October 13, 2011

Sound & Spirituality: The Harmonic Oscillations of Divine Love.

*This article is a duet by Scott Robinson and Benjamin Riggs.

(Jesus) said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?” –Mark 4:30

Scott Robinson on Music and the Kingdom of God:

When a violin or guitar string, or the column of air in a flute or trumpet, or the body of a bell—in fact, anything that produces a musical pitch­—is set in motion, it vibrates at many frequencies simultaneously.  The whole thing vibrates at the pitch we actually hear, called the fundamental—the note you would hum if someone asked you what note you were hearing—but each part also vibrates, producing a whole series of pitches called, overtones. And though we usually cannot hear them, all of these pitches are sounding simultaneously with the pitch that is actually being played.

When an instrument sounds rich and full, the overtones are what we’re hearing, and the more overtones we hear, the thicker and woollier the sound.  This is why an electronic “beep” sounds so cold and one-dimensional: without any acoustic vibrations, there are no overtones to add warmth and depth to the sound.

Which brings us to the Kingdom of God.

Some sounds­—a Tibetan bowl gong (click here to listen), for instance—are so overtone-rich that the fundamental tone can sound like just one note among many.

I was raised Protestant, and many Roman Catholic practices remained opaque to me for a long time. For instance, I heard people say that so-and-so was “offering up” his or her suffering—from cancer, for instance—for the good of the parish. The idea that we can “offer up” our suffering, joining it to Christ’s on the Cross for the good of others, seemed blasphemous to me; the uniqueness and all-sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice form a central tenet of Protestant belief.

What it took me a long time to realize is that, by offering up suffering, people can choose what that suffering means. Are we passive victims of our misfortunes, or are we prepared to consecrate our pain, to bear it consciously and intentionally for a higher purpose? “No one takes my life from me,” Jesus told His disciples. “I lay it down of my own accord.” (John 10:18). Jesus was not a victim.

“Love,” wrote Evelyn Underhill, “makes all the difference between an execution and a martyrdom.” Or, as the Buddhists say,

Pain in life is inevitable, but suffering is not. Pain is what the world does to you, suffering is what you do to yourself. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.[i]

Let’s suppose that, as Christians, we take the Crucifixion as our “fundamental tone”—our keynote, the pitch we “tune to,” as it were. And let’s imagine that this note has a warm, rich, deep tone, full of reverberating overtones. What would those overtones be? Our own consecrated suffering. 

If I work without expecting to profit by it, I can offer up that labor as karma yoga.  “To work you have the right,” says Krishna, “but not to the fruits thereof. Do not be attracted by fruits of actions, and yet, do not become passive or inactive.”[ii] My offering of work is a ringing overtone to Jesus’ work. “The Father is always working,” He said, “and so am I.”[iii]

If I give up my seat to a pregnant woman, or toss a few coins into a charity collection box, that is an overtone to the fundamental of Jesus’ self-offering; a distant overtone, to be sure–well beyond the audible range­–but still a part of the glorious complex of sound that reverberates from that divine note.

When Sidney Carton, from Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, went to the guillotine so that his innocent look-alike Darnay could return to his family, he said,  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.” And it was more than that; it was an audible overtone to the sacrifice of Jesus. By “offering up” his wasted life, Carton redeemed it for a higher good.

Maximillian Kolbe was a German Franciscan friar who helped over 2,000 Jews escape from Poland during the Second World War. He was eventually caught and sent to Auschwitz. When three prisoners escaped, the deputy camp commander chose ten men at random to be starved to death to deter further escapes. When one of the men cried out, “My wife! My children!”, Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

Fr. Kolbe celebrated Mass every day, using bread and wine smuggled in by sympathetic guards, offering strength and encouragement to his fellow prisoners until all but he had died. The guards, anxious to empty the cell, injected him with carbolic acid.

Kolbe’s overtone rings out loud and clear among the rich, reverberant echos of sacrificial love that shimmer over Christ’s fundamental tone.

So it’s up to us. When something painful happens to us, or when we are confronted with the choice between redemptive, sacrificial love and abdicating the role of our brother’s keeper, we can choose whether to add our overtones to the ringing note of love struck by Christ or other divine Incarnations, or to refuse; we ourselves decide whether our pain is meaningful and intentionally borne, or whether we are mere victims of life. Do we want our vibrations to sound in a vacuum and quickly dissipate, or be joined to the harmonic oscillations of divine love?

Ben Riggs on the rhythm of the Kingdom:

The harmonic oscillations of divine love are tones that reverberate from an ancient place deep within the silence of our inner-being. This silent tone is the fundamental pitch that set “my” life in motion. It is a basic experience of being, which predates any notion of self. In fact, I am an incarnation of this fundamental pitch, born in time and space. When I realize that who I truly am is what I was before I had a name, then I realize that this life is not my own. I am a gift offered to the universe, by the universe, through an incarnation of the universe.

Sanity is our natural state of mind. It is present when the conscious mind resonates with the silent tone that comes welling up from the depths of our sub-conscious life. When the silent wisdom of the human body—a creation that was set in motion long before the big bang—informs our conscious mind, then we are sane, compassionate human beings—people that are aware of the fact that our humanity is a manifestation of the cosmos. On the other hand, when the content of thought is supplied by our own thinking we are ignore-ant of the infinite depths of being from which “we” emerge. Therefore, we think this life is ours to protect and maintain. This limits the totality of the human condition down to nothing more than a needy, insane, self-centered personality preoccupied with the acquisition of personal comfort.

The only reason our life does not appear to be a gift offered up to everyone around us, is because we cling to our life as our own. Being ignorant of the source of being, the conscious mind is organized around an idea of who we are. We are ego-centric—obsessed with transforming our life into a gift for ourselves. Based, as it is, upon a misunderstanding, self-centeredness is incredibly fragile. It is destroyed in a single moment of insight.

In a moment of silence, all of the distinctions that establish and sustain a self-centered world-view are realized to be devoid of any real substance. So, what was once thought to be a collection of isolated and independently existing organisms is revealed to be various incarnations of the universe. This is the experience of love or self-lessness. Compassion then comes forth from love, to recognize and respect this divinity in everything. Compassion is love in motion; it is an overtone.

Our life is not our own. Our relative life is an expression of the infinite. When our relative life—conversations with co-workers, playing with the kids, or simply smiling at a stranger on the sidewalk—is revealed to be the will of the universe, then our actions become echoes of the force that guides creation, love.

Love transforms all things. When the conscious mind is inspired by the “audible silence” of love, then the simplest of sounds has the capacity to awaken the world.


[i] I’ve seen this quotation in a number of places, but have not been able to trace it back to its source.

[ii] Bhagavad Gita 2:47

[iii] John 5:17


Scott Robinson taught college music at a Christian university for ten years before leaving to pursue creative work and fatherhood.  He has written for Sojourners Magazine, PRISM, Cross Currents, Minnesota Parent, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  He currently composes, records and performs original kirtan with his band Mandala mandalaband.net. Scott is a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis,  and lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two children, and two incessantly shedding dogs.


Benjamin Riggs, Spirituality editor–Elephant Journal. Ben is also a teacher and student of Buddhist meditation and spirituality. He teaches at the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA. Ben has written extensively about Buddhism, contemplative philosophy, and meditation practice on his blog. Above everything he is committed to presenting Buddhist and contemplative principles from a practical, contemporary, and western point of view. If you would like to follow his blog, The Web of Enlightenment, on Facebook then Click here. If you would prefer to follow him on Twitter then Click here. To be notified when Ben publishes a new article on Elephant Journal, click here to join his Elephant Facebook group. Think these sort of bio’s are cheesy? Then click here to read my real bio.


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