Monday, June 22, 2009

Be Not Afraid - Makes Me Squirm and Makes Me Cry

Hello everybody. I hope you enjoyed your Father's Day weekend. I had a nice conversation with my Dad yesterday. He shared some good news. A cousin of mine purchased one of those lottery scratch tickets in Massachusetts and won one million dollars. Pretty cool, huh?

I'd like to share something that occurred at Sunday Mass yesterday in my parish. The Gospel reading was the story of Jesus calming the seas. The music director chose the song Be Not Afraid for the communion procession. I really haven't sung this piece at Mass in a number of years. I remember when this music first debuted in the the mid 1970's. As a classically trained musician, I have to be frank and say that when I was asked to play this piece at Mass, it was always a source of frustration. It's rhythmic structure is close to impossible for the assembly to sing accurately. I remember spending time practicing this piece so that each sixteenth note would be articulated accurately. I followed the rhythmic structure as it was written. I can say that every time I played this piece in the many parishes in which I have played, no assembly ever sang it the same way. The same was true yesterday. It's just one of those things that makes me squirm—following and singing the rhythmic structure with a trained musical eye and having everyone else just sing it the way they always have.

Now for the other side of the Be Not Afraid story. The first wedding that took place in my immediate family occurred in September of 1979. My youngest sister, Joanne, was in high school at the time, and she was asked to sing Be Not Afraid at the wedding. Joanne's singing was pure. The clarity of her tone was so pleasing to the ear. This piece became a kind of "family song" for the Galipeau's since the day of that wedding. It has been sung at family funerals and weddings since then. My sister Joanne was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in the early 1980's. For the next twenty years, she lived with the disease that would eventually claim her life. One of the saddest things for me was watching her lose the ability to sing. A few days before she died, I put my head on the pillow next to hers and asked her if she wanted to sing with me. We sang a few Christmas songs together. Even though no sound was coming from Joanne, she mouthed the words to Do You Hear What I Hear and O Come, All Ye Faithful. I think that the words "O come, let us adore him, O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord" were the last words she sang on this earth before joining her own voice to the heavenly choirs.

At Joanne's funeral, of course, we sang Be Not Afraid. Particularly poignant were the words, "Come, follow me, and I will give you rest." It just so happened that the sister whose wedding Joanne had sung at so many years before had a recording of Joanne's solo at that wedding. My sister brought a cassette player to the grave on the day we committed Joanne's ashes to the earth. So, there we all stood at Joanne's grave. My sister hit the "play" button on the cassette player and Joanne's voice began to sing out in the pure tone we all remembered so well: "know that I am with you through it all." It just so happened that the battery power was wearing down, and so Joanne's voice was a little deeper toward the end of the song, which brought us all a good chuckle.

That sister at whose wedding Joanne sang Be Not Afraid was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. 

So, yesterday at Mass, when the introduction to the song was played, you can imagine the memories that came flooding across my mind and heart. I was immediately transported back to that wedding in 1979. I relived the time I sang the carols with Joanne as she lay dying. I was back in the second pew at St. Charles in Woburn, Massachusetts on the February day when we celebrated Joanne's life. And I was praying so hard for my sister with cancer, that she would not be afraid. My heart was lifted to heaven, asking the Lord Jesus to send healing and comfort on all the sick.

I guess I just wanted to share all of this with you because it shows me once again the power that music holds. There are some people that would like to see songs like Be Not Afraid jettisoned from the repertoire because of their "hard-to-sing-accurately" rhythmic structure. Some may think these songs have too much of a "pop" feel to them. I'd just like us to be cautious about the hymns and songs that are part of the contemporary Catholic experience. A piece that makes some people squirm can bring other people right to heaven. 

Comments welcome. Gotta Sing, Gotta Pray.


byte228 said...

Thank you for sharing this wonderful story of how song has moved your family over the years. This reminds me of my days at the Newman Center in Kirksville, MO. One Sunday I was cantor and we sang Michael Joncas' "On Eagle's Wings" at the preparation of gifts. As I started singing, I noticed one of the students get up and run out the back door of the church crying. Later I found out that for her the song had deep meaning because it was played at a loved ones' funeral. It's amazing the power notes have to evoke emotion and memories in us all.

For me I will always be moved by Marty Haugen's "Shepherd Me O God" and Ernest Sand's "Song of Farewell" as I sang both for my Grandfather Julio's funeral as a very young cantor.

Anonymous said...

On a different tack (since Jesus was in a boat) - I think we miss part of what this Sunday's gospel is about. We should be a bit frightened of the Jesus who is clearly the same God of the OT who destroyed the chaos of the waters.

Read ALL of Psalm 46 - "Be still and know that I am God" too often for us means "Calm down and light the aromatherapy candle and put on the soft background music." But the "stilling" that the scriptures refer to are about God's power, which also tells us we need to get over ourselves and put our faith in that power, not ours.

That's what makes ME squirm - when the potency of the Psalms and of Christ get neutered for the sake of our soothing.

Anonymous said...

My prayers for your family.

I just want to say that this: "a piece of music that makes some people squirm can bring other people right to heaven," should not be as significant in selecting music for LITURGY, as would be: "a piece of music that brings some people right to heaven can make other people squirm.

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

Chironomo said...

I tend to squirm when I hear "Be not Afraid" to, but I don't think in the same way....

Anonymous said...

A few things ...

This piece was composed in the antiphonal format of the Mass propers. As originally conceived, only the refrain was intended for congregational singing.

I suspect that future editors may well render those sixteenth-notes differently. As it is, drilling the right rhythm has never been a personal priority. The people like to sing it. They sing it the way they learned it, and with apologies to Bob Dufford, I see no need to change what they sing to something "correct." If he had intended the assembly to sing these verses, I suspect they would have been written differently.

Isn't it interesting that Isaiah 43:1-3 so moves the faithful. You all know the other setting, right? "You Are Mine." These two songs are among the top-ten popular items of Catholic worship today.