The Communion of Souls

‘Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread’

I am missing live music.

Just under a couple of years ago I moved to a new house. I am not sure where the idea came from but after the first couple of gigs I went to from the new house, I decided to decorate my toilet door with a photo from each concert. They are not necessarily great photos but they are a daily reminder of artists, venues and festivals that I have been to – up until March this year when lockdown shut down the live music industry! The white gloss paint that remains uncovered is a harsh reminder that I haven’t been to a gig in over two months.

What is it that I miss so much? Or perhaps a more pertinent question is why won’t my vinyl or CDs suffice at this time? Why don’t live streams from artists’ front rooms satisfy this live musical itch?

Simply, it is about being there. Being there in the same room with the musicians and the audience. I have seen some great Facebook live events during lockdown. Yet, the computer screen is a sanitised barrier and I am separated from performers and audience alike and therefore a step removed from the event. No matter how many messages or emojis are sent by those viewing, this is not the same as standing in a crowd. A mass of music fans, physically close, being barged into as people make their way through the crowd looking for friends or better spaces to stand, photobombing selfies just by standing still because it is so packed. This is the feeling of becoming part of one mass. A communion of strangers.

Though we are many, we are one body.

An audience that has gathered because we have all made the decision to witness this act, on this night, in this venue. We have decided to share our evening with total strangers. We are each other’s company, and in the company of musicians. We are committed and invested, through the cost of the ticket and the giving of our time and attention. This is an event. We will all hear the same songs at the same time – one mass witness to all that goes down! Some will be in the venue because they have followed the artist since they appeared on the music scene, others will have heard friends, or critics, talk about them and want to come test the hype! Some may well be dragged along by friends or partners, but we are all there because en masse we want to hear and see these people play live. A communion of music lovers.

Though we are many, we are one body because we all share.

We pay to go to live music because we want to be in the same room as those who play. We don’t want to see them miles away courtesy of a computer screen. As much as we may love their recordings, we want that experience of seeing the artist perform, not just to sit in solitude and listen to their record. But it is more than a visual treat. The experience of a live gig immerses us in the music in a way that goes far beyond the lights, the sound and the crowd. Neurologists have found that when we observe action, the same neurons are firing in us – the observer – as are firing in the doer! This is also true for emotions – if we see someone smile the neurons associated with smiling fire in us and our spirits are lifted. As the guitarist expertly plays a searing solo the neurons that are firing in their brain set the same off in ours! As clichéd as it sounds, we are one with the band in emotion, we journey through the set list with them, every soul-searching bend of a solo searches our soul too. Every heartbroken lyric breaks ours too. Every moment of exuberant joy created by the group is a mass sharing, deep within each individual in the crowd. A communion of senses

Through we are many, we are one body because we all share in one band.

This is communion. Communion is the instant of sharing. The musical audience share more than just a devotion to the artist, more than just being at that particular event. They share on a deep level, experiencing with the band the drive, the emotion, the creativity of the music. As the same neurons fire in us all so the concert is truly an instant of sharing. Communion is intimate fellowship. Here on the tacky drink stained floor of a venue, people from different backgrounds, with different outlooks, with different heartaches and joys and at very different points in their life – here they find fellowship, an intimate connection of shared experience.

‘The peace of the Lord be always with you.’

At the heart of the communion liturgy is the sharing of peace. In this act, believers are reminded that they are called to follow the Prince of Peace and to live in peace with one another and the world. The peace is shared in the intimate fellowship of the Eucharist. The presiding minister proclaiming the words and the congregation responding

‘And also with you.’

The people are then invited to greet each other with a sign of peace. The sharing of the peace comes before the great prayer of thanksgiving and it echo’s Jesus’ teaching in Matthews gospel which urges people, if they remember that a sister or brother has anything against them, to leave their gift at the altar and go and be reconciled. In other words, in the instant of sharing peace we are brought into intimate fellowship and true communion with one another.

On Guy Garvey’s Birthday in 2017, Elbow played the Eventim Apollo, London. After the opening couple of songs, the onstage screen proclaimed the message ‘Happy Birthday Guy’ and the audience performed an impromptu chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ to the lead singer! Birthday gifts were then passed from the audience. There was a party atmosphere in the venue and an extra connection made between audience and band.

Towards the end of the concert the band played ‘One Day Like This’. I noticed a woman to the left of me, plastic cup raised in one hand, the other tattooed arm aloft pointing to the roof, head tipped slightly back, but eyes fixed firmly on, and singing every word of the anthem to, Guy Garvey.

She was swaying and moving, sideways, through the packed crowd. Still with eyes fixed firmly on Garvey she bumped into me and bounced off me into the person in front! Her drink spilt over that person, my plastic cup was sent flying out of my hand in the direction of the stranger to my right! Taking her eyes off the stage for the first time, she turned to me smiled an apology and hugged me, while still singing along with the band!

‘The peace of the Lord be always with you.’

I hugged her back and for a line of the song we stood, total strangers, arm in arm singing ‘throw those curtains wide’ – as if we have been friends for years!

‘And also with you.’

In so many other scenarios a drunken person barging their way through a crowd, spilling their own and another’s alcohol, would create anger and aggression but in the heart of this Elbow crowd we found a connection: a communion of souls.

It was the anthemic nature of the song. It was the mutual experience of being immersed in a live performance. It was being part of the same audience on the same night and in the same place. Yet more than that, the song reached deep into our souls as the band played. When we were thrown together the connection was made in spirit.

I know nothing about her and never will but as we threw the curtains wide, arms around each other, we were two human beings with a single shared spirit.

‘May this same Spirit unite us with all your people on earth and in heaven.’

However intimate and forgiving, this was still a fleeting connection. I could have sat next to her on the tube every day for the next month and not recognised her. Yet, it was a lasting connection. It is the moment of that gig I remember most clearly, and I experienced most deeply. A perfect communion that has left a mark on my soul.

That night as I left the venue I found it easier to

‘Go in peace and to love.’

Each time I recall the event a spark of commitment jumps from the apathic embers of my heart to

‘Go in peace and to love and serve the Lord…’

(Liturgy: Methodist Worship Book)

Yihla Moja – Come Spirit of Activism

It’s a damp August Sunday afternoon at Greenbelt* 2018. I’m on duty, wearing a Hi-Viz coat in an attempt to keep warm and dry but it also makes me instantly accessible to the festival goers. As I approach the main stage an older woman comes towards me and states…

“My friends will never believe me!”

I think I know what she is referring to as from the stage there is a pounding punk protest against Putin.  Erratic imagery flashes on a giant screen behind bizarrely balaclava-ed dancing dissidents, singing sub-titled soviet subversion.

“They won’t believe that I’m watching Pussy Riot!” She thinks for a moment before confessing:

“I really DO NOT like it.”

She emphasizes the ‘do not’ which leaves me in no doubt that normally she would sit drinking tea in china cups, with matching saucers, denouncing such noise with her contemporaries. Yet, there is hesitation at the end of her sentence intimating that such a cliched conversation will not take place at their next weekly Saturday soiree… her confession continues…

“But I can’t tear myself away from it”

On the surface this is bizarre. A congregation of Christians witnessing the story of protest, prison and Putin’s Russia, communicated through subtitled songs. The tracks, like some great twenty-first century prog rock epic, segue endlessly, telling of arrest, trial, transportation, segregation, humiliation and a human spirit that continues to stand firm in spite of such inhumane punishment.

I look at the crowd packed under the canopy of the main stage and witness a strange subdued atmosphere, as the crowd are pulled, dragged even, towards a reference point by a strange thread. The strength of this thread comes from the intertwined strands of shared human experience expressed through music, translated lyric and imagery. The congregation share in the oppression and the injustice. This jarring musical genre transcends cultures, preferences and comfort zones.  The music speaks to the souls of those bound within its strength. Not in the beauty of a ballad, the luxury of a love song or the feel-good spirit-lifting anthem, but through the passion of protest, the exegesis of experience and the sheer power of the performance.

As so much of modern society searches for the next feel-good moment, spirituality easily becomes associated with the latest high. Yet spirituality is not always a thing of beauty found in ancient architecture, sacred songs or hushed homilies!  It can equally be found in a simple connection. Even a connection made to something outside our experience. Feel-good spirituality happily ignores pain and oppression. Feel-good spirituality is more about the self and less about others, yet the spirituality being discovered here is, through engaging with the oppression of others, an incarnational spirituality.

This crowd are not dragged, screaming and shouting, but rather slip into another world. Not just the world of Pussy Riot or Putin’s Russia but a world of shared oppression and injustice in which they slip into another’s shoes. Seeing the world through the eyes of the oppressed. A spirituality that is willing to encompass and live another’s pain is incarnational.

After the set a queue forms as Masha signs copies of her book. For 3 hours she sits and signs. For 3 hours the queue obediently and slowly shuffles forward, some reading her story as they wait. The snake forms a strange image but speaks of the deep connection that was made during the performance.

Billy Bragg writes, in his introduction to ‘A Lover Sings – selected lyrics’

‘Music can bring us together in common cause, engage and inspire us, focus our anger, and raise funds and awareness, but ultimately the only people with the ability to bring about real change are in the audience, not on stage.’

In 2003 Bragg headlined Greenbelt. As he introduced his political songs to the Greenbelt faithful, he underlined the point he makes in the above quote – that music does not become the substitute for activism – with a personal illustration. He joked about being arrested, in the early 1980’s, at RAF Alconbury and Molesworth and the Police knowing how to deal with a

‘doctor-martened’ Herbert like me, but little old ladies really confuse coppers! Why was a little old lady chaining herself? She was chaining herself there because she was a pacifist Quaker, because her faith made her come there and be chained there next to me… We found each other there, at the fence for the same reasons. I guess, I guess the left and the er, the er (heckle ‘right’) church, (no not the right mate it’s too easy, good heckle though!), have been coming together for a long, long time.’

Music can lift us to understand the world differently, it can shock us into seeing things from a totally new point of view. We can describe our feelings as we glimpse this brave new world in terms of spirituality but if our ears, ringing with the afterglow tinnitus of a gig, are deafened to the cries of the world we go back to there is no incarnation. Music can open the gate, but it is up to us to walk through and live and act for change.

In October 2013 Peter Gabriel brought his Back to Front tour to Manchester. I sat in the stalls next to two women who had travelled from Israel for the weekend to see Gabriel live and take in a Utd. match at Old Trafford! As the gig drew to a close Gabriel introduced Biko, which has been described by Michael Drewett, as ‘arguably the most significant non-South African anti-apartheid protest song’.

The song is emotive and evocative as a recorded track. Yet, live, the stark drumbeat and the passion of the story of Biko’s last days becomes a powerful conduit for the emotion of activism to flow. The crowd stood, as one, and joined in singing ‘Oh, Oh, Oh Biko’. As the song continued the audience sang with the backing vocalists ‘Oh, Oh, Oh’ and, encouraged by Gabriel, raised a clenched fist in solidarity with each ‘Oh’. As the crowd sang Gabriel brought the song out of South Africa and into the present day…

‘For all those young people risking their lives for their people… Zimbabwe, Palestine, Myanmar, Russian, China… sing for Stephen Biko’

I must admit I glanced a look to my left as he mentioned Palestine. The two Israeli women were singing and pumping the air with their clenched fists, they didn’t stop at the mention of a people their Government oppress. I have no way of knowing if they support their Government or not – all I know is that they sang with the rest of us – did they sing with Gabriel or in support of Palestinians who strive for freedom? This is why Bragg tells his stories of being a protester, why Pussy Riot’s t-shirts are printed with the legend ‘Anyone can be Pussy Riot’ and why Gabriel concluded Biko; ‘As always what happens now is up to you…’.

The power of the song won’t change the world, the feeling of connection with 15,000 other people all singing for an end to oppression won’t change the world. In Biko, Gabriel includes as part of the lyrics a Xhosa phrase “Yihla Moja” which means ‘come spirit’. A recognition that ‘the man (Biko) is dead’ but the spirit of resistance lives on. A call to join in the movement to end apartheid, a call to challenge modern-day injustice.

Pussy Riot, Billy Bragg and Peter Gabriel can illuminate and intone this spirit of resistance, and as the crowd we can catch the spirit and pump the air with our clenched fists in solidarity. Yet, we only give change a real chance to flourish when we sing Yihla Moja each day to the climate deniers, the corporate tax dodgers, the oppressive regimes, to poverty, the policies that rob people of rights and humanity. Then, and only then, do we give peace a chance.

As always what happens now is up to us

I wonder what conversation the woman had with her friends after her experience of the Pussy Riot gig? Did they believe her? Was she able to express the raw emotion of such oppression and human resolve to fight the iron fist of injustice? And if she did – do they live any differently now? I can’t quite imagine them sipping tea from china cups through their balaclavas!

Along with Masha’s book, another best-seller at the festival were the ‘Anyone can be Pussy Riot’ t-shirts and hoodies which young, old, women and men proudly wore. Even as people packed tents and left, many still proudly wore the slogan and travelled back to everyday life.

I’m sure some of the books are gathering dust on shelves and perhaps some of those t-shirts are in the bargain bin of local charity shops! Yet, those who continue to sing Yihla Moja, after the festival has become a long fading memory, are invoking the spirit of resistance and incarnational spirituality that works for a change (that) is gonna come.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Luke 4:18-19

*Greenbelt is an arts, faith and justice festival.

www.greenbelt.org.uk

Alone

Music connects us. We hear a song and it can take us back to a certain time and a particular place, conjure up a long-forgotten memory or unearth a feeling previously buried under many other experiences. Or maybe just the trade-mark sound of a band helps us to recall different circumstances.

I first heard CoCo and the Butterfields at a festival. Each time I hear their music I get a sense of lazy Summer days with friends sipping wine in a sunbathed Oxfordshire field. Connected with thousands of likeminded music lovers. I may misremember the sun but everything else is definitely true!

When I work I like to have music playing. I know that I won’t be listening fully, but it is there for when I get distracted from the task in hand. I tune in for a while, then return to work. While I work I often put my music collection on shuffle. It becomes my personal radio station for my workday.

Today, as I worked, I became aware of a CoCo and the Butterfields track playing. I stopped and listened. I was taken far from the restrictions of March 2020: no gatherings, social distancing, no toilet roll, worrying exactly what 2 metres look like, being allowed out of the house only to shop or exercise. Suddenly I was free, back at a festival, surrounded by friends and strangers (less than 2 metres away) enjoying freedom, contact, music and the sun.

Then, almost immediately, the vision of such past privileges disappeared, as this particular track, ‘Alone’, forged a new connection. I’ve heard this song many times but today the chorus hit well below the proverbial belt…

‘La, La, La, La I’m all alone,’

…I was winded. Brought low to face the current context of coronavirus and Covid-19.

It reminded me of the melancholy with which I had woken this morning. I woke knowing that I would not be in the presence of loved ones for months. Knowing that if they fell ill, I would not be able to look after them. Birthdays would pass without great celebration. Simple contact, face to face contact, would no longer be the norm. The long-established patterns and rhythms of my life had become unrecognisable – strange, solitudinous and slowly stretching to some unknown horizon.

I pushed through. Determined not to succumb, I put on music to lift my spirits, and I sat at my desk and worked…

‘La, La, La, La I’m all alone,’

I am led to believe (by the seemingly endless river of statistics that are dredged up for us by news programmes) that at this moment in time one quarter of the world’s population is living under lockdown.

‘La, La, La, La I’m all alone,

it’s a big wide world but everyone’s stuck at home’ 

I guess behind the statistics, the feeling that I woke with this morning was that I’m unconnected. My relationships with family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues had been blow apart by the Covid-19 virus and the subsequent restrictions.

As I write I am being constantly interrupted by the buzzing of my phone. Notification after notification that friends have posted on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or that they are having a House Party. Work and personal emails are announced at the top right-hand corner of my computer screen like breaking news and I have at least three Zoom meetings in my diary for tomorrow!

However big the world is and however many of us are stuck at home we live in the most connected of eras. We have never been so connected. So why did I wake feeling alone and unconnected?

Our connection through Social Media is a small fraction of true connection. It is fast-moving and fleeting. It reduces our emotions to likes, dislikes, thumbs up or down, hearts or fierce faces. It offers us a wide-angle lens on life, while companies entice us to focus on carefully and personally profiled adverts for goods and services we can’t do without! Escapism disguised as connection.

To be honest listening to CoCo and the Butterfields, it was probably at first this sense of escapism that touched me.  Yet, if the only connection is to be reminded of the festival vibe, then it’s a selfish connection. I’m not really connected to others.  Rather I am at the centre of a wide-angle view of the festival and those around me are extras in my escapism!

As I listened to ‘Alone’ I was forced into another connection; with today, with lockdown, with the current restrictions, with others.

‘it’s a big wide world but everyone’s stuck at home’ 

Because of the restrictions and the sheer numbers of us in lockdown we can’t share the same physical space, but we do share the space of being alone and being stuck at home. This song won’t forever remind me of Coronavirus, and it will remind me of more than a festival. It will forever remind me that I am connected with others.

Who knows in what kind of mood I will wake tomorrow? If I wake under the cloud of melancholy, I will play Alone and remind myself that I am not alone! I will find that connection to people I love, people I know, and people I have never met who are waking, stuck at home, separated from family and friends and with the same restrictions in their freedoms.

Music connects us. Songs will always remind us of times, people and particular places. And long may we be in the centre of those memories. Yet, we must allow music to connect us in deeper ways too. Not just to rose-tinted memories but to humanity, not just to happiness but to an understanding that loneliness, isolation and fear connect us too, and in this, we are not alone!

Spiritual Hospitality

So much of our intake of music is fleeting and transient. The muzak of the shopping mall. The radio playing in the corner of the workplace. The pub soundtrack drowned by our own banter and laughter. Occasionally, in these situations, we become vaguely aware of it’s presence. We may even declare to those we are sharing a drink with that we love this tune, but then our attention quickly returns to our chatter.

Music becomes the person we sit next to and ignore on the tube. Yet, any song however unknown, is a song waiting for hospitality. Waiting for the chance to be known to you.

Even in our homes, where we can choose the music we want to listen to, it often finds itself unnoticed next to us. Friends visit, drinks are poured, music is chosen, the conversation flows, and the song is drowned. Background music from your collection is an old friend waiting to be welcomed again into your midst.

To relegate music in these ways is to silence a voice that has a right to be heard, to ignore the stranger and to make our life poorer.

‘Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become soul-friends’

(Community of Spiritual Formation)

To offer music hospitality is to intentionally sit and listen. To be generous with our time and pay attention at the expense of all the other competing voices and noises in our world. It is to place music firmly in the foreground.

‘Spiritual listening is at the heart of all relationships. It is what we experience when we become a quiet, safe container into which the speaker is able to express his or her most genuine voice. There is a communion of souls.’

(Kay Lindahl, https://www.globallisteningcentre.org/spiritual-listening/)

I don’t believe any artist writes or plays for their music to lurk in shadows, to be the ignored traveller on public transport.  A true piece of art is birthed from deep within the soul of the artist and is offered to the world in the hope that there will be connection. That connection has no chance of being made if we keep the song in the background. If we become a safe container into which the music can express its most genuine voice the connection is possible.

When this connection is made, we allow the artist to speak into the space we create. With no other distractions we can immerse ourselves in the whole song. As we listen our brain will work in so many different ways to interpret rhythms, tunes and meaning of lyrics as well as interpreting the emotion of the piece. That moment when nothing else matters, when our eyes close, feet tap and our breathing falls into the rhythm of the song we have a true connection. We have a communion of souls. Our soul with the soul of the music and the artists and creator of the piece.

This is the way music is meant to communicate. This is the way music is meant to be listened to.  Allowing music to speak directly to us, by not having to fight for attention, ensures that the true voice of the music is heard.

Intentionally listening to a fresh piece of music is to listen with the anticipation and expectation that we experience at the start of a new relationship. When we hear a new song that touches us deep down, we can experience the same excitement and thrill as at the beginning of a new love affair. A relationship with limitless possibilities, in which there is a deep desire to know all we can and, simply, to be known. It is to offer a generous welcome to the unknown troubadour and begin to walk an unknown path.

It obviously takes more than one listen to become soul-friends. Revisiting the exercise of truly listening will take us into a deeper and richer relationship. It will open up many different avenues and there is no real knowing where it will lead. This is true for all spiritual journeys.

There is a spirituality in listening to music, even to so-called secular music. Definitions for spirituality abound but at the heart of many definition is the idea that spirituality is concerned with more than the physical and material things of this life and focusses on the soul, the spirit of a human.

‘Hands’ was the second single from The Raconteur’s debut album Broken Boy Soldiers. Released in the summer of 2006 it reached number 29 in the UK singles chart. (Listen to the song here… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85rzVxd6TrI)

It is a love song, a song about a relationship. As I listen I hear a song about knowing and being known. A song about the deep connection between two people. A song that is concerned with the spirituality, rather than the physicality, of love.

Help me get in touch with what I feel…

Help me find the good that’s inside me…

When you listen there’s a hope and I know I’m being heard

When you smile at me and I know, and we don’t have to speak a word

When you’re with me there’s a light and I can see my way

When you speak to me it’s a song and I know what to say

Offering spiritual hospitality to a song can form the sort of connection that helps us get in touch with what we feel, help us find the good inside.

To welcome and entertain a song is to expect that the experience will lift us above the everyday, stretch us beyond our own limits and reshape us. This is what makes listening a spiritual experience. This is why offering generous hospitality to music deepens our connection with songs and why our lives are so much poorer if we only ever leave music in the background.