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Adventures of the Mind

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Prayer Without Words

How do you universally define prayer? If you look it up in Wiki it says this:

Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with an object of worship through deliberate communication.

So are words necessary to activate such a rapport? Maybe, if  we want specific answers to our prayers then perhaps we have to use some words - with faith.(See my sons excellent article here regarding the Prayer of Faith) But even still, do we have to express our desires with words, for surely God being God, knows them already? Surely we just need to focus our hearts and minds towards the divine, that which is perfect, holy, all caring and compassionate, to gain a response.


For me, time and time again when I need to bridge that gap it is music, pure and sometimes very simple music, that unites me with the divine and I am not talking about heavenly choirs of angelic voices. One such piece, written by a non-believer  and not for the purpose of worship at all will do it every time. I am also intrigued by how it must resonate with others for year after year it reaches the top three in Classic FMs Hall of Fame. It is 'The Lark Ascending' by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The violin is the voice that as I join with it I enter in to its fluctuating climb towards the divine, it is an invocation that connects me  with my object of worship. (Although it is the first seven minutes that is particularly prayerful, the rest provides an interlude before the return to prayer.)

The story portrayed in the George Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess is set in an African American fishing village where prayer is never far from the minds of the people. One of the greatest African American instrumentalists was the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-1991). Gil Evans orchestrated a jazz version of Porgy and Bess and both Summertime and Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus) are prayers, one is a prayer of thanksgiving the other a communal pleading for God's intercession in their lives.

Listen as the preacher, the solo trumpter opens the prayer, then hear the congregations responses and feel the rapport as the intensity rises to a peak, with Miles Davis improvisations being the outpouring of the heart as a prayer without words is expressed with 'all the enrgy of heart'. (Moroni 7: 47-48)

Musically, the simple ostinato (repetitive phrase) of the orchestration gives Miles Davis a framework and also great freedom of expression.

Miles Davis  - Prayer, Oh Doctor Jesus

From the Gil Evans adaptation of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess

These are just two examples of prayer without words that for me activate a rapport with the God I worship. There are many more. For example, does anyone remember what two pieces of music were played at the BBC Prom in 2001, just after 9/11? One piece was by a British, the other by an American composer? I can never forget them played in that context. They were Samuel Barbers Adagio for Strings and Edward Elgars Nimrod from his Enigma Variations. I leave you to find your preferred recordings.

Interestingly, although this years BBC Proms will be mostly taken from the archives, BBC has promised some live performances at the end. What prayers, without words will they include? I look forward to them.

The spoken prayer, essentially, is expressed in two ways, one is written and one is improvised. Music can be expressed similarly. The above was written then performed. If in the minds of neither the composer nor the performer it is not a prayer, then can it be for the listener? Depending upon the interpretation of the musician or conductor, I believe it can. However, with improvisation, the connection is more easily obtained, both for the performer and the listener. That is why I love Jazz!

after 9_11 2020 prom 1_4

But with words or without, it is the preparation that determines whether it is prayer - or just words or music and in the end what matters is not what comes out of the mouth or even a trumpet, but what enters the mind once a rapport is established.