One thing that has passed in and out of my mind for about a year now (it was more on my mind last year, as I graduated high school) has been the desire to start, somehow, a little choir that’s sole purpose would be to sing, free of charge, for the poor and forgotten. Meaning, the people in homeless shelters, nursing homes, domestic violence shelters, soup kitchens, the sick and/or dying in the hospital, and the like. And the music would be mostly sacred music, music they mostly no doubt have little exposure to. (of course there can be exceptions)
The ethereal-yet-earthy sounds of Medieval and Renaissance church music, of chant, and of other, later works, too. Right up to more modern works by composers such as Eric Whitacre (=love, lol) and Joshua Shank. (both utilize dissonant chords, and dissonance in the right places, done correctly, can be the good-goosebump-inducing, unearthly-seeming kind). :)
Why? Because these people are starved for beauty. Time and time again, I heard my HS choral director Roberts tell us that “this concert, that night…” [whichever one it may be] may be the highlight of someone/s in the audience’s Christmas season (if it was that time), or their best night in weeks, even months. He would remind us of the current recession and economic anxiety. How people are pulled thin and stressed out to the extreme. Just one hour (or less) of beautiful music, immersed in another world, can refresh them completely.
My own mother would tell me this – that our concerts were the things she looked forward to most, and the things that refreshed her the most. They allowed her to, if only temporarily, shed all the cares and worries of the rest of the day, the world, of life. I know she is not the only one.
Of course, music is special among the arts. She is sort of the one that connects all the others, somehow, and it is music that most breaks down the ‘barrier’ between the human and the Divine. It is music that most seems to border on another world, causing the already thin veil between them (which can seem to us humans like a wall at times) to flutter… Music is no ordinary thing.
But I regress. Roberts told us to give our all, to give “110%” – to always enunciate so the “little blue-haired lady in the back” can hear what we say (when we sing a song in English), to put our hearts into it, to “tell the story.” To touch people. Music is our gift, he said, to give to the world. He would say that he believes that we were put on this world for two reasons: “to worship God, and to uplift our fellow man.”
And so we sang as a gift. A gift to our families, friends, strangers we’d never meet. For each other.
When we sang in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis in April of 2009, it was unbelievable. No words to describe it. It was hard for all of us not to cry. I had been there before, in 2007, so I was prepared and eager to see the immense beauty of it. But my 98% Protestant choir-mates were not. Stunned down to their toes, they wandered the Cathedral Basilica with wide eyes, excited whispers, little gasps of surprise and pleasure, awe and wonder written all over their faces. Cameras flashed over and over. Later, I heard some say its beauty was such that it “almost made them want to be Catholic.” (!!! :D) Beauty, true beauty, is a powerful sign of the sacred. It always seems to cause us to look beyond this life to Something More, to True Beauty, which is God. Yet at the same time, beauty is anchored in the things of this world. In colors and sounds and smells and earthy things. It connects heaven and earth. Beauty is also a powerful restorative, bringing healing and relief to the soul.
And somehow, my thoughts wandered to those who have never had the chance to hear such music, nor visit such stunning, breath-taking holy places, such as the Cathedral. Yet I know that both things are meant for all people. Anyone is allowed to visit a church, to go to Mass, to hear such music sung at Mass. But of course – an awful lot of what is sung in Catholic churches these days is a load of rubbish and sounds like awful, pained imitation Broadway show-tunes.
(The best of Broadway music can be lovely and beautiful and fun, true music of its own kind, of course not suitable for Mass, but this stuff at church doesn’t even come close to good Broadway. Or good pop, rock, or anything else like that. It’s all rubbish and dulls the senses.)
And also, an awful lot of Catholic churches these days are indistinguishable from the office buildings down the street, or whatever. They bear no resemblance inside or outside to a house of God, a place of worship, a place of beauty.
After all, the high vaulted ceilings of Gothic cathedrals of the Medieval age were built to lift the eye up, up to light, up to the heavens, ‘up’ to God. Holy Mother Church, in her wisdom, filled the church space with beauty that both instructs and inspires.
So, I thought, drawing inspiration from the little student ensemble (from a local university) that would sometimes sing at Mass at my parish (which the people ate up like candy, who are sadly also starved for beauty)…why not start a vocal ensemble of say, no more than 30 or so people, whose mission would be to share this beauty with those who generally don’t often have access to it?
Again, they are starved for beauty. Not only are a lot of them materially poor, they are deprived of beauty, of spiritual or transcendent beauty, of a respite from the workaday, ugly world that surrounds them, or the loneliness that creeps up on them. And so on.
One thing I have learned in becoming Catholic is that not only can one be materially poor or impoverished, one can also be spiritually poor. Now, this is not the same as being “poor in spirit,” as in the Beatitudes, which refers to the virtue of humility (as opposed to pride). Being spiritually impoverished can mean any number of different things, including those who claim no need for God, those deprived of the Gospel, those given warped ideas about God, the Church, bad theology, etc, those with little to no awareness of the spiritual in any form, or the transcendent, or deprivation of beauty. Because beauty is one of the chief ways God reaches us, for He made us very sensory, ‘sensual’ beings. And so on. Spiritual poverty of this kind takes many forms and is something of a pandemic in our post-modern world. So many addictions, obsessions and compulsions of all kinds – all attempts, conscious or subconscious, at filling the God-shaped ‘void’ in our hearts. We make for ourselves so many false idols that take a myriad of forms – science, politics, sex, entertainment, power, money, “stuff”, sports, social status, work, even work at church, even knowledge…the list goes on. None of them intrinsically evil or bad, we just take it to excess and turn it into a god of sorts. We are a culture that is trying so hard to run away from God, while at the same time desperately seeking Him in our heart of hearts.
I was starved for beauty once. I didn’t call it that because I wasn’t aware of it like I am now. I had no language to articulate what I was feeling with. But that’s what it was. I longed for all the tangible, old, beautiful expressions of faith, the mystical and enchanted – stained glass windows, candles, statues, art, incense, old church buildings, the holy water, the rosaries. The sunlight streaming through the colored panes. The bells ringing, the flowers around the church…and this is just with regards to churches! I longed for beautiful old English homes and cottages, the gorgeous English gardens, I loved and still love period films for the costumes and sets…the list could go on and on and on and on. Beauty is a powerful pull to God, who is Ultimate Beauty.
In a way, I am still starved for beauty. I do not get incense at every Mass, or Mass ad orientem (facing east, pointing to the rising sun [Son]) at my parish. No beautiful music, either, even though we have an organ and a choir loft. With a little training, it would be easy to start a little schola to sing the Gregorian chant propers for Mass. But nooooo, we don’t even try. The makeshift “choir” formed for special occasions or feasts such as Christmas is hardly a choir, with not enough male voices, too many (well-meaning) aging ones that push the tone and pitch awry, and is not allowed to sing from the choir loft!! A group of people standing in front of Mary’s altar singing is a pointless distraction during Mass. They are not there to perform, which is what my Chorale did at the Cathedral Basilica, they are there to provide the music for Mass. Meaning they should be heard, not seen. Whereas in an actual choral performance outside of Mass, it is appropriate to sing around the sanctuary steps/altar rail, etc, as we did.
At the Mass in the Tridentine Rite, locally just starting up, they have to have it in the local “cathedral” which is technically old, but ransacked in the 70’s or whatever, if you get what I mean. -____- The interior is greatly altered and not ideal for the Tridentine. :(
And besides, we are all spiritually impoverished in some way or other, some greater, some lesser. For we are human and imperfect, and on this side of life for now. We all hunger for the Cosmos in the Chaos of life. The God-ache in our hearts is God calling us to Him. We need that longing for the soul’s Beloved. It pushes us along in our pursuit of a holy life lived for God. It is the spark that causes us to seek Him, to run to Him. In the same way that two lovers long for each other…
But now I am rambling on.
Somehow, God willing, I hope to form such an ensemble within the year. How am I going to do this?!
I don’t read music very well, honestly. Or know enough about conducting or directing to do it. I’d like it to be mostly students, if possible. To be young people giving back. It would take work and time and organization. If we were all in choir together normally, we could start out with songs we all know from there, which is helpful. And also, it occurred to me that most of the places these people are to be found – homeless shelters, etc – are not acoustically conducive for such music. In the case of nursing home residents, we’d have to stay there, which is fine. But if it is at all possible, I’d love to somehow bring the others we’d sing for to a nearby church building that is built more traditionally (and therefore more acoustically conducive).
I suppose this is the place I should ask for your prayers for such an endeavor. :P Indeed, yes, I ask for your prayers. I have so many ideas similar to this in scale, I have no idea how I could possibly do them all. Oh, sigh. :( But I really hope to be able to do this. It would be amazing and would be an unusual, but needed, way to minister to the downtrodden and the “least of these.”
"Greatly did I weep at the beauty of your hymns and canticles, moved deeply by the sweet chants of your Church’s music. The voices flowed into my ears and truth was poured forth into my heart, from which the emotion of my devotion overflowed: tears ran from my eyes and I was blessed in them." ~ St. Augustine