Music and Memory

I made a quick trip back to my hometown last weekend to belatedly help celebrate my niece’s 6th birthday. Coincidentally, my cousin scheduled the baptism of her new baby that same weekend, so I got to see even more family and witness that milestone as well. The bulk of my family is Protestant (a healthy mix of Presbyterians and Lutherans), and this baptism was part of the Lutheran branch.

The service was pretty rote — lots of call-and-response readings and evertime-for-church-2-1195691-1599x1066ything was scripted. But, even though I no longer claim Christianity as my spiritual tradition and my preference is for ritual forms that are more organic, I find that the baptism ceremony is a lovely ritual that is rooted in community and family, and that’s always something I can get behind. It was sweet to be able to witness it, and the baby’s parents were absolutely radiant as they celebrated this important moment.

I was already tender and sentimental, thanks to the baptism — so perhaps I was a bit more emotionally vulnerable than usual, but when the hymns started, I lost it. I am not a big fan of traditional Protestant hymns as a general rule, but there are a couple that can catch me just right, and before I realize it, I crack open.

Music has always been a part of my spiritual life. Just about everyone in my family who can carry a tune (and even those who can’t, but participate with great enthusiasm) has participated in the church choir or some other form of musical service at some point in our lives. There are two hymns in particular that hold special significance to all of us. One was written by an ancestor back in the 1800s. It’s not a particularly catchy tune, but it’s uncanny how often it shows up unannounced during services of family significance. Some members of my family often say that when it comes up, it’s a sign that “everything is okay on the other side,” and our beloved relatives who have passed are there watching. No one asked for it to be included, but it showed up in the baptism service on Sunday.

And then … also unannounced … the hymn that we sang at my grandmother’s funeral five years ago showed up as well. This one wasn’t as much of a surprise, because it’s about cycles, and it’s fairly common for services like this. It works for births, deaths, weddings — any rite of passage, really. But it’s still associated with Grandma’s funeral for me, and therefore it’s associated with Grandma. After the first hymn that to so many of us means, “I’m here,” I couldn’t get through the first verse without crying. The section of pews that held my family, usually full of the loudest singers in the congregation, was unusually silent during the singing of that second hymn. Someone tentatively brought it up during the brunch afterward (my family of staunch Midwesterners isn’t one to talk about feelings.) But, once the subject was broached, everyone agreed that there was an impact, and it had deepened the experience for all of us.

As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of music in ritual for the last few days. For me, music in a ritual setting  — any ritual setting — is powerful. There’s a reason Expanding Inward uses music in many aspects of our work. It creates a kind of cellular memory that can be called back in an instant, igniting emotion and connection. A song can anchor me to a place, time, person, or feeling like nothing else. Even in the non-ecstatic, scripted, in-the-head-not-the-body church that I grew up in, music has a special significance. It gets past the thinking, rational parts of my conscious mind and sinks down into my subconscious, dreamy heart. It traces a pattern on my soul. Music creates a memory of spirit.

This past weekend was an excellent reminder of why music is so integral to my practice. And as I plan more rituals or workshops, I hope to remember why it’s so important. I don’t want to sing a chant just because “this is where we always sing the chant.” I want to sing a chant because I want to create a connection to the work at hand. I want to sing a chant because it will open my heart. I want to sing a chant because deep down, I want to remember.

And I will.

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