To Look or To Cook: That is the Question


God’s love is expressed through music, and those who bring down the songs are the shamans and mystics among us. I once had a vision of seeing a cornerstone in Budapest with the name “Franz Liszt” and the year “1860” marked underneath it. I discovered that the composer had written a will that year, confessing that all his music issued from a “burning and mysterious feeling which has marked my whole life as with a sacred stigma. Yes, the crucified Jesus, the ardent yearning for the Cross and the exaltation of the Holy Cross, this was my true vocation.”


Franz Liszt was known for the ecstatic fervor of his performances. The “burning and mysterious feeling” he had within was somehow transformed and conveyed to his audience when he performed his music. People experienced emotional ecstasy or “Lisztomania” as it was called. Consider this early review of a Liszt concert written by Heinrich Heime: “And what tremendous rejoicing and applause!—a delirium unparalleled . . . The electric action of a demoniac nature . . . perhaps a magnetism in music itself, which is a spiritual malady which vibrates in most of us—all these phenomena never struck me so significantly or so painfully as in this concert of Liszt’s.” Liszt had a musical bridge to the divine, enabling its electricity, magnetism, and vibration to be delivered with the passage of music from heaven to Earth. Though the resulting ecstasy was often demonized or pathologized by naive observers, mature ecstatics of other cultural traditions would have recognized a kindred spirit in a man whose musical soul was on fire.


Franz Liszt regarded music as an “aural sacrament” that serves as a bridge between heaven and Earth. Here music becomes a theophany of divine manifestation, that is, God is physically experienced when music imparts the sacred power of its inspiring source. With music, the sacred fire inside Liszt is transmitted to his audience. Mind alone does not have the capacity to host or express the numinous blaze. It is music that strikes, fans, carries, and passes on its flames. Liszt touched upon the core of mystical and shamanic activity when he wrote, “Only in music does feeling, in manifesting itself, dispense with the help of reason and its means of expression, so inadequate in comparison . . .” (as cited in Paul Barnes[1], emphasis ours). We journey to the mystery of divinity through what we feel in the most emotionally touching music, something that the thoughts of mind and reason cannot produce. Liszt’s musical mysticism embraced this wisdom, which can be heard singing inside his question, “Is not music the mysterious language of a faraway spirit world whose wondrous accents, echoing within us, awaken us to a higher, more intensive life?” This is the central truth of every genuine mystic and shaman whose gift of song enables journeying to the spirit lands.


Paul Barnes points out that “Liszt’s deep awareness of the mysterious and sacramental element of Christianity . . . is not the disembodied mystery of eastern oriental thought[2], but rather the uniquely incarnational mystery of the Christian gospel.” The incarnational spirituality of Liszt, Barnes argues, is “nothing less than the visceral, physical encounter of God.” Only music is capable of emotionally and viscerally connecting us with the theophanies of higher mysteries. The aural sacramental bridge is the rope to God. Without a sacred song to climb, there can be no mystic, shaman, saint, or journeyer to the heavens. The latter can only be imagined or observed rather than held and embodied. With music you get to the sacred fire and it is instilled within you. The question that matters more than any question in spirituality, no matter the hosting religion, is whether you aim to look or cook. Again, the latter requires a traveling song that takes you to the divine flame.


As Liszt wrote in the preface to his music for The Seven Sacraments: “I intended to give expression to the feeling by which the Christian takes part in the mercy that lifts him out of earthly life and makes him aspire to the divine atmosphere of heaven.” This late work of Liszt expanded the ground for the later contributions of Scriabin’s music of divine ecstasy as well as the mystical work of Satie, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky, among others. Sumptuous tonal chords, including those found in the vast realm of dissonance and atonality, can reveal mystical illuminations and pulses as the changing action of creation brushes upon whatever chaos it happens to meet (see Ross’s article in the New Yorker). For Liszt, however, the journey aimed to bring him to the source of the burning within—the musical stigmata that marked his life, his compositions, and his audiences.


I dreamed of Liszt’s cornerstone while in Budapest and this inspired Hillary and I to visit the Liszt Museum at the Academy of Music where his apartment is preserved as it was during his final years. There is found Liszt’s personal icon of Christ, crucifix, and rosary with which he made his evening prayers. As I stood on the wood floor where he had walked in his former home in Budapest, grasping the crucifix he held while praying, my heart felt the undeniable truth that music is the sacred bridge between God and the human soul. It is the mystical bridge, the shamanic journey, the Bushman rope to God, and the eternal return to our ancestral home. It is simply Earth as it is in heaven.



[1] Barnes’ article can be found on his website

[2] Once could argue that it is an oversimplification to suggest that “eastern oriental thought” only represents a “disembodied” relationship to mystery. However, Barnes’ point about Liszt and the “uniquely incarnational mystery of the Christian gospel” remains sound. It would require an in-depth scholarly paper to address both the truth and limitation in Barnes’ statement.

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