By The Landlord
"Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life." – Ludwig van Beethoven
"Religion is for people who fear hell, spirituality is for people who have been there." – David Bowie
"I've always understood the two to be intertwined: sexuality and spirituality. That never changed." – Prince
And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Well, perhaps, with even more to follow, a week of crazed shopping, stressful attempts to get all work done before the holidays, trying your best to stay calm and patient as children run around everywhere screaming after having too much sugar, the endurance of horrendous travel experiences, followed by the prospect of various forms of family rendezvous that could veer between fun, argument, guilt, boredom or awkwardness, plus of course excessive drinking, hangovers, lack of sleep, overeating, and the same again, on repeat, ad nauseum.
Still, it could be worse. Heard too many cheesy Christmas songs on the radio recently? Well, you might be unlucky enough to be one of those Tesco employees who for the last 10 weeks have been forced listen to 'Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time' 100 times a day, before their benevolent employer suddenly hands out the gift of redundancy. Lovely. Or you could be without any income at all, or electricity or heating, or food, or a home, or be a refugee. So while we're at it, here's an inspirational beautiful, meditative, spiritual, Christmas scene:
But here's what that lovely nativity scene would look like if you removed all the refugees:
So if there's one present that Christmas always overlooks, it's the gift of gratitude for what we do have – including people who, far worse off than us, have travelled from afar to enrich our cultures and our lives.
Still, it's a stressful world, and so this week, whatever your circumstances, in a crowd or alone this Christmas, the bar welcomes one and all, offering a haven of peace and tranquility, not to mention the odd tipple, some fabulous tunes on the jukebox and many tasty slices of banter.
And so, cleansing ourselves of cheesy Christmas naffness, though not necessarily Christmas music or songs, our theme centres on music that may be termed sacred and spiritual. Naturally it can cover a wealth of music history and genres, from formally religious music, in the ancient and classical genres, but also gospel to soul and beyond, and other forms of music that reach towards spiritual otherworldliness, from Native American to Tibetan, meditative music that focuses on the mind, the metaphysical world, and sacred ritual, as well as the sanctity of life.
So your music choices need not be religious in the formal sense, but spiritual in that it pertains to the soul, the inner being, and not the material world. But on the religious front, let's have listen to an early example, courtesy of the great William Byrd:
You don't need to be religious to find this beautiful, pure, enlightening and meditative. And while Jesus has certainly inspired more fabulous music than even Elvis or the Beatles, your sacred music suggestions could also come from any number of other religions – Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism and more, from carols to cantantas to chants, to any longer forms. I think the key thing is that it works beyond traditional belief, and as Beethoven put it, it bridges "the spiritual and the sensual life”. And as Buddha put it: “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”
Spiritual music can bring tranquility, but it can be enormously stirring and exciting. The great gospel singers are surely testament to that. Many of the soul and Motown greats grew up on religious a d church music, and my pick to inspire you is Mahalia Jackson, who may inspire a huge number of songs. Here she dedicates this particular number to a man everyone loves. It's not Jesus, but pretty inspiring anyway – Louis Armstrong. Stirring, reverent, emotion, and definitely spiritual.
Yet, of course, none of us are without sin. Spiritual songs inevitably mix up purity with dirt, so here I'd like to flag up two greats who have, in different ways, mixed up spirituality with other things, namely love in another form. Al Green was a 70s sex symbol who got into all sorts of scrapes as a young lothario, and in 1974 it was the suicide of one of his lovers, Mary Woodson White, who threw a pan of bowling grits (corn) over him in the bath before shooting herself, that prompted his career to go the cloth. So the Reverend Green may be another rich source of spirituality of song this week, even when looking like this:
Compare this sexy dude with, and how he may have influenced, a certain Prince Rogers Nelson, who, as mentioned above, struggled with spirituality as much as he struggled with the naked bodies of his lady friends, and expressed it uniquely in many of the same songs, putting the holy spirit in between his hole-y underwear with guilt and the result? Extraordinary originality and musicality.
Just to clarify, though, some of you may come across songs about reverends, priests or preachers, but they should only apply this week when they pertain at least in to spirituality of some kind, not simply sex or anything else. It's Christmas, after all, y’know.
As ever, we've a fascinating group of celebrities gathering at the bar. We’ve already heard from the great Bowie, but now he adds this: “Anxiety and spiritual searching have been consistent themes with me.” Now here’s the writer Morris West: “David, you’ve always had something there, you wise fellow. Man is a creature who walks in two worlds and traces upon the walls of his cave the wonders and the nightmare experiences of his spiritual pilgrimage.” “Well,” says Steve Earle, “to me, religion is an agreement between a group of people about what God is. Spirituality is a one-on-one relationship.”
Holy moly! Now who's this? “Well hi,” then says an upbeat Paul McCartney, entering with his characteristic thumbs up to everyone. “And, well, er, you know, right, I'm not religious, but I'm very spiritual, yeah.” Impressed by the gathering celebrity conversation, even Oprah Winfrey opens up: “It isn't until you come to a spiritual understanding of who you are – not necessarily a religious feeling, but deep down, the spirit within – that you can begin to take control.”
A rather dapper Edwardian gentleman now joins in from the corner. It’s the writer Arnold Bennett. “Yes Oprah, you have something there. Your own mind is a sacred enclosure into which nothing harmful can enter except by your permission.” So spirituality, whether through prayer, or any other activity, seems to be about cleansing yourself of worldly worries, and also finding some calm sense of control. Clocking this conversation, Beethoven is at the piano, and after his earlier very elevated remarks about spirituality, decides that he’s hungry: “Well, my spirit is clean, but my stomach is empty. What’s for lunch? Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
“Hold on everyone,” says Brian Wilson. “Can we get back to the music now, please? So here’s my view. I have to tell you that J.S. Bach was easily the greatest musical innovator in the history of the world. He was so advanced for his time. There's a spiritual depth to his music. You can listen to it and it's like meditation.” Everyone nods. You don’t disagree with Brian. He has visions, and he’s right about Bach. Anyone think of any examples?
But spirituality can also come, perhaps, even more directly in the form of visual art. Henri Matisse now tells us what that means: “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”
There’s certainly something spiritual about Matisse’s work, and his mate Pablo Picasso even turns up to join him in the bar for a glass or two of Rioja, but it looks as if Pablo may also be thinking about lunch, as well as satisfying the spirit: “When you start with a portrait and search for a pure form, a clear volume, through successive eliminations, you arrive inevitably at the egg. Likewise, starting with the egg and following the same process in reverse, one finishes with the portrait.” The egg, eh? That’s certainly a spiritual image, laden with multiple meaning. I’ll also check in the back to see if we have any pickled ones left.
But spirituality in art and nature can come even closer for anyone to try. Across the world the American artist James Turrell has created works that allow us to appreciate colour and sky with extraordinary effects, where visiors can lie down and stare up in wonder from places such as the Irish Sky Garden in Skibbereen, West Cork. Here it is just you, your mind, your eyes, and the sky.
Spirituality then comes all kinds of forms, but music is always one of the greatest mediums to capture it. In the context of religion, though, many of your sacred or spiritual songs, however, will most likely point to the glory of God, whatever god that may be, and so here is some other art, stained glass in Chartres Cathedral France, to inspire you.
Or perhaps you may care to ascend the glorious spiral staircase of Thanks-Giving Square Cathedral in Dallas, Texas?
Temples of the spiritual don't have to be man-made. How about combining the two?
Perhaps spirituality can also come in protecting a sacred, ancient, natural wonder?
But before this seasonal spiritual piece grows even bigger, it’s time to sign off and let you get on. I'll leave you with a short dedication to another of this year’s departed, a song that’s already been chosen before for another topic in this version, but one that's always spiritual, and never less than musical too. Farewell and rest in peace, Leonard, and of course, Jeff.
So then, place your songs and musical offerings of the spiritual and sacred into the collection plate of comments below. This week's high priest of the holy, and sorter of the sacrosanct, comes in the form of the very reverend magicman, tending the manger, and marking a marvellous return to this parish. The church bells of deadline will be rung on Monday evening, for playlists to be published next Wednesday. Bless you all, peace be upon you, and I wish everyone, readers old and new, a beautiful Christmas and spiritual break where you may, at some point, not only find many great pieces of music, but also some peace.
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