Singing Sacred in a Secular World
“One of the great advantages of being raised Catholic is that you’re taught to take myth seriously and let it operate on your life in terms of mythic motifs.” I’m quoting the grand-daddy of world mythology, Joseph Campbell. But, coming from a Catholic home and having grown to love meanings behind the twin seasons of Easter and Spring, his words apply to me as well. Which is why I love this time of year when the big themes of humanity involving loss, dying, sacrifice, suffering, loneliness, torment, resurrection, redemption and renewal all get packed in and played out over four days.
At the moment I’m staying in an apartment in the heart of Toronto and across the street from St. Micheal’s Cathedral. Saturday nights I prefer to sit fifteenth row from the front, basking in the harmonies of St. Micheal’s Boys Choir while the sounds of the city -the clicking of high heels, the boom of bass from passing cars and the laughter of folks on their way to clubs and bistros- surround the stone walls of the cathedral. And what fascinates me most is, when I use music as a justification for going to church, people suddenly get it. Friends uncomfortable with anything smacking of religiousity will visibly relax if I say: I go for the music.
Like my mom, I don’t just go for the music, but the music got me there and will keep me there long after a message goes sour. I was born on a Good Friday, my mom going into labor while conducting the Dawson Creek church choir’s Easter rehearsal. And so it follows, to my thinking, that I was born with a fondness for Handel’s Messiah and Haydn’s Passion.
I’ve gone on to work for Canada’s national broadcaster, making radio documentaries exploring the music of all the great composers and the themes of their works seem to revolve around those old Catholic motifs: suffering, dying, rebirth, redemption, resurrection, renewal. God and the angels, Mary and all the saints get plenty of coverage in these songs. Faith reigns supreme and sin is a force to be reckoned with. And what fascinates and even delights me the most is that none of these very ‘sacred’ ideas seem to offend or annoy my very ‘secular’ colleagues. And the only reason I can think why they aren’t censoring, critiquing or ranting about the overt show of Belief is that the ideas are set to music!
Which brings me back to the topic of Americana, a topic I continue to research for my own work and pleasure ever since I did a doc for CBC. (‘Portrait of Lincoln With the Wart’.) One of the components of Americana that kept popping up the more I listened to the songs of the genre was a kind of what I’d call ‘folk devotion’. By that I mean, attached to a respect and acknowledgment of tradition and ancestral mentorship, there seems to be a way of honoring the Bigger Picture with a deeply personal human scale language of down-home religion. At it’s very best, Americana is anti- narcissism – it keeps acknowledging its roots- its borrowings, thefts, influences and teachers. It’s less the America of Herbert Hoover’s ‘rugged individualism’ and more the America of Martin Luther King’s ‘beloved community.’
And any way you slice-or name- it: God comes into the picture. It could be The Creator, Your Higher Power, the Uni-Verse (my personal favorite- it’s all One Story), the Guy Upstairs, Divinity, the Flow….
I recently tried to get into the cathedral at the last minute for a special Holy Week vigil. Silly me. The place was packed. About eighty of us were in the courtyard, straining to hear the service and the choir being broadcast from speakers on either side of the nave, but the city was gearing up for a noisy night out, so I walked back home and thought I’d put on some inspiring music instead. But before I turn up the music I just want to say this, and it’s a response to phrase I hear a lot these days: “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual”. As flesh and blood beings we need bricks and mortar guidelines as well as ethereal, mystical experiences. That’s where religion comes in- it’s the exercise routine that keeps us spiritually fit. It may be the ten commandments, the twelve steps, the Buddha, sangha and dharma, but, from all the evidence I’ve seen, you can’t be spiritual without a spiritual practice.
Maybe what some folks mean to say is: ‘dogma weighs us down with petty distraction and excuses for hating others.’ But the great religious traditions of the world are about people acknowledging we are all in this together. A religion is a collective. As is a band. As is an audience. So, maybe, we allow for ‘god-talk’ in music when we can’t stomach it in daily conversation, because music is both the mortar and the mystical. Or , maybe, music just has a way of taking our defenses down. We ‘git religion’ whenever we hear the anything by The Blind Boys of Alabama because the lovely rhymes and rhythms, the poetry and harmonies slip in the back door of our overly critical brain. Or, maybe chords are actually cords- linking us to heaven. Maybe, as Michelle Shocked yelled from the stage in the gospel tent at a new Orleans Jazz Festival one year, we came for the singing but I stayed for the song!
So. I’m back in my cozy sublet with the skylight giving me full view of the moon and the occasional low-flying heli-ambulance about to land on the roof of the hospital next door. Digging through my boxes of cds I pull out, who better, The Blind Boys of Alabama. I begin my effort to shift my internal energy from agitated to unconditional loving regard for all with their driving version of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”. And, like the song says ‘I’m going to keep on trying til I reach a higher ground’ . To do that I need the help of Jim Lauderdale singing: Lead Me. I just need to surrender, I’m reminded, and I listen to a bit more of Jim, this time with Ralph Stanley and his haunting old timey style of praise. I mix in some hymns redone by Iris Dement and Alison Kraus and the tears start when Mavis Staples reminds us we each have ‘ a little light that shines’. I pile on the Sister Rosetta and my favourite rendition of the events of Easter Sunday through the eyes of Mary Magdalene: ‘Can’t No Grave Hold My Body Down’. I play Mike Farris’ version of the song as well.
Eventually, I come back to one of the most spiritual songs I know: ‘Spell’ . It’s from my favourite Patti Smith album ‘Peace and Noise’, and it reminds us that ‘everything is holy, everyone is holy… The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!” reminds me that God is in all the details- the dirt, the grit, the orifices and the edifices, the bricks and mortar, the magic and magic wand, the last supper and the last supper plate, the music and the musical instrument. So, all of us are Holy and all weeks are Holy, but on this particular Holy week I end with:
‘Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith!
Holy! suffering! magnanimity!
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant
intelligent kindness of the soul!’