‘God has given us this vast and complex gift called music’

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Imagine it. You’re at Mass, and as you walk up to receive our Lord in communion, you hear the choir singing one of your favorite hymns. The holiness of the moment nourishes your soul.

Imagine it. You’re in the car, a cup of warm coffee in hand, and you’re driving to work when your favorite song comes on the radio. As you turn the dial to have it play louder, you can’t help but smile as your dreary morning mood has all of sudden been lifted.

So many pieces of music become the soundtracks of life, but what seems to have been lost in the shuffle is that music, all music, is a gift from God.

Catholic artists Greg Boudreaux and Andrea Thomas, co-directors of The Vigil Project, in partnership with 4PM Media, have sought to bring the mystery of that gift back to the forefront as they make final preparations to release their documentary, Meaning of Music, later this fall. 

Written and produced by The Vigil Project, in creative partnership with Dan Johnson of 4PM Media, the eight 30-minute episodes seek to rediscover the gift of music in the life of the faith. Throughout, the documentary talks with more than 30 musicians, clergy such as Bishop Robert Barron, scholars, and speakers. 

Many interviews included were with several throughout the Diocese of Nashville, including the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation, Catholic singer/songwriter Matt Maher, and Catholic composer Michael Kurek.

“Music is a gift from God that can be an incredible gateway to the divine, but in recent decades, the Catholic Church has forgotten its inheritance of music,” says the project’s official website. “In this first ever cinema-quality documentary exploring the meaning of music, perhaps it is time we remember.”

‘God was preparing us’

The journey to creating such a documentary was not an obvious one as both Boudreaux and Thomas grew up in separate dioceses and had separate careers in music.

Boudreaux grew up in the Diocese of New Orleans, attending Our Lady of the Lake Church in Mandeville, Louisiana, where he watched his mother work as a church musician. Early in life, he started playing the drums, eventually meeting his wife in high school, and the pair started writing together.

Meanwhile, Thomas grew up in a Dominican parish, St. Gertrude Church, in Cincinnati, Ohio, cantoring during Mass and performing in musical theater.

Then, in 2016, the two musicians crossed paths as various songwriters came together to write a series of seven songs for the Lenten and Easter seasons of the liturgical year. From that, The Vigil Project was born. Ever since, The Vigil Project has sought to collaborate with musicians around the world to create music for every moment of the Catholic journey, releasing music and holding events that help bring Catholics into a deeper experience of prayer with the Church.

“We feel like the job for our events is to create the space of encounter with the Lord,” Thomas said. “But we have noticed over the last seven years … that the conversation around music carries a lot of the same questions, a lot of the same curiosities about what the Church has to say about it and also, heartbreakingly, quite a lot of division as well.

“‘What is God’s purpose surrounding the gift of music in our lives as humans and how can we know Him more through it? What does He want us to experience from music, from this gift that He’s given to us?’ Those questions were stirring in us, especially as we have seen such division in the Church surrounding this topic” she explained. “We have discovered that this film series was deeply planted in us far before we were cognitively aware that God was preparing us to take on a project like this one. We hope that it will shed light and be a gift to the Church and to the world.”

Then, the unlikely happened. The COVID-19 pandemic hit “and suddenly our calendars were clear for the first time ever as professional musicians,” Thomas said.

As they pondered the questions of whether they’d survive and what the next steps were, divine providence led Boudreaux and Thomas to the same idea: to answer these questions that had come up so many times before during their events.

“God has given us this vast and complex gift called music, and it’s this beautiful thing, this universal thing,” Boudreaux said. “It’s really important for us and our connectivity with God and with each other. That was our goal.”

Thus, the idea for Meaning of Music was formed.

Casting Meaning of Music

As the plans unfolded for the documentary, Thomas and Boudreaux, although they were both seasoned musicians in their own right, felt compelled to ask the right questions and seek the right people to answer them.

“It was with no shortage of difficulties” that the cast was formed, Boudreaux said. “One of the reasons we wanted to do this project is because music in the Church is something that is relatively disconnected, and there are a lot of islands.

“With that, one of the hopes of this project was to have many or all perspectives and gather all these people around the same table,” he continued. “It was a challenge to get in touch with them and then to get their buy in, but once we were able to have those conversations with them, there was a deep understanding of, ‘This is ambitious, but it’s really important, and we see the value in this.’”

Starting with those they knew

As they gathered a list of potential interviewees, some came about from connections they already had, such as the inclusion of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation, whom Thomas was already familiar with because of her time growing up in a Dominican parish.

“Andrea knew music was a big part of our life since St. Cecilia is the patroness of our congregation,” explained Sister Anne Catherine Burleigh, OP, vicaress general and media coordinator. “I think they were looking for different expressions of music within our Catholic faith, and it was important to them to have religious life represented as well as music in the liturgy and the prayers of consecrated women.

“Part of our charism as Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia is a recognition that through music and the beauty of the arts, the beauty of God and the truth of God is expressed in a way that penetrates the heart,” she continued. “I think something that appealed to us about what Greg and Andrea were trying to do was their desire to reflect the universality of the Church through diverse expressions of music, especially in capturing how the faithful around the world praise and worship God in song.”

Sister Anne Catherine said the crew spent a day with the sisters, interviewing several sisters and filming some singing.  

“Their vision was very inspiring,” she said. “They sought to speak to many different people – priests, bishops, religious, trained musicians, and lay people in the pews – about beauty and music. Unfortunately, sometimes today music can seem to be a thing that divides, and I think Andrea and Greg saw that the Church wants music to be seen as something that brings Catholics together so that they can really worship with one voice. It was very providential.”

While Thomas knew the Dominican sisters through her earlier career, Boudreaux was already familiar with Matt Maher, a parishioner of St. Joseph Church in Madison and Catholic singer/songwriter known for co-writing and performing “Lord, I Need You.”

“I’ve known Greg since he was a high school student,” Maher explained. “I’ve been following along and watching him grow in his gifts and talents and watching The Vigil Project grow.

“When he reached out and let me know what they were doing, my first thought was, ‘That’s incredibly ambitious,’” he added. “I’m not sure living a life fully fueled by ambition is necessarily something you want to do because it’s not sustainable, but I think having moments where you get a vision for something and for painting a picture, for helping people remember how amazing and how beautiful and how sacred the gift of music is in people’s lives is a great thing.”

The questions Meaning of Music sought to answer were not new ones to Maher, either.

“It had been something I was reflecting upon on my own during the pandemic; just the miracle of sound and the miracle of music,” said Maher, noting that he’s studied classical music, jazz music, and music theory and composition. “In all of those facets and forms, I’ve had incredible experiences that were truly transcendent, but when it combined with my faith, it was truly something unique in and of itself.

“When it belongs to God, there is this other element of it that our faith is somehow caught up in it, nourished by it, encouraged by it and music in and of itself becomes a way in which we, in a physical way, experience the reality of our relationship with God,” he concluded. “Sound is a wave, and it moves through your ear drums, and it causes emotions, which your brain sends to your body. It makes the hairs on your arm stand up, it moves your hearts, it does all these things that are actually very physical and physiological and, at the same time, is deeply spiritual.”

Another artist they were familiar with was Athenas, a singer/songwriter from Argentina, who first visited Nashville years ago to participate in a retreat hosted by The Vigil Project. The experience led to Athenas and her husband, Tobias, deciding they should move to the area. 

Athenas, who regularly attends St. Philip the Apostle Church in Franklin, said she first became a Catholic musician 10 years ago, after spending years, starting at a very young age, touring around Argentina and Uruguay. 

“I felt honored to be a part of the series in representation of our Hispanic communities and especially among many big Catholic personalities such as Matt Maher and Bishop Barron,” Athenas said. “I think we haven’t realized how important music can be in our spiritual life and in evangelization. 

“That is why I think this documentary is great because it makes us talk and reflect about that, and it shows us how music is a great gift for the Church and all of its potential,” she added. “I hope those who watch it discover a more beautiful and profound meaning of music and that many can be inspired to start a journey making music for evangelization themselves.” 

Relying on word-of-mouth

Other cast members came about from word-of-mouth in the industry, such as Michael Kurek, parishioner of St. Joseph and composer laureate of Tennessee.

“They kind of a did a day in the life of a composer,” Kurek explained, noting that his portion of the process came in the fall of 2022, after Thomas and Boudreaux became familiar with his book, “The Sound of Beauty: A Classical Composer on Music in the Spiritual Life,” released in 2019. “I was a little skeptical at first because I’m a classical guy … but they assured me that the documentary would cover all styles of music that are in the Church.”

But upon viewing the first episode during a special viewing in New Orleans in April, “I have the highest praise for it now. It was so balanced,” Kurek said. “It was a wonderful film. The film itself gives a view of what music is and how music operates as sound waves to which our bodies and our minds respond through God’s physical creation of sound.

“He gave us this phenomenon of vibrations in the air that come to our eardrums. He gave us that as a gift of beauty,” he continued. “God is so kind because he wants to give us a taste of heaven here.”

Thomas and Boudreaux, “they are both such sweethearts and such good and kind people,” he concluded. “Their hearts are all in the right places, so I think it can’t help but be a wonderful series.”

As part of the day with Kurek, it just so happened that Jeff Hall, director of music at St. Joseph, was rehearsing Kurek’s Missa Brevis, a choral arrangement of the parts of the Mass, with the 8 a.m. traditional choir. It was recorded for the film.

“We are so grateful that Michael Kurek, a very well-renowned music composer, would write this for us,” Hall said. “To perform it for Meaning of Music was an incredible experience.”

‘Unity around the gift of music’

For nearly three years, Thomas and Boudreaux traveled everywhere to gather hundreds of hours of footage as they brought their vision to reality, and both agreed that they were changed by it.

“One of the hardest parts is keeping it to eight 30-minute episodes because it seems infinite with the amount of stories and people that can be captured and shared,” Thomas said. “As we took the next step and pushed our feet off the edge of the pool, so many people from so many different genres came out of the woodwork who have unbelievable stories, unbelievable careers, unbelievable testimonies to share when it comes to music.”

“The majority of the cast are Catholic, but there are a few exceptions. We’re not just grateful, but honored to have their perspective, and I’m so excited for people to hear some of these stories,” she continued, noting such non-Catholic Nashvillians as Steffany Gretzinger and Stephen Curtis Chapman. “For me, I did not expect to have my heart so moved and so changed in this process, but it’s really hard to come into contact with the truth about God’s plan for this incredible gift and not be changed.”

And all the effort was worth it, she said.

“Every single person has brought such a depth and unique perspective to this narrative. I don’t think we could be more pleased with the stories we’ve been able to capture,” Thomas said. “It’s taken an incredible amount of effort, but the doors did and are opening. It has been a real privilege to facilitate this conversation and discover so much of what I did not know. I can say for certain, there is no arrival in the knowledge or understanding of the gift of music from God to man.”

For Boudreaux, the experience reopened the mystery that God has given through music.

“You try to ask the right question because you sort of know what the answer might be, and I think the thing that had the biggest impact on me was just to see the degree to which the things I thought I knew, I didn’t know, and realize the depth of the gift,” Boudreaux explained. “I knew music was a big gift, but it’s even bigger than I thought it was.

“God has given us through the gift of music this intimate link to prayer throughout the history of the Church,” he said. “To have the mystery opened again was life changing. This project, in a sense, put me back in that place of being in a seat of wonder; being in the seat of marvel at the gift of this mystery God has given us because He loves us.”

As the project’s release gets closer, Boudreaux said there is just one main hope for those who view the documentary.

“I hope in watching this that people have a deeper grasp and understanding of the gift of music and the gift it is to their faith, their prayer life, and their relationship to God and just a freedom to receive it,” Boudreaux said. “We hope to create unity around the gift of music again, for this to be not a fragmented thing, but a common vision that we can all experience and receive through the love of God.”

For more information about Meaning of Music, updates on the release date, and to view the official trailer, visit www.thevigilproject.com/meaningofmusic.  

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