Sometimes it takes me eight years to answer a question. And every now and then, I do a good enough job of keeping track of the unanswered ones that I can find them again.
Let’s go back in time, to high school Amy coming home after a concert rehearsal. Somehow, she’d managed to con her way in to the advanced choir class without being able to read music (shh, don’t tell). This is what she wrote eight years ago:
“I’m wondering something,” my classmate announced, after waving his hand around in the air for a few seconds until my choir director noticed. “Why are our competition pieces either Latin church songs or spirituals?”
“That’s a good question,” he said. “Does anyone want to offer any ideas?”
I thought about that for a second, and the contrast hit me for the first time.
Some of our songs were high-arching, floating hymns, written hundreds of years ago by monks in a language that no one ever uses. The harmonies were pieced together with the exactness of a stained glass window, and, when done right, they sounded like sunlight streaming through one, creating a rainbow of echoes in the atrium. Gilded and formal, they were the most difficult to memorize and perform.
The others were spirituals, written by slaves bent over in the fields, despised by everyone and singing through the sweat of the afternoon heat. Without formal training or written music, the original singers managed to create something that resonates—that sounds like it was a part of our history too. The words, the dynamics, even the harmonies, stir something in us that goes deeper than what we usually feel, a corner of our souls that still knows what it’s like to suffer. The music is telling a story. You can feel the whip, taste the tears, and, sometimes, hear the faint sound of a land of hope beyond the river Jordan.
These are the two types of songs that are considered the best of choral music.
One of the sopranos offered an answer that went something like, “they’re the hardest,” or “they sound cool.” But I knew that wasn’t it. Oh, all that was true, but there was more. Whether chanted in the dank coolness of a stone monastery or repeated over the dry cotton fields, these were the ones that lasted, the ones that mattered, because they meant something.
These songs ——.
That’s where the entry ended. With no conclusion whatsoever, only dashes to hold my place until I could come back, eventually.
Sometimes, all you can do is wait. My seventeen-year-old self knew there was something there, something meaningful, but I couldn’t capture it in words.
Maybe I still can’t. But I think I’m getting closer to understanding it, whether I can explain it or not.
I’ll often read a fiction and nonfiction book at the same time, switching between the two when I need a change of pace. This week, by sheer coincidence, I was in the middle of Dark Midnight When I Rise by Andrew Ward—a biography of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who popularized spirituals—and The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny—a mystery about monks who popularized Gregorian chants. (Both are fascinating and highly recommended.)
As I read, I learned that spirituals have two main themes: the promise of heaven, and the suffering of Jesus. Both spoke to the original singers’ particular earthly suffering in a way no other themes could. The terrible mercy of the cross, and the final coming of justice and peace. That’s where the slaves’ hope came from, because there wasn’t any in their life on earth.
I also learned that the Latin chants and hymns mostly draw from even older songs—the Psalms. They speak of all aspects of a relationship with God—from pleas for forgiveness to joy at the love of God. That’s where the monks’ beauty came from, because there wasn’t any in the hard stone austerity around them.
So many things were the same. But why did this music seem to have a deeper hope, a more glorious beauty, than any other?
Once, a speaker at my college said that there are two common ways to grow in faith. One is involuntary—going through a time of trial and suffering. The other is voluntary—practicing spiritual disciplines. Both have a way of separating us from what we want and returning our focus to what matters most.
It’s not the same as having your dignity stripped away or taking a vow of holy silence, but I can see glimpses of the slaves and the monks in that truth. Both had nothing but Jesus.
Except I realized, reading my books, that wasn’t entirely true. Latin hymns and spirituals both use a call-and-response pattern. A soloist is joined by his brothers in chanting ancient words of praise. A leader starts the verse while his fellows repeat the familiar chorus.
Both slaves and monks had nothing but Jesus and each other.
And still they worshiped, out of sorrow and silence, from despair and deprivation. Made in the image of their Creator, they created. Commanded to love the Lord and love others, their songs reflect both in the purest form possible.
Sometimes, I need to remember that, when life gets hard. That’s where the best music comes from. (And if you’re not able to sing just yet, look at last week’s post for some encouragement.)
I still can’t say exactly why those songs were the ones in my public high school’s repertoire. Maybe music is the closest a secular society can come to prayer. Maybe it shows that there is great beauty even in seemingly meaningless suffering. Maybe the simple rhythms and plaintive harmonies mimic our breathing or focus our minds or express our brokenness in a way nothing else can.
Or maybe, when we silence the chatter and chaos of our lives long enough to hear from God, it sounds like a call waiting for a response.