A few Sundays ago, I found myself celebrating the Eucharist according to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in a church I had helped out at a couple of times before. Forgetting that the creed came before the homily in that rite, I had left my prayer book back at my seat so had to recite the Nicene Creed from memory. I was able to do this quite easily but only by singing it in my head to the old plainsong setting by Merbecke. In a similar way, I played the part of Timothy in the musical Salad Days when I was at school. Even 28 years later, I can remember my solo songs, but almost none of my spoken lines (and that's without the benefit of ever having heard it since - believe me, I wouldn't listen to that stuff by choice! And yes, that's me in the boater...).
Most of us know many hundreds, probably many thousands of tunes and songs. There is something abuot the working of human memory that favours music over speech. If mine is anything to go by, it probably also favours faces over names, but that's another story. This works best with the musical styles we hear most often, but it is certainly possible for the memory to cross musical cultures as I discovered recently when an Indian lady, the mother of a young patient in our hospital, asked me to accompany her on the violin as she sang a Tamil religious song I had never heard before. The first time through I was completely lost, but by the third the music had taken root somewhere in my memory.
All of this underlines how vital music is to the transmission, celebration and expression of religious faith. When the Protestant Reformation first made landfall in Scotland, it was through the Lutheran songbook of the Wedderburn brothers of Dundee, the Good and Godly Ballads. When Roman Catholics gather from around the world, a good number of them will be able to join in the Missa de Angelis. Faith does not belong only in the rational mind, does not find expression only in word or reasoning, does not depend on the most superficial dimensions of human comprehension. Like the music that is its most characteristic vehicle, faith belongs in the memory, in the heart, in the still, silent level of our deepest consciousness. And like that music, it remains incomplete until it finds expression in the physical-spiritual world of harmonic sound.
I have greatly enjoyed my sojourn with Quakers in our local meeting over the past few months and will take something of their rich silence with me for the rest of my life. But as I move back north to work in the very musical context of St Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh, I will be affirming the essential place of music in my life of faith. Having said all that, Quakers know that silence is well expressed in musical terms and that music itself emerges from silence.