Cheryl Ann Smith directing the choir in the Madonna House chapel

Singing: A Path to God

by Cheryl Ann Smith

They say the longest journey we make on earth is the 18-inch (or so) journey between the head and the heart. By “heart” I do not mean the emotions. I am using the Hebraic meaning—that is, the core of our being, our true inner being where God resides.

But living in the heart is living in vulnerability, and so we tend to retreat from it. It is a journey of a lifetime to return to this inner place and to eventually come to continually live from it. But all along the journey, God can bring us into it in various ways and for varying lengths of time.

Over and over, God draws us there—Deep is calling to deep as Psalm 42 says, and singing is one of the bridges he uses.

Singing, the voice of our spirit, can take us to a place of interior stillness where we can hear the echo of God’s song. Let me give you three examples of when this happened to me.

1) When I was eighteen, I was desperately searching for meaning in life. Just before Christmas that year, my father took the family to a concert of Handel’s Messiah—something he’d never done before.

The music was magnificent, of course, but it was as we stood for the singing of the “Halleluiah Chorus,” that God broke through and poured love into every nook and cranny of my being.

The door opened, and I discovered my inner chamber, where he had always abided. Through that heavenly chorus, I found Him whom my heart had always desired.

(I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising: Handel wrote the entire opus in 24 days, and he told a friend that in writing the “Halleluiah Chorus,” he saw all heaven before him.)

2) Many years ago, I had a dream in which I was offered the chance to hear what was going on the moment I was born.

Curious, I accepted, and was taken into a room in which a gigantic reel-to-reel tape recorder was mounted on a white wall. The tape was instantly rewound to the exact moment of my birth, and what poured out was a passionate love aria sung by the equivalent of Caruso, Pavarotti and all the great tenors put together.

When I awoke, it was with the joyous conviction that I had heard my heavenly Father singing his love and joy at my birth. (So tenors, take heart: God is a tenor. I heard his voice!)

3) A dear friend of mine, also a singer, has no faith. Never has and feels no need of it. I once asked her if she’d really never felt God or anything beyond our regular earthly experience.

“Well,” she hesitated, “sometimes when we sing something exquisitely beautiful, the hairs on my neck stand on end.” I suspect that is God’s breath as he sings with her.

When I find myself unable to pray, I often open to the Psalms, which express every human emotion and aspiration. But at times the words seem dry and tasteless, so I sing them. There are so many simple tones to choose from, some conducive to lament and sorrow and others to elation and hope.

Sure enough, the singing usually helps me descend those 18 inches from mere concepts to the living, breathing union with God in my heart.

Moreover, if my spirit is particularly deadened, and singing words of Scripture doesn’t open the door, I have my “ace in the hole”: a chant version of Salve Regina that always pierces the darkness to the silence within. I suspect we all have such a sacred song, our bridge to the Divine.

The eighteen-inch descent can happen on a communal level as well, bringing a profound power and presence.

Meditative chants from the Taizé community are particularly conducive to communal singing prayer. (Taizé is an ecumenical religious order in France which is dedicated to prayer for unity. It is such an authentic witness, that pilgrims visit from all over the world. )

To bring unity to their singing prayer, their composer, Jacques Berthier, developed a form that works brilliantly: the people sing a simple chant, often in Latin, and gradually add harmonies.

Further texture and intensity are built with various instruments joining in.  Finally, cantors sing verses in their own language “on top of” the rhythmic music chant, bringing color and greater depth to the basic invocation. This chant can swell and pulse for several minutes.

Gradually, the cantors stop singing their verses, the musical instruments cease playing, the harmonies fade out. And then there is silence—but a silence vibrating with prayer and presence.

The psalms are the bedrock of the Liturgy of the Hours (The Divine Office). The psalms were written to be sung, and the Hebraic language was conducive to singing.

In 1953, Fr. Joseph Gelineau, a priest from France, translated the psalms into French, but retained the rhythmic pulses for singing.

Ten years later, the Grail community in England followed suit in English.

Simple psalm tones can be used by a community, and many voices can fall into a harmonious union, with the rising and falling of notes like the rhythmic beat of a heart. This is how the psalms are sung at morning and evening prayer at Madonna House.

When psalms are sung over and over again; when the melodies are repeated year after year, when favorite songs are repeated endlessly, they become woven into the deepest heart and are often the last whispers in a person’s life.

One of the members of Madonna House, Therese Richaud, was ravaged by Alzheimer’s and could no longer speak or “track” what was happening.

During the Christmas season shortly before she died, two of us went to visit her. Conversation was not possible, as she didn’t know us and hardly seemed to know we were there.

Therese had always loved music, so we decided to sing some Christmas carols. To our amazement, Therese joined in—not perfectly, not continuously, but from some deep part of her that seemed to “wake up.” In fact, she supplied words I couldn’t remember from one of the verses!

Singing penetrates to the deepest recess of our personhood. Therese died not long after that, and I’m quite sure her Tenor-Father greeted her in heaven with song!

St. Augustine wrote, “He who sings prays twice.” Obviously, he didn’t mean consecutively, but in added depth. We pray with words, but the singing brings us to the heart, adding love, conviction, and beauty to the prayer.

When I was a young member of our choir in Madonna House, we were practising for our bi-weekly Eastern Rite liturgy. Much of the music had come to us through Archbishop Joseph Raya, our Melkite member who had translated the liturgy into English.

He heard me canting the verses to one song, and he bellowed, “Sing deeper!” So I sang louder.

“No!” he bellowed again, “Not louder! Deeper! More fully!” So I sang louder.

He looked at me and said, “One day, when you’re free, you’ll sing deeper.”

When we make that journey to the heart, we can finally sing with freedom, flow, faith and abandon.

When a community gathers for intercessory prayer, a sense of unity and power can be given through singing the response to each petition.

The response can be “Lord, have mercy,” or “Kyrie Eleison” or some such shared cry. Intentions can be sung or spoken, prepared or spontaneous, but a congregational sung response brings a sense of piercing the clouds!

Finally, singing is meant to penetrate and move through our bodies. After all, we are body and soul. Sometimes this takes the form of a profound stillness when the chant fades. Sometimes it ripples through our hearts with joy and elation, until we can’t help but sway, clap, or dance, like King David before the altar.

African songs, with steady rhythmic beat and oft-repeated words, are particularly conducive to this joy incarnated. Sometimes in singing such songs, we find it almost impossible to sit still. We are meant to dance and sing with full voice.

Deep is calling to deep. May our voices meld with God’s in the song of our heart.

Cheryl Ann says she “always finds a good choir wherever I go to at least sing in.” She was schola (choir) director in Combermere for four years, and led the music (in Spanish and English) in the parish for 8 years in Winslow, Arizona. She is currently singing in a “fabulous chamber choir.”