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Attending Concerts Is a Spiritual Discipline

Attending Concerts Is a Spiritual Discipline

Trappist monk Thomas Merton once wrote a beautiful essay titled “Rain and the Rhinoceros” where he meditated upon a rainstorm from his hermitage in the Kentucky hills. “And I listen,” Merton wrote, “because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer.”

Listening in this way needs to be reclaimed in an age where we have replaced silence with noise; stillness with busyness, this frenetic pursuit of filling our aching sense of lack; and solitude with chronic distraction, the continual need to be entertained. These days it seems we tend to be deaf to spiritual rhythms and are only familiar (and comfortable) with those of the engineer. To find spaces in our lives where listening is our primary posture is to make way for truth to rise up again.

Merton’s description of the festival of rain encircling his cabin in the woods reminds me of my experiences at a hole-in-the-wall blues venue called the Double Door Inn, which cultivated the local music scene in Charlotte, North Carolina, for 44 years before closing in 2016. Though unassuming in its appearance, the magic that happened inside that tumbledown house captured all who entered. What began as a humble bar unexpectedly evolved into one of the most famous blues venues in the Southeast, featuring the likes of Buddy Guy, Junior Walker, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and hundreds of others. For many locals that house of rising sounds became something of a “thin place,” a term ancient Celts used to describe spaces where heaven and earth come close to touching.

Thin places teach us to listen. It was there at the Double Door that my ears became more attuned to the spiritual rhythms Merton wrote about, where I was introduced to what the mystics call “contemplation.”  Ephesians 1:18 talks about opening the “eyes of your heart.” Might powerful music in authentic spaces help tune the ears of our hearts?

I’m sure you’ve experienced what I’m talking about. Maybe you arrive at a concert carrying the weight of your anxieties, but within a couple of songs you’re in your body again, dancing, playing in the aisle or the lawn. Or maybe a line from a song during open-mic night at the local pub sends unexpected chills up your arms—suddenly you’re alive again, even if only for a second. Or maybe your heart becomes re-ignited as you witness a band perform before a measly crowd, drenching the stage with their passion, presence, sweat, just for music’s sake, not for the response or acclaim. The Greek word for this is kenosis, self-emptying—and suddenly your heart, too, becomes a fountain again, bursting through the dam of your ego.

Moments like these beckon us to open our senses; to surrender; to, in a sense, lose control in the waters of immeasurable beauty and mystery. I noticed at the Double Door Inn that both the bands and patrons had a way of losing all inhibition as they swam in the sounds, as they entered into the vulnerable intimacy of experiencing the present moment.

What does attentive listening look like as a spiritual posture?

When I learned in 2016 that the Double Door would be closing, I spent the year frequenting the old white house; spending time with the bands, bartenders and patrons; surrendering myself to the sounds that for a near half-century had lifted people’s souls. Time and again powerful music at the Double Door Inn invited me out of my paradigm of doing into being; out of my mind and into my heart; out of certainty and into mystery. Music made way for silence, for if music helped attune my ears to my inherent union with God, then I had nothing to fear in the seemingly terrifying stillness of solitude. I found God again at the Double Door Inn, where the only requirement was to give $5 to the doorman, Todd, and leave your ego outside.

Dan Riley, a Franciscan friar and mentor of mine, writes in his book that the Latin word obēdīre was often used to describe a Roman soldier who would put his ear to the ground to listen and discern was might be coming. Similarly, in the Old Testament the archetypal role of the sentinel was to sit in attentive stillness and listen from the encampment wall.

This posture aligns with the deep listening Merton wrote about in his essay as he opened his senses to the sounds of the rain. The more unfamiliar the song the better, for it beckons us to listen all the more. As is the case with jazz, we are invited to trust where the river is taking us, even though there may be no destination. This kind of listening is not a blissful escapism, as is often the case with the thumping beats of a nightclub. Philosopher Peter Rollins gives the analogy of an Irish pub, where a sad singer-songwriter croons about lost love and in so doing invites all who listen into encountering the brokenness in their own lives.

This is the disorienting but healing work of attentive listening. The freedom I experienced at the Double Door Inn forced me to confront all the ways in which I was not free. As the beauty of the music guided me into encountering the spiritual abundance I already possessed, there was so often a terrifying confrontation with my own idols and my tendency to attach my identity to them. This is where fullness and emptiness mysteriously coincide. I would enter the Double Door stuck in my head and leave in my body. That is, when I left my ego at the door and let the music open the ears of my heart.

Try it next time you attend a show. Resist the urge to capture the moment with your phone; instead, let the moment take you in. The point is not to make a mark with the moment (say, with a social media post) but rather let the moment make its mark on you, on your heart. In his essay Merton warns about the tendency of Americans to attach a price or meaning to everything. “The time will come,” Merton wrote, “when they will sell you even your rain.”

Might we become more present and attentive to both the complexities within ourselves and in our world the more we practice this open posture? Might we let God use music to form our hearts?

On the last night at the Double Door Inn, a rainstorm pummeled Charlotte and began leaking through the roof of that ramshackle house. As the sounds of music and rain took us in, I was reminded of Merton’s essay. “It will talk as long as it wants, this rain,” Merton wrote, “and as long as it talks I am going to listen.”

Stephen Copeland is the author of In the House of Rising Sounds, a memoir about a boisterous music bar, a faith in transition, and the thin space they inhabited.

© 2023 RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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