Sounding an Echo

I recently decided to join a church choir. And not just any choir. Located at one of the big Catholic churches downtown, this choir is 80 members strong, über committed, and they sing really challenging music.

Now, I must admit—this will be my most regular church attendance in a decade. I know this regularity will be an instructive exercise for me. But it will be a challenge too.

Looking back, I’m not quite sure how this idea came to me. Last fall I attended Mass a few times and was reminded that I sometimes really miss singing. So the idea started to simmer, until one day after Mass, I just decided to contact the choir director. An audition was required, and I wasn’t really sure if I’d pass muster. I can sight read and harmonize pretty well, but I don’t have a stellar solo voice. So I approached it more like an informational interview, thinking I’d just get a sense of what the choir was about.

Well, things happened pretty quickly after that. The director assured me that she had a handful of solo voices in the choir and this was more than enough. She had me sing a few warm-ups and songs, then stood and said, “Great, let’s find you a folder slot.” And we were off for a tour of the sprawling basement of the church. I rolled with it then, but when I got home and read through the attendance commitments—two hours of weekly rehearsal, weekly Mass, four absences allowed each fall and spring—I started to have doubts. Thankfully, I wasn’t going to start for another week so I had a bit of time to think.

Next Sunday I attended Mass and listened to the choir again. The Gospel was about the master who gives his servants talents, and the homily was about putting our talents to good use. Later, the presider explained that this was the start of the new liturgical year, and he recognized all liturgical ministers, including the choir, for the enrichment they brought to the liturgy. Well, all of this seemed a bit too symbolic and fitting to ignore. So I joined.

And I have been surprised by what a joy it has been. Every rehearsal has felt like a meditation. Singing starts at 7pm on the dot, and everyone is on—full of energy, completely present. For two hours, beautiful, contemplative music washes over me. It’s as though an echo really sounds deep in my soul, to paraphrase the Quaker hymn.

In truth, Sundays are a bit less harmonious. The music is still great, and the majestic sanctuary always stirs reverence in me. But I sometimes feel like a lowly minion in a grand Mass production, conjuring sensations startling familiar to when I was in church as a little girl. It’s not like feeling “small” is necessarily a bad thing—I suppose there’s something healthy and humbling about it. My inner discord arises, however, when I stop feeling like I am engaging in a faith practice that is fully mine, when I don’t feel like I am participating as a whole, distinct self.

So I have been challenged to renew and own my liturgy experience. When I call myself back to the meditation of the music, and the rhythm of my breath, I am grounded in a way that feels at once familiar and very new.

Kate Lucas lives in Minneapolis, where she enjoys the subzero temperatures for the excuse to hole up indoors and write. She last sang in a church choir when she was twelve.

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3 Responses

  1. Kate this is really exciting! The Basilica comes with its own grandios emotions, I can only imagine what it’s like to fill the space with your own voice. Maybe that’s why Weds are more spiritual for you, it’s like you have the space all to your selves, you can clearly hear God (and spirits and goddesses) talking through your singing. You inspire me to play my violin more – as mass is where I first learned how to play in front of a large audience;)

  2. As to your “smallness” concern, Kate… I cannot help feeling that you might be even more inconsequential from “the pews in the back” than you are from the altar, singing your heart out so that your voice can echo through the sanctuary. In fact, this is one of the big draws to singing in a church choir for me, as opposed to in the shower or in my car: I feel perfectly, absolutely legitimized in singing fully, loudly, whole-heartedly. Singing of and to God is truly making a joyful noise, which echoes through my soul like no other noise can….

  3. I think for some identifying with the ritual of Catholic mass from childhood hits a chord, but for me, I poured over in your writing how it just sounds like Kate. You’re such a wordsmith all making everything flow so beautifully. Phrases like “stirs reverence” and being “holed up indoors.” I love it! I also appreciate how you notice the little things and give them importance. When you first decided to join, I loved that you listened to the words spoken to make your decision and “it all being too fitting to ignore.” I think you need to start a blog and post more of what you write! 🙂

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