Grace Presbyterian Church
August 6, 2017, Pentecost 9A
Too Deep For Words
What do you do when you hear music without words?
Maybe you’re the particularly blessed type, who can simply listen and let the music take its course through your soul. Probably, though (if you’re like most people), you try, consciously or not, to “fill in the blank.” Your mind starts to create a story to go with the music. Or perhaps it begins to invent a poem, in which the words fit to the tune you hear. Or possibly, if you’re a more visual type, your mind conjures a picture or scene that plays out as the music moves along.
Either way, we modern-day humans have a sharply defined inability (or most of us do, anyway) to let the music simply be music. We somehow develop the idea, perhaps unspoken but no less powerful, that the music has to mean something, something that we can somehow encapsulate in words or maybe in pictures.
Felix Mendelssohn begs to differ with you.
Mendelssohn was of course one of the outstanding composers of the nineteenth century. He was known, among many other things, for the “Song without words,” a type of piano work that was very much in the form and structure of a song – relatively brief, with a clearly defined melody and accompaniment. The only thing missing from these “songs without words” was, indeed, any kind of sung text.
Mendelssohn wrote at least four dozen such “songs without words” in his brief lifetime. A few of them have descriptive labels attached to them; for example, some are labeled as “Venetian gondola songs” because they so strongly resemble the songs sung by the gondola drivers in the canals of Venice. Most of them have no title, as Mendelssohn presented them. A few were given labels after their publication, in some cases even after Mendelssohn’s death, by editors or critics or others who felt that the music had to mean something, something that could be captured in words.
In a letter to a former student Mendelssohn very specifically rejected this idea. As he put it, he believed that words were insufficient to the task of capturing what music meant: to him, words (many or few) were “so ambiguous, so vague, so subject to misunderstanding when compared with true music, which fills the soul with a thousand better things than words.” He continued, “The thoughts that are expressed to me by the music I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite…this, however, is not your fault, but the fault of words, which cannot do better… .”
I can’t help but suspect that the Apostle Paul might have at least nodded knowingly at this idea that Mendelssohn expresses here. At the very least he might have acknowledged that Mendelssohn’s idea that the music he loved was “too definite” for words sounded a lot like what Paul himself writes here in verse 26 of this eighth chapter of Romans:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (NRSV)
I admit that phrase – “sighs too deep for words” has haunted me most of my life, probably since some sermon I heard as a child. Back then I wondered what that could possibly mean; being a wordy little kid I couldn’t really imagine how something could be “too deep for words.” If you couldn’t say it, how could it be real?
I’ve grown up since then and I have at least some small idea of just how silly that childish thought was, even before I ever read Mendelssohn’s own description of his view of music. Oftentimes this sense, this deep-rooted wordless sighing has been a part of my life in times of trouble; the death of my mother, later the death of one of my sisters, or my own diagnosis of cancer just a couple of years ago. Occasionally it has been experienced in more joyful times; our wedding day, for example, or a particularly profound musical experience. Sometimes it has come in moments of struggle or uncertainty; the period of time when I was considering giving up the teaching career I loved to jump off the cliff into seminary stands out there.
Indeed, sighs too deep for words. Even when my soul tried to fit words into my feelings, their insufficiency and inferiority became painfully clear. Why does this happen? Why did I get cancer that I could survive, and others don’t? The words collapse on their own uselessness. Sighs too deep for words.
I suspect you can search your own lives for times when you’ve known that experience of sorrow, or joy, or struggle, or uncertainty, or relief for which words could not be found or did not even exist. It’s one thing to know the experience of that kind of experience, one “beyond words.”
But it’s a whole other thought to know that the Holy Spirit does that for us.
For indeed that is what Paul tells us right here in verse 26: “that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” When we cannot find the words to pray rightly, whether in our joy or sorrow or need, it isn’t that the Spirit gives us words to say. No, it is that the Spirit steps in for us with its own wordless, unspeakable sighing.
Just a few verses earlier, starting in verse 22, Paul writes of all of creation “groaning in labor pains;” not only creation, but we ourselves, “groan inwardly” while we wait for the adoption God has promised to each of us, of which Paul spoke in verse 15. Paul has also already spoken of the Spirit bearing witness with us, in our times of crying out to God, even as simple a cry as “Abba! Father!” In our unfinished spiritual state, when we cry out for we know not what or even when we cannot cry out, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter Jesus promised us to send after he was gone, is at work in us and with us and for us, bringing our petitions before God even when we cannot rightly articulate them or know what they are.
And it is from this knowledge, this promise of a Spirit that intercedes for us beyond our capacity to know or understand, that Paul can exult throughout the rest of this chapter in the unspeakable love of God. The God whose Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words is the God who relentlessly works through all that happens to us (even the awful stuff) for our good, not eliminating suffering or pain from our lives but blessing and sustaining us through it; this is the God who created us and foreknew us and made us to be part of the family of God; this is the God who, even though we could be charged with all of the corruption and weakness sin can muster, instead intercedes for us, not even withholding God’s own Son, that we would be reconciled and restored; this is the God who justifies, who saves, who redeems and restores; this is the God who loved us and loves us and will love us so profoundly and so unspeakably that Paul can practically sing out in joy that nothing – not death or life or angels or rulers or dark powers, nothing can separate us from that love. God meets our sighs too deep for words with love too deep for words.
For that, dear brothers and sisters, even though the words themselves are painfully inadequate, let us never fail to say, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #396, Brethren, We Have Met to Worship; #525, Let Us Break Bread Together; #823. Shall Tribulation or Distress; #833, O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go