Thought for the Week: Damian Entwistle faces the music

‘I certainly do something, but is it prayer?’

Maya Youssef. | Photo: Maya Youssef.

As is the custom among Marsden Friends, Anne read from Advices & queries at Meeting this morning. Numbers 20 & 21, on sharing and friendship. In so doing, she handed me a key which I was able to use to unlock the ministry that had been percolating in me since I’d seated myself. It happens thus, sometimes, and I am always surprised by it (when I ought not to be).

I had a dinner party the Wednesday preceding. Five assorted friends; a feast of fellowship and food. As the evening was drawing to close, one of our number reminded us that we had previously said we’d like to discuss our respective experiences of prayer. But by then it was late and we thought we’d better defer it to another occasion. I’m keen for it to happen. My intuition tells me that our perspectives will be varied, but that, in sharing them, we might uncover a common pattern. We’ll see.

The evening after, I went to Leeds and met a friend. We attended a concert for World Refugee Day. The principal performer was Maya Youssef. Maya is a qanun player (the qanun is a seventy-eight-string zither, which is part of the classical instrumentation of Arab music). Maya determined that she wanted to play it aged eight, in Damascus, Syria. She now lives in Yorkshire – the war in Syria made her an exile, and has a profound influence on her composition.

I knew nothing more of the qanun, or Maya, than the poster for the event had offered. Yet, after the first few bars of the opening piece (‘An Invitation to Daydream’), I knew something special was afoot. As Maya introduced each piece, the true nature of the evening’s performance manifested itself. The music related to themes and feelings deep inside: war, motherhood, vulnerability, hope, joy, destruction, the temptation to despair.

Maya prefaced one piece describing her beloved Damascus (now bombed and scarred), thus: ‘I knew I had to go to music, or perish. Music became my prayer.’ In so saying, and by so playing, she offered me an opening: that the inspiration, purpose, ground, and fruit of prayer, is encounter with God. (For me; not God, but rather the encounter with that spirit in each of us which articulates the ‘better angels of our nature’, as Abraham Lincoln had it.) One of the topics I want to explore with my friends is whether what I do counts as prayer. I certainly do something, but is it prayer?

If the boundaries of prayer can be extended so that music becomes prayer, might they be extended further yet? I hope so. Inclusivity becomes easier if the inspiration, purpose, ground, and fruit of prayer is encounter. In this paradigm, it matters not what form prayer takes, what faith tradition a person might stand in, whether their prayer is liturgical, personal, or communal, whether vocalised or interior, articulate, or anguished, or prompted by the Large Hadron Collider, or a sunset. What matters is encounter.

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