A recent story on National Public Radio completely fascinated me. It began in the famed Hagia Sophia, the 6th century Byzantine “Cathedral of Holy Wisdom,” magnificently situated in what is now Istanbul. Later a mosque of the Ottoman Empire, now a museum for the Turkish government, it was for a thousand years the largest church in Christendom. By design, serendipity, or providence its interior acoustic wonder soars on matchless architectural wings!
The NPR story points to two scholars at Stanford University who had been musing about whether the way things sound in specific spaces could be captured and controlled by various digital measurements, then applied to sounds produced elsewhere. The impetus was, not to digitally simulate a sound, but to create one as we would hear it in the space in question—because that space’s precise acoustical properties could digitally come to bear upon it.
Their thesis was demonstrated first by the simple sound of a popping balloon. It was a benign enough sonic event that dissipated nearly as quickly as it had occurred. Another balloon was then popped inside the Hagia Sophia. It sounded like an explosion, as the burst emanated from its point of departure and expanded in resonant and reverberating waves through the vast reaches of the great cathedral.
With all their carefully calibrated and archived acoustical measurements in hand, the two scholars then recorded somewhere in a studio an otherwise accomplished men’s choir, who suffered in that moment from the room’s intentionally dry, bland, innocuous effects. The recording was then digitally filtered to astonishing effect through the acoustical properties gathered in Istanbul. The men sounded like they were singing in the very midst of the Hagia Sophia, and acoustically they were! The ancient, a cappella chants that had just sounded so inert in studio suddenly sounded as they were meant to sound, as they had been composed to sound, as the space where they first were heard had been designed to help them sound. The music suddenly seemed profound—something far greater than the sum of its parts.
In planning or implementing worship, we do not make God’s word “suddenly profound” through any effort of our own. Rather the Holy Spirit who inspired God’s written word illuminates and transforms us by its truth and power as it resonates and reverberates through the whole milieu of worship to our individual hearts and minds, then through the community we are formed by Christ himself to be—even when we are for a time at a distance from each other.
The Bible says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” As we place ourselves in praise, prayer and proclamation before Scripture’s witness to God’s holy wisdom, worship can bring explosive change in us and through us to a world starved for God’s beauty and grace.