HE WOULD LAY IN BED FOR DAYS. Do nothing. Achieve nothing. Take no food. His thoughts dark, pit-of-hell, slaveship dark. Bullied by one perfect horror of an inner monologue, a real devil, he could split the clouds with howling, spend as much as six hours in confession, exasperating his confessors, then spend almost as much time in prayer.
Legend says he threw an inkwell at his devil, that it left a stain. Perhaps. Perhaps not. He drove "the devil away with ink," just like he said, but he did it with his writing. He beat him back with New Testament German. He hurled loud curses, whiplike and without reverence at the creature Despair. He even gave flatulence a try, it too whiplike and without reverence (which is no real trick, I suppose, after drinking quantities of Wittenberg beer). Medication of a kind.
He is human. That is the point. Luther off his pedestal.
A man of intelligence, of conviction and stride, a man of wide contrasts, a worldchanger who stood toe to toe with the middle ages, who called popes, emperors, and holy men to account, Martin Luther was as vulnerable as any of us to despair, the Black Dog as Luther called it anyway, the one that bullied him the most.
He medicated himself with work, with study, with scripture, and with more work, more study, more scripture. But music was his good angel. It had the range and vitality to penetrate his despair, and bring a little relief.
Next to theology I give place to music; for thereby all anger is forgotten, the devil is driven away, and melancholy and many tribulations and evil thoughts are expelled.
He meant that. Known as the Nightingale of Wittenberg, he played his lute at night. And he was very good at it—the strings, like the movement in his heart, plucky and warm. Martin Luther understood the therapeutic value of music, most particularly when bound to scripture or to an inspired lyric. Music was intended "to drive away care," he said, to cheer the fallen spirit. He called music the "unshackled art." Considering his torment, I am not sure he would have survived without it.
A Mighty Fortress is our God
A bulwark never failing
Our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing...
—MIGHTY FORTRESS IS OUR GOD
There is an element of self-medication in the act of hymn writing. King David comes to mind. Luther wrote hymns to chase his devils away too, silencing them chorus by chorus. Worship, at the dawn of reform, was lifeless, without soul (according to Luther). Considered the "father of congregational singing," revolution came by way of a lute (the early modern guitar). We owe him for that.
An episode from my own past can help further explain the therapeutic value of music.
IN WAYS THE SOUL ALONE CAN HEAR
We will call her Bailey (not her real name). A couple of decades ago, Bailey, a girl of perhaps 20, having sought help from two notable Christian counselors for depression and suicidal ideation, showed up at our offices one afternoon in a fit of despair.
Wanting to help Bailey and not knowing quite how, I had an idea. I looked for some non-distracting music, whatever I could find that was meditative, hush, and unstructured—Gregorian chant, George Winston, ocean sounds, rain, anything with a contemplative or soothing ambience. Over those sounds I recorded long passages of scripture. The music was present enough to elevate the voice without getting in its way. I wasn't sure what I was doing. I was following an impulse, making it up as I went along. My thought was to make listening as little work as possible. I also chose passages that reflected inward struggle, as from the psalms of David, of Job, Christ, and the words of the poet-apostle, the lyrical Paul.
The recording (made on a four-track cassette recorder) was approximately thirty minutes long. When I gave it to Bailey, she listened to it over and over. I thought it too raw for public consumption, but she said others in the girls' home where she lived (WILLING HEART, Marietta, GA) listened to it and wanted copies for themselves. The recording was crude, technically flawed, but it had something. I am sure the kindness of the act had some effect, but there was more to it than that. The words had power to arrest the thing that bullied her, to get underneath it, and, as it had with our blue Luther, chase the thing away.
The light around her changed. She got a job, became productive, and in time, independent. While I cannot take credit for her recovery, I am confident that this recording had some part in it, offering, as it did, a word of hope, of consolation, and possibility, and in ways the soul alone can hear.
I had something new, born of inspiration and necessity, not to mention continuous requests for a copy of their own. In short time, I scripted an entire album's worth of this kind of content. We called the first recording HOPE. A second recording we called MORE HOPE.
Depression. Anxiety. Childbirth. Pre-op. Meditation. Grief recovery. Even sleep deprivation (though I am still not sure how to handle comments like, "David, your voice puts me right to sleep"). ADHD and ADD are a particularly vulnerable target.
Late one night, during the Christmas season, not long after the release of MORE HOPE, a gentleman called a radio station in the Greenville/Spartanburg, SC area and told them an incredible story. He said he was about to end his life by driving off the side of a mountain when he felt a overwhelming compulsion to turn his radio on. He pulled over to the side of the road and did just that. A selection from MORE HOPE ("I Chose You") had just begun to play. He was convinced it was the voice of God speaking directly to him. He wept. He too survived his despair. The station contacted us and told us the story, one of many we have heard since those days.
This was no longer just a matter of soothing and comforting or even medicating, but of altering, of not only ridding the soul of debris and wastes, but changing it, giving ear to its deepest cry.
More can, should, and will be said about all this. Luther, it seems, had a point. But don't take my word for it. Listen to the following selection from MORE HOPE and decide for yourself.
* In honor of Bailey, our blue Luther, and those who have learned the art of negotiating despair, keeping it at a distance, we offer HOPE and MORE HOPE for $6.99 (Download only). Other spoken word projects include SPEAK TO ME and IN THE MOURNING, both available as downloads from this site.