With these words philosopher and theologian Joseph Pieper prefaces his slim yet dense volume Only the Lover Sings, and I believe that this intuition rings true in the artistry of Audrey Assad. In a popular music market where too often excess and superficiality gratify but leave souls unsatisfied, this singer-songwriter refreshes with a disarming simplicity and depth.
Assad graces the Christian music scene with a profoundly Catholic vision of reality and of God which surpasses certain contemporary worship trends that at times fail to transcend mere human sentimentalism. By rooting her lyrics in the mysterious logic of the Incarnation, Assad succeeds in expressing both the deepest of human longings while allowing the heart to soar towards the heavenly. Her song “Humble” is a simple yet profound reflection on the mystery of the kenosis, our God who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave for love of us (Phil. 2).
Humble and human, willing to bend you are
Fashioned of flesh and the fire of life, You are
Not too proud to wear our skin
to know this weary world we’re in
Humble, humble Jesus.
Humble in sorrow, You gladly carried Your cross
Never refusing Your life to the weakest of us
Not too proud to bear our sin
to feel this brokenness we’re in,
Humble, humble Jesus.
We bow our knees, we must decrease
You must increase, we lift you high.
Assad’s richly Catholic vision shines in songs inspired by classic authors, such as her beautiful rendition of Newman’s “Lead Kindly Light”. In this same vein we find one of her most popular compositions, which is also one of the most audacious by cultural standards. I challenge you to find a chart-topper in the year 2015 that contains the word “humility”. And yet Assad’s achingly wistful “I Shall Not Want”, which weds the litany of humility with echoes from the psalms, is an intimate plea for this oft-misunderstood virtue. This song becomes a true prayer, teaching me that I am truly free when I taste Your goodness and live not bound by worldly passions or a need to be accepted, but when I drink from the only Source that truly satisfies.
Beyond the sheer elegance of her exquisitely simple piano arrangements, another forte of Assad’s music is that her well-crafted texts lend themselves to meditation on multiple levels. Woven beneath seemingly simple lyrics glimmer precious strands of biblical imagery, ideas from the Church fathers (such as her reference to Augustine’s cor inquietum in “Restless”) and a theological richness that is hard to find in many modern hymnals. With few choice words, Assad encapsulates the heart of Christian revelation: that God is love, and He is Emmanuel (God-with-us). Though without explicit mention, in “Love is Moving” Assad alludes (perhaps unknowingly, but here shines the intuition of the sensus fidei) to that dance of love, called by theologians for centuries perichoresis (to dance around) which is the intimate life of the Trinity. This very dance of love is the agape that has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). Not bad for a vocabulary of less than 60 words.
But I believe the true secret to Assad’s appeal—beyond her musical talent and songwriting genius—is the fact that these musings are fruit of a heart allured by the fragrance of the merciful Bridegroom. Reading about her personal story gives precious insights into the life and work of this artist. Assad, who came from a Protestant background, shares her witness of conversion and redemption in Matt Fradd’s Delivered: True Stories of Men and Women who turned from Porn to Purity. With great frankness, the singer describes her struggles as a teenager:
“I masturbated regularly and hated myself for it. No details are necessary to convey the kind of darkness that hovered over me every night as I fought my own inexplicable urges, wishing that they didn’t exist. […] My heart was broken by my own actions. I believed in God, but I didn’t know how to let him love me. And I still didn’t know how to process the addiction. I didn’t understand the core issues behind it.”
Through a gradual process of opening up with supportive Christian friends and her providential discovery of the Catholic faith (in particular the Theology of the Body), Assad finally began to taste that redemption for which she so hungered:
“I understood then that freedom meant more than not sinning—it meant receiving the mercy and love of God and finding my identity in that love. My ability to absorb, accept and truly internalize God’s love had been hindered by the shame instinct that drove me to avoid sin as a child. I had to ask forgiveness and then receive it—and move on to better things. Suddenly, I knew and believed that God really did love me; he did actually see something good in me and always had.”
It comes as no surprise then that the title Assad chose for her witness of deliverance is precisely that which encapsulates the underlying message of all her music: Freedom and Fullness.
Why is it that artists such as Audrey Assad and the wildly popular Mumford and Sons are deeply attractive for the souls of our times? Because we are starving for the manna and the gospel of grace. When our choices seem to lie between a desperate nihilism and a false optimism, these prophets remind us instead that the human heart, though deeply scarred by sin, can still cry out in hope and rejoice in that happy fault that won for us so great a Redeemer.
Only in a world where the moving force of reality is the saving grace of Christ Jesus is it possible to sing a new song, a song that goes beyond mere human calculations into that realm of divine folly, where the God-Man dares to feel this brokenness we’re in for no other reason than the one passion worthy dying for: unconditional love. And as de Maistre reminds us, this love has a song, because for the sparrow that soars through this azure sky of agape, there exists no other melody:
I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free
Because His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He’s watching me.