A Song, Your Brain, and Changing the World

I thought it a bit odd when I discovered that St. Cecilia—the patron saint of musicians—didn't actually sing or play an instrument. She was one of those saints whom I was familiar with since childhood; I remember seeing illustrations of her in books, her eyes raised wistfully to heaven, her fingers resting on harp strings or ivory keys. You would think that she had written a famous hymn or... something.

Yet she is remembered for a song within her heart that no one but God could hear. According to the story, while the organ played at her secular wedding, she sat apart and sang a song of love for God in the silence of her mind (how anyone knew that, I have no idea).

That struck a chord in me (if you'll excuse the pun), and I've found myself pondering it often in the last two months since I first began working on Cecilia's Song. In many ways, her story sounds more like a legend pieced together from romantic folk tales than historical truth (and some cynics claim exactly that). But regardless of the actual "facts", there must be a reason that an interior song has been remembered and celebrated for almost two thousand years.

The Power of Thinking

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
{ Philippians 4:8 }

How quickly we gloss over that one word: think.

But St. Paul wasn't being glib when he used that particular verb, like, "Think about nice things so you'll feel nice, duuuuude." Although he didn't have modern science like we do, nor the words to articulate it, Paul knew that the things we think about have the power to shape us from the inside out.

As human beings, we are made in the image and likeness of God. With the birth of neuroscience and quantum physics, we are coming to learn that this is not just philosophically and theologically relevant—it is a scientific reality.

In the first chapter of the gospel of John, he says that "in the beginning was the word"—or logos, which is consciousness, and it is defined by intelligibility, rationality, and thought. Over and over again in the Genesis story, we hear how God used speech to create the universe. "And God said, 'Let there be light.'" He didn't wave his arms or shake a magic staff. His mind created everything and now sustains everything.

When God created humans, he set us apart from the animals by giving us the ability to think about alternative situations and embed them into larger narratives. Unlike the dog who will sleep in utter contentment so long as his basic needs are fulfilled,  humans are able to consider things beyond the present moment and make conscious choices that affect our reality and the future itself.

"It is important to remember that our thinking changes the structure of our brains because our minds are separate from our brains. Your mind controls your brain. Your brain does not control your mind. You change your brain; your brain cannot just change itself. When you think, feel, and choose you are updating your experience, and this is reflected in structural and functional changes in your brain: you are both literally and figuratively building memories. Your brain responds to what you do, so if there is communication and behavioural and intellectual change, then the brain has been changed by the mind and this change is expressed through words and actions." — Dr Caroline Leaf, The Perfect You, p.27

In other words, the same way that God's mind created the universe, our minds create the proteins that form our physical memories. Our memories are then manifested in what we say and do—and what we say and do changes the world around us.

This kind of blew my mind when I first grasped the idea. We share in God's creative power simply by our ability to think.

When you realize this, one can't help but feel awed and humbled by the incredible power we've been given through our minds. What are the things that I am thinking and feeling and choosing which are changing me—and ultimately, history itself?

For there can be no doubt that dwelling upon dark and sinful things affects our reality. The Columbine shooters didn't wake up one day and decide to kill their fellow students on a whim. The Nazis weren't intrinsically evil people so far removed from us that we are not capable of their atrocities. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

See, I have placed before you life and death...

It is easy to look elsewhere when things go wrong. "My dysfunction is from bad parenting as a child!" "My failed marriage is because my spouse is too selfish!" "This insane political climate is the fault of those crazy snowflake libtards!" And while we certainly are affected by circumstances beyond our control, what we do with that stimuli is entirely our responsibility. How has our thinking, feeling, and choosing exacerbated our dysfunction, destroyed our relationships, and contributed to a toxic society?

In previous posts, I have touched on my own struggles the last year with stress, anxiety, and a host of obscure health issues. I'm still learning what environmental factors may be at play with affecting my physical health, but I am coming to see how seemingly unimportant decisions have slowly and dreadfully shaped me over the course of my young life.

I mean, it didn't seem like a big deal when I quickly checked Facebook while Photoshop was saving... but now I'm waking up to just how little self-control I have in so many other areas of my life because I am so used to killing time with meaningless entertainment. Or when I got annoyed with my daughter because I was "working"... I didn't realize how I was reinforcing the pathways in my brain that prioritize my projects over my vocation. Or how dwelling on the fear of losing a loved one was inducing crippling anxiety. Or how going to my computer first thing in the morning was convincing my brain of imaginary deadlines which stressed me out to no end. The list goes on. And I thought I was a good person! But the awful truth is that I have abused and neglected the phenomenal power I've been given.

So then, what are we to do? You could check out Dr Caroline Leaf's work (this post is based largely on her books which I HIGHLY recommend). Or you could start by looking to St. Cecilia.

Cecilia had vowed to give her life to Christ but, in circumstances beyond her control, was forced into marriage with a pagan. Instead of playing the victim card and gloomily giving up, she raised her heart and mind to God even as the organ announced her wedding. This silent prayer gave her the strength to love her new husband and proclaim the gospel—on their wedding night! Her bold but gentle evangelism changed his heart and encouraged his newfound faith even until the point of death. She herself was filled with grace and courage until her own martyrdom a little while later. Her silent prayer has inspired countless people and continues to change lives to this very day.

What power we have with a thought! What marvellous effects a single person can have on the people around them—changes that will ripple throughout all of history—just by choosing to be intentional with their thoughts.

Love Never Fails

We were made in the image and likeness of God, which means we have been given intellect and the ability to reason. But it also means we have the capacity to love.

Last Sunday in the mass readings we heard what is probably the most common scripture passage chosen for weddings:

 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

"Love". A word we hear so often and yet we often don't understand what it means. This word was unlocked for me when I heard the definition from St. Thomas Aquinas. In short, it is to "will the good of the other, as other."

Now, that is a whole other blog post in and of itself, but I think it presents a good note to end on (sorry, I couldn't help but slip another pun in there).

How can I "will the good of the other" with my thoughts? The answer is simple: pray. Prayer isn't wishful thinking to some sky being; it is an intentional act of the will to hope for and desire the good of another person, and to raise that petition to the highest good himself: God. Prayer, which begins in the mind and is then imprinted in the brain, not only invokes a supernatural grace upon both of you which cannot be measured by science, it literally changes you too. When you intentionally and consistently direct your thoughts to the good of others, you are wiring your brain to be aware of their needs and to desire their good. That will then become manifest in your intent and behaviour towards them in real life. Trust me when I say that they will notice.

Not only that, when you raise your heart and mind to God in gratitude and thanksgiving, you are changing the way you see and appreciate the world. This will give you the strength to "bear all things"—for even amidst the greatest trials we can find evidence of God's guiding love if only we are willing to see it. And couldn't this world use just a few more people who are willing to accept responsibility with joy, despite their suffering, instead of blaming others for all their problems?

So what are you waiting for? Changing the world can begin right now, within your own mind. Whatever is good—think about such things!

St. Cecilia, pray for us!

Cecilia's Song, <em>Oil on wood</em>

About this painting

My sister commissioned this painting as a Christmas gift to her sister-in-law, who happens to be a very dear friend of mine and a talented pianist. As a musician myself who knows many other musicians, it wasn't a hard decision to make.

To read about the full creative process—from concept to painting to video to print—click here!

You can also watch the full time-lapse video below. Featured is the song "Even Unto Death" by the talented Audrey Assad.

Watch the time-lapse video for "Cecilia's Song"

If you loved this painting, please support my ministry by liking, subscribing, and sharing with your friends and family! You can also give a small monthly donation on my Patreon page which will help me make more paintings and videos.

Thank you and God bless!

Posted in New Products, Thoughts About Life, Time-lapse Videos.

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