A Musician’s Call to Mysticism

An astounding fact bears our reflection. In the Mass, we experience the reality for which the mystic heart longs—real union with our God. However, we receive such grace only in the degree to which our souls are disposed to accept it. (1)

When your music at Mass influences the readiness of our souls, by stirring within us a deeper grasp of what is taking place on the altar, your welcoming of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament has glorious repercussions! Imagine the increase in His grace that could be poured out on the whole world through those souls your music prepares to receive Him with love! It is, after all, through His action in our souls—through the making of saints—that God changes the world! 

Because of this, my musical friends, it is no exaggeration to say that you are in the business of making saints. To do it, you are called to be a special kind of saint as well. By exploring the musical moments of the liturgy, the book Music and Meaning in the Mass seeks to help you learn, like a mountain guide, like the trumpeter before an army, the paths along which your special vocation as a liturgical musician invites you to lead others. 

Much as the Real Presence in the Eucharist is rarely understood among today’s Catholics and the role of the musician is essential to restoring our experience of it, perhaps even more rarely understood is the life of the soul itself—a life that can be roused and nourished through music, especially in the pinnacle of our encounter with God in the Mass. The Mass is the only real and eternally meaningful epic, operatic, cinematic drama there is, and the individual soul has a leading role. Everything lies in balance with each soul’s relationship to Jesus on the altar. 

If you are a liturgical musician, this goes a step further. Other souls are profoundly influenced by your role in the drama of this relationship as it is expressed in your art. For this reason, I argue that if you are a musician, you are uniquely called to be a mystic in the true and ancient Catholic sense of the word. That is, you must be particularly awakened among your peers to the life of your soul and respond with love and longing to God’s invitation to intimacy in order to communicate that invitation to others. 

This article is from Music and Meaning in the Mass. Click image to learn more.

Pushing aside the long mystical wisdom of the Church, it seems that today we’ve begun to treat the eternal fate of our souls as a pass-or-fail issue. That is, in the end, we either make it to Heaven or go to Hell; and since, when we look around us, few people seem bad enough to deserve Hell in our opinions, we are content to think that we, along with them, are probably going to make it to Heaven eventually. Tragically, our eternal aspirations can end there. 

Certainly making it to Heaven is better than not! However, this reduction forgets that the goal of our souls, Heaven itself, is a relationship with God, not some sort of physical destination where arriving is the end. Heaven is not a magnificent tourist spot like the Grand Canyon where, if you make the trip, you get to enjoy the same view as anyone else who does the same. 

I recently attended the eightieth birthday party of a famous artist and wildly colorful Navy veteran much beloved by our community. The food was delicious, the laughter was contagious, and the house was a glowingly warm refuge from the drizzly weather outside. Everyone there enjoyed these things. 

In fact, the birthday girl was such a popular figure in town and her liberal hospitality was so well known that the party was huge! People were there who knew her only distantly. Nephews and second cousins and out-of-town in-laws of her friends were there, and they were all imminently welcome. 

However, the food, the warmth, and the welcoming atmosphere weren’t the point of the party. The point was to celebrate and to spend time with the birthday girl, and those who knew her best got to enjoy it the most. Those who had shared experiences with her could laugh more heartily at inside jokes. Those who were genuinely thrilled at her accomplishments and were, in some little way, a part of them, had a level of enjoyment of her successes. 

What’s my point? While a generous acquaintance might invite you into his or her house, there is a world of difference between spending time with an acquaintance and a friend, and the closer and dearer the friendship, the more meaningful and enjoyable nearness to that person becomes. So, mystics throughout the ages of the Church have reminded us that our goal in the spiritual life isn’t just to arrive at the party but to know the host as intimately as possible! 

They teach us, therefore, that there are degrees of relationship with God, and every soul is meant for a journey of ever-growing closeness with Him through phases of increasing intimacy. The gift of the Church’s great mystic doctors is a map of these phases. (2) Though God can do anything (such as blinding Saint Paul in a brilliant burst of self-revelation and effecting an instant conversion), He typically leads souls toward a deep relationship with Him through the degrees of a journey—usually akin to a climb. (3)

Because these Church teachings are hardly ever emphasized in my generation—a loss almost as profound as our lack of understanding of the Mass—many souls today tragically lack a map for the journey they are meant to take. These souls are like sailboats built for offshore ocean racing docked on an inland lake, and no one ever shows them there’s a salty sea to reach. They do not know it exists, and so it does not figure in their hopes or dreams, and they pass into eternity without ever achieving the glorious end for which they were built. 

They may be saved, but the truth they are never told is that they were created and called to become great saints—souls who, by constantly striving to respond to and cooperate with the graces extended to them, pursued a close relationship with God in this life. Great saints enjoy Heaven and draw others toward Heaven with them in a way that souls who, believing that Heaven is merely a destination that they’ll likely reach in the end, cannot. By the mercy of God, dispassionate souls may “make it” to Heaven, but because they never desired to know their Host well or intimately, they may enjoy it only as much as a guest on the outer edges of a party can. 

What a loss! Its tragedy is compounded by its irrevocability, as this life alone is our chance to develop and express that desire for intimacy in the darkness of faith that proves our love and to take the adventurous and dramatic ascending mystic journey toward God’s love that He holds out to us! We will realize this at our deaths and then, if destined for Heaven, long to love Him because we will have seen Him unveiled; but those who desired to embark upon the climb in this life will have pursued a different kind friendship from those who never thought of it. 

This is, incidentally, one reason why cutting short the full natural course of any human life is such an intolerable heartbreak in the Catholic worldview. Every moment one is alive is a new chance to grow in this relationship. Every moment discarded is an eternal forfeiture of a degree of love and joy a soul could have known in the next life and drawn others toward in this one. 

Do we, who are alive now, take advantage? Does the art God has given us the talent to make encourage others to do so? Saint Teresa of Avila tells us that the difference in the degrees of Heaven is so great that when we die, we will realize we would have joyfully preferred to live through every torment of this world until its end just to attain one more minute step of closeness to God in eternity. (4)

How, then, do we pursue the relationship we are meant to have with God? If we’re headed for Heaven, the only way there is by a steep climb, following our Lord to Calvary (Matthew 16:24). Fortunately, He leads us and His grace carries us along the way. So, why wait? Putting it off will never get us farther along! 

The opportunity to climb toward Calvary is present in every struggle of our lives, and the literal ability to approach Calvary itself is present to us at every Mass! Progress in the spiritual life disposes the soul for greater union with God. The progression of the Mass should likewise dispose the soul for union with Christ in the Eucharist, and music is uniquely capable of influencing its listeners physically, emotionally, and psychologically toward that disposition.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Dr. Cardinalli’s Music and Meaning in the Mass. It is available as an ebook or paperback from your local bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.

Author’s notes:

  • 1. Jesus is always truly physically and completely present in the Eucharist, regardless of our recognition or response. However, how deeply He is welcomed in our souls and how much we permit Him to remain in us with His grace and transform us depends on our preparedness and “disposition,” or the degree of our inclination to desire Him. These are things on which your music can exert a profound influence.
  • 2. I am, of course, thinking of the Doctors of the Church Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila, in works like The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Interior Castle, as well as the works of their spiritual children over the ages, where God’s map for the soul who seeks Him, revealed in Scripture, is laid out through the teaching of those with profound experience. 
  • 3. Thus Saint John’s mountain, Saint Teresa’s castle, and Saint Thérèse’s staircase and elevator analogies.
  • 4.  This is from chapter 37 of her Life, titled “The Effects of the Divine Graces in the Soul. The Inestimable Greatness of One Degree of Glory.” 

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AnnaMaria Cardinalli is an American military investigator, classical guitarist, and operatic contralto. She is also the author of Music and Meaning in the Mass.

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