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Starting Point

A prayer for the missing instruments


A composer, known for his divine music, arrives at the great hall in the city where his latest composition is to be performed before a vast audience. The composer meets with the master of the hall and begins to describe the demands of the piece, but as he is warming to his subject, the master of the hall interrupts him.

“No violins are allowed here; no violas, no cellos. We have all the brass instruments, but no woodwinds, except for bassoons, piano and percussion, but no harp. The chorus includes tenors, baritones and basses, but no altos, and no sopranos except for the unchanged voices of young boys.”

The composer is stunned: “But my music must be played on the instruments for which it is written. How can it be that the sweet sound of the flute is not permitted? No oboes or cellos or violins? No rich alto voices or mature and soaring sopranos, but only the voices of men and little boys?”

The master of the hall stands firm in his conviction that these instruments do not belong in his fine hall. He invokes tradition. It has always been this way. He thinks about the wealthy patrons who might be offended.

And yet, it is against the nature of the composer to write music other than what he hears in his inner being, music that is complete and beautiful and true.

And so this glorious music is played with the flute and string parts missing, the oboe line performed awkwardly on the trumpet, the alto parts simply omitted, the soprano aria sung by a chirpy little boy.

The audience reaction is mixed. Most have never heard the missing instruments and voices and so they leave the hall with their minimal expectations met: uninspired, unchallenged, thinking about what they will fix for supper or the laundry or errands or this evening’s television lineup.

A few with gifted ears can hear the missing lines and supply them in their own minds, filling in that which is lost. These gifted ones long to hear the full piece played and weep for those around them who are missing it.

And some (no one knows how many) leave empty, wondering at the tedious, repetitive sameness of the music. All those baritones! All that brass! These unsatisfied ones may not return, seeking to be filled elsewhere.

Pray for the masters of the hall. Pray for the voices that are silenced. Pray for the people who are permitted to hear only part of the great music written for them. Pray for all of us, that Jesus’ miraculous cure, when he made the deaf hear and the mute speak by saying the simple prayer: “Be opened,” might come upon us. May he soon touch your ears to receive his Word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God, the Creator of us all. Amen!

Paige Byrne Shortal is a pastoral associate in a parish in rural Missouri.

National Catholic Reporter, September 27, 2002