About 'Listen with the Ear of the Heart'
From one of Ireland’s most respected singers comes her story of a lifetime’s joys and pains, the shaping of her relationship with God and the most personal thing to her: her voice. Woven into this narrative are beautiful, moving insights on living the spiritual life.
In 2003, Nóirín completed a ground-breaking doctorate on a theology of listening for which she coined the word ‘Theosony’ – from the Greek ‘Theos’ (God) and the Latin ‘sonas’ (sounding). Following the completion of this study, Nóirín found that the story behind it was one that needed to be told and shared. This book is an attempt to answer the questions of what the history behind the text was and how she came to this awareness of Theosony, the Sound of God? Thus this book becomes a wedding of the ‘I’ and the ear.
Listen with the Ear of the Heart promises new perspectives on hearing and listening, as well as letting the reader into the personal and aural life of a beloved Irish singer.
Chapter I – Overture
‘LISTEN … AND INCLINE – THE EAR OF YOUR HEART’
‘Listen’ is the very first word of St. Benedict’s Rule for the monastic life. He echoed the Sacred Scriptures, which he probably would have learned ‘off by heart’: ‘Hear, O Heavens, and listen, O earth’- the opening advice of the first prophet Isaiah. Benedict says: `Listen … and incline the ear of your heart.’ It is something that holds a lot of wisdom for us all in our lives.
In 2003, I wrote up a doctorate on a theology of listening. The primary purpose of such a thesis was to contribute to theological discourse. In other words, it had to be objective, impartial and detached, so I could not draw on personal stories of the Sound of God. The word ‘I’ could only be seen in footnotes.
Afterwards, everyone around me said, ‘How very interesting, but we want to hear your story now. What was it that drove you to the precipice of expression? What is the history behind the text? How did you come to an awareness of ‘theosony’, the Sound of God?’ Hence, this book is an attempt to answer these three questions, a wedding of the ‘I’ and the ear between the covers.
There are moments in our lives when we are startled into reality by a sound, a word, or indeed a silence. This sometimes gentle, sometimes raucous sound whispers to us a sudden recognition of our own belonging in this strange world, and we become deafened with a truth beyond the horizons of our everyday lives. When I seized the opportunity of defining my experience of a listening God, I immediately felt that a new word would have to appear to cover the myriad concepts that listening to, and out for, God embraces. Of course, the realm of silence is the other side of the hearing coin. So there is listening to God with the ear of the heart, the Word of God, the Voice of God, the Silence of God.
And so it came to be that a little word, ‘theosony’, became a welcome guest late in my life. It is a blend of two words from two different languages: ‘Theos’ is the lovely word for ‘God’ in Greek, which has been the source of many familiar words like ‘theology’, basically God-talk; ‘theopathy’; simply the emotion of just thinking about God; or ‘theophany’, plainly the appearance of God to humanity; and ‘sonans’ from the Latin, meaning ‘sounding’. So ‘theosony’ modestly attempts to rope in all chatter, emotional conversation and dialogue, all listening, aural and silent appearances when our human heart rests in the divine heart.
It has been a daunting task to sculpt my own story – the personal story, the social story, the story of the sound of God. In the instances of lonesomeness in my life, listening out for the voice of the Divine was nearer to me than any other way of being. God is omnipresent, the aural icon of the silent Divine. The ear of the heart is the religious imagination of all desire and is simply yet another symbol of the Holy Spirit, the Supreme Goddess of Sound and Silence, the vital energy behind every sound where everyone, including the profoundly deaf, has a unique aural love affair with God. ‘The Spirit blows… and you hear the sound of it’ (John 3:8); so it is with everyone who desires to know and live out a life of belonging and meaning with God. The ear of my heart has always cried out for God’s quiet voice. It is our host to that realm of the stranger.
This book is one attempt to offer new insights and truths based on the narrative of some of my own aural and oral relationship with the triune God. I became ready to write and my tongue was ‘the pen of a ready scribe’ (Psalm 45:1). My story falls into three different movements of contrasting moods and feelings. The musical composition of a sonata (closely related to the Latin word ‘sonans’) accurately symbolises my journey with its distinctive themes – sometimes happy, sometimes sad, but all near relatives in pitch and tune along the way. Therefore, I have adopted this musical scaffolding, topped with this introductory overture and tailed with a little coda, to tell the tale. My hope for it is that it may resonate with you, find the blessing that a sure ‘sound’ hue of listening can offer; that it may open your ears to hear the healing that such a blessing can bring. Hearing and listening with the ear of the heart is wholesome and holistic; we desperately need to cherish the aural in our noisy, troubled world. My own experiences, although sometimes clumsily articulated, are my attempt to share some brief vignettes or small sound-bytes of when I was audibly touched. May we all learn to listen that we may live. Let our hearing hearts incline to listen with the heavenly hosts, the communion of Saints, to the sonorous, deeply resonant song of salvation.
THEME ONE: First Memories that Linger
I was conceived beside the oldest sacred site in Ireland – the ancient stone circle near the beautiful Lough Gur, Co. Limerick. The family home was a tiny rented cottage on the banks of that magical lake, and I lived there with my parents, older sister and brother from the day of my birth, on 12 June 1951, until the age of four. I have no conscious memories of this time, although those stones, just standing there in silence for over four thousand years, are forever calling me back. Early childhood prepared me for a life committed first to God, and then to song. I had no idea until I revisited the shadowy hearth of my memories that this divine commitment was to be my space of ease, healing and homeliness.
My parents, Nora Hassett and Paddy Ryan, met in 1938. It was love at first sight, and for many years they were seen as the local ‘golden couple’. He was the handsome creamery manager – a highly sought-after position in those days – and she was the stylish ‘national’ school teacher.
In 1955, the Marian year, we moved down the road to Caherconlish, into a fine newly built, two-storey house that had to be called Mount Marian. Years later my mother told me that on that first day in our new home, I was cranky and cross with a severe ear infection. Her mother had to be summoned to mind me in the midst of the unpacking. A moment sitting on Granny’s lap in the bare front dining room is one of my earliest memories. Faintly I hear her singing softly to me. My right ear throbs when I recall it.
But my strongest memory of Mount Marian remains the sound of the clocks. The rhythmic ticking of the oak-framed clock over the Aga cooker punctuated the day as regularly as the numerous calls to prayer of Glenstal Abbey were to do so years later. And then there was the eccentric cuckoo clock in the living room, a gift that Da had brought back from a business trip to Holland. Although the little timber cuckoo didn’t look or sound anything like the real thing that came to sing at the end of the garden every May, its dependable call comforted me through many a sleepless night.
This Dutch clock was the inspiration for the first song I ever learned. One evening as I wound its metal key, my father taught me a song that was very popular at the time – ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’, about the relationship between an old man and his faithful time-keeper. I cannot have been more than five years old, and I was enthralled and intrigued by the tune and the words, composed by a Chicago printer, Henry Clay Work, in 1876. I read much later that his songs, and surely this one, were inspired by the noises of the printing machines that surrounded him.
Ninety years without slumbering; tick-tock, tick-tock.
Its life-seconds numbering; tick-tock, tick-tock.
It stopped short, never to go again.
When the old man died.
It struck an alarm in the middle of the night;
An alarm that for years had been dumb.
And we knew that his spirit was pluming for flight.
That his hour of departure had come.
Yet the clock went its round with a low and muffled sound.
As we silently stood by its side.
And it stopped short never to go again.
When the old man died.
I had never heard the term ‘pluming for flight’ before, and I was convinced that, instead of dying, the old man was preparing to pack his travel bags for a long journey. In a way, I suppose he was. Death is the ultimate solo flight to the eternal. Oddly, it has remained a theme song all through my life, and sometimes I sing my own version of it. Indeed it has been commented on many times, including a mention by the Irish Times critic Charles Acton following a concert I shared with the late, great tenor, Frank Patterson. ‘Then Nóirín Ní Riain sang for a quarter of an hour … and it was fascinating to hear her adding sean-nós ornaments to the song “Grandfather’s Clock”.’
THEME TWO: What’s In a Name
All names to me are creative and mesmerising. I believe that in Western society, we have lost respect and reverence for the power that the hallowed sound of our names hold. From a very young age I was spellbound by the sound of the divine names of God, Mary and Jesus. I knew that I could call on God and that, far from being a distant deity, this Holy One was someone whom I could call on by name. God’s name is the common denominator in the Bible. Scripture recalls how the sound of the name of God dispels the darkness of the night. From out of this sound, the morning darkness dims to lay bare the hallowed name. ‘For lo, the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind, reveals his thoughts to mortals, makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth – the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!’ (Amos 4:13). It was no surprise to learn later that Jesus Christ named and called this same God by the pet name of Abba / Father and urged every Christian to prayer to ‘Our Father’ (Matthew 6:9). Every Christian is privileged to nominate God ‘Father’.
The psalmist foretells the great Christ event: ‘O Lord … how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ (Psalm 8:1) Through Jesus Christ, the echo of God’s name is sounded once and for all. ‘The naming of God … is not simple … It is not a single tone, but polyphonic,’ philosopher Paul Ricouer suggests, using sonic imagery. The name for God in the Irish language is ‘Dia’. Prayer as dialogue becomes Dia-logue – a nearest and dearest conversation between God’s logos and the praying one who is known by and in the image of that divine word.
The name ‘Jesus’ represents the Hebrew and Aramaic yesu’a, which is a late form of the Hebrew yehosu’a. It is a ‘theophoric’ name, which means that it embraces some divine name or title of God in its make-up. To be given the name of Jesus is to be called ‘Yahweh is salvation’. Jesus is true to his name; he is the savior who carries the authority of God. Jesus lived by his saving name. His followers and disciples followed suit: the name of Jesus carried status. Angelus Silesius, the German mystic who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1653, was convinced of the power of this Jesus name: ‘The name of Jesus is an oil poured out and spilt, It nourishes and shines, the soul’s own woe it stills.’ And to address the Divine human one in Irish is beautiful: ‘A Íosa!’
I was baptised Nóra Mary Antoinette Ryan. ‘Nóra’ came from my mother, and indeed her mother before her. I am Nóra the Third. ‘Antoinette’ has to do with the date on which I was born. My mother prayed that I would appear on the feast of St. Anthony, 13 June. But, disappointingly for her, I appeared on the twelfth! ‘Disobedient in birth as in life’, she occasionally reminded me!
One evening, as we sat by the Aga cooker, I asked her where the ‘Mary’ in my name came from. She replied, ‘Ah, no rhyme or reason. Sure, everyone was called Mary, even men’. Through the simple question, I had plucked a fragile chord. She went on to tell me about one particular Irishman called Joseph Mary Plunkett, a Dubliner executed in the 1916 Rising at the age of thirty-one. She was two years old, she added. I still remember the sound of her voice as she wistfully recited his lovely religious poem, ‘The Presence of God’. The symbol of the Divine in the thunder and the singing of God’s voice stood out loud and clear as she spoke.
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower,
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice – and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart sits the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.
‘Mary’ comes from the Greek names ‘Maria’ or ‘Mariam’ and the Hebrew ‘Miryam’. Mary is not just a name but is also a title referring to a singing role which women played in antiquity. The Exodus drama of salvation when performed by early ascetics had two choirs: one of men directed by a singer representing Moses; the other of women led by a woman singer, Miriam. Mary of Magdala and Mary of Nazareth could well have been singers in their own lives untold of in the gospels, using their voices to pray to God. So naming me Mary was perhaps no accident at all!
The author is well known as a spiritual singer in the Celtic Christian tradition. Her singing career recently took a new turn when she joined up with her two sons, Eoin and Micheál, to form the group AMEN with whom she is currently recording and touring. She is also a doctor of theology, her thesis for Mary Immaculate College being on the theology of listening, for which she coined the neologism ‘theosony’ for the concept she developed. Her life story is laid out like a piece of music divided into three movements characterised by themes, each underpinned by her personal musings on religion and its place in her life. This is a book as much about her spiritual journey as about her life and musical career. The design of this small cased book by, Lir Mac Cárthaigh, is unusual and particularly pleasant and ColourBooks have clearly entered into the spirit of it.
– Books Ireland, November 2009
Acclaimed spiritual sing Nóirín Ní Riain launched her autobiography, Listen with the Ear of the Heart, in Limerick last night. The 58-year-old theologian was accompanied by family and friends as chairman of the American Ireland Fund Dr Loretta Brennan Glucksman launched her story in St John’s Church.
Dr Glucksman spoke warmly of her longstanding friendship with the Irish musicologist and described the autobiography as ‘a valuable and accessible book’. ‘Nóirín has used the power of her gift to teach us how to listen with the ear of the heart. Who else could tell you that the sound of the cosmos is B flat,’ joked Dr Glucksman.
Also in attendance at last night’s launch were a number of monks from Glenstal Abbey, where Ní Riain lives and with whom she recorded a number of albums. ‘I think it’s very important that people read this book because it is actually giving us a new way of hearing in the universe,’ said Abbot of Glenstal, Patrick Hederman OBS. ‘We haven’t our ears open at all and Nóirín is able to show you if you listen you can hear God everywhere, so it’s magnificent in that way.’
Speaking about her book, the author, who completed a doctorate on the theology of listening at Mary Immaculate College in 2003, described it as being as much about her ‘memories of sound’ as her life story. ‘My parents always said I sang before I spoke and that’s one of the reasons they took me into Limerick city for singing lessons when I was a child,’ recalled the mother of two, who grew up six miles from Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick.
After attending boarding school in Drogheda, she went on to study music at University College Cork, which she remembered as the ‘happiest time of my life’. It was there she met and later married well-known Irish musician and composer Micheál Ó Súilleabháin, and though now divorced they remain friends. The couple’s two sons, Eoin and Micheal, or Moley as he is better known, perform regularly with their mother in the group Amen, and are also enjoying success with their group, Size2 Shoes.
Despite her faith and passion for religious songs, Ní Riain was critical of the church’s attitude towards separated couples. ‘We bless a marriage for ever and ever but there is no blessing for separation or divorce which is also created by God and that’s certainly what I believe,‘ she said. ‘I believe that a blessing would help an awful lot of couples.
– The Irish Times, 9 December 2009
It is fair to say that Nóirín ní Riain has lived an extraordinarily blessed life. Fortunate are we that her recent book Listen with the Ear of the Heart: An Autobiography gives us an insight into the sacred musical world of this renowned Irish musical theologian.
From her rural beginnings in county Limerick through to her nestling-in amongst her soul-mates in Glenstal Abbey, Nóirín’s life appears to have been a jig-saw of blessed coincidences which, when pieced fashion, make perfect sense.
Nóirín beautifully recalls for us her life’s journey incorporating both her musical and spiritual careers. These memories are spiritually enhanced by scripture, poems, proverbs and psalms. Writings and guidance from Irish mystics, poets, musicians, and religious who have clearly guided and impacted her life profoundly are also introduced.
The opportunity is also taken by Nóirín to introduce us to her personally coined word ‘theosany’ (sound of God). Her theological explanation of this phrase is much welcomed as it not only summarises, but validates the ‘God/Sound’ theory which the Holy Spirit undoubtedly blessed her with an awareness of from a very young age.
The chromatics of Nóirín’s life, revealed to us in her own words, make this book an inspirational symphony of Irish mysticism, spirituality and musicality.
— Intercom, April 2010