Our musical enjoyment is often communal, but for each of us, the experience is also intensely individual. No two people’s musical “biographies” are ever alike. But despite the differences between my melodious memories and yours, music can link us together as almost nothing else can. The same song, played over the radio to thousands of people, can strike a remarkably similar chord in each of them.
Music has a way of capturing time for us. Whenever I hear an old disco hit, I’m transported right back to junior high or high school. The Contemporary Christian songs of the early Eighties call forth my years as a student at a Southern Baptist College. The general public has pretty well-set ideas about the difference between “sacred” and “secular” music. But as my faith relationship with Christ was only beginning back in the early Seventies, many of the tunes from that period are as sacred to me as my Baptist-college favorites.
Music in church, itself, has usually been less than inspiring. The Catholic Church in America, post-Vatican II, has some of the cheesiest and most lackluster “inspirational” music you could imagine. And the problem is made even worse by the fact that very few Catholics actually sing along. Many simply stand there, as stone-faced as those giant heads on Easter Island. But most are like holy Milli Vanilli’s, lip-synching for the Lord.
One song, however, never fails to rouse me from my stupor. During Lent, in the weeks leading up to Easter, our parish choir treats us to an anthem-like hymn about our journey toward the Cross and Resurrection. “Jerusalem, My Destiny” was penned by a composer named Rory Cooney, who spent seven years as the director of music at a parish right in my hometown.
In the mid-Nineties, our own parish choir was at its peak. I was a member of the team that taught adult catechism. Each Sunday during Lent, the team member in charge for that week would lead the catechumens and candidates (those preparing for full initiation in the Church at Easter) out of the sanctuary just before communion to study the readings from that day’s Mass. It was a thrill, marching out at the fore of the procession, the ornate lectionary lifted high as “Jerusalem, My Destiny” thundered down from the choir-loft. Like the host of Heaven they will one day join, our choir rained music righteously down upon all those slackers in the pews.
Catechists (even those of us who can’t sing) enjoy a great honor. We are responsible for nurturing the growing faith of new believers — or of those who had once given up on faith, and are now taking the risk of giving it one more chance. It is our task to translate some of life’s most profound mysteries into a more-easily-understandable form. And we often use music, as it has the power to convey emotion — and even logic — beyond what mere words can express.
After hearing “Jerusalem, My Destiny,” we don’t sit around and speculate about what it literally means to have Jerusalem as our destiny, or about how, though we cannot see the end of the journey, we cannot turn away. We just know it, appreciating it all at a level that transcends the literal. And good songwriters have the knack of fitting precisely the right melody to their lyrics.
Indeed, it is in the melody, itself — even more than in the actual words — that the precious, soul-deep cargo of meaning is carried. Kate, another member of our catechetical team, was already sick when I first came to know her. She had been afflicted with bone cancer for several years, and it was a source of wonder to everybody that she continued to find the energy to so generously involve herself in parish activities. I don’t think I ever saw her with her real hair; she always wore an attractive wig of reddish-brown curls, or a stylish hat with a head-scarf underneath. The suffering she had endured did little to dim her smile or dampen her sense of humor.
We all loved the work, but Kate seemed the most devoted of all. She rarely actually taught the classes, preferring, instead, to work behind-the-scenes serving snacks, coffee and punch. Life was anything but easy for her as she went about her weekly duties for the team, but though she often seemed tired, her spirits never seemed to drag. And though she seldom had the spotlight, it was clear that the process of initiating new Church members enhanced her sense of purpose in life.
Out of gratitude for all our hard work, the parish sent our team, one winter, on a hayride with the resident priests and brother. It was like sitting on a large, lumbering porcupine, all of us thrust together with our heads in the hay and our feet in the air every time the wagon hit a bump. The night was cold, and the campfire we built so hot it nearly scorched off our eyebrows. But Kate was feeling exceptionally well. We all joked and laughed from one end of the trail to the other, and as we sat by that fire, Kate took off her hat and scarf and danced to the Garth Brooks tape playing on the priests’ boom-box.
It may have been the last really good time Kate had. She passed away just a few weeks later. With tender devotion, her husband and kids put together a memorial Mass. Just about every aspect of it was based on her last wishes, and most of the people in the parish showed up to pay their respects.
Sometimes you find out what really mattered most to people after they’re gone. Kate had pre-picked each song to be played at her memorial. And chief among them was “Jerusalem, My Destiny.”
Of course, it’s not a “funeral” song. It celebrates not so much the passage from life as it does the life beyond. Several people remarked that it was an “unusual” choice for a memorial Mass. I can’t say for sure just what Kate had in mind when she picked this hymn to accompany her loved ones’ last earthly goodbye to her. Unless, in some sense, she meant it as her goodbye to us.
For Kate, this song is no longer about a future hope. It is, now, her present reality. The distant hills of which the lyrics speak are now no longer before her eyes, but under her feet. “Don’t sit and cry, remembering how I was and dwelling on the fact that I’m not with you anymore,” she seemed to be telling us.
“Set your eyes on those hills ahead, and remember that when you get there, I’ll be waiting with arms wide open!”
“Let no one walk alone…the journey makes us one.”
No two people could possibly be expected to remember all the same things about the same song. The straight Christians who attended that Gaithers’ concert my friends and I went to, a couple of New Year’s Eves ago, had no idea of its significance to us. When Marsha Stevens was introduced, they probably hadn’t a clue (unless they were among those who’d ripped out the pages in their hymnal — upon which her song had been printed — as many did when they mailed it to her in protest when she came out as a lesbian). I’ve heard Marsha sing her signature song, “For These Tears I Died,” on several occasions, and there’s never a dry eye in the house. But when the Gaithers and their co-stars sang it that night, my heart lifted with new hope — not only for myself as a lesbian believer, but for every Christian, gay and straight.
Since I came out as a lesbian nearly a decade ago, my relationship with the Catholic Church has been a rocky one. I kept leaving it, and then coming back again. In my “vacations” from it, I tried different churches (some predominantly GLBT, others more “mainstream,” but welcoming). My returns to Catholicism may have had less to do with being homesick than with having been unable to find a spiritual home in which I could remain happy.
Dare I look for some connection between the cheesy music (that so many don’t even bother to sing) and the state of the Catholic Church, these days, in general? Poll after poll, after all, indicates that the majority of American Catholics support a greater ecclesiastical recognition of GLBT rights. But with the brave and notable exceptions of “outlaw” organizations like Dignity and New Ways Ministries, nobody seems to have the gumption to stand up to Rome’s homophobia. Sure, Jesus called His followers “sheep.” I hardly think, however, He meant we ought to think like them!
The Church of Rome seems strangely uninspired in a lot of ways. It can’t seem to get excited, anymore, about much of anything except sheltering pedophiles, persecuting gays, and keeping women on the second tier in every possible sense. The blah music and strangely blanded-down Mass seem to mirror the hierarchy’s (and much of the laity’s) frightened retreat from the gains made since Vatican II. The light twinkles through the darkness only rarely, now, it seems. But their very rarity makes those rays of light — like courageous laypeople, accountable bishops and uncommonly-inspired composers — all the more precious.
This past autumn, I believe, at least one restless journey came to an end. Having seen an ad in our local GLBT magazine, I visited Faith Lutheran Church: a Reconciling in Christ (GLBT-welcoming) congregation. Like Martin Luther, who never considered himself anything other than a Catholic no matter how shoddily the Church treated him, I will probably be a Catholic until the day I die. But I have found a haven in the sect of Luther, and a new faith family in he loving people who have so wholeheartedly accepted me there.
There are many similarities — both doctrinally and liturgically — between what I have now chosen and what I left, but I must say that one of the many improvements I have found in my new spiritual home has been the music. The Lutheran church gave us Handel, Bach, and many of the other great masters of sacred song. My seven years of classical piano training (insisted upon by my mother, who wanted to “make a lady” out of me), may not have succeeded in transforming me into a graceful little rosebud of femininity, but they did give me a keen appreciation for classical music. Our choir director is an openly gay man, his spouse sings in the choir, the whole congregation loves to sing, and I’ve never been in a happier faith environment. As I sing these venerable old hymns, I know that I am making many more wonderful memories.
The sacred classics give testimony to music’s power to transcend time. Bach’s “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring” — that familiar wedding prelude — still takes our spirits soaring up the church spire, right up to the cross on top and far beyond. “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” transforms the sexual tension that pulses through so much of Beethoven’s music into religious ecstasy. Sweet old hymns like “Amazing Grace” throb with such personal intensity that we know they’ve got a story behind them, even if we haven’t yet gotten to hear just what it is. And the spirituals of the African-American slave era give us a foretaste of Heaven — where, there can be no doubt, those souls who suffered so long on earth make up a major portion of God’s choir.
Those sacred songs that accompany us through our faith-lives, like snowballs from those sacred hills, gathering size as they roll along, keep adding layers of meaning as they travel through our lives. I’ve seen the eyes of senior saints mist over when they hear their old favorites at worship. I can only imagine the rich associations conjured forth for them. On this earth, we each experience our own, little musical journey. Music gives our spirits flight, bearing us ever nearer to our destiny.
“The New Jerusalem,” “the Bosom of Abraham…” call it what you will. When we get there, we’ll be able to share each others’ beautiful memories, singing all the songs together in perfect harmony. Sometimes — though only in very rare moments — we are able to connect like that in this life. Almost always, we experience this connection through music. And even when we’re alone, God can speak to us in a song — whether it has lyrics or not.
That same Spirit has given certain gifted souls the ability to set their own journeys to music. So God gives us all the sacred music-makers, from King David to Johann Sebastian Bach to Rory Cooney to Marsha Stevens. Until that great day when we all connect forever, in that one, celestial choir, music gives us the chance to glimpse, however briefly, the harmony with God and one another that will eventually be ours.
I guess when I hear “Jerusalem, My Destiny,” I find myself still able to hope that someday the Church I’ve loved for so long will be able to welcome me home. That I can truly be at home there — and at the same time, honest about who I am. Perhaps this goosebump-raising song points the way not only toward the ultimate victory of those of us who place our faith in Christ, but toward the eventual triumph of the Holy Spirit’s leadership in the Catholic Church in particular. It has gone through its dark periods before. Though I no longer believe it is the one-and-only True Church (“other sheep have I,” said Jesus), I still believe in Our Lord’s promise that “the gates of Hell shall not prevail.”
The ultimate destiny of all who love God is to sing in harmony with God and with each other. One “secular” song that’s always brought this home to me has been the old Righteous Brothers’ hit, “Rock and Roll Heaven.” “If you believe in forever…and not in just a one-night stand…” I hear “For These Tears I Died,” now, with all my Christian friends — gay and straight — in spirit beside me. And when I sing “Jerusalem, My Destiny,” I will always know that I’m singing along with Kate.
A self-described “Libertarian Episcopalian lesbian,” freelance writer and the author of Good Clowns, a young adult novel published in 2018, Lori Heine published a blog called Born on 9-11 and was a frequent contributor to the website Liberty Unbound. A native of Phoenix, Ariz., she graduated from Grand Canyon University in 1988 and spent much of her life in the insurance industry before turning full-time to writing as a freelancer, blogger and author.