Posted by: geolocke | 2015/08/07

Psalm For A Friend

I was asked to be the Cantor for a funeral for one of my fellow Choir mates earlier this week. In the Catholic Church, the Cantor’s ‘job’ is to sing the Psalms and lead the congregation in singing the hymns as well as the sung prayers of the Mass. I’ve been Cantor for funerals and weddings before, but never for someone I’ve known in a close manner.

My Friend was one of the longest-serving members of our Choir so most of the Choir were in attendance at his funeral. But he also used to sing with a local Barbershop Chorus and some members of that chorus were invited to sing a tribute song for him during the presentation of the Gifts. It looked to me that about 50 members showed up to sing their tribute.

Psalm 23 is standard for funeral Masses and we have a couple of default arrangements that we typically use, but for this occasion, the Family chose a Chant version with Organ accompaniment which was unfamiliar to me. Chant is text, usually prayers and psalms, sung A Cappella in a speaking manner.  Ideally, the Cantor (or Psalmist) will sing the text in whatever psalm tone is desired or required so that the listener hears it as if it is spoken to them. There is little to no ad-libbing the music because the structure of the text is matched to the musical structure.

When learning Chant, I typically work on achieving the correct notes sequence first, and then I work on the word structure, feeling the rhythm and the cadence of the text, so I can (hopefully) produce as close to a clear speaking-singing voice as possible. In this case however there was also the added organ accompaniment so I could not just rely on my own sense of rhythm and cadence, but I also had to take into account the underlying “background” music.

I normally have a greater amount of time to learn something new and to work with the accompanist so we both know what to expect from one another. This time though I had one day to get prepared. I was as nervous as I had ever been before singing for a Mass and seeing that large second chorus across the way did little to ease my nerves. I wanted to sing well for my friend and his widow and children and all their families. I wanted to sing well in tribute to the fellow that had sat next to me for the last 15 years in the Tenor section, and I wanted to sing well for the sake of all his Chorus mates who were in attendance. I wanted to sing well for all these reasons and more … and I knew in my spirit that I was not prepared to sing, at least not as well as I normally like to be.

There is a simple prayer I say to myself to help calm me before I sing. It goes something like this:

Lord, fill me with your Holy Spirit today.
Let the air that fills my lungs be Your breath.
Let the sound that comes forth from my lips be Your voice.
Use me Lord as Your instrument to lead these, Your people
In Prayers and songs of praise, worship, glory, honor, and adoration
To You, Lord God almighty.

Usually I pray this prayer just before Mass begins and I find myself calmed and ready to minister to the Congregation, but not so this occasion. I must have prayed this prayer six or eight times but to no avail. Nope, it wasn’t happening today. I was not calmed one bit. There I was getting ready for what was, in my opinion, one of the most important Masses I have sung for and I did not have it together.

Finally I turned inward and offered myself up, broken and flawed as I was, and said: “Lord, I do not have this today. I am trusting in your Holy Spirit to lead me through this Psalm for my friend. I leave it up to you Lord, I am your servant, your will be done.” and just then the Mass started.

When it was time for me to Sing the Psalm, I took my place at the Ambo. There were two choirs, one to my left and one to my right, and six pews of grieving family members spread out before me, with congregation members behind them, and there below me were the ashes of my colleague placed in a simple wooden box. The organ started playing and I began to sing, rather, I started producing notes. I can honestly say now that I have never felt the answering of my Cantor’s Prayer the way I felt it that day. It was not a physical or mental feeling, but rather a guiding, calming, focusing effect that led me through that Psalm. The sound to me was almost dreamlike in its effect and I was literally shaking by the time we finished.

The rest of the Funeral Mass proceeded as usual, and I had no other problems, and yet I was spent at the end. I had used up all my reserves and was exhausted, and yet I was  calm and satisfied that I had not let down my friend, his family and his singing colleagues. I doubt that anyone realized the trouble I was in before Mass or the gracious help I was given to see me through it, but I give full credit and thanks to God for my singing that day (and every day,) and I think I learned a lesson. I learned (or re-learned) that it is one thing for me to repeat a prayer time and again, but it is another matter to really open up my heart and to pray from the depths of my impoverished spirit.

As one of the Psalms says: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor. Blessed be the Lord!”

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Responses

  1. Sorry I could not be there. I drove Ursula to Fayetteville for her treatments. It would have been a great blessing to hear your beautiful gift to your friend and to all, that day! Praying for your Dad!!!! Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  2. George,
    I am so happy that you were there to bring God’s message of comfort to the family. I am certain the funeral Mass for Bill was life-changing for many people in the Congregation. Since I could not be there, I am glad I could read your reflection on the experience for you.
    Thank you.
    Sister Renee

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  3. Thank you, my friend, for summing up what a wonder-full thing it is to be filled with the Holy Spirit as we sing at the Ambo. I am so happy for you that in a time of mourning you could experience this. I know it is not common, at least it hasn’t been for me and sounds as if the same is true for you. When the ego truly steps aside and Spirit moves one’s lips, inflects one’s voice, controls the pitch and tone, and enunciates the words….it is awe-inspiring. I wish Susan and I could have been there, to be with Bill’s family and with our choir family.

    Liked by 1 person


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