This article is dedicated to Paul Fahey who by a post published on SmartCatholics galvanized some volatile thoughts to come together and form an article. Thank you, Paul!


I enjoy reading articles about science–when they are written in a way that I can understand. I remember being fascinated back in the 70s when a test that Albert Einstein had prepared for his theory of relativity worked out as he had predicted. With time, I learned that there are three levels of testing in the physical sciences: an idea begins as a hypothesis, and then it is developed into a theory. Finally, the theory is tested and if it passes all tests, it is established as a law. There is the law of gravity, which is the physical law I am the most familiar with (for obvious reasons). I’ve also heard of the 4th law of thermodynamics, which, I believe, states that heat only moves in one direction—but don’t ask me about the first three laws of thermodynamics! It is all very fascinating, and I was quite proud of myself when I got the distinction between hypothesis, theory, and law clear in my mind. I was beginning to feel at home in science!

I forget what law I was reading about, maybe gravity, when it suddenly struck me that “law” in science means something rather different from “law” in politics or society. I realized that “law” in physics does not indicate a directive from outside imposed on physical forces or matter. A law in physics is simply a description of how a certain physical reality acts. The law of gravity doesn’t mean that large objects must draw smaller objects to themselves in order to fulfill some command. The law of gravity simply describes what happens when a very large object comes in proximity to a much smaller object: the larger object attracts the smaller. “Law” in this case is a verbal identification of an action that takes place.

In studying music, in particular musical harmony, I understood this even more. In Western music, the rules for harmony are very demanding. There is a joke among musicians that, if you want to be a composer, there is one thing you absolutely have got to have, and that is an eraser! I am far from being a composer, but in trying to do a short exercise of two-part harmony, I often erased holes in the paper—and even then I never got it right.

Yet, as with the law of gravity, the rules of harmony are simply a description of how the sounds of a note work. Strike a bell hard and listen carefully: you will hear more than one note. You will hear the note of the bell and above that note a variety of overtones, the various harmonics vibrating above the original note. The overtones are contained in the original note. The rules of harmony are simply verbal expressions of the relationships between the note and its overtones, all of which are parts of the single note.

In studying and applying the rules, the musician internalizes them and comes to a deep understanding of the harmonies involved. When he has reached that point in writing music he is no longer following the rules; he is expressing the harmonies. With the understanding of harmony itself, he follows the rules without even thinking about them. He is creating music from an understanding that comes from within music itself.

We see this most impressively when we listen to a musician improvising. He is not thinking the music out in his mind. He is simply expressing the music that is within him. There is a story about young Felix Mendelssohn, who as a boy, had the opportunity to audition for a famous pianist. Felix studied a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach until he knew it perfectly, but when he sat down to play for the pianist, his mind went blank. So he improvised a piano piece in the style of Bach. The pianist recognized that the boy was not playing the piece he had prepared, but he also recognized that his improvisation showed that he had a total understanding of music.

In pondering all this, it strikes me that rules, laws, and commandments all follow this same framework. The Ten Commandments are not expressions of a Divine Will that is imposed on someone from without. They are descriptions of the behavior of a person who lives in a deep covenant relationship with God. Someone who has entered deeply into the covenant with God is a person who has put God at the center of his life. God is the touchstone of his actions. Any action that is un-Godlike is, for such a person, quite unthinkable. It is simply outside of his way of thinking. With the Beatitudes also: they are not the stages of an increasingly virtuous life so much as various facets of a life that is centered on Christ. This is what Jeremiah foretold: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”[i] The Commandments, the laws, precepts, and Counsels, are all simply expressions of a living relationship deeply centered on God.

God’s law is put into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, for “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”[ii] God’s Spirit is within us from our Baptism, “poured into our hearts”[iii] yet few of us actually live from our own hearts. We live on a much more superficial level; God is within us, but we are not within ourselves. We are not where He is. We live on the surface of ourselves, too far from ourselves to hear Him whose voice speaks in our hearts. By the discernment of spirits, God entices us to enter more deeply into our own hearts, to learn to live by the law He has written there, that law that is Himself, that is His love.

At the end of my last article, I asked what the goal is of the discernment of spirits, and it is here that we find it: it is to learn to listen more attentively to the voice of God whispering within the thoughts we experience so that we may become ever more responsive to that voice. Every time I accept and act on a thought that comes from God, I am making myself more sensitive to His guidance. Like a consummate musician, I become more attuned to His will. Slowly He in-forms me with Himself until I am totally free to act as He does. There is a verse from the Psalms: “As the eyes of a servant are on the hand of her mistress…”[iv] I like to paraphrase it: “As the eyes of a musician are on the hand of the conductor…”

St. Paul declares that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” The children of God are free, deep within their hearts, because “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”[v] When we are led by the Spirit, rooted in discernment, we are free to follow St. Augustine’s directive to “love and do what you will”.[vi] Then our life becomes a continual improvisation on the single theme of God’s love.


Notes

[i] Jer. 31, 33

[ii] Jn 16, 13

[iii] Rom. 5, 5

[iv] Ps. 123, 2

[v] 2 Cor. 3, 17

[vi] St. Augustine, Sermon on 1 John 4:4-12, para. 8


Image: “Apartalo, Amado,” composition by Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. Provided by author.


Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.


Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!

Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

The Improvised Life
Share via
Copy link