Irish Independent: The Devil does not have all the best tunes

December 09th 2007

Source: Irish Independent

A lack of belief needn’t prevent you enjoying and even being moves by religious music, says John Masterson

Being a life-long atheist, I regularly face the off fact that it is usually deeply religious people who say the most interesting things. And, oddly, it is usually deeply religious people who are most at home with the uncertainties we all face daily in life. And it is these thinkers who are most wary of people who are certain they are right, whatever part of the universe they come from. I always treat certainty with caution.

No sincerely religious person can buy the logic of the suicide bomber or the abortionist clinic arsonist. They are seen for what they are. Misguided fanatics, often used cynically by zealots who have lost both the desire to question and their ability to cope with uncertainty. We are not as far from this ignorant fundamentalist as we might think. We feel superior when we see riots about a teddy bear in Sudan, though I suspect if Tommy Tiernan were to mention on the Late Late that he had named his pets after the Holy Trinity, the switchboard would be jammed.

Recently I heard a monk, a man for whom I have great respect, chatting about his last trip to New York. He had taken a taxi in Manhattan and to his great surprise head plain chant on the sound system. “My shrink told me to play it,” the driver explained. “It helps me deal with my road rage.”

Chant, the monk explained to me, reaches the parts that other music does not reach. It gets to the soul. To the spirit.

The anecdote struck a chord with me. I went through a stage in the Eighties when I played Caoineadh na Maighdine by Nóirín Ní Riain and the Monks of Glenstal Abbey every day for about two years. It was one of those times, with a new job, house, mortgage and no money, when you need something to keep you sane.

We all use music to change our mood. We have favourite pieces to get us going and to chill out to. They work as a quick fix. But the more I though about the monk’s story, the more I realised that plain chant and some religious music is of a different order. You don’t have to believe you have a soul to know that that is the place it gets to. It seems to direct the mind in a more productive way and to allow the jumbled personalities we all have fit back together in a more satisfactory alignment. I hesitate to call it “spiritual” because every lazy dingbat goes on about being spiritual these days. When I hear someone smugly describe themselves as “spiritual” I find the word “airhead” is never far away. But that is the part of me it replenishes. My atheistic spirit become refreshed.

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to travel to India with the same Nóirín who kept me sane all those years ago. With her were her two adult sons. We were making a documentary for RTÉ and after each day’s filming the trio would begin to sing from their huge repetoire. Maybe it is the genetic closeness, but the combination of the three voices often did get past all the defences. Straight to the soul. A mother singing with her two children.

Nóirín and her sons, Eoin and Mícheál, have recently released a CD called simply ‘AMEN’. For a few weeks now I have one copy in the car and one in the house. I find myself playing it every day. I find myself needing to hear The Coventry Carol and looking forward to the few minutes of Lead Kindly Light.

History has a funny way of repeating itself.

© John Masterson 2007

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