It was in the tumultuous 1960s that John Michael Talbot first appeared on the American music scene. With his older brother Terry and their country-rock band, Mason Proffit, he entertained huge crowds and shared top billing with such established secular performers as John Denver, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Grateful Dead. It wasn't unusual, in fact, for critics to write that the Talbots' band had stolen the show from those other acts.
But, while they were all hitting the big time, Mason Proffit was coming apart. There was substance abuse in the group (not involving John) and growing disagreement as to goals and creative directions. In 1973, sitting on the edge of superstardom, the band disintegrated.
Yet the music went on. John and Terry, undergoing Christian conversion experiences, became part of a new phenomenon — contemporary Christian music. They began to find an audience eager to hear a blend of modern sounds and explicit proclamations of the Gospel.
In 1977, John's wife, Nancy, bewildered by the intensity and single-mindedness of his conversion, found herself seeking Christ along a divergent path. She pushed for divorce, and years of soul-searching followed for John. At Alverna, a Franciscan retreat center two miles from his parents' home in Indianapolis, he found his vocation. Baptized a Catholic in 1978 by Franciscan Father Martin Wolter, John lived at Alverna in solitude, prayer and study, alternating with periods of writing books, counseling and recording religious albums. He gradually emerged as “the holy man of the woods,” ready to found, in 1980, “The Little Portion” hermitage in Arkansas. Two years later, his Secular Franciscan House of Prayer community settled definitively on 97 acres in the Ozark Mountains.
That's the place “The Music of Creation” comes from. This is the work of a musician who has discovered, through his extraordinary endowment of talent, the God of music and the music of God. Overjoyed by his discovery, he is impelled to share his insights with all his fellow Christians, and particularly with the young. “The Music of God,” he writes, “is an exploration of this inward voyage of discovery, which prepares us to go back, outward and forward to bring goodness and love to all creation.”
Still very popular on the contemporary Christian charts, this monk-musician is, first and foremost, an apostle of Jesus Christ. Reading this work, one gets the sense he is also something of a scholar; it's clear he has pored over the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, including St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and St. John of the Cross, as well as the documents of Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But he has not merely read these sources. High in his hand-built hermitage, he has absorbed them until they have become an essential part of him. Obviously, he has prayed them.
Catholic to the core, Talbot is ecumenical in his evangelism.
Catholic to the core, Talbot is ecumenical in his evangelism. “The Music of Creation” is addressed to all who seek God in the midst of a secular cacophony telling them to turn away.
Beginning with the Blessed Trinity, Talbot lays out truths of the Catholic creed. But he doesn't explain them; rather, he holds them up for wonder in a way only the creatively gifted can. The depths of Catholic doctrine are presented as if observed with the clarity and simplicity of a child's gaze. Central is the incarnation, with Jesus as the living paradox of God's self-emptying. “Let us look seriously to his parables,” he writes. “They speak of his mystery that is yet accessible to all. They speak with words the truth beyond all telling, the truth of Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God.”
And of paradox: In the Incarnation, “glory takes on humility as a way to lead all to glory. Light takes on darkness as a way back to the light. … The full communion with the Trinity takes on the solitude and separation of the fallen human condition in order to lead all back into full communion, or common union, with and in the Trinity. Thus the path of emptiness is the way to fullness. Darkness is the way to light. Silence is the way to the Word. Solitude is the way to true community. And so goes the paradox into almost every aspect of human life.”
Mary's cooperation with God is brought out in the three-part harmony of the immaculate conception, the assumption into heaven and Mary's status as Ever Virgin. As Talbot notes, these three concepts teach us much about how we can work in harmony with God. For example, a lesson our souls can learn from the Ever Virgin is that “we are called to have virginal hearts, minds, and souls, so that this pure spirit within us all can be set free from the prison of sullied desires and lusts and be reborn of God.”
The themes of discipleship, community and docility to the Spirit lead to considerations on prayer, liturgy and the sacraments. Notable is the understanding Talbot tenders to all believers, whatever their communion; also, his writing is accessible to a wide range of readers, yet deep enough in doctrine to engage even rigorous intellectuals.
In prose that is both simple and profound, Talbot teaches us how to hear God's music — the only music that can transform our lives and open them to the joy of being entirely God's.
Dominican Sister Mary Thomas Noble writes from Buffalo, New York.