“How Can I Keep From Singing?”

As a singer, waking up with a sore throat is one of the worst feelings I can have.  It means minimal talking, modified singing, and a longer recovery period than for the average person.  (Singers are much more prone to throat ailments because we use our voices in such a high capacity.)  Aside from my daily singing with the various choirs of Clonard, I find myself speaking a lot during the week for my other duties.  Coupled with the wet Irish weather, it was really only a matter of time before my vocal chords fought back against me.

Last Sunday, I woke up with one of those hideous sore throats.  My first thought was, “But, I have to sing mass!  Not now!”  I immediately took to trying all of my home remedies – a hot cup of tea with honey, gargling salt water, etc.  Cameron suggested that I maybe stay home and not go to church that day.  I had fulfilled my Sunday obligation at the Saturday vigil mass, and rest was probably what I needed.   But, I’m stubborn, so of course I completely rejected that idea.  Instead, I numbed my throat with honey and salt and headed out the door.  I told Cameron I’d just take it easy for mass and only sing what absolutely needed to be sung.

I must admit that my stubbornness really can be quite interfering sometimes.  Of course I couldn’t “take it easy” during mass!  Singing in church is one of my greatest passions in life, and something like another silly sore throat wasn’t going to stop me.  My voice is my way to worship and live out my faith, and most days I feel like I need to do it almost as much as I need to breathe.  Plus, it was Folk Group mass, meaning a chance to throw in some snazzy alto harmonies.  So, needless to say, I didn’t hold back, especially for the closing hymn – Steve’s arrangement of “How Can I Keep From Singing?”.

Since I have the song pretty much memorized, I put down my binder to sing it.  I couldn’t help but look around in the congregation to see if anyone else dared to join in such a contemporary hymn.  To my delight, there were several parishioners doing their best to follow along, at least on the refrain.  “How wonderful!” I thought.  Then, I locked eyes on a man who was clearly singing louder and more boisterously than the rest of them.  He’s an older parishioner, and an ardent daily mass goer.   I haven’t properly introduced myself to him; he usually keeps prayerfully to himself at mass.  But to see him singing so exuberantly filled me with an inexplicable sense of glee.  Here was this man, usually so quiet and reverent, singing his heart out.  I couldn’t help but smile.

While we were tearing down and putting away all of the microphones and equipment after mass, Cameron chuckled to himself, turned to me, and said, “How COULD you keep from singing?”  Knowing I had been caught, I grinned sheepishly and just shrugged.  But, that stuck with me for the rest of the day – how could I keep from singing, even though my body was fighting against it?  Why was that man singing so much more fully than the rest, when he usually keeps to himself at daily mass?

A big part of the reason I’m so passionate about liturgical music is because it was the only way I knew how to pray when I was growing up.  Not having gone to Catholic school until college, I really only had my weekly PSR classes to fill in the catechesis I was missing.  I absolutely hated going to those classes, and my mom would have to drag me to Sunday mass and keep poking me to stay awake during it.  That all changed when I was nine years old, and she signed me up for the newly-formed children’s choir at my parish.  There, I learned how to pray through song, how to understand and listen to scripture, and how to be a Catholic.  Now, I can’t even imagine missing a Sunday mass, and I still feel most at home when I’m singing for a service.

So, there was the answer for me – I couldn’t keep from singing because my spiritual self knows no other way.  It would be like a mother holding her crying baby, but not comforting him; or a photographer setting up the perfect shot, but not capturing it on film.  Singing has become who I am in my faith life, and I can’t help but turn to it out of habit and instinct.

But what about the older man at mass?  Why couldn’t he keep from singing?  It’s an answer I’ll never know for certain.  Perhaps he has a special connection to that song, or maybe the Holy Spirit moved him in such a way during the mass that he felt compelled to sing the final hymn.  Whatever the reason, I think it struck me so because “How Can I Keep From Singing?” is not the type of song that this congregation immediately takes to.

I sometimes get frustrated when we’re liturgy planning and we have to forego doing what is, in my opinion, an amazing song, in order to slip one in that is congregationally known better.  As someone who was blessed with such diverse music repertoire growing up, these limitations are sometimes difficult for me to overcome.  However, it’s finally dawned on me that the reason they all sing “Be Thou My Vision” so readily and buoyantly is the exact reason that I sing my favorite songs in the same way – it’s the music this congregation has grown up and learned how to pray with.  No, it’s not quite the same as mine, but I accept that now.

Thankfully, Clonard is also very open to learning our “American” songs, too.  (Look at “How Can I Keep From Singing?”, for instance!)  I know that, with a little patience and effort, I’ll be able to help put a few of my favorite songs in among theirs, as well.  The best part about this is that this works both ways – I can now proudly sing “Sweet Heart of Jesus” without looking at the words!  Their favorites are slowly being added to mine, and I love it.

Although I’ll never be able to keep from singing, I can keep from being too narrow-minded when it comes to trying and accepting new music.  By being open to including songs from both the Irish and the American tradition, I can only grow in my love for liturgical repertoire.  In the end, I have so much more to gain from learning their music than I have to give by teaching them mine.  The gift of song is my favorite kind to receive, and this parish has blessed me with so much of it every day that I’ve been here.  I look forward to continuing to share music with them, and especially to grow further in my faith through this exchange.  But, in the meantime, I am keeping an eye out to see which of my other beloved songs the Irish can’t keep from singing, either!