Nicholas’s attention was drawn to a group of people…standing in a circle in the area just in front of the altar…They lifted their heads and began to sing a motet by Palestrina. They sang a cappela and the voices seemed to come from heaven itself, the parts unfolding one over the other, the notes winging gently around them, cascading upward to the very rafters of the church, the echo making the sound all the more ethereal.
The piece was achingly beautiful. Nicholas slid into the closest pew, leaning forward, closing his eyes to take it all in. He could feel Lainey slide in next to him. The words were in Latin, but it didn’t matter. The voices conveyed the emotion, the song stirred in his heart the longing he always felt when he encountered God. There was always a yearning for more.
The song ended, the notes ringing out and disappearing into the reaches of his soul. He opened his eyes and turned to Lainey. Her eyes were moist with tears. “What was that?” she asked in a stunned voice, more tears coming….He put his arm around her, “It’s all right, Lainey,” he said.
“No…this isn’t about my grandmother. This is about…” she stammered, struggled with the words. “The beauty of it.”
– Paul McCusker, “The Mill House,” pp 234 and 235 (italics are mine)
Oh, the splendor of music! From my littlest years, it has stirred me more deeply than anything else. Always, but even more so at Christmas. I don’t think I can improve on Mr. McCusker’s wondrous description of how music soars the heart – his words elicit that very awe that comes from such powerful, glorious beauty. And so, I will only try to describe two of my Christmas memories when the music “seemed to come from heaven itself, winging around me.” Today I will write a two-part entry, since yesterday got away from me much too quickly to post!
We can only park behind the cathedral-like church at my grade school because it faces directly to the main road. Eight years old, I have never been here in the dark before and I feel the delicious anticipation of candlelight and carols. Mom gathers us like her chicks and leads us along the sidewalk path to the front, while I notice spotlights here and there, shining up at a few of the stained glass windows that line the building. I know the daylight beauty of their sunburst colors well, but tonight they are dark and mysterious. Dad puts his hand gently on my back to hurry me a little.
Climbing several cement stairs, we enter the huge gothic style wooden doors as if stepping into a castle to sing for the King. He is here. I feel it, welcoming us with peace warm… and candles, candles flickering wonderful shadows, everywhere. I love to scrunch my eyes to slits as I sometimes do when I look at Christmas lights. It makes their flames appear rounder, glow brighter.
I enjoy the click-click of my shiny black patent leather shoes against the marble floors. Sliding into the pew, I slip out of my new and favorite “fur” coat, kneel on the smooth cool leather rails to breathe a prayer. Night has transformed this huge and stately place like firelight in a cozy room, dancing light and shadows merrily in and out of the many-pillared alcoves.
Here and there, a stained glass window glows bright enough to see their paintings… The Madonna and child… Jesus as a little boy…and for a moment I wonder — how is it they can shine without the sunlight? Until I remember…mmm…the spotlights outside. Even so, their colors are richer than in daylight, as if cast in sepia – deeper tones against the warm brown hues of the wood all around me. In my mind I am tracing their outlines, as if I am drawing them on paper…
The choir enters, robed in gold and white, to stand on the left side of the altar…just beyond the communion rail and a step up. Where voices were murmuring around us earlier, there is now a lovely hush, the kind that comes just after an orchestra has tuned up and just before the first note begins. Bells ring…mass begins…and the choir leads us in familiar carols I already know by heart. “O Come All Ye Faithful”… “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”…“We Three Kings”… and I wonder once more – What IS “orien tar” anyway?
Then…unexpectedly to me…the singers introduce a song I’ve never heard before, like a treasure open and spilling out just for me. “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains…” they begin softly. Voices rising…they meld higher and higher until they are one heaven-raised chorus… making my heart feel as if it were a warm candle, glowing brighter and brighter.
“Glor—o-O-o-o-o –o-o -Or-ia,…” they sing, echoing throughout the sanctuary. I swallow over a lump in my throat as their voices surge in a splendorous round, soaring up and all around me… until I find my own and join in…
Starry-eyed, I lean against mom. She slides her arm around me and I KNOW…she feels it too. I close my eyes, wanting it to go on and on. Every year, I will wait for this song, long for it to stay in my heart to sing whenever I choose. There is only one word that lights my soul and stays within me. Majesty.