In “The Musicality of Catechesis,” we saw how the virtuoso performance of the catechetical teaching and preaching of Augustine cannot be fully grasped without resort to a category like musicality. Applying this insight to the Wesleyan tradition highlights how the hymnody of Charles Wesley not only teaches and explains but also sings our doctrine.
In “The Musicality of Wesleyan Catechesis,” we explored further the thesis that Charles Wesley’s hymnody is one of the “pillars of Wesleyan Catechesis,” finding examples in his hymns exhibiting a strong Christological focus where Jesus himself is identified with a new song of salvation.
This current essay will focus in a more personal and practical way on the pedagogical character of catechesis that gives scope to musicality without reducing formation to mere lesson plans and programs.
One of the pillars of classical catechesis, alongside the catechism and the sacraments, is the Lord’s Prayer. Thus, basic instruction for living the Christian life is not only information about what the church believes and how believers receive grace in baptism and Eucharist; it teaches the convert how to pray, how to continue seeking the face of God in the way of discipleship.
This is precisely the role the Wesleyan hymns played. Take, for instance, Hymn 438 in The United Methodist Hymnal. It teaches the disciple to greet the new day singing:
Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go, my daily labor to pursue;
Thee, only thee, resolved to know in all I think or speak or do.
It characterizes the life of faith as a gathering up of every human effort and divine gift into a vision of a vigorous “run” and an intimate “walk”:
For thee delightfully employ whate’er thy bounteous grace hath given;
And run my course with even joy, and closely walk with thee to heaven.
Christian tradition is full of spiritual directors who recommend a “rule of prayer” for those who want prayer to become a solid shaping force in their lives rather than an occasional or irregular happening. John Wesley, himself, urged that “all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it, first, in the way of prayer.” As you might guess, John had a “rule of prayer” just as he had the “three simple rules” that were maintained by all the Methodist Societies. He arose early every day for private prayer. In words similar to Luther, he declared, “I have so much to do that I spend several hours in prayer before I am able to do it.”
That his prayer life was more than the habitual rituals of a driven man was witnessed to by one of his contemporaries who wrote, “[John] thought prayer to be more his business than anything else, and I have seen him come out of his closet with a serenity of face next to shining.”
It was out of his own urgent, daily struggle of intimate prayer that John urged others never to neglect a disciplined prayer life. “The neglect of private prayer, or the hurrying over it, is perhaps the most frequent sin of omission. This lack cannot be supplied by any other means whatever; the life of God in the soul will surely decay and gradually die away.”
Still, such a view of a disciplined prayer life might have become another form of rigorism and spiritual legalism without the balancing harmony of Charles’s hymns. Charles helps turn a rule of prayer into a song. Let me speak from personal experience. Over the years, I have tried various rules of prayer. I have set for myself different formats, times of the day, kinds of prayers, Scripture readings, and on and on. It is almost laughable how our desire to be intimate with God can turn into an exercise in religious drudgery! One thing is certain; every “rule” fails sooner or later.
Something different happens when we sing our prayers. Augustine stated this hard-won truth when he wrote, “Those who sing pray twice.” When I have been too tired or dull in spirit to pray, I have discovered that a memorized hymn can ignite the desire for God. When I have been too hurried to say my morning prayers, singing hymns on the way to work has redeemed the time, turning a spirit of haste into praise and preparation for the day. I first began singing the hymns as a fallback discipline when I couldn’t “keep the rule.” But soon the hymns had transformed my rule-keeping into delight and my car into a prayer-closet.
Methodism’s original vitality as a renewal movement sang its way into people’s hearts while it was preaching good news and serving the poor. The elements of musicality, of delight, of heart and voice united in meter and music transposed into prayer transformed the repetition of creeds and catechisms into the songs of disciples. The reclaiming of this pillar of Wesleyan catechesis may be a way beyond the domesticating, psychologizing, and politicizing of much of our contemporary pedagogy.