Music Teachers,
Monastic Chants
and Me.
Reflections on The Cloister Walk

Music Teacher, Monks and Me, Thoughts on The Cloister Walk

“He who sings prays twice.”

This little quote is attributed to St. Augustine and  I came across it today as I read along with The Liturgy of Life Reading Group in Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk. Norris and I are opposites when it comes to our experiences with music. Her father was a professional musician and she grew up singing in the choir.

I grew up in a non-musical family.  Recently my mother, aunt and Yiayia were all visiting and I mentioned that there would be hymns at the church service we were about to attend.  Each looked up at me in horror shaking their heads, then uniformly  announced that they could not and would not sing in church.

Early in my education  I found that participating in music was outside of my capabilities as well. I was in fifth grade and we were given the option between choir and study hall for our last period class once a week. Of course all of us preferred to be in choir, but instead of making it open to everyone,  ( I mean really, this is 5th grade in a small, urban school, not some sort of arts academy) auditions were required.

I still remember it, walking alone down the stairs to the gym where the stage was located. Sitting alone with my teacher, she pounding away at the piano notes and me trying to match them but really having no idea what matching even was. I didn’t make it and instead I shared a shameful study hall hour with Kevin who was known for eating boogers, Lisa who gave the class lice and Carley who was known for wetting the bed at sleepovers. We were quite a misfit crew hanging back in our seats while we watched the rest of the class head off for choir rehearsal.  Any hopes I had for music in my life were dead. It would be years before I would dare even try to sing again.

Yet our church services growing up in the Greek Orthodox church were almost entirely musical. The music was a mysterious sort, filled with ancient hymns and chanting.  I wouldn’t have known then to describe this as worship music. It didn’t feel like what I even now think of as worship either, but it did feel holy and it did serve a great purpose. Sitting there surrounded by the rich tones I was transported  to a new place, a place where I became more willing to meet God.

When I married Michael he was still spending most of his time as a singer songwriter.   Quickly music became part of my life. And through his influence and recognizing that over and over again Scripture commands us to sing (in fact Norris points out, this is the most common command given to Israel throughout the whole Bible).  I slowly got up the nerve to sing and though I am very often out of tune (I’ve finally at least learned to recognize in tune and out of tune some of the time) I’ve begun to enjoy music and to realize it still has that same power I experienced in my years at the Orthodox church.  Through music I find I can  stay engaged in the present moment,  in fact I can even feel more fully connected to what is going on around me  but at the same time it lifts my spirit to another place.

When we first realized a few months ago that my husband’s job was going to be ending unexpectedly and that in addition to being unemployed we would have to leave a place and people that we loved, this song, a favorite from back in college, by a group called Over the Rhine got stuck in my head. I would find myself singing it as I packed and unpacked boxes. My heart was aching and I didn’t have the words to express it except these.

What a beautiful piece of heartache this has all turned out to be.
Lord knows we’ve learned the hard way all about healthy apathy.
And I use these words pretty loosely.
There’s so much more to life than words.
There is a me you would not recognize, dear.
Call it the shadow of myself.
And if the music starts before I get there dance without me.
You dance so gracefully.
I really think I’ll be o.k.
They’ve taken their toll these latter days.
Nothin’ like sleepin’ on a bed of nails.
Nothin’ much here but our broken dreams.
Ah, but baby if all else fails, nothin’ is ever quite what it seems.

 

In the months to follow it felt like nothing was working out and things were just not coming together.  I was down and dark, it felt like a shadow hung over my every breath, weighing me down. Somewhere in my soul I found this old hymn which we hadn’t sung in years and I clung to it, grateful for the writer’s words that reminded me that despite my feelings I do have Hope.

Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition,
All I’’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition!
God and heaven are still my own.

Indelible Grace

 

Now six months have gone by since our move.  I still find my head spinning and my soul grieving. I wonder what we are doing with our lives. I agonize over why there is so much suffering in the world. I get into low places and question whether our lives really matter. And in all my unanswerable questions this old Benedictine hymn is there to meet me. We sing it often. It is a song and a prayer and as we sing it we meet God. He doesn’t give us the answers to our questions but as we  continue to sing I am reminded again that no matter the question, He is the answer.

Lord God and Maker of all things,
Creation is upheld by you.
While all must change and know decay,
You are unchanging, always new.

You are our solace and our shield,
Our rock secure on which we build,
You are the spirit’s tranquil home,
In you alone is hope fulfilled.

To God the Father and the Son
And Holy Spirit render praise,
Blest Trinity, from age to age
The strength of all our living days.

 Sung by The Monks at Worth Abbey

 

If you are interested in learning more about Liturgy of Life please feel free to contact us. Or consider joining our reading group as we read through The Cloister Walk together.