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September 2017
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The renowned Cambridge academic theologian and philosopher of religion Rev. Dr. Sarah Coakley has written at length about theology of prayer, spiritual experience, and spiritual knowing. In a recent 2-part interview for The Other Journal with SueJeanne Koh, Coakley discusses the cost and implications of becoming open in silent prayer. She emphasizes the surrender of perplexing and even disturbing material that arises in the disciplined practice of silent prayer, and commends communal prayer as an important support for the courageous, and literally en-couraging, submissions involved in silent prayer.

What occurs to me, on reading the interview (and the followup, part two, here), is how, in addition to the experience of silence, the experience of music shows up in people’s lives as a way that the self is handed over to something more, to an excessive “call” from a generous and generative beyond. Silence is perhaps profitably thought of not as the absence or opposite of sound, but of noise. Musical experience can generate an experience of internal silence and a contemplative mein. I do not know of studies that compare silence and musical sound as comparative practices of meditation or contemplation, but the question is an important one for contemporary persons who probably need more silence in our lives and who also might need a deeper spiritual appreciation of the (musical) sounds we value.

Silence is certainly a way that lives are spiritually transformed, as she argues, but so is music, which sometimes does not cancel silence but deepens it. This notion seems particularly connected to Coakley’s understanding that “prayer has everything to do with the erotic,” to which she adds, “particularly in its widest sense.” Musical experience in its many guises — from fandom to musicianship to the diverse forms of thinking music occasions — is a greenhouse for the facilitation of desires. This is not to simplistically collapse silent prayer and music. Certainly musical culture has many diminishing and destructive ways of inventing and implanting desires that shunt people into smaller, not larger, lives. But let’s also remember that there is no single meaning to silent prayer, meditation, or contemplation, and that theological discourses about its essence are also ways of inciting and directing desires. These worlds of technique and discipline, practices of prayer and music, in face of the gracious/uncanny/disturbing excess — otherwise known as the powers to which our lives are subject — are always complicated.

Carlos Santana calls “the real thing” in music, “the soup that has the bones still in it,” or in Coakley’s words “everything to do with the erotic… in its widest sense.” That is why Santana and John Lee Hooker render homage to “blues, the healer.” Here they are in a 1990 performance:

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Tommy Beaudoin, on Spring Break

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