The Speech of Angels

bird   singing

“We are lodged in rooms off the Central Hall (at Miechovitz in Northern Germany) – & before it is daylight the chorales begin there softly like birds singing in the dawn. . .  and all day long there is a ripple of gladness. . . ”           14 November 1908

Lilias ended an intensive two-month speaking schedule in Scandinavia, in the autumn of 1908, with an unexpected trip to Germany.  Encouraged by Baroness Kurcks of Sweden, Lilias consented to a meeting with Sister Eva of Friedenshort.  This was the beginning of a life-long friendship and the continuing source of inspiration for both of these remarkable women with similar affluent backgrounds.

Miechovitz was in a great mining district on the spur of the Carpathians with all the bitter winds of Russia blowing across it.  And yet, as Lilias observed, “Inwardly it was all aglow, as I never knew a place to be in all my life – on fire with a spirit of sacrifice that did not even know itself to be sacrifice, it is so the natural expression of love.”  

It had been a small work, with deep roots, until the time of the Welsh Revival when Sister Eva’s lifelong search for God was met “by a full drought from His fountain.”  The work grew from a staff of 24 to 150 “sisters,” the household numbering 300, including orphans, students, infirmed villagers, babies – to say nothing of other related ministries.

It was the music from the orphan children – “like birds singing in the dawn” – that awakened Lilias every morning and set the course of gladness for the rest of the day.  An inspired ending to the rigors of a speaking ministry and renewal for the relaunch of ministry in Algiers.

Music.  “Music is well said to be the speech of angels,” wrote Thomas Carlyle, “in fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to man is felt to be so divine.”  How does one explain the mystery of matching pitch with rhythm, to make a pleasing melody?  Or pairing pitches to that tune – adding, perhaps, percussion or horn or strings – resulting in glorious harmonies?  How is it that the experiencing of music transcends the physical sense of hearing or the neurological complexities of the brain, penetrating to the deepest places of the soul?

Little matter the simplicity or complexity:  a single line of monastic chant. . .   a simple hymn-tune chorded with 4-notes and linked with text. . .  a haunting folk song accompanied with a six-string acoustic guitar. . .  the plaintive melodies of American spirituals. . .  wordless music – a sonata, a symphony.  Or put it all together – stage, actors, song, libretto,  orchestra – into complex operatic form.  “The twelve notes in each octave and the varieties of rhythm  offer opportunities that all of human genius will never exhaust.” (Stravinsky)

Many people, like myself, can trace key moments in life through particular songs or music associated with those events.  Music captures the emotional essence of an experience that can only, with difficulty, be put into words.

Three such incidents immediately come to mind – but there are many more. . .  Two were in Israel although separated by many years.  One was in the northern district, in a boat, on the Sea of Galilee.  My husband and I were “alone” together, separated from family and friends, the overcast skies and choppy water matching my mood.  Then from another section of the boat, a group of travelers began to sing the words of a beloved old hymn, ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,’ to an unfamiliar but compelling tune setting.  The clear voices in lilting English accent took the precious words and thoughts wrapping the threads of sound around my heart, uniting the Church Universal – here in Israel, their England, and my own USA: “Drop Thy still dews of quietness/Till all our strivings cease;/Take from our souls the strain and stress,/And let our ordered lives confess/The beauty of Thy peace.”

The second “Israel Experience” was in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.  I heard the heart-wrenching music of a string quartet before I saw them:  four gentlemen seated on folding chairs, in an open space within the cloistered walkway, playing out their hearts – instrument cases open to receive the chance token of appreciation.  They had been members, I learned, of a famed Russian orchestra, now refugees piecing together a living – their price for freedom.

Most recently music connected me across the miles, via phone, with my Mother who was finding less to talk about as her world became smaller.  And yet!  She would come alive when I would recall a beloved song – some from her early camp meeting years – and together we would sing those texts of affirmation, she filling in where I would forget the words.  ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,’ ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness,’ ‘Come Thou Disconsolate.’

Music touches places in the heart when words alone fail.  It comforts and consoles.  Music expresses thoughts unutterable.  “Music is the shorthand of emotions,” Tolstoy proclaimed, conveying emotion for which words are inadequate.  “Music,” according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities and in time of care and sorrow will keep a function of joy alive in you.”

I clean house to the lyrical music of Mozart and worship to the words and melodies of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and Vaughn Williams.  Soulful tunes – folk songs and spirituals and gospel music – fill my heart.  A catchy foot-tapping tune from a popular score or praise chorus invariably lifts my spirits.  And I devote, from time to time, an entire evening to a concert beautifully staged and orchestrated with perfect acoustics.  Still the sweet song of a child (grandchild!) catches me unexpectedly with a jolt of joy!

Music!  Who but God could have imagined such a gift?!  The language of angels; the transport of mortals to the infinite.

“Music gives soul to the universe,

Wings to the mind,

Flight to the imagination,

and life to everything.”


Painting:  from The Voice of the Bird among the Flowers (a picture book for children)

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2 Responses to The Speech of Angels

  1. Donna Lobs says:

    Love all your posts Miriam but this one surfaced many memories including singing in Eretz Israel.On our many tours,we always encouraged singing ,crossing the Sea of Galilee being but one.My very very favorite was singing in St. Anne’s Chapel in the Old City. Acoustics so perfect and many languages present singing together well known Christian hymns.Reminded me of the Day of Pentecost.I could have remained in that chalet for hours.
    St.Agustine is thought to have said,”he who sings,prayers twice.”

    “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” is one of my favorite hymns. It surfaces memories of the best women’s retreat at St.Marks Geneva. The 4 meditations each given by a woman of the parish ,focused on the lines from the hymn you quoted..Very creative and highly effective.
    Thanks for jogging precious memories. Donna

    • mhrockness says:

      Dear Donna,

      Thank you for your encouraging comments! You do understand the power of music – and in Israel, no less.

      There are the wonderful lines from that hymn that speak directly to that setting: “”In simple trust like theirs who heard,/Beside the Syrian Sea. . . ” – “O Sabbath rest by Galilee! O calm of hills above,/Where Jesus knelt to share with thee/The silence of eternity,/Interpreted by love.” There really isn’t a single thought within that hymn that doesn’t “count,” is there? What a great idea to base retreat meditations on each stanza of that hymn. Like you, it is one of my favorite hymns.

      I feel like I “know” you – through Cheryl (and other connections) but I understand that there is a possibility that we might get to meet you in Mt. Dora this coming October? I hope that does work out!

      Again, thank you Donna, for taking the time to convey your thoughts. It (they) mean a lot to me.



      From: “Lilias Trotter”

      To: Sent: Saturday, March 1, 2014 9:43:17 AM Subject: [Lilias Trotter] Comment: “The Speech of Angels”

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