In today’s evangelical church, the word worship has become synonymous with singing. Worship leaders belt out popular Christian tunes, and we sing along to words projected on a screen. Lyrics, not music, are considered the main vehicle to adoration.
But what about the music itself—the walking bass line, reverberating snare, plaintive violin? Without lyrics, or even an obvious spiritual context, would these musical lines “count” as worship?
As a violinist and a new believer, I worried about how to “best steward my talents for God” when I went to college. If I played an orchestral piece for a church audience that wasn’t composed by a Christian, was I somehow working against God, engaging in a type of self-indulgent, humanist behavior? Did playing such music even have a point, kingdom-speaking?
In her book The Spiritual Life, Evelyn Underhill writes about worship as an act of being, not acting or doing. As I have grown in my faith and musicianship over the decades, I’ve learned just to “be” with my violin, which has helped me learn the importance of being fully present in body, mind, and spirit: in other words, fully present with God. The physical act of playing a tune becomes just as important—if not more so—than any lyric or idea.
Over the past several years, I’ve transitioned almost completely from classical music to the world of fiddling. I’m drawn to tunes with Scottish and Irish roots in particular, even though I carry none of that ancestry. Nonetheless, the keys, rhythms, ornamentations, and shapes have become prayers for me—one of my primary ways of feeling God’s pleasure, as Eric Liddell regards running in Chariots of Fire.
If I played an orchestral piece for a church audience that wasn’t composed by a Christian, was I somehow working against God, engaging in a type of self-indulgent, humanist behavior?
“Be Thou My Vision” is perhaps the most famous hymn with Celtic roots. It is based on a tune called “Slane,” which is named for a hill in County Meath, Ireland. According to the Psalter Hymnal Handbook (1998), St. Patrick lit an Easter fire on Slane as an act of defiance against the pagan king Loegaire, leading to his unlimited freedom to preach the gospel in Ireland. But before being repurposed as what would become one of our most popular hymns, “Slane” found itself as a folk tune published in Patrick W. Joyce’s 1909 Old Irish Folk Music and Songs. The title? “With My Love on the Road.”
Sacred, profane, and sacred again. Given the interchangeability of folk and religious tunes, there is little musical difference. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Without the explicit message of a lyric, the worshipper relies on keys, chords, intervals, and time signatures for emotional expression. For a word person like me, it means feeling my feelings without explaining them and allowing those feelings to come through the physical movements of finger and bow. With “Be Thou My Vision,” it means keeping a trinitarian ¾ time in E-flat major—a key that, according to 18th-century German poet Christian Schubart, connotes “love, devotion, and intimate conversation with God.”
With E-flat, I can’t just bounce all over those bright, open-string chords that make many fiddle tunes sound much more technically impressive than they are. I slide into an understated, flattened fourth finger on the A string (the note that corresponds with “heart” in the lyric). I can’t quite articulate what playing that note feels like on a spiritual level. But isn’t that the point of loving God with my soul? Sometimes my mind has to step behind the curtain as the Holy Spirit and I improvise.
Sometimes my mind has to step behind the curtain as the Holy Spirit and I improvise.
“Melody,” says poet and musical collaborator David Wright, “creates movement and allows us to move through time.” I feel the movement of “Be Thou My Vision” taking me back a few steps into questions and doubt, then forward, then back again, then finally at the feet of God.
Take a few moments to hum “Be Thou My Vision” to yourself. Do you feel the movement from line to line?
God, are you there?
God, are you really there?
Actually, yes. I kinda do feel you now.
You were there the whole time.
But why these sentiments, when I have the actual lyrics? Because I walk to familiar melodies and rhythms throughout the day. I forget words while a song presses through my bones, tap and hum while it glimmers in my blood. “Be Thou My Vision” is about reaching, then reaching further. It’s about pulling back a bit with a an intake of breath. Then exhaling in complete surrender.
This is the weird, right-brained, messy soul-work of worship—what stays in the body in the dark hours of the night when you are half-asleep and lacking words, history, or sense. It’s what cannot be taught or written about (though I’m trying) while the smoke of rosin rises to the sky.