As a result of my wrestling match with the sickness, I can no longer sing out loud. Those who know me well would find that sentence hilarious. They know I never could sing. Out loud or any other way.
Couldn’t carry a tune with a suitcase since I was a kid. There are senior citizens today in Yonkers, New York — Class of ’63 at Christ the King grammar school — who still remember the nun preparing us for eighth-grade graduation exercises telling me not to sing.
She said that while she admired “my enthusiasm,” I was dragging the whole class — 56 kids! — out of tune.
Augustine is said to have written, “To sing is to pray twice.” Scholars translating from his Latin text say that he didn’t actually write that. The corrected text is “He who sings well prays twice.” That leaves me out — before and after the sickness.
Which is not to say that I didn’t try.
Back in the Tridentine days of my childhood, I would belt out “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” for the processional at the end of Sunday Mass. I loved it, as the upbeat hymn seemed not an end of the Mass but the blessed beginning of a new week full of life. And I don’t recall dragging the congregation out of tune.
Music is such a connector down through the years.
A new ministry cropping up in many parishes are funeral Mass volunteers where the families are small and scattered. It’s a beautiful thing, but not so new. My mother would hear “Sacred Head Surrounded” and recall eight decades earlier when she and her friends were pulled out of class in the middle of the morning to attend the Requiem Mass of an old man who died alone. They sang that hymn.
The song doesn’t necessarily have to be a hymn to make the connection. There’s a photo in my old high school yearbook of one of the guys alone in his cap and gown staring wistfully across a room. The caption reads, “Sunday will never be the same,” a line from the Spanky and Our Gang hit that year. The ’60s would soon crash in on all of us, and truer words were never sung.
People still trash some of the pop songs that pushed their way into the liturgy back then. I didn’t mind “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” but “Kumbaya” was another story. “Someone’s thankful Lord, kumbayaaaa!” we would cloyingly sing.
At a high school “guitar Mass,” a couple of goof-offs in the back of the chapel — myself included — began to insert “dum-dee-dum, dum-dee-dum” in double-time after the drawn out note on “kumbaya.” The principal got so mad that he ordered the rest of the Mass to be celebrated in sacred silence.
Not that today’s liturgical music is always perfect.
The responsorial psalm at one parish I attended was a weekly exercise in the key of funereal. But the Gloria sung at the same parish was simply glorious.
I miss it all now — the good and the bad, the cloying and the glorious.
I stand there in my own sacred silence, but trying not to forget, as St. Paul told us, “I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will also sing praise with the mind” (1 Cor 14:15).
I prefer Augustine misquoted than corrected on singing. I think that to sing is to pray twice.
And, yet, now at Mass, I stand there in my own sacred silence. And pray once.
On a recent Sunday at the conclusion of Mass, the cantor led us in “Holy God We Praise Thy Name.”
Everybody knew it. Everybody — potential rock star or singer in the shower with no witnesses — got into it.
I lip-synced. It was a blessed start to the new week.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.