Music and the Difficulty of Language

Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS

How can a life that is so mysterious and bright be seen when it is blinding by nature? How can man express what is inexpressible? A consideration of the difficulty of man expressing himself and the things of God with words may be appropriate.

It is understood by poets and philosophers alike that our words are limited when it comes to expressing the profound experience of human life. Lovers cannot fully express their love. The slighted cannot fully express their anger. So many of the secrets of our intimacy remain secrets because of their inexpressibility. However, there is nothing that goes so beyond our capacity with words as the experience of the transcendent God in the mystical life. Here even the literal words which come from the mouth of Our Lord contain meanings and depths that remain only partially understood and ultimately a mystery. His ministry was one of parables in which so much remained hidden from the wise. So much so that the apostles repeatedly asked Jesus to explain Himself. How many times did He tell them of His death and they would not understand?

Just as Jesus gave His parables to bring the mysteries into a form that could be reflected upon, He also lived within the heritage of the Jewish people who had come to praise God with song and instrument. Basil Cole lists a number of such references from the Old and the New Testaments.[2] The recitation of Scripture within the temple took the form of a chant; the psalms were all expressed in music.

The place of metaphors and allegories are rich in the Jewish tradition. Music is pure metaphor. It makes us think of or imagine something, and when it is true, it sounds like something beautiful.

[1] DiVietri, Patrick J. Ph.D., A COMMENTARY ON THE CANTATA CARMELITUM, Dissertation presented to the faculty of the Graduate School of the Humanities, American Commonwealth University, San Diego, 1997, Pp. 11-12.

[2] Cole, Basil OP. Music and Morals. (New York: Alba House, 1993,) pp. 15-21.