Music that opens the heart


As it is in Heaven takes us on one man’s journey to recover his lost joy.  Or, more succinctly, to recover his heart.
Some stories are told.
Some stories change your life.

Daniel Daréus (Michael Nyqvist) wanted to live in order to create “music that opens people’s hearts.”
Daréus becomes a successful international conductor whose music does indeed, open people’s hearts.
His own heart, however, is in bad shape.
And in need of repair.

Even if we don’t have the words, we know (or feel) this loss.  Or absence.  In our own lives.  We know what it feels like when something is missing.  We may not be eminent conductors, but we know that what we are missing, is the music of the heart.

Who knows the reasons for a cracked or wounded heart?  In Daréus’ case, he knew the loss of a father and a childhood of persistent and physical bullying.  The movie picks up after he has achieved international acclaim.  And we watch him suffer a heart attack on stage, at the end of a performance.  He “retires” from music and retreats indefinitely to Norrland, in the far north of Sweden, to the same village where he grew up and endured a thorny childhood.  Daniel buys, and lives, in the old elementary school.

It doesn’t take long in a small village before the news of his distinguished presence is known.  (His name has changed since his childhood, so no one knows his “history” with the village.)  Immediately, he is invited to spend a Thursday night listening to the church choir. He is asked only to listen, and maybe “offer some helpful advice,” but their intentions of persuading him to lend a hand are obvious.  Eventually, he reluctantly agrees.  And after the parish minister offers him the position of cantor, Daniel accepts.

Yes, this small town has a church choir made up of the usual motley normality of people, including (among others) Inger, the repressed wife of Stig, the parish minister; Lena, charismatic and vivacious and love interest of Daniel; Gabriella, wife of an abusive and violent husband; Siv, the town gossip; Holmfrid, overweight and insecure; Arne, obsessive-compulsive businessman; and the slow mentally-affected Tore.

Daniel accepts the challenge.
He tells them that the music is inside. 
He tells them that each one has his or her unique tone.  They must find (or uncover) it.  
Oddly, there is no “plan” to his instruction or teaching. And yet. . .as he entices the group to create music that speaks to the heart, he rediscovers the joy of music that he has lost. 

But this joy comes at a price.  Whenever we find our way back into our own skin, there can be an amalgamation of love and misunderstanding and envy and accusation and power struggle and oppression.

The truth is this: we tether our identity to any number of hitching posts, our status, our self-righteousness, our anger, our pain or our grief.  And whenever we do, we give up who we are, the very reflection of God inside of us–in our hopes, dreams, creativity, yearnings, generosity–in order to placate or impress or please or to just plain run and hide.

Yes, Daniel’s journey towards the healing of his “heart” is full of pain, mistakes, difficult relationships, and emotional hurt. The same is true of every one of the people in the choir.  Each one is struggling with hurt — abuse from those they love, oppressive religious “righteousness”, misunderstandings.  But here’s the deal: when the grace of unconditional love and acceptance seizes them whole, inspired by the transcendence experienced as they enter unabashedly into singing and music, they are transformed — not from the outside in, but from the inside out.

Made up of flawed people who accept one another for who they are, they commit themselves to loving each other and lovingly serving others by sharing their passion for music. As they perform, they transform the lives of others — not by imposing a false religiosity; not by demanding that certain rules be kept — but by allowing the grace they have experienced to flow through their lives and wrap around those who hear them. By experiencing their full humanity and the grace of others who accept them as they are, they can’t help but pass this on to others.  It is unforced, inspiring, and life-changing.

Heaven occurs wherever real people, who struggle with what it means to be truly human, experience gracious, unconditional acceptance.  The priest in the film is arrogant, self-righteous, puritanical and controlling. In a climactic clash between him and Inger (who has left him), the priest tells his wife to ask for God’s forgiveness. In one of the most powerful and memorable lines in the movie, his wife responds unequivocally, “God doesn’t forgive; He has never condemned.”

The director, Pollak, has said that, to understand the film, we need to realize that the entire message of the movie is in this one line — “The idea that absolute, complete love doesn’t condemn.” (Amanda Wilson, Sydney Morning Herald)

The power of the music is the power of Grace.  
It is not something added to my life. 
The music gives birth to what is already there. 
A place where we count. 
A place where we matter.
A place where someone knows us, and sees us, 
and is willing to open their arms, wide. No matter what. 

Maybe it’s not that we are afraid of love.
Maybe we are just afraid of not being loved back.

This past week I was in San Diego. My routine… watching the sunset on Ocean Beach. Literally, music to open my heart. I spent a day at the delightful Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá with the staff from St. Gregory the Great. And another day with a good group on creating sanctuary. (I was tempted to make it an election-stress-reduction-yoga class.) And from afar, I lived vicariously through my Chicago Cub friend’s long awaited revelry and elation. It turns out that you didn’t even have to know baseball to join the party. Let’s just say that in Chicago, it felt like heaven.

With the staff, I didn’t need to tell them anything to make them better at what they do. I just wanted to remind them that when they are about their mission, they create music that speaks to the heart, and that music rediscovers the joy that is easily buried along the way. I guess I was just preaching to myself. And sometimes that’s not a bad thing to do.

Quotes for your week…
Somewhere I lost connection, ran out of songs to play.
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Stuck in Lodi”

A song will outlive all sermons in the memory. Henry Giles

Notes.  (1) As It Is in Heaven is a 2004 film directed by Kay Pollak.  It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Hollywood 77th Academy Awards.
(2) For some of my comments on the movie As it is in Heaven, I am indebted to the insight and movie critique I found on


Gabriella’s Song
It is now that my life is mine
I’ve got this short time on earth
And my longing has brought me here
All I lacked and all I gained

And yet it’s the way that I chose
My trust was far beyond words
That has shown me a little bit
Of the heaven I’ve never found

I want to feel I’m alive
All my living days
I will live as I desire
I want to feel I’m alive
Knowing that I was enough

I have never lost who I was
I have only left it sleeping
Maybe I never had a choice
Just the will to stay alive

All I want is to be happy
Being who I am
To be strong and to be free
To see day arise from night

I am here and my life is only mine
And the heaven I thought was there
I’ll discover it there somewhere
I want to feel that I’ve lived my life!
From: As It Is In Heaven
Py Bäckman / Helen Sjöholm   

O God, we are one with you. You have made us one with you. You have taught us that if we are open to one another, you dwell in us. Help us to preserve this openness and to fight for it with all our hearts. Help us to realize that there can be no understanding where there is mutual rejection.
O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, completely, we accept you, and we thank you, and we adore you, and we love you with our whole being, because our being is your being, our spirit is rooted in your spirit.
Fill us then with love, and let us be bound together with love as we go our diverse ways, united in this one spirit which makes you present in the world, and which makes you witness to the ultimate reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious.
Thomas Merton  


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This Post Has One Comment
  1. This is one of the the greatest movies I’ve seen!
    Thank you for sharing about it. I have shared it with a movie discussion group.

    Thank you,