O Sing to Me of Heaven: Requiem for a Friend

Stephen D. O’Leary at Point Reyes National Seashore, June 13, 2011 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

My friend Stephen D. O’Leary departed this life on January 24, 2020, just days after we sang together at the California Shape Note Singing Convention. Although he had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had just begun chemo, he was feeling pretty good that weekend. He said afterward, “I plan to keep singing until I die (which I hope will not be anytime soon), and even after.” Two days later, way too soon, he was gone. Today I preached this homily at his requiem, where many of his shape note friends gathered to sing his spirit home. 

In early January, on Twelfth Night, Stephen shared on Facebook an article which had caught his attention, about the possibility of robot priests––speaking machines which could offer blessings, prayers and comfortable words on demand. And of course Stephen had questions: Would a robot priest, he asked, require that God be “unable to distinguish between the bot’s prayer and the prayer of an actual human person, or . . . only that the person being prayed for by the bot must believe that the bot is an actual conscious being…?” Thankfully, no such questions are at issue in this liturgy!  Fr. Gagan and I are not battery-operated.

But such questions were so Stephen. His passionate and curious mind was always wondering about things in the most interesting and unique way. How we will miss his questions––and so much besides.

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a line expressing in nine words the uniqueness we all possess: What I do is me: for that I came. Stephen did Stephen as well as he could, and each of us has our own stories about why he came, and what difference he made in our lives.

A few hours before he died, he posted a poem by George Eliot about the “choir invisible / whose music is the gladness of the world.” The “choir invisible” is the poet’s name for those departed souls whose lingering influence has made us better, and even now may still “Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love, / Beget the smiles that have no cruelty, / Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d, / And in diffusion ever more intense!”

“To make [such] undying music in the world” was the holy work to which Stephen aspired, even when his road was rough and steep.  We mourn his absence, lament the sudden withdrawal from the visible world of such a remarkable and dear companion. As we sing at the end of every shape note convention, just before we go our separate ways:

Your comp’ny’s sweet, your union dear
Your words delightful to my ear
Yet when I see that we must part
You draw like cords around my heart

But the absence of a loved one in bodily and temporal form is succeeded by new forms of presence. Although death changes the relationship, it does not end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.

Stephen is no longer in one particular place. He is now in every place or occasion where we remember him. He is present whenever we think of him, or speak of him, or tell the stories that bring him back. I’m pretty sure I’m always going to hear his unmistakable voice whenever we hit those high notes in shape note hymns like Stratfield or Villulia.

At the tomb of Jesus, the angel of resurrection told the sorrowing women, “The one you seek is not where you laid him. From now on, you need to be looking elsewhere.” Wendell Berry has said something similar about all the departed, who now are “hidden among all that is, / And cannot be lost.”

Resurrection faith tells us that a person’s continuing presence is not purely the product of our own subjectivity. Though we see Stephen no longer, he continues to exist as more than just memory or feeling or imagination. As he was when he was created, so he remains: a beloved child of God, but now embraced and glorified within a larger wholeness from which none of us will ever be separated. This wholeness, which has many names, is the Love Supreme which binds us all together. This interconnection, this communion, cannot be broken, even by death.

The Lakota people have the expression “all my relatives” to describe the continuing bond between the living and the dead. Martin Brokenleg, a Lakota Episcopal priest, puts it this way: “Our experience shows us that death does not break our kinship bond. We turn to one another for help and support regardless of which side of death our relatives are on.”

But knowing that death is not the end does not make the burden of loss any lighter. Even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” This is the only time Jesus is criticized by his friends, so bitter is their grief. Lord, if you had only come sooner, you could have delayed his fate, his mortality, for a little while longer. You could have cured him. Why did he have to die now?

Well, Jesus doesn’t like death any more than Mary and Martha do. When he approaches the tomb of his friend, he is, the gospel tells us, “greatly disturbed.” In Greek these words carry a connotation of anger, so we might say that Jesus was just as mad at death as everyone else was that day.

And so, we are told, the One who would be revealed as the Lord of life rebukes death in the most dramatic way. He peers into the darkness of the cave tomb and cries, “Lazarus! Come forth!” And Lazarus does come forth, into the light, a living man, inhaling the freshness of a spring morning.

But his resuscitation is only a temporary stay. Lazarus will die again, sooner or later. And shortly after this miracle, Jesus himself will die, sharing the fate of every mortal so that God might transform that fate into something glorious. As we sing in The Sacred Harp (#163 on the bottom): Thence he arose, ascended high, to show our feet the way.

The raising of Lazarus may not have been a true resurrection into life eternal, but it was a vivid foretaste of the human future, when everyone who has fallen asleep in death will hear the voice of the divine Friend who knows us by heart, calling us each by name on that “great rising day.”

Some of us were at Angels Gate in San Pedro for the California Shape Note Convention, when Stephen, only a few days before his death, led us in singing “Farewell Anthem.”

My friends, I am going on a long and tedious journey,
Never to return, never to return. . .
Fare you well,
Fare you well, my friends,
And God grant we may meet together in that world above. . .

Stephen was not being literal––he did not expect to leave us so soon––but I imagine him smiling now to know he was bound for  glory with a song on his lips, and that so many who love him have gathered here today to join in that song with sweet accord.

I once heard a shape note singer tell about her mother’s death out in Sand Mountain, Alabama. A lot of singers were standing round her bed, keeping vigil with the old songs. But there came a moment when her mother began to sing a tune that none of them recognized. They couldn’t quite place it. And then they realized she wasn’t singing the melody. She was singing the treble part. She was singing harmony with voices from the other side, which only she could hear. The choir invisible.

Oh, sing to me of heav’n,
When I am called to die,
Sing songs of holy ecstasy
To waft my soul on high. . .

 

Then to my ravished ear
Let one sweet song begin,
Let music charm me last on earth,
And greet me first in heav’n.

 

Stephen O’Leary (right) and David Olson lead “Farewell Anthem” at the 2020 California Shape Note Convention.

“Be known to us in the music we make”

Ted Mercer leads a song at the California Sacred Harp Convention.

I am the chaplain this weekend for the 30th Annual All-California Sacred Harp Convention, where over a hundred singers have gathered from a dozen states (along with a few enthusiasts from Europe) to sing about 190 shape note songs over the course of two days. It’s an intense immersion in a uniquely American repertoire––loud, raw, and deeply expressive. You can read about it in my post, A Musical Tsunami.

While the song texts mostly reflect images and themes from 18th and 19th century Christianity, a shape note gathering is not a community of religious consensus. Non-Christian people of faith and no faith are in the mix, and there is no discussion of verbal meanings. It’s all about the singing. And yet, there is a sense of “church” about these gatherings. We tap into a power beyond the self, form bonds of communion with one another, and are transported by a shared experience that can verge on the ecstatic.

By long tradition, each day of a singing convention opens and closes with prayer, composed or selected at the discretion of the chaplain. The following prayers are mostly my own. While seeking to honor and express the sacred dimension of a shape note singing, I tried to be inclusive, avoiding explicit sectarian language. But you may notice some Anglican phrasing––and theology––seeping through.

Saturday (Jan. 20)

Opening prayer

O divine Beloved, Maker of all things and Lover of souls, we are gathered here by your grace to sing the life that conquers death, the joy that dries all tears, the peace that passes understanding, the love that resists every evil.

Be known to us in the music we make and the songs we share.
To spend one day with Thee on earth exceeds a thousand days of mirth.

We are truly thankful for the generations of composers and singers who have entrusted us with the Sacred Harp, and we pray that our singing in this place will gladden the whole company of heaven with an awesome and holy sound.

Draw us together with the cords of friendship.
Let no one be a stranger here.
Lift up our hearts and make us one.

Now sanctify this hollow and hallowed square, that it may be for us not just a refuge from the storms of the world, but a tangible experience of our truest humanity, reflecting your glory in the harmonious beauty of our shared communion.

We ask this in your holy Name. Amen.

 

Grace for the mid-day meal

Blessed are you, O God, giver of breath and bread,
from whom all blessings flow.
We give you thanks for the abundance of this hour,
for the food and drink prepared from your bounty by human labor
and spread before us by generous hands.
Give us such an awareness of the sacredness of every feast,
that the sharing of this meal may manifest the connections between us,
and deepen our gratitude for life.
Blessed be your Name forever. Amen.

 

Closing prayer (by Brian Wren*)

May the Sending One sing in us,
may the Seeking One walk with us,
may the Greeting One stand by us,
in our gladness and in our grieving.

May the Gifted One relieve us,
may the Given One retrieve us,
may the Giving One receive us,
in our falling and our restoring.

May the Binding One unite us,
may the One Beloved invite us,
may the Loving One delight us,
in bliss both human and divine.

Now let us go forth in peace,
rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

* Brian Wren is an Anglican hymn writer in the UK.
The “in bliss” line is my own, while the final lines are
a eucharistic dismissal from the Book of Common Prayer.

 

Sunday (Jan. 21)

Opening prayer

Grace of melody be upon us
Grace of harmony be upon us
Grace of shapes be upon us
This day and evermore.

Grace of lyric be upon us
Grace of meter be upon us
Grace of fugues be upon us
This day and evermore.

Grace of praise be upon us
Grace of union be upon us
Grace of joy be upon us
This day and evermore. Amen.

 

Grace at the mid-day meal*

Holy God, giver of breath and bread,
it is with gratitude and joy that we receive the gift of this meal.
Into ourselves we take these changing forms of matter and light
through which we shall be changed:
other bodies becoming our bodies,
other lives becoming our life.

That there is but one body,
one life shared by all,
we vow to remember.

Now bless this food to our use, and us to your service,
and make us ever mindful of the needs and rights of others.
Let all the people say: Amen.

* Adapted from various sources. The first line is from Gerard Manley Hopkins, the last lines are at traditional grace, and the middle part I learned from a priest at a campfire on a kayaking retreat for clergy. I don’t know the source.

 

Closing prayer

Holy and gracious God, you are a mystery beyond all telling,
yet have we not heard your voice sounding in our midst this day?
You are beyond all seeing,
yet did we not glimpse your glory in the faces of one another?
You are beyond all knowing,
yet has not each of us heard a word spoken today––
a word of love or consolation,
a word of encouragement or mercy?

It has been such a blessing to join our voices with one another,
in union with the countless singers who have gone before us.
Our hearts are full, and we are deeply grateful.
Now send us forth in peace, guide us safely home,
and help us to carry the grace of these precious hours
into the rest of our lives,
that the world may resound
with the melody of compassion
and the harmony of justice,
and your blessing be known
through every land by every tongue.

Glory to you for ever and ever. Amen.

Related post: A Musical Tsunami

A musical tsunami

A musical tsunami. The heavy metal of the 19th century. That’s how some have tried to convey the volcanic eruption of sound known as shape note singing. It’s already loud as you walk from your car toward the meeting room where over a hundred singers are gathered for an all-day singing. When you open the door to come inside, it blasts and sears you like heat from a forge.

Shape note singing, like jazz, is a uniquely American form. It began in New England churches of the late 18th century, but soon proved too raucous and untamed for that staid ecclesiastical environment, and had to migrate to the free-form churches of the South. When more fashionably modern gospel music began to displace it in the early 20thth century, shape note’s habitat shrank to scattered pockets of entrenched tradition, until it was “rediscovered” in the mid-20th century folk music revival. While there are still southern singers whose shape note heritage goes back many generations, there are many more who have entered this musical fold on their own, not only in the United States and Canada, but in the UK, Germany and Poland as well. Shape note singing has a way of grabbing hold of you and never letting go.

People gather weekly or monthly to sing for a couple of hours in small groups all over the United States, but the annual regional conventions – Saturday and Sunday all-day singings of a hundred or more from many states, singing about 95 songs per day – are the molten core of the tradition. These marathons of massed voices take everything you’ve got. By late Sunday afternoon, your voice is gone but your heart is full.

The musical notation uses (usually four) different shapes for the notes – triangle, rectangle, diamond, and the familiar oval. Representing the solfège syllables (fa-sol-la-mi), they provide a guide to the intervals between the notes, making sight-reading easier for untrained singers. Since the shapes are sung once prior to the actual words, the first time through a tune makes a strange syllabic murmur, like an incantation in a forgotten tongue.

The singing style is raw, nasal, straight-tone (no vibrato), full-throttle all the way. “If you can hear the person next to you, you’re not singing loud enough,” they like to say. Each voice-part sits together on one side of the “hollow square,” facing inward toward the leader (anyone who wishes takes a turn in the center, picking the next song and beating time for all to follow). There are slow songs, fast songs, and fugueing tunes with staggered entrances. And whether you are racing through an exhilarating major key or dragging out a slow, mournful minor key song about death and dying, you feel great when you’re done. There’s always something deeper at work than either text or tune in the performance of this strange and wonderful music.

Singers consist of Christians and non-Christians, theological progressives and traditionalists, seekers and unbelievers. No one, including me, embraces all the lyrics, some of which come out of a 19th century Protestant mindset and language not in fashion today. But theology is never discussed at a singing, and no one suggests changing the lyrics. That would be poor manners toward those who created the tradition. Shape note singing is not about doctrine but about relationships – with those who have gone before us, with the music they have given us, and with each other.

So a shape note gathering is not a community of shared faith. There is no creed or sustained reflection on the meaning of what we sing together. But when singers are asked about their experience, they usually invoke words like power, spirit, joy, catharsis, community, love, even transformation. So while there is no theology, ecclesiology or missiology in shape note singings, they are, is some ways, not so unlike what we hope for from church. As the (not shape note) hymn says:

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound “Alleluia!”

In my own Episcopal tradition, congregational singing is often tepid, even anemic. There are any number of reasons for this. We are products of our American culture, where communal singing is a lost art. We still have some English church heritage in our blood, so expressiveness and emotion are often repressed in worship. We lead hymns with loud pipe organs that won’t let us hear our own voices. And our hymnal melodies are written in the soprano line, which means that men either don’t even try to sing those high notes or else pitch them an octave lower, making their voices inaudible (in shape note, the melody is in the tenor). My father, an Episcopal priest and an enthusiastic man, could not bear weak singing. He was never afraid to stop a hymn in the middle to exhort people to sing louder. He would have loved shape note singing!

How I wish our church liturgies could always embody the spirit, power and energy of a shape note convention. Every liturgist and church musician needs to go to an all-day singing and then think very hard about the contrasts of what they experience in the hollow square with whatever happens back in their own worship gatherings.

At last weekend’s All-California Shape Note Convention, I was the chaplain at the Saturday session, responsible for the prayers at the beginning and end of the day. This was my opening prayer:

Come, Holy Spirit, breath of life eternal,
and occupy this hollow square,
that in these precious hours together
we may be united in holy sound and tuneful praise,
our souls and bodies resounding
with all that is deep and rich within us.
Draw us together with the bonds of affection;
let no one be a stranger here.
And send us a blessing today,
lift up our voices today,
make us your Sacred Harp today.
We pray this in your holy Name. Amen.

Songs to sing and tales to tell

And when my journey’s finally over,
when rest and peace upon me lie,
high o’er the roads
where we once traveled,
silently there my mind will fly.

– “Parting Friends”

This is one of the many shape note songs I sang along the Camino. I also sang hymns for Holy Week and Easter, made every tunnel and underpass echo with Kyries and Alleluias, and on a few evenings when a guitar got passed around in a hostel, taught choruses from Steve Earle’s “Pilgrim” (“we’ll meet again on some bright highway, songs to sing and tales to tell”) and Tom Russell’s “Guadalupe” (“I am the least of all your pilgrims here, but I am most in need of hope”). And several times a day I would break out with “Dum pater familias,” the medieval Latin song for St. James that rallied the spirits of the pilgrims who sang it as they walked. Prior to headphones, singing was an important part of the pilgrimage experience – shared voices imprinting the path with songlines.

On my penultimate day, the words of “Parting Friends” are especially apt. My mind indeed flies back over the roads I’ve traveled and the people I’ve met. Previous posts have mentioned some of these, but let me record three more who have embodied for me the spirit of the Camino.

The first is Janine, the hospitalera who welcomed me and six other pilgrims to a humble albergue in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, a village lost in the vast Meseta like a small boat adrift at sea. In a place forgotten by time and history, this grandmotherly woman provided the most exquisite hospitality, as if we were her own family. The next morning, she saw me off with a blessing. Pointing to her “corazon” and mine, she indicated that we were connected. Then she made a walking motion with her fingers and said, “Buen Camino.” She repeated this touching ritual with each of us. Like saints of old doing good in lonely outposts for no earthly reward, she simply existed to love the stranger.

Then there is Tomas, who has occupied a tiny abandoned village in the mountains near the Camino’s highest point and created, in an eclectic assemblage of flags, signs, sculptures and makeshift structures akin to outsider art, a haven for pilgrims seeking a tranquil respite by day, one of his 35 mattresses by night, or shelter from the storm anytime it’s needed. Whenever he sees a pilgrim approaching, he rings a temple bell to greet and bless them. If a cloud covers the mountain with fog and darkness, he rings the bell to guide lost pilgrims to his safe haven. This is his life: to live as a hermit in order to serve the pilgrim.

Finally, on a shady trail through a eucalyptus grove yesterday, I saw a young man kneeling in the dust to pray before a wayside cross. I don’t know his name or his story, but the evident depth of his devotion reminded me how serious a matter the Camino can be.

And now I am at the outer edge of Santiago, in a quiet albergue with very few occupants. Most pilgrims who get this far simply continue on to the great cathedral less than an hour’s walk from here. But I didn’t want to drag myself to the finish late in the day, wearied and worn by ten miles of walking. I want to arrive fresh and renewed, to finish my Camino in the light of the rising sun on the day of Resurrection. So like Jacob of old, who camped just short of his destination in order to collect himself for the morrow’s big encounter, I shall rest and reflect and – who knows? – maybe wrestle with angels till daybreak.

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