Music for the Mystics

Here are five albums that have become the soundtrack of my reading and wrestling with the Christian mystics.

1. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel  Song: Every Single Night

I’ve loved Fiona Apple for years. She seems to teeter on the edge of both sanity and genius, something I can relate to (except for the genius part). Though I’m pretty certain she’s not a Christian and I don’t know if she even believes in God, she's an appropriate addition to mystic listening when you realize that the mystics themselves often lived at the edges of society, the church, their own intelligence and, yes, sanity. I can almost hear a secular Margery Kempe singing:

Every single night/ I endure the flight/Of little white-flamed/Butterflies in my brain/These ideas of mine/Percolate the mind/Trickle down the spine/Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze/That's when the pain comes in/Like a second skeleton/Trying to fit beneath the skin/I can't fit the feelings in/Every single night's alight with my brain

I can't fit the feelings in sometimes too, Fiona.

2. The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, Angels and Saints at Ephesus

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I first discovered these Sisters when looking for some music for Advent. Their album Advent at Ephesus captured me from the first line. What better music to listen to when reading and writing about the ancient mystics and saints than these Sisters, whose tight acapella harmonies have the ability to transport me to a convent in the 14th century. They say on their website that because their call is to “emulate Our Lady in her final, hidden years,” they “cannot preach the Gospel to the nations nor bring the Lord to our tabernacles.” I disagree. They are preaching the beauty of the Gospel in every note.

3. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell, Song: John my Beloved

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There is a reason this album has been on so many lists of “favorites” in the past year. Sufjan is himself on the edge. A professed Christian who writes about subjects that many Christians would shy away from, Sufjan often plunges hard into the distressing depths of confession. In this song, he echoes many of the mystics for whom the cry is “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”

I am a man with a heart that offends with its lonely and greedy demands/                                         There's only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I'm dead

4. John Micheal Talbot’s The Lord’s supper, Song: We shall be forgiven:

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“Lord, have mercy.”

Talbot, a Catholic musician, started an intentional monastic community in the 1970s and writes about my beloved St. Francis. This record is a glorious celebration of the Eucharist, in its beautiful Catholic hippie way. I am not the best judge of whether or not this 1979 album has stood the test of time; Its opening cello in “Prelude,” with a deep lament that echoes in the ribs, is the soundtrack of my childhood. When I listen to this record, I can almost feel the shag carpet beneath my back as I stretched out near my father’s desk, the soft scratching of the record accompanying my contemplation of the deep, angsty feelings it elicited in my elementary aged self. 

5. My brightest diamond, All Things Will Unwind, Song: We added it up:

I hear a quieter voice/and it says Love binds the world/Love binds the world/forever and ever and ever, Love binds the world.

In singer Shara Worden’s lyrics, I can hear echoes of Julian of Norwich, speaking in that quieter voice, a truth that was revealed to her in Revelations of divine love: “And at the same time that I saw this bodily sight, our Lord showed me a spiritual vision of his familiar love...He is our clothing, wrapping and enveloping us for love, embracing us and guiding us in all things, hanging about us in tender love, so that he can never leave us.”

Love binds the world indeed.