Visceral Reactions to Music (and other things)

Sunday mornings are rough.  Getting the kids up, fed, dressed, hair-combed, and out the door (or, if you don’t have kids, doing the same thing for yourself, after your Saturday night…).  When you get to church, don’t you just want to park it in a seat?  Why do these cruel Episcopalians and Roman Catholics (and others) make you stand, and then sit, and then kneel, and then stand again, and then kneel again?  Add in crossing yourself and bowing–if you’re the CrossFit type–and it’s practically a full-fledged work out before noon on a weekend!

Firday night, I visited our girls’ choir rehearsal.  It’s been almost 15 years since I attended one of my junior high choir rehearsals, but when the choirmaster gave the command to prepare to sing and poised his fingers above the keys, my spine involuntarily straightened and my lungs filled with air–and then I reminded my body that I wasn’t part of the choir.  I’ve been out of a choir longer than I’d ever been in one, and yet, dear Mr. Johns, our music teacher, had so drilled into his students–at least me!–the importance of posture in singing, that when my body was put in the same kind of environment again (not in a physical sense, as we were in the cathedral and not an old high school great room; but in a psychological–and spiritual–sense), it still responded the same way.

Early Friday morning, I’d taught a Men’s Bible Study (the new priest gets invited to visit everywhere, without regard for gender!) on the Psalms.  Explaining the five-book structure of the psalms, we turned to the end of 72:

18 Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel,
Who only does wondrous things!
19 And blessed be His glorious name forever!
And let the whole earth be filled with His glory.
Amen and Amen.

20 The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.

When I started reading verse 18, my right hand had an insatiable urge to reach up to my forehead.  What I mean to say is that I had said and heard “Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel” at the beginning of the song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68) so many times (it’s used at the service of Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer) that my body, and a piece of my mind, forgot that wasn’t the same environment–in Morning Prayer, when we begin to say Zechariah’s song together, we cross ourselves, because it is a New Testament canticle (song/psalm).  My body is learning the same involuntary response to God’s Word that it learned in response to the prepare-to-start-singing command from junior high.

Episcopalian (or Roman Catholic, or other) gymnastics trains our bodies, minds, and souls to have a particular response when holy things happen–when holy words are said, when we ask the Holy Spirit to come into us afresh, when we admit that we’re sinners dependent on God’s mercy.  These actions, which are the most important things we do all week, train us to recognize those moments and to respond to them appropriately–with reverence, with fear, with joy, with attention.

I have fallen in love with Henry Purcell

Our choir has been singin’ Purcell’s “I was glad” like it’s their job (ahem, “vocation”–and indeed, it is!).  His setting of Psalm 122 has been crawling around the corners of my mind and heart since I first heard it a few weeks ago at choir camp.


Check out a recording here (listen to the young ladies of Trinity–and men–at the 11:15am service’s Anthem, and to the adult choir’s Anthem at Evensong from this past Sunday, the 18th).

And the psalm itself, as a meditation this cloudy Tuesday morning:

1 I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord.

2 Our feet shall stand in thy gates: O Jerusalem.

3 Jerusalem is built as a city: that is at unity in itself.

4 For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord: to testify unto Israel, to give thanks
unto the Name of the Lord.

5 For there is the seat of judgement: even the seat of the house of David.

6 O pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.

7 Peace be within thy walls: and plenteousness within thy palaces.

8 For my brethren and companions’ sakes: I will wish thee prosperity.

9 Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God: I will seek to do thee good.


Music & Worship

“‘Ah, music,’ [Dumbledore] said, wiping his eyes. ‘A magic far beyond all we do here!'”

– Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The Harry Potter binge continues; I’m now on book 4, but #1 still has my heart.  How can you not give a hearty “Amen!” to this sort of one-line-gem?  There’s much to be said about the power of music, studies to cite of the effect of melodious sound on heart rate and personal stories about how hearing a particular song immediately shifts one’s mood or triggers a memory; Emile Durkheim could even chime in, noting music’s power in creating the all-explaining “collective effervescence.”

Having held Dumbledore’s quotation with me this week, turning it over in my mind with special reference to worship, an embodiment of what I’d been trying to understand and articulate was plopped into my lap this morning:

A recent prayer practice in the Hylden household has included the book, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  In Anglican Daily Office-like format, this book provides a liturgy for Morning Prayer every day of the year, often building its service around modern saints (today was Septima Poinsette Clark).  In every service, a song is included to be sung about where the Invitatory psalm would be said (or chanted) in the morning office. Though I’ve chanted Morning Prayer before, this book’s services include a variety of 50-some familiar melodies (from the first verses of favorite hymns, like, “Amazing Grace,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” and “Be Thou My Vision,” to songs like “Solid Rock,” “Servant Song,”), which are more forgiving to froggy morning throats and, at least for me and my family, tap into a bit of that personal-story-memory.  Adding just a bit of music to the morning–joining voices together to sing and worship, nonetheless–has transformed the prayers.

Little Children and Pop Music

In Anne of Green Gables (or maybe –of Avonlea), Anne laments to herself that when her dearest friend, Diana, has entered one of Anne’s short stories in a contest for Rolling’s Reliable Baking Powder, having inserted a line to qualify, she feels as if her baby has been tattooed.

This afternoon, watching the talent show at my little elementary school, I felt like many of my babies (my 1st – 6th grade students) had been tattooed.  These little ones danced to Kanye West, Katy Perry, The Wanted, Lady Gaga, and One Direction (among others).  The saddest lyric to which one dear girl danced, “hand you another drink, drink it if you can.”

Friends.  Our 6th graders are miming giving each other liquor.

Yes, of course, it’s just miming, and most of the babes probably don’t even understand what they’re singing and dancing to, but these words and attitudes are tattooed onto their minds, and I wonder how their minds are being shaped.  Now, it wasn’t all the students (one group of fourth graders sang and played to “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In”), and the dear girl who danced to The Wanted’s song (“Glad You Came”–whence springs the lyric above) is by far the most talented dancer (it was jazz choreography, serious stuff–says the veteran-dancer-author) at the school, but I mourn these children’s innocence in many ways.

Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of haven.” (Matt. 19:14)  I can’t help but think that the Kingdom of Heaven gets harder to see when our children stop being children.