"The silence must be longer," the musician protested. "This music is all about the silence. The sounds are only there to surround the silence."

The conductor, rehearsing "The Beatitudes" by composer Arvo Pärt, looked skeptical. He sought a rational analysis. "Exactly how many beats long is it?" he demanded. "What do you do during the silence?"

"You don't do anything," the musician explained, "you wait. God does it."

The slightly perplexed looks on the faces of the performers reflected the feeling many people have on first hearing of a new style revolutionizing the classical music world. Called "holy minimalism" for lack of a better description, the music of three composers - John Tavener of England, Arvo Pärt of Estonia, and Henryk Górecki of Poland - has found an enormously receptive audience, filling concert halls and generating best-selling CDs by reuniting classical music with, of all things, contemplative spirituality.

This music, including popular works like Górecki's Symphony No. 3, Pärt's Tabula Rasa, and Tavener's The Protecting Veil, resonates even with people who never before listened to classical music. Górecki is the first living classical music composer whose music topped the Billboard charts; his Symphony No. 3 has sold over a million copies. A health worker cited the cult status of Pärt's Tabula Rasa among terminally ill patients who called it "angel music" and asked to hear it as they died. John Tavener, already beloved by choirs worldwide for his beautiful, meditative music, burst into international public awareness in 1997, when the ecstatically soaring Song for Athene was performed at the funeral of Princess Diana as her coffin was carried from Westminster Abbey. Awestruck, thousands of people asked, "What was that song?" and Tavener CDs began flying off shelves. Tavener's "Lamentation and Praises" (read a review or hear an audio clip) just won the 2003 Grammy award in the category of Classical Contemporary Composition.

The popularity of Tavener, Pärt and Górecki is interesting because they reject values typically associated with contemporary classical music. "Holy minimalism" (a term none of the three care for) is to music what contemplative spirituality is to prayer. To most of us, prayer involves addressing our words to God; but to the contemplative, prayer means listening in receptive silence. Whereas in traditional classical music you expect to hear development of musical ideas moving forward to a climactic conclusion, this music seems to go nowhere - and that is intentional. The purpose is contemplation. The music is meditative, hypnotic, and gently repetitive, as in the Christian tradition of centering prayer one might continuously repeat a word or two from Scripture to be drawn deeper into prayer. The gentle repetition gives the music a feeling of stasis, of being suspended in time. "Time and timelessness are connected," wrote Pärt. "This instant and eternity are struggling within us. And this is the cause of all our contradictions, our obstinacy, our narrow-mindedness, our faith and our grief."

Lengthy silences also are characteristic of "holy minimalism," confusing traditional musicians for whom silence is just an absence of music. Górecki, asked to comment on the phenomenal success of his Symphony No. 3, responded, "Let's be quiet." Arvo Pärt, who spent eight years in contemplative silence before discovering this new way of composing, says, "The most important things that happen between people who are very close to each other are not stated, are not even possible to express. One doesn't need to and shouldn't say anything." Conductor Paul Hillier, a prime interpreter of Pärt's work explains further. "All music emerges from silence, to which sooner or later it must return," he writes. "How we live depends on our relationship with death; how we make music depends on our relationship with silence." Robert Reilly says, "Some of their compositions emerge from the very edge of audibility... conveying the impression that there is something in the silence that is now being revealed before once again slipping out of range. The deep underlying silence slowly surfaces and lets itself be heard. For those precious moments one hears what the silence has to say."

The three "holy minimalists" reject complexity in favor of simplicity. Their music is transparent, austere, and serene. Although deeply human, it is not theatrically emotional; Tavener compares his music to the icons of the Orthodox tradition, which do not impose their own emotions on the viewer, but open, through prayer, as spiritual windows to the Holy. In the same way, Tavener, Pärt and Górecki do not preach, they do not impose their own experience on the listener; instead, in their transparency, they seek only to open a window, allowing the listener to connect with the Holy.