Have you ever walked inside a holy place and felt the awe that descends upon you as that holiness enters your body? Perhaps in a church, or in front of the ocean, or standing in front of an amazing piece of art -- there is this thing that happens where something inside you moves and you feel a shift -- a change -- and everything becomes still and vibrant and alive, such that everything from your breath to the bottoms of your dirty shoes becomes sacred. You feel alone and connected; isolated, yet bonded with all those who have stood on that holy ground before. You feel certain that there is no way to ever tell anyone what just transpired -- and yet also feel certain they must have felt their center tremble, the goosebumps run from their legs up to the top of their skull, felt the tears stinging their eyes in joy, grief, fear, comfort, peace and sorrow. It is a full-body, all encompassing experience that is impossible to describe. Even the word "holy" -- one of the biggest words I know -- does not feel big enough to fit the vastness that is this experience.
This is what it is like to sing Brahms' Requiem.
I'm not really a singer. I can read music enough to skate by, but this past September was the first time I sang in front of anyone since I mumbled through "The Rainbow Connection" with the children's choir when I was 12. So this experience -- this way of learning to live inside Brahms' German Requiem -- this was new. This was going outside of my comfort zone. This was pushing my abilities to the limits, and messing up, and getting frustrated, and trying again. This was wrong notes, meaningless syllables that were supposed to sound like words, squiggly lines I couldn't figure out, and rests I continuously sang through. This was frantically glancing at my neighbor's eyes as I tried figure out where they were on her page, being unable to find the downbeat (any downbeat), and finding myself unable to count to 3. This struggle felt anything but holy.
But then Brahms started getting stuck in my head. I sang Brahms while I was washing dishes, while I was driving, while walking the dog. Thank goodness my neighbors are Deaf -- otherwise, they too would be well-versed in Movements I - IV. I sang Brahms in my head while at my desk at work, I hummed it in the hallways, and slowly, it became part of me. It felt joyous, and angsty, comforting, sad and beautiful. This agnostic sang about the word of the Lord enduring forever, and something about the ransomed of the Lord returning and coming to Zion, and though I really had no clue what I was saying, I loved it, as one can only love things we don't understand: with admiration and a certain respect and humility that the piece surely deserves.
At long last, things came together. The first time I felt myself embodying that music during rehearsal, it nearly moved me to tears. It felt right. It felt like this making of music and sorrow and joy and comfort was something we were supposed to do. It was at once intensely personal and vulnerable, and also a shared, community sense of belonging and connectedness. It felt like community, and love, and it felt like coming home. And then we lost it again...and so we rehearsed, and tried, and practiced, and sometimes we found it and sometimes we didn't. We struggled, and we practiced, and we hated and loved Brahms simultaneously.
I joined the choir in an act of faith. Prior to joining, I had been what one might call a lurker at church: I came, hid out in the back, and left, quickly, talking to no one. I did not trust community, and did not believe I could be part of it. I did not believe I would be welcomed, did not believe that I was deserving of any friendship, or camaraderie, or love I may be given. I was hesitant -- scared, even -- to belong, until finally, I let go of the comfortable trapeze bar to which I had been clinging, and I flew. To my surprise, there was not only another trapeze bar within easy reach, but there was a trampoline below me, and a spotter on either side. I came to remember how it feels to belong.
Even as I say "belonging," though, I know it is more than that. Being part of that group today, standing there and singing a piece of music that is more vast than my mind and heart can fathom, I felt small and humbled, like I was standing not just before that which is holy, but actually residing inside it. Like looking at the night sky, I felt dwarfed by the enormity of beautiful that was surrounding me. And yet -- as part of the creation, I also felt powerful, and important, and necessary. I was at once important and nothing, just as we all are at every moment in this universe. Our minister of music reminded us often of how every note Brahms wrote was intentional. Every note was shaping the next, and the next, and the next, until the whole line, the whole movement, the whole piece was born. Without one of those notes, it would have been different. Each one is necessary. Each one is intentional.
And, perhaps, that's just it. In the larger scheme of the world, this little performance today was nothing. In the larger scheme of this particular piece of music, our non-professional, non-auditioned choir surely did not create the most beautiful or technical or important version to have been performed. But it was intentional. It was necessary. The shape of our hearts and those of our listeners today would be different had we not sung it. We created something holy using only our bodies. Is it not necessary to create beautiful things, if only for the sake of creating something temporary and beautiful that changes the very shape of our souls?
Of course, if I had not been in the choir it would have been just as beautiful. The teary eyes in the audience would still have been teary. There still would have been the pause when we finished, as everyone breathed into the stillness that followed the intensity. It still would have been holy.
And yet -- I was there. In order to create this music -- the music we birthed and inhabited today -- I was necessary. We all were necessary. If just one of us had not been there, it would have been different. In order for my heart to be stirred in this way, we were -- each of us -- necessary. In the creation of today's holiness, we were -- each of us -- intentional.
And isn't the piece itself one big parallel for this process -- my process -- of belonging? I came to the choir and to UUCC in a place of mourning, of sorts. As someone who struggles with the idea of a God, I define that which is god (that which is holy), as connection and community. I find the divine in my connections with others, in love, in that which is held in belonging and kindness. So when the first movement starts slowly, gently, softly, I hear:
Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted.
Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.
They who suffer shall find happiness and joy.
The second movement continues (with edits and interpretation on my part, for the sake of my parallel here):
For all of us will suffer, and all of us will die.
Be patient therefore unto the coming of that which is holy...
That which is love shall endure forever.
And you shall come to a place of holiness with songs
and everlasting joy upon your heads:
you shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
And the third movement carries it further still, singing that death and suffering is reality for us all, and then:
In what shall I take comfort?
I hope in that which is holy.
Our souls are held by the hands of that which is love,
and there no torment shall touch us.
Finally, the fourth movement -- the last one we sang -- brings it all to a beautiful, comforting end:
How lovely are the places where holiness abides!
My soul longs for those places, and my heart and flesh rejoice in their love.
How blessed we are to live in this house of love and holiness.
Is this what Brahms meant in his Requiem? No, likely not...but I like to think he would not find this interpretation to be blasphemous. Having resided as I did, however briefly and imperfectly, within his Requiem, I like to think that he would see this interpretation as I do: simply intentional, and necessary.
To my fellow singers: thank you. I am humbled by your talents, your beauty, and your love. How blessed we are to live together in this house of love and holiness.