|Photo by saffroncisco|
When I started asking big questions in college, when I started drowning in my own thoughts and fears and the simultaneous existential crises of my friends, I could not turn to theologians or philosophers or scientists or even pastors for respite. I see now as I look back that even when my mind was rebelling, questioning, unsettling, I had a truer kind of knowing in poetry, music, and art.
During that time of my life, and many times since, the book I have continued to return to is a lovely little reflection on faith and art: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle, who writes about “probable impossibilities,” about naming and being named, about vulnerability and faithful doubt. Her approach of honest questioning, coupled with the openness to receive and affirm it all, has stayed with me.
“I have been asked if my Christianity affects my stories,” L’Engle writes in Walking on Water, “and surely it is the other way around; my stories affect my faith, restore me, shake me by the scruff of the neck, and pull this straying sinner back into an awed faith.”
My stories, yes. And the stories and poems of others. My faith has been formed and re-formed and renewed in the poetry of songs and hymns and liturgy.
So at a time faithful people are abuzz with what kind of programs and churches and relationships and opportunities and strategies are the best for helping the young and the old cultivate their faiths, I want to offer simply this: let us not forget the arts.
I sang in my mom’s church choir when I was old enough to talk. And little by little, as I grew, I noticed the words in the songs. I began to cut out pieces of the church bulletin that held prayers or liturgy or music I liked. I taped them in a little pink journal. I began to close my eyes during the songs we sang, to sense the wonder of Christmas, the agony of the passion story, the joy of Easter.
The poetry of sacred music was not restricted to church, because God cannot be restricted. I found God everywhere good music and good poetry were offered.
In high school, we sang secular music, sure. We also sang gospel: The storm is passing over, hallelu. We sang Mozart: Hail true body, born of the virgin Mary, who truly suffered and sacrificed on the cross for humanity. We sang poetry, scripture, psalms, laments.
There were songs that touched my heart more deeply than any sermon. The idea of listening for God’s guidance first struck me when I was ten and sang, Do you know your shepherd’s voice?
I experienced the power of nonviolence and justice during a high school choral tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.: The world is sick with war. When I lost my voice in eleventh grade, I leaned into Jesus: if my joys and comforts die, I know Truth is living.
I felt peace in the midst of newness in my first college choir rehearsal when we sang the twenty-third Psalm, and I meant it wholeheartedly when I sang in sophomore year of college, the time of my doubt, why should I wander an alien from Thee?
And years later, I still feel shivers of truth and beauty every time I sing certain hymns.