When I was about eight years old, I dreamed one night that I stood inside the workings of an immense instrument, so big it filled the sky. It was crafted of wood and gold, and although there was no obvious source of light, it was brightly illuminated. I could have confused it for the inner workings of a clock except that I could hear the sweet music it produced resonating throughout its cavernous hollows. It was curious to me that there seemed to be no atmosphere there either to breathe or to carry sound. Within it, I did not perceive any movement. And, there was no actual melody that it produced, which could be sung or repeated. There was only an enveloping harmonic thrumming. The sound was multiplicative and voluminous although not piercing. I understood it in the dream to be cosmic, structural, primordial, and generative. When I awoke, I had the feeling that I had seen something divine. It was not heaven. It was not God. It was more like the instrument of the universe, or the universal instrument, created as a first work among creation
It was puzzling to me that I had such a dream because I was not then a musician. I felt that I understood its meaning, but I was surprised by its discontinuity with things in my normal frame of reference. My mother played piano, but she had no music theory in her background. She surely did not have any training in musical cosmologies, such as those produced in antiquity by the philosophers and theologians. I occasionally mentioned the dream over the years when context seemed to warrant it, but, more or less, I filed it away.
Decades later, I find myself thinking about that dream often. As a theologian, I appreciate its revelatory quality. As a feminist, I am not afraid to embrace dreaming as a source of revelation. Perhaps I think about the dream because I started studying music a few years back. When I began my lessons in voice and piano, I had the sense that if I did not learn to play, my home would eventually become silent. My mother and father-in-law filled our respective dwellings with music, and I knew intuitively that in their passing someday the silence would become unbearable. My piano teacher asked me why I wanted to learn how to play at our first meeting, and I would have lost my composure if I had spoken the truth of it. So, I said rather casually, “I don’t know. I guess just because I never played when I was younger…”
A few weeks ago, my father-in-law became very ill with a cancer of the brain that is taking his life. On the night before the surgery that removed his tumor and also most of his capacity for speech, he played his grand piano limpidly and brilliantly, probably for the last time. It is a stunning turn of events that has left us mostly bewildered – the speed of the illness, its devastating effects, our longing for a reality that is recently but permanently lost, the logistics of intensive caregiving. Among the most unanticipated consequences is the newness of adjusting our own behaviors, expectations, and interactions with, for, and from an intimate who has become so different so quickly. Through no fault, it is experienced irrationally as an insult to relationship. How does one now behave with the beloved stranger?
I have chosen to sing to my father-in-law. I used to sing with him while he played, but now I have to play myself. It still sounds so rough an intermediary that I am loathe to make too much noise. However, I can sing for him, since I can do nothing else. For many days after his surgery, I visited him, and holding his hand gently I would sing. He was mostly unresponsive, refusing even to eat. But, one morning, after two terrible nights, I sat with him early while the sun rose through his window. I quietly hummed scales, noticing that he was awake even while his eyes were shut. An encouraged nurse decided to try to feed him breakfast, which he ate. She tried a little coffee, which he drank. Still his eyes were shut, but a therapist came in and suggested we try to walk with him. I agreed, taking his right arm and singing a song from his era. Groggily he opened his eyes, placed his forehead to mine, stood with me, and followed the song. With our heads touching, he walked. By the afternoon of that same day, he was mouthing and even singing the final words of “happy birthday to you.”
I sang all afternoon to him, and his response was a remarkable reawakening into himself. The speech therapist told us that music is located in a different place in the brain than speech, so sometimes people with brain injuries find their way back through music. It is automatic, she said, to sing one’s A,B,C’s. I think it is automatic because we are fundamentally part of the creational cosmic song, not primarily by intellect or agency but by being itself.
I cannot help here but recall my childhood dream and its teaching about creation’s harmonic resonances. For us, at least by material measure, music begins in the cradle of our mothers’ wombs – their words, songs, heartbeats, bowels, thoughts. It endures throughout life in our own voiced and strummed productions, although too often we are more interested in solo performances that sound like clanging than in blended participation in the chorus. Music returns us into the cradle of the grave – where we rest ensconced in our Mother’s natural music of birds’ song, water trickling, snow patting, wind rustling, and deep earth shifting.
Hildegard of Bingen, the unparalleled musical mystic of the 12th century, observed: “Sometimes when we hear a song we breathe deeply and sigh. This reminds the prophet that the soul arises from heavenly harmony. In thinking about this, he was aware that the soul itself has something in itself of this music…” She seems to suggest that we are music, to sing and to be sung in endless harmony. I, for my part, agree.
I don’t know how long or how much singing will help in our case, but it is obviously a source of vitality and perhaps even pleasure in a moment when both are sorely in need. We all will sing while we can, and I will be comforted by the image of that great celestial instrument, in whose eternal humming no note or resonance is lonely or lost.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.