The melody has been playing in my head for weeks now and it’s hard not to break out into song. Even though Christmas has come and gone, one particular song was ubiquitous this year and it has become stuck in my head. Not only was Leonard Cohen’s beloved song “Hallelujah” being played repeatedly on the radio in commemoration of Cohen’s death in November, but our favourite Christmas album featured a beautiful version of it. Sung a cappella, the haunting chorus entranced us. Indeed, a favourite memory for me is of my 10-year-old grandson soulfully crooning, “Hallelujah, hallelujah . . .” even as he played on his iPad. He doesn’t yet understand the deep meaning of the song but, for the rest of us, Cohen’s classic captures a profound human experience and our hearts resonate when we hear it.
Such an experience reminds me once again of the power of music. Over the years I have come to recognize and appreciate the way melodies and words reach in and touch places in my heart and soul that I am not otherwise able to access. Music heals the soul, comforts our hearts and sustains us in courage. I often recall, with gratitude, a time when one particular song broke into my heart and unleashed a cascade of healing.
It had been an especially stressful and even dark number of months. A beloved family member was undergoing chemotherapy and suffering greatly. I lived with three teenagers, each full of angst, each challenging my parenting skills. My job, while rewarding, was new and demanding. On the surface I was coping but, in truth, I was white-knuckling my way through the days.
Then one day a friend dropped a CD off at the office. I put it on to play, more as background music than anything, while I continued working. I enjoyed the first three songs but it was the fourth track that caught me. The first lines caused me to stop what I was doing and listen attentively: a woman’s voice, strong and powerful, telling a tale of loss and pain, with a haunting refrain that questioned God’s very presence and begged for God’s mercy.
The song, I learned quickly, is the story of Job and it speaks of Job’s struggle with God in the face of unjust suffering: “And Job cried out to God in anger, from deep within his pain.” With sorrow, it asks why people are allowed to suffer and then plaintively asks God, “Where is your mercy now?” The singer implores God: “Speak to my aching heart. You are the only hope I cling to. Where is your loving face? Where is your saving grace? Where is your mercy now?” (“Job/Where is your Mercy?” from Tales of Wonder, Marty Haugen, 1989).
Partway through the song, tears welled up. By the time the song ended I was in full weeping, touched by emotions I hadn’t even realized were there. I listened to it about four times that morning and wept every time.
I played that one song on repeat for about three months. It became my prayer, a lament and a plea all in one. Even though I couldn’t articulate what was happening, I knew it was touching something deep inside me. Tears accompanied the song for almost two months but then they ceased and I sang the song with a newfound freedom.
“Those who sing pray twice,” Augustine wrote, and certainly it is true for me. Prayer and music are intertwined in my life. I remember as an adolescent doing kitchen cleanup with my sisters. We attended the same Catholic school and were in choir together. Our dishwashing and drying duties were accompanied by three-part harmonies of the Latin parts of the mass and our favourite hymns. With our voices rising, the mundane chores became sublime moments of prayer.
Hymns have been my prayer in all kinds of circumstances. I have kept vigil in various waiting rooms, comforting myself with hummed versions of “Our Father” and “Hail Mary.” “On Eagle’s Wings” became a mantra, offering both consolation and strength during my mother’s last illness. Taize chant quieted my fears at her deathbed. Simple songs like “Refiner’s Fire” or “Purify my heart” speak to my longing to be holy in ways that my spoken prayer alone cannot.
My spirit is fed with Scripture as various psalms, set to music, accompany my day. “Like a shepherd, he feeds his flock,” I sing as I go about my chores, and I hold fast to God’s daily care. Advent readings come vibrantly alive when I read Isaiah and hear in my head the choirs from Handel’s “Messiah” thundering, “And his name shall be called . . .” or liltingly proclaiming, “All we like sheep . . . .” When set to music, the words become more powerful, memorable and inspiring.
Prayer comes not only in hymns, though. Like Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” all kinds of songs can reach in and speak to our spiritual hungers. I love John Fogerty’s ”Don’t You Wish It Was True” from the album Revival (2007). It’s a rocking number that speaks of the heart’s longing for heaven, a place of peace, equality, and justice. John Lennon’s “Imagine” expresses the same yearning.
Songs might be lament, praise, celebration, intercession or thanksgiving. They can be sung from hearts full of pain or ones overflowing with gratitude. Some songs make us cry; others move us to dance; some simply lead us to close our eyes and rest. Whatever the case, we do well to take more words of Augustine’s words to heart, “Sing up and keep on walking!” In the song, we find our healing, comfort, and courage.
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.