Prophet of longing

There are some prayers so tender and so true that they seem to say everything that needs to be said with only a few words. From the sanctuary of St. Joseph Church in South Bend, Indiana, such a prayer arose with melodic sweetness, offered on behalf of many from Catholic singer/songwriter Audrey Assad: “I’m a broken stone, so lay me in the house you’re building.”

Assad’s public concert at St. Joseph was the first of five events over the span of two weeks at the end of June in the South Bend area, with the other four taking place at various sessions of the Notre Dame Vision program through the McGrath Institute for Church Life. With lyrics drawn largely from the psalms and the Church’s hymn tradition, Assad wraps her seraphic and soulful vocal vibrations around words pulsing with all the longing of a homeless traveler looking for somewhere to lay her head. Though few could match the quality of her sound, many are familiar with that longing in her music.

Dwelling in mystery

This is the genius of Audrey Assad’s music and why so many who typically do not care for the “Christian music” genre are drawn to her songs in a way they cannot quite explain. One of her unlikely followers is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who opined that “she writes the sort of emotionally drenched music that helps people who are in crisis. ... Her lyrics dwell in the parts of Christianity she doesn’t understand.” Singing words of faith that she is still trying to believe with uncommon passion, Assad is something like a prophet of longing for the great many who, somewhere very deep within, want to find a home in God but are as yet unable to rest in him. In the end, that “great many” might be just about everyone, including the multitudes of youth and young adults who find in her music something fresh and surprising.

What listeners find in Assad is someone who is not satisfied with easy answers and who presses down on the struggles of life and of faith with persistent intensity. Her music arises from the tension between this struggle of discontentment and her own longing for contentment. In her prayerful reading of the psalms, this tension is pronounced and, in the end, the source of remarkable creativity.

Wanting for nothing

Psalm 23 is one particular psalm she has prayed over and over again, ruminating on different lines in different ways at different moments of her life. To confess that “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want” is, as Assad recognizes, an astounding claim. She admits that for her — and maybe for most of those who join in her songs — each morning and each evening are filled with all kinds of things that she wants, even with diverse and often contradictory desires and anxieties. To say that with the Lord there is nothing you shall want seems to defy the experience of being human. Nevertheless, praying the words of this psalm invites you to practice saying what you do not always feel with conviction, but you say it anyway with the hope that God, in his grace, will help you grow into the belief of what you have said. Assad calls that “a really human prayer” — one where you may not yet be able to fully follow through on what you say you desire, and yet you venture to speak the desire anyway.

The depth of her prayer with Psalm 23 has given rise to at least three songs, including “Good to Me,” “Lead Me On,” and “I Shall Not Want.” The last of those songs includes the lyrics: “From the love of my own comfort / From the fear of having nothing / From a life of worldly passions / Deliver me O God.”

In praying the psalms or in returning to the traditional church hymns that filled her own childhood, Assad seeks to open up a place within herself for the words to enter in and go somewhere deep, to take root in the soil of the soul. She herself discovered a small delicate sapling of desire after years and years of searching for her own grounding in faith and a new beginning of her own identity after what she describes as traumatic years of adolescence and young adulthood. That tiny plant at her core was some mysterious desire: She wanted for something she did not yet know.

In this, Assad comes closest to one of her primary inspirations from the Church’s tradition, St. Augustine, who plunged into the depths of his own interior life to discover a desire so basic and so elemental that the very meaning of his own existence grew right along with that desire. In Augustine’s own timeless words, “My heart is restless until it rests in thee, O God.” In kind, Assad’s most beloved song is titled “Restless,” in which she dares to sing to God: “Speak now for my soul is listening / Say that you have saved me / Whisper in the dark, the dark.”

Prayer that says everything

“Underneath it all, I feel drawn,” Assad confessed to her audience at St. Joseph. With all the various confusions in everyday modern life, it is this sentiment that resonates most of all. The inheritance of the Church’s faith is something first given and imperfectly received, such that every disciple and would-be disciple could in all honesty utter the prayer of that desperate father in the Gospels, “I do believe, help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24).

Audrey Assad’s music gives a wide range of people from committed disciples to discontented spiritual seekers the opportunity to offer that simple and direct prayer. To confess faith, to acknowledge weakness and to beg for help really is a prayer that says everything, even when expressed in very few words. The feeling of deep-seated longing is universal, but the courage and honesty to confront that feeling is rather rare. In this case as with so many others, it may in fact be the artist who sees better than others and who first communicates what others do not yet know how to express. The distinctive thing about Audrey Assad is that, above all, she knows that the words she sings are not her own but are first received and recited before they are fully believed. To engage in such a practice of prayer is deeply challenging, deeply honest and deeply human.

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D, works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His books are available from Ave Maria Press and University of Notre Dame Press.

Albums, songs and lyrics of Audrey Assad
The faith and interior life of Audrey Assad’s music is evident in her lyrics: