Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Let the music heal your soul..."

(Today's post title taken from a song by the "Bravo Allstars," a pop supergroup composed of acts like the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and The Moffats.)

I've been thinking lately of the role that music played in my gradual adoption of a Christo-Pagan spirituality.

When I was a child, the thing I loved best about all those mandatory school Masses was all the singing we got to do. If I had to, I could still sing the tunes, at least, of the hymns that came up most often. "Peace is Flowing Like a River." "Though the Mountains May Fall." "Like a Shepherd." "Companions on the Journey." (We sang this one so often that even now, nearly sixteen years after I graduated from elementary school, I can still sing it perfectly.) "Abba, Father." "Sing to the Mountains." "Service." "Hail Mary/Gentle Woman." "Bloom Where You're Planted." "I Believe in the Sun." "My Shepherd is the Lord."

And so on.

When I got to high school, I joined the school choir. (Actually, that's not entirely accurate; there were usually so few regular singers that we called ourselves a "music group" rather than a choir most of the time.)  Most of what we did was sing the hymns and service music for the school Masses.  Even though I probably shouldn't have, I stayed on with them even after I decided that Christianity wasn't working out very well for me.  What mattered most to me at the time was that I got to sing—it rankled, of course, that the songs I was singing were all religious in nature, but then, I went to a Catholic school, so that sort of thing obviously went with the territory.  And even as I went through my "Pagan persecution complex" phase, I gradually found that singing, even singing songs of a religion I no longer really felt connected to, was becoming a deeply spiritual experience for me.  It was at about that time, I think, when I started making that distinction between religion and spirituality that still persists in my mind: the idea that religion is one way of experiencing the spiritual, but that it is by no means the only one.  Around that time, I realized that (for me, anyway) spiritual experiences don't have to be religious in nature, and that religious experiences aren't always spiritual in nature.

Part of the way through my high school years, I joined a community choir.  Our repertoire, even back then, was a bit of a mixed bag; we had show tunes mixed in with jazz standards, folk songs, one very strange medley of tunes called "Much Ado About Nothings" (I remember the words for the first one particularly well: "I love the evening, I adore the night, but most of all, but most of all, I think I'm allergic to morning!"), and, of course, a hefty dose of liturgical music.  Again, the fact that I had to sing Christian music did rankle a little, but at least in this case, I had a choice: I didn't have to keep going to rehearsal.  I was there entirely of my own volition.

Eventually, we planned a couple of trips to England to sing Evensong in a couple of cathedrals there: Winchester in 2002, and Lincoln in 2005.  I had a few personal reservations about making the trips, but I didn't want to miss out, either, and in retrospect, I'm very glad that I went.  We went to Winchester when I was nineteen years old; I'd been out of the Catholic school system for a year by then, and forced involvement in Christian religious celebrations had come to an end.  In preparation for the trip, we'd done a few Evensongs at the church where I now sing every week, but again, I didn't mind the religious service because I was there by choice, because Evensong is significantly different from anything I'd experienced as a Catholic, and because there was a minimum of preaching.  (Very little during Evensong is actually spoken.  There are a few scripture readings and a few prayers, but most of what happens is actually sung.  It occurred to me in Edinburgh back in August that, from a certain perspective, the liturgy could be seen as simply an excuse to have the music.)  The simplicity of the service, when mixed with the music we sang and the sheer presence of Winchester Cathedral, showed me that I actually could feel connected to Christian worship after all.

Actually, one of my favourite memories is of singing something while at Winchester Cathedral.  It was the Thursday evening that we were there; the sky was clear and there was sunlight filtering in through the Cathedral's windows.  Our choir's director had told us not to slip back into our street clothes immediately after the service was done; after the final procession, he led us to the retrochoir, where St. Swithun's tomb is marked.  We gathered around the place where the tomb is marked and he told us to take out the music for that ubiquitous piece of Anglican church music, Tallis' "If Ye Love Me" (which I'd absolutely fallen in love with the first time we practiced it), and there, in the sunlight in the retrochoir, we sang it.  And as we sang, I felt a feeling of peace and contentment that I hadn't known for a long time.  It was a thoroughly beautiful way to end our choral duties for the day.

After the trip, I continued with my personal religious and spiritual practices as I had been doing, but gradually other things, like adapting some prayers so that I could say the rosary again (something that I always found would clear my head in my Catholic days), began to creep in.  By the time I was twenty-five, I'd done another week of Evensongs in Lincoln, and I'd decided that although I couldn't give up the Pagan part of my spirituality—by that time, it was too deeply ingrained, and it inspired me to be a better person in ways that Christianity had never done, especially in regards to environmentalism and feminism—I should probably admit, if only to myself, that I couldn't entirely ignore the religion of my childhood.  Like it or not, it was part of me, and if I continued to ignore that, I would be doing myself a disservice.  Even if I couldn't go back to Catholicism, and even now I don't think I ever will, at least I had to acknowledge to myself that I had in fact become a Christo-Pagan.

And music had been a big part of that.

Even so, it was a bit of a strange decision for me to join my church choir back in 2008.  I had a number of reservations about the idea, actually, especially considering that my personal beliefs and practices are not entirely Christian.  (That's the same reason why I feel a bit conflicted about receiving communion as I do every week.)  But in the end, I decided I'd give it a try, and now, just over three years later, I don't regret it.

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