That Singing the Faith includes hymns by a Classical Charts #1 composer is noteworthy enough. That Margaret Rizza, the writer/composer in question, didn’t start composing until after she had entered her sixties is even more remarkable and an inspirational reminder that opportunities to share our Christian voice may come to us at any time of our life and in many unexpected ways.
As one talks to Margaret Rizza, it doesn’t take long to realise why she was drawn to set words of David Adam to music – Calm me, Lord, as you calmed the storm (StF 624). His simple, clear words, which he calls a Prayer of St Patrick, are written out of the Celtic spiritual tradition. It’s a tradition, Margaret says, that “saw sacredness in absolutely everything – in what they touched and in relationships. It reflects a reverence for a God deep within each one of us.”
And that is how Margaret describes her faith: as being in a God “deep within us – not out there”. Though she admits that “‘God’ is quite a difficult word for me”, nevertheless she embraces the task of “creating, touching, plugging into” the divine within us. It can be, she says, a very difficult reality to grasp and understand, but she is inspired by “the transience and the imminence of this creator ‘God’ – the wonderful energy”. David Adam’s hymn draws on the Gospel account of Jesus calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee, in which he indeed displays a ‘wonderful energy’ and a command of nature that reflects God’s divine, active presence in all things. (Luke 8: 22-5)
Margaret wrote the music for this hymn not long after she had turned her hand to composition and begun to fashion something of a second career. As Margaret Lensky, she had been a successful opera performer, singing professionally for 25 years under such conductors as Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein before becoming a teacher of vocal studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. She had trained and directed many choirs and was in so many areas of her professional and personal life very happy. Her attachment to the Roman Catholic Church was also strong, having experienced what she calls a “head conversion” to Catholicism while in Italy in 1967.
Yet there was within Margaret something of the inner tumult that David Adam writes about. She recalls a walk in her garden one summer evening in 1983 and having a spiritual experience that she describes as “a strike of fire”. She had been grappling with the idea that, even in a turbulent world and in the face of personal angst, our Christian call is to trust in God’s presence in everything. As she would write in her own hymn, In the darkness of the still night (StF 109):
In the darkness of the still night,
in the dawning of the daylight,
in the mystery of creation,
Creator God, you are there.
What Margaret understood on that summer evening was that the angst of living in a global context of so much pain and hardship, of living in a ‘first world’ too detached from the needs of the ‘third world’, isn’t something that simply goes away. Nevertheless, “on the different levels of my consciousness through prayer, understanding, and meeting God’s spirit through other people, deep down there was a bedrock, an unchangeability, that I could relate to.” She began to understand what now lies at the heart of her faith and of her composing (itself a faith activity): that faith is fragile, battered by worries, busyness and the barrage of information and developing technology, but that by trust it will hold up.
This is why prayer is so important to Margaret – in fact, the ‘bedrock’ for everything she does. It was always part of her in some shape or form. She recalls, as a child, how her mother came into her room to find her talking to someone. “I’m talking to Jesus”, she said – the beginnings, one senses, of a very natural life of prayer.
Over the years, her current practice of twice-daily prayer has evolved out of exploring meditation in Buddhist and Christian Benedictine traditions and through the practice of Ignatian spiritual exercises. When, in 1997, she fully entered the world of sacred composition it was at the invitation of a sister of the Sacred Heart Community who asked her to write music for an international conference. The music only became possible to write after she had given herself over to silent meditation. “My music is birthed through silence,” she has said. “It is rooted in this way of prayer, even though each piece I compose can be a challenge, and sometimes it is an uphill struggle to write down what the Spirit is trying to express.”*
The stillness to which meditation aspires is very evident in Margaret’s hymn You are the centre, you are my life (StF 567), which reflects both the prayerful repetition of meditative practices and also the musical influence of Gregorian chant and Jacques Berthier’s Taizé chants.
It was a CD of Margaret’s arrangements of the Taizé chants that took her to the No.1 spot in the Classical Music Charts. A year later, she was commissioned by the renowned choral group, The Sixteen, under its director Harry Christopher, to write the anthem ‘Ave generosa’, which was included on their album A Mother’s Love. “I wanted to spread my musical wings and this came about through that recording.”
What she discovered she had been gifted was the opportunity to offer musical reflections of faith beyond the immediate Christian community. “I’m just trying to share this forceful, fearful spirit deep within us and it can be that, through music, people with no specific Christian identity might be touched and find a spiritual source. If people don’t have a particular denominational attachment, then it’s wonderful if they are moved.”
“Once I’ve written something, it’s done”, Margaret says – and there’s a kind of freedom in that statement. While she has had the opportunity to translate her musical gifts into a kind of ministry that transcends traditional Church, in the end it is not the things that she ‘makes’ that define her but what she finds deep within herself: the presence of God that centres her life whatever she encounters through it. As she writes (StF 109):
In our prayer and in our service,
in our praise and in our worship,
in your love that is eternal,
Creator God, you are there.
* Quotation from Margaret Rizza’s interview with Sally Harper, which can be found on Margaret’s website: www.margaretrizza.com