PART ONE: FOCUSING
God, make me brave for life much braver than this. As the blown grass lifts let me rise from sorrow with quiet eyes, knowing thy way is wise.
God make me brave; life brings such blinding things, help me to keep my sight, help me to see aright that out of darkness comes light.
from Sons of the Morning, 1969, Leo C Nestor.
PART TWO: A WITNESS
The music within us begins each morning when we wake up hearing the beating of our hearts and a mockingbird singing outside the window. It continues opening in us all day long, and in my case, it eventually works its way down through my fingers into the piano. At least on a good day. How about for you?
I have spent much of my life trying to coax Catholics into singing aloud in Church with feeling. You wouldn’t think that would be so difficult, but the truth is that we laity were raised, rather like children, to be seen and not heard in Church. Ever since then we’ve lacked the basic self-confidence to sing out loud in front of God. I doubt that King David would have a positive opinion about what we think of as “Making “A Joyful. Noise.”
But as I explained to the congregation this past Easter, I also have the strong suspicion that whatever it is God does hear when we are singing our hearts out probably sounds a lot less like the Vatican Choir and a lot more like bird songs. So the question really is, when was the last time you thought that any of the birds you ever heard was really off-key?
In 1988 when I spent a year in rural El Salvador, I took a concertina along with me because pianos were scarce in the campo. The squeeze box turned out to be a great hit and was quickly given the nickname of gusano or worm by the children at the orphanage. The squeeze box allowed me to bring smiles to the faces of those I met, soldier and guerriilla alike. All of them really kids inside, all orphans of the war. And all of them miles away from their last real reason to smile.
Part ThREE: A Reflection
Congregational singing is a religious devotion that Jesus and his disciples themselves practiced. St. Matthew concludes the Last Supper in this way, “Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”(Ch. 26) This hymn-singing was to be one of their final moments together as a community, as we now know, although the disciples did not understand this at the time. Later that night their life together was destroyed while they slept by the violent, midnight arrest of Jesus in the Garden.
So it appears that one of the very last things Jesus and his disciples did together was sing a hymn, thus weaving a tender thread of devotional singing right into the Gospel fabric. But how was it, do you suppose, that these twelve different men from several locations and different walks of life, such as carpentry, fishing and tax collecting all happen to know the same hymn? Where did they learn this song that our New American Bible translator specifically calls a “Hymn,” not a “Psalm”?
We can make at least three educated guesses. If this hymn was a song traditionally associated with the closing of the Paschal Seder, it might have been learned at home, repeated during many years of Passover observance around the family dining room table. Or perhaps the hymn was one of those that had been taught in Synagogue school during Bar-Mitzvah preparation classes, along with reading the Hebrew Torah aloud.
Then again, the idea that so many different persons might know the very same song could also suggest that it was an ascent hymn, written for the express purpose of visiting the Temple Mount and was taught to all pilgrims who were traveling to Jerusalem.
Whatever the answer, the underlying fact is that these grown men from various working-class walks of life apparently could and did sing a hymn together on a moment’s notice, without books or any fuss. How different were the devotional expectations that produced such singing men from the mostly silent musical expectations of our own pre-Vatican II upbringing!
The Second Vatican Council initiated an important renewal in Catholic musical devotion by putting in place a series of steps for building-up strong congregational singing. Beginning by restoring liturgical services into the vernacular languages, continuing by publishing worship aids to encourage congregational participation, and then integrating native and contemporary songs along with traditional hymns into these resources, the Council launched a modern quest for the recovery of worshipful congregational singing.
What the Council could not do was restore the lost musical self-confidence of Catholic congregations worldwide, who were themselves the children and grandchildren of generations of mute laity, passive onlookers and listeners at the liturgy. Instead the Council entrusted this delicate task of restoring congregational singing into the creative care of Music Ministers in every Church on earth. No mistaking it, this job of getting Catholics to sing aloud in Church was going to have to be equal parts musical expression and empowerment and basic, therapeutic voice recovery by the voiceless.
I have been one of those music ministers for some forty years now spending a part of every weekend coaxing songs out of the often-reluctant throats of my companions-in-the-faith up and down the West Coast from Spokane, Washington to Santiago de Maria, El Salvador. Everywhere I’ve been in my own Country I have found a similar problem in that pre-Council Catholics were most often taught as children never to make a joyful noise in Church. In fact they were warned not to make any sound at all in Church, much less a joyful one, lest they offend an Almighty, Ever-Grouchy God. Of course they are now reluctant to sing aloud in church; it feels intuitively to them something like a desecration, like singing aloud in the library, for example. Silence, please.
The enforced silence in the Church led some vulnerable and imaginative persons to believe that they simply did not have voices for singing. The way I have most often heard this expressed is, “I just can’t sing,” or “I can’t carry a tune,” or “I can’t stay on pitch.” Rather than thinking of music as the natural expression of all creaturely soul-feelings, including wolf howls, whale songs and purring, they think of music as being reserved for persons with special talents; maybe every bird on earth, but certainly not themselves!
I have heard similar disclaimers from otherwise capable adults about other areas such as, “I don’t ever cry,” or “I can’t paint,” or “I have a black thumb,” or “I don’t get along with animals.” All I can really say is –and I’m sure you already guessed it — “Never say never.”
Getting along with music is all about yielding to the influences of sound and rhythm, about letting them enter your body just as you invite the fragrance of jasmine to enter when you are inhaling her perfume. There is only one way to let the rhythm or the melody empower you that is — in some deep way, at some honest, personal level — to let the music enter your ears and into your bloodstream` passing deep into your heart. (Shush, brain!)
We yield to this miraculous process whenever one of our favorite songs unfolds itself out of the silence around us. When we allow the sound to capture our inner attention and take us into that pre-conscious area of feeling that opens up in us whenever we hear a melody we know, enjoy and can even hum along with.
We yield in very much the same way while singing aloud in Church by entering into the feeling tone each song expresses and later by repeating the refrains we like after the Service is over.
If there was a clear endorsement for the devotion of music in the communion of saints (in addition to the crystal-clear example of the Angelic Choir), it would be the life and example of St. Francis of Assisi, who trudged across all of Italy singing his praises of the Lord in fair climate and foul.
Brother Francis once summarized the life of his brothers and sisters in this way, “For what else are we, the servants of the Lord but minstrels of the Most High, whose pleasure it is to lift people’s hearts to spiritual joy?”
“Many times,” Thomas of Celano says, “as we saw with our own eyes he would pick up a stick from the ground and putting it over his left arm, he would draw another little stick across it, like a bow across a violin. Going through the motions of playing, he would sing in French about his Lord. This whole ecstasy of joy would often end in tears as his song of gladness would dissolve into compassion for the passion of his Lord.”
In this Zen-like example Francis uses two sticks to overcome the censorship of the ego with regard to what prayer is. First he breaks away from the heaviness, the gravity, the seriousness which shrouds how we usually pray, Instead he makes-up a playful prayer, a joyful prayer in French, using the violin of sticks to accompany himself. But then, his genuine, wholehearted laughter is reduced to tears for as William Blake explains, “Excess of sorrow laughs, excess of laughter weeps.”
So it is that music can carry us over those emotional dams which our Egos have constructed to contain even our spirituality within a reasonable comfort zone — far away from any real laughter or any real tears on our part.
In contrast to our cozy zone, the liturgical year invites us to participate musically in a full range of basic human emotions expressive of both inner pain and confusion as well as of joy and thanksgiving. Hymn singing also takes us as beyond the limits of our native cultural limitations into the sentiments of greater humanity through the variety of multicultural hymns we share together.
The trick, as the Master Trickster just demonstrated, is to yield to the music.
This is chapter 29 of my series, On Thin Ice. Imagining Inclusive Catholicism..