familiar hymns, with my brother and his wife, my mother (before she passed away), the officiating pastor, and I picking one apiece. The following week as I took my early morning walks, each day, one of those hymns came to mind and deepened my sense of God’s presence as I walked along. After a couple of days, I realized that each of these songs could be used in a prayer, and that God had given me a beautiful prayer with the first line of each: O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made. Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father. Abide with me! Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart.
For the funeral, I had picked the song “Be Thou My Vision,” the words of which were written by an Irish poet in the eighth century (2). Every time I hear and/or sing this song, I feel like I am in one of those ‘thin places’ in which I have a deep sense of God’s presence. The words in last two lines of the last verse have been so comforting to me during my time of loss: “Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.”
Do you have a particular hymn or song that helps you sense God’s presence? Here is the link to a Celtic version of “Be Thou My Vision” with the lyrics to this beautiful hymn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIMhshpf0Y4
1. Keith Beasley-Topliffe, Editor, The Upper Room Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2003), 141.
2. Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul (Nashville, Tennessee: W. Publishing, 2011), 5.