My sister and her husband were living in my grandparents’ old house. The alarm, which had not been turned on for literally over a decade suddenly went off for no apparent reason. It was loud (which upsets my sister), and it was relentless. My brother in law tried turning it off, dismantling it, and disconnecting it, and still it screamed.
Suddenly he turned, and there was my sister, who had been outside calling relatives to try to figure out the alarm code. She was holding heavy duty scissors and wearing her game-over face. With no pause for discussion, she took a handful of the freshly exposed wires and cut straight through them. The alarm stopped. She handed the severed hardware to her husband and walked away. The alarm is turned off in a permanent way.
That’s what happened to me and God-talk.
Once upon a time, my faith was easy for me to talk about. I loved going to conferences on topics like “the church” or “the Church” or “this thing called church.” I could worship pretty freely in most settings (I say most because of my weird squeamishness in charismatic services). Nothing got me jazzed like a good theological debate or the inside jokes that only Bible students can access. I wanted to live my life in the semantic fray of those who would decide what is most important to Jesus, and what’s really wrong with the world.
And then came a concentrated series of misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and disappointments that made corporate worship and spiritual intimacy almost unbearable. The language of these misunderstandings was the language of my faith. The words that hurt my feelings cut straight to my identity, because they were words of my faith. The disappointments knocked the wind out of me all the more because they were delivered in the same language I had used to pin my hopes to the church.
The words that had been my life now sound like death to me.
The music, the memes, the tropes, and the catchphrases of Christianity feel like itchy wool on the blistering summer of my heart. So it has been with a fair amount of desperation that I’ve been hunting for sounds that don’t make me cringe or want to hide. Right now, that means going to the symphony.
I love the San Antonio Symphony for a lot of reasons. It is one of the greatly generous organizations in this city, responsible for the lion’s share of high culture in our notoriously casual cultural scene.
In addition to this general goodness, it was responsible for my deepest experience of Christmas. In its space I found some of my few moments of reverential stillness. Most recently, the San Antonio Symphony delivered a requiem for my former self (not that they had any idea they were doing any of this).
Last weekend the San Antonio Symphony, San Antonio Mastersingers, Trinity University choir, and UTSA choir performed Verdi’s Requiem, and they did so with a grandeur I had never seen from this group of hard-working and humble musicians. Trumpets in the mezzanine. Bass drums. Super-titles. My lungs were vibrating behind my ribs from the sound waves, and my soul shook somewhere deep my guts.
In the wake of the explosions at the Boston Marathon, the shootings at Sandy Hook, and Kermit Gosnell’s house of horrors, and the millions of lesser injustices we witness every day, we should all appreciate the need for songs of grief and cries for mercy. The concert was universal and personal in a way we often forget that we need. Not to compare my grief with the victims of tragedy, but simply to point out that death has many faces, and no paltry words or chords can match it.
Verdi was not a man of public faith, but he used the requiem format – a sung funerary mass from the Catholic church – to honor deceased friends and a common political ambition of a unified Italy. He was skeptical of the church, and yet the power of a private devotion wasn’t lost on him. His distrust did not run so deep that he would abandon the vocabulary of faith. Instead he made it beautiful by composing one of the finest pieces of music to carry it past the ears and into the soul, past the cynical guards who kept the words themselves at bay.
I can relate.
As I listened, four soloists and three choirs delivered the haunting words of the Kyrie, Agnus Dei, Sanctus, Lacrimosa, Lux Aeterna, and the rest until finally the Libera Me, which literally means Deliver Me. The words were displayed on supertitles, but I didn’t need them to know that this terrifying and haunting beauty was at once the death mass for who I thought I would be, and a reminder of why I’m still tangled up in this tattered and sweat soaked faith of mine.
I’m not who I was. Not headed in the same direction, not in the company I used to keep. And the gulf grows greater every day.
It’s difficult to worship. It’s difficult to talk about my faith, or to hear others talk about the faith we share. But it is not difficult to hear beautiful music. Music that makes me want to join when it sings, “May eternal light shine upon them, O Lord, with Thy saints forever, for Thou art good.”