The packed cathedral of St. Patrick’s in Manhattan was buzzing with quiet conversation as the audience waited for the Sistine Choir Chapel to enter the sanctuary for their first concert in America in over 30 years. Many came from out of state, and even from out of country to hear the powerful and angelic voices that would fill the cathedral.
As the Maestro raised his arms to signal the beginning of the first piece, the crowd hushed in anticipation of the powerful music.
Instead, what came was the quiet and pure intonation of Gregorian Chant, ‘Gaudete in Domino’. The 2000 people in attendance were overpowered, not by a burst of sound, but by a haunting, quiet polyphony that demanded they be silent to hear it.
In a city accustomed to flash and noise, once holy place was brought to silence. It was the silence of a love that unites, as the spiritual authors have written over the centuries. The quiet music seemed to come from within each person hearing it, evoking prayer and reflective attention, instead of overwhelming them from an exterior noise.
This is the power of sacred music. Through it, God reaches out to our hearts, and our hearts reach out in response.
Being at St Patrick’s Cathedral for both Mass and the concert, I marveled at how close Heaven was. The WORD become flesh was present here in the flesh, the Eucharist. The WORD who existed from the beginning was sung through the holy music of the Choir and received by a silent audience to grow in their souls. The beautiful art and architecture spoke of the beauty of God. Everything that touched our senses reminded us of an eternity we were created for and it all worked together to bring us to that place in our souls where the Eternal One already lives. An awakening through the quiet first strains of holy music.
As minds and hearts adjusted to the atmosphere and experience they were in, a change came over the audience. They were still, many with gazes that told of their introspective focus on the touch of the music in their souls.
From Magnificat to Miserere to Exsultate, the choir did not just perform, but led each person to be touched by God himself. Many came to be entertained, but found themselves somehow slightly changed in a deep way. Their faces turned away from the busy streets, the cell phones, the concerns of work and social life, and toward God who arrested their attention with quiet beauty. For many, it was like hearing music from childhood long forgotten, although they may have never heard it before. The sound and the feel of the sacred music brought out something in who they were, created as sons and daughters of God. Like a heritage long forgotten, but embedded in their sub-conscious memory.
Sacred art, including sacred music, brings us to see the face of God, who reaches out to us to unveil a new glimpse of who He is, to show us the gift of His love and how beautiful it is, and to touch us and bring us to life, like in the famous mural by Michelangelo in the same chapel the Choir is named after. And our gift to him is to receive it. With open hearts, silently, gratefully, letting it take root in us so that He may live in us and we may truly live, bringing that beauty to the world we return to outside the doors of the Cathedral.