I’m taking a bit of a break from my theological reflections today in order to share some personal testimony about how church organ music has played a role in my spiritual and mental health journey and impacted my life significantly.
I come from a family that could be described as very musical. My parents encouraged my sister and I to get involved in playing music from a young age. In primary school, both of us played the recorder, and I played classical guitar and sang in a church choir. Moving into secondary school, my sister took up playing the flute, and I continued taking guitar lessons, reaching Grade 7 standard, just one grade away from the highly coveted Grade 8 (which I think marks people out as respected experts!)
As a teenager, I also took a few piano lessons. The teacher was the head of music at a local Anglican church — the church that my father used to attend. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but some Christians have a strange kind of ‘spiritual stare’. Perhaps this is a mark of the Holy Spirit dwelling in them or something else, but certainly my piano teacher had this characteristic. It made him seem to me to be a little cold and frosty, though he was still good natured and kind.
I don’t recall entirely the reason why I stopped attending piano lessons after just a few weeks. It’s not the case that I didn’t enjoy learning the instrument; I was progressing fairly well and loved to play. I think maybe I didn’t click too well with the teacher, and also because we didn’t have a piano in our home, this made practicing difficult. Perhaps it was a combination of factors which led to me prematurely throwing in the metaphorical towel.
Fast-forward many years, and in adulthood I had a pivotal life experience involving homelessness which I touched upon briefly in a recent article. After experiencing a period of turbulence with my mental health, I ended up sleeping rough outside a mosque in Wimbledon (London) for a couple of days. Perhaps rather unusually, there was a church just a few blocks away from the mosque. I remember knocking on the door to the church office, and a kind Christian lady taking me by the hand and walking me into the adjacent church. At this time, I was at perhaps the lowest point in my mental health struggles, and I remember kneeling down among the empty pews and beginning to pray. It was the first time I had been inside a church for years, and as I prayed, God began to speak to me in a surprisingly clear way.
As I prayed in the church that day, my body scrawny from having had little food for a few days and my clothing dishevelled and my feet blistered, God began to show me how everything about the church, from the uncomfortable pews to the towering ceiling, was all meant to bear testament to His greatness. And as I was praying, someone walked up to the organ cubicle and began playing the church organ, even though I was alone in the church except for a couple of people milling around at the back of the church in a cafe area. I remember experiencing a quite distinctive sense that God was telling me my destiny was to become a church organist, much to my surprise!
Not long after this experience of kneeling in the empty church listening to the organist and praying to God, a kind lady brought a cup of tea to me at the pew where I was now sitting, and a member of staff (perhaps the vicar, I’m not sure) called the police as she could see from my appearance that I needed help. Soon, a couple of police officers arrived at the church, and they handed me a phone and encouraged me to phone my father, who I hadn’t spoken with for some time. I don’t recall the conversation I had with my dad, but I’m sure he found it comforting to know I was in safe hands. Following that conversation, the police deemed it necessary to take me for a mental health assessment at a local hospital, and this led to my first spell on a psychiatric ward (all of this is discussed in more depth in my book The Philosophy of a Mad Man, if anyone is interested in learning more).
During my first night on the hospital ward, I remember (in a state of confusion perhaps, it certainly seems so in retrospect) making a stern demand of the staff that I needed some organ music to listen to, and when I became angry that they couldn’t help me out with this unusual request, they forcefully sedated me and took me to a hospital room where I then slept for a period of time, the duration of which I don’t recall. I was certainly mentally unwell, and I’m grateful for the help I received, both from the vicar at the church, and from the staff on the hospital ward.
Back to the present day, and I have often wondered whether it was indeed prophetic hearing God say that I would one day be a church organist, or whether this was simply a mental health related delusion. I still don’t know, to be honest. All things are possible with God.
I did have another experience of sitting in an empty church in Putney recently, which made me immensely grateful for the ivory keys once again. The experience was in some ways very similar to the story I have already told about the church near the mosque in Wimbledon.
After being on the verge of homelessness a couple of months ago, I was staying on the sofa of a kind friend for a few nights and had some time to spare during the day. Feeling very disheartened by life’s trials one afternoon, I decided to go into the church by Putney Bridge to say some prayers. On this occasion also, the church was near empty, and as I sat and prayed an organist entered his cubicle and began to play beautiful music. I think I was already in tears, but the beauty of hearing the organ playing in the empty church was very moving indeed and brought spiritual refreshment to my weary soul.
I have, on a couple of occasions in the last year, considered purchasing a keyboard that I could play at home. But for whatever reason, I haven’t taken the plunge and invested in one. So I still wonder, is it my destiny to be an organist one day, as I felt I heard God prophesy in the church in Wimbledon years ago? Only time will tell, but what I can say is that church organ music can be incredibly beautiful and moving, and I’m grateful to those organists who show such abundant love by playing beautiful music for their congregants, even when there is only a single weary soul inhabiting the pews. And, of course, thanks be to God for the sanctuary of churches, and for the beauty of the music played in them, which is ultimately His and is played for His glory.