Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Hearing is Believing

Here's an interesting article by Photius Kontoglou (Greek Orthodox) about sacred and profane music.

An Old Song

Sometimes it's hard to know whether one is reacting to Christian music out of sentiment or if a hymn or song has truly opened up the gates of heaven, if only for a moment. But when that moment happens, then you realize what a conduit of faith and spiritual sight that music can provide when it's done with faith and not for entertainment.

About 20 years ago, a friend and I went to a cozy, little German restaurant on western Christmas Eve located in a mostly vacant downtown area in a small Southern Illinois city. The restaurant was beautifully decorated and it was filled with mostly older customers, each table happily chatting away and feasting. My friend and I were also having a good time, and aside from the Christmas decorations, this could have been any other convivial meal at any other time of year.

The door opened and a young man and two young women entered. I recognized the young man whose name was Jerry; he ran a soup-kitchen and clothes shop for the poor from a store-front church. Jerry and his two companions were out carrolling on the city streets on this cold night and now entered this establishment to sing for us.

He pulled off his cap and began beating time with it in his hand. The trio began with "Silent Night" singing a very common rendition with a slightly better than average competence. But despite its ordinariness, I began to hear something different in this singing of an too-familiar tune. So did the rest of the customers, who immediately feel silent, suddenly suspended in their merry-making before the trio proceeded more than three notes.

By the time they came to the second stanza "Shepherds quake/at the sight. Radiant beams from heaven above..." the words suddenly struck me, as if I was hearing their import for the very first time. Why hadn't I heard about the magnificence of the shepherds' vision before in all the other times I had heard this song? It became apparent that Jerry and his friends believed in the words they were singing, that they were really doing this as an act of worship, not for the sport of carroling. They sang it straight, without adding any emotion to it, and just let the song and words speak for their beliefs and because of that, it was the most affecting rendition of that song I had ever heard.

The song ended, and they sang two verses of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" which served to provide a triumphant coda to the first song. Then they wished us "Merry Christmas" and disappeared into the chilly night.

No one stirred. The restaurant remained very quiet, as everyone seemed equally affected and deep in thought. I turned to my friend and saw that his eyes were full. Some minutes passed before the background noise returned to normal and life went on as before, but maybe not quite as before. But I never forgot how "Silent Night" had at last conveyed to me, or that I was at last allowed to hear in it, the essence of that extraordinary night so long ago.