A musician on observing a holy Lent

by Susan E. Bloomfield


On Ash Wednesday, The Book of Common Prayer invites us to the “observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”


As a professional musician, I naturally view things through a musical lens. Recently, I have been reflecting on the tenets of Lent outlined in the Prayer Book and thinking about how each of these can be interpreted as a musical metaphor or practice. I have used many of the suggested techniques in my own vocation, and invite you to explore musical ways to enrich your congregations’ Lenten journey and create an effective, intentional, and holistic environment at your church this Lenten season.



One of the things church musicians can do to support the act of self-examination is to intentionally create places for silence. As musicians, our job is to make music, and often times – whether from a sense of professional duty (we want our employers to “get what they are paying for”), a fear of energetic stagnation within the service, or our own discomfort with silence – we want to fill each moment of silence with music.

Remember that music is not only created by sound (notes) but silence (rests). I encourage you to think of the entire church service as a piece of music, full of notes and rests–sound and silence. When sacred musicians make space for silence, it supports the congregation’s ability to be still within themselves, to pray, and be contemplative.

Here are some ideas to incorporate silence within the service:

If you usually play something whenever there is liturgical movement within the service, leave that time silent.

If you usually have music during the distribution of Communion, allow silence at that time. There is something deeply profound and very “Lenten” to hear nothing but “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” and, “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” overlapping and weaving in and out like an aleatoric* piece of music.


Silence feeds us as musicians too. We are so busy during Lent and Holy Week, silence gives us a chance to get out of “work mode,” to have time for our own self-examination and to be present.


Another thing we can do to support our congregations’ act of self-examination is to be thoughtful about the hymns we choose. Rather than choosing only hymns from the Lent section of the hymnal, find hymns that specifically resonate with the Lectionary readings, Collect or theme of the day. These hymns can be found throughout the 1982 Hymnal and its supplements (along with other denominational hymnals).


Please consider, though, that if the hymn tune is unfamiliar, the congregation is struggling to sing, or if people are so caught up in their left brains trying to read each note and word, the opportunity for self-examination can be lost. If we want to help people reflect, we can choose hymns with words that allow for contemplation and tunes that are known or easy to sing. If one is unable to find a suitable text and tune pairing, remember that using hymn texts with different tunes is part of our Anglican tradition! Combining poignant texts with familiar tunes is easy to do with music notation software and it allows people to focus on the words, to let the story and the meaning of the hymn sink in, and creates an environment conducive to self-examination.


* employing the element of chance in the choice of tones, rests, durations, rhythms, dynamics, etc.



Musical repentance has been a part of the Mass since its inception. The Kyrie and Agnus dei are particularly penitential. We implore,


Lord, have mercy

Christ, have mercy

Lord, have mercy




Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.


The Book of Common Prayer also allows substitution of the Kyrie with the Trisagion:


Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy upon us.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy upon us.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy upon us.


There are many musical settings of the Kyrie, Agnus dei and Trisagion. Additionally, we have the option to sing the Decalogue and Penitential Rite. The Decalogue may be intoned with music from the 1982 Service Hymnal (#S353-#S355), and a sung version of the opening sentence from A Penitential Order can be found in Wonder, Love and Praise (#815).


Another way we can musically express repentance is by the use of minor keys or modes. I would argue that the average parishioner doesn’t understand the music theory that differentiates a mode or a minor key from a major one; they just know that major keys sound “happy” and minor keys sound “sad.” By utilizing minor keys in instrumental, choral or congregational music we can create and reinforce an atmosphere of penitence and repentance.



It is St. Augustine who is credited for saying, “He who sings, prays twice,” but how else can we pray through music?


Musical prayer can be achieved by repetition of text and song. This technique of using repeated, simple music and texts has been proven enormously successful in such communities as Taizé and Iona. The Taizé community says this about prayerful singing,


Singing is one of the most essential elements of worship. Short songs, repeated again and again, give it a meditative character. Using just a few words they express a basic reality of faith, quickly grasped by the mind. As the words are sung over many times, this reality gradually penetrates the whole being. Meditative singing thus becomes a way of listening to God. It allows everyone to take part in a time of prayer together and to remain together in attentive waiting on God, without having to fix the length of time too exactly.


To open the gates of trust in God, nothing can replace the beauty of human voices united in song. This beauty can give us a glimpse of “heaven’s joy on earth,” as Eastern Christians put it. And an inner life begins to blossom within us.


These songs also sustain personal prayer. Through them, little by little, our being finds an inner unity in God. They can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others or resting. In this way prayer and daily life are united. They allow us to keep on praying even when we are unaware of it, in the silence of our hearts.


Extensive research has been done in the field of music as medicine and publications such as the Music Therapy Journal and other medical and scientific journals have published numerous articles outlining the benefits of chant and/or repetitive singing. These benefits include reduced cortisol (stress hormone) levels, decreased anxiety, blood pressure and respiration. Scientists have also discovered that repetitive singing can actually slow down brain wave patterns, moving the brain from a Beta state (13-40 HZ) to Alpha (7-12 HZ), Theta (4-7 HZ) or even Delta (0-4 HZ), calming the limbic system (our primal brain) and reducing our “fight, flight or freeze” response.

When we sing these repetitive songs and chants, we help create the possibility of relaxation, prayer, meditation and healing.


Fasting and Self-denial

There are many ways we can musically fast. Most of us are cognizant of making sure no “Alleluias” slip into the music during Lent, but what else can we do to fast?

A practice I have personally found effective (and difficult) is to “fast” from the use of Reed and Mixture stops on the organ. It is truly an act of self-denial and forces organists to be more creative with registration and/or to choose music that sounds more subdued. When the Reeds and Mixtures come back for Easter it definitely feels like a feast!


The choir can also musically fast. I’m not suggesting that the choir take a hiatus for Lent, but there are musical techniques that can symbolize the practice of fasting. Two examples would be to incorporate more plainchant into the service and for the choir to sing pieces a capella. The 1982 Service Hymnal and hymnal supplements have many options for chanting the Psalms or Canticles, as well as hymns and other service music. Singing a capella is a beautiful and vulnerable way to symbolize fasting and self-denial. When we sing a capella we are forced to listen closely to those around us, to blend, and truly sing with one voice.


Another example of musical fasting is to intentionally remove music where you would normally have it. It is uncomfortable and potentially transformative to fast from playing a Prelude and/or Postlude, to watch the Gospel being processed in silence or to truly be in Communion with one another without the distraction of music.


Reading and Meditating on God’s Holy Word

In this busy time of Lent, it is easy to just stick with standard Lenten hymns or traditional songs sung in our churches, but one practice I have found extremely helpful as a pastoral musician is to “Read and Meditate on God’s Holy Word.” God’s Holy Word isn’t only found in the Bible. God’s Word is all around us and can speak to us through music. Like clergy members, church musicians have a unique relationship to God’s Word. We choose hymns, service music and anthems according to the Lectionary, Collects and Liturgical Seasons. We often think about musical phrasing, registration and text painting to call attention or emphasize the words of a hymn, but we can deepen our skill as liturgical musicians (as well as our own spiritual journeys) if we not only read, but meditate, on God’s word.


One practice I have found particularly transformative is to separate the music from the hymn text and meditate on the hymn texts as poetry. By meditating on the words themselves, it gives us a new understanding of the hymn and allows us the possibility of interpreting it another way.


I also invite you to read and meditate on the Lectionary readings and Collects several weeks ahead of choosing music for that particular day. When we give ourselves additional time with the texts, it allows God’s Word to take root, germinate and blossom:


Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

…for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,

the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise. (Isaiah 43:18-21)


Susan E. Bloomfield is co-chair of the Commission for Liturgy and the Arts for the Diocese of Olympia and Associate for Music Ministries at Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Mercer Island, WA. She holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Music and is trained in the Application of Cross-Cultural Music and Healing. In all her work, Susan seeks to use music to promote our connection to one another and the Divine. (www.bloomfieldmusic.com)

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