Because We Can No Longer Speak
Published on July 9-10, 2011 in the Parish Bulletin of Saint Andrew Catholic Church, Harrodsburg KY
In a 2008 interview at the Paley Center for Media, Tony and Emmy award winning actress Kristin Chenoweth explained the human urge to break into song. She said, “It’s a very fine line to sing and break into dialogue and sing and break into dialogue. But the reason we sing—and hopefully it’s the reason we do it on stage—is because we can no longer speak.”
We sing because we can no longer speak. Chenoweth captures in that brief remark a bit of the mystery behind the power of music. Somehow, the same words that are spoken come alive when they are sung. But, more than that, we ourselves become more alive when we sing them. Think of Curly McClain, waking to Oh! What a beautiful mornin’ in Oklahoma! Or of Dorothy Gale dreaming of a place somewhere over the rainbow, a place where there could be a Wizard of Oz. Or of Audrey realizing that, suddenly, Seymour of the Little Shop of Horrors is her man. Or of the Queen of the Night shrieking to a high F6, her heart boiling with hell’s vengeance (in the original German, Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen) against her rival in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Curly‘s delight, Dorothy‘s daydreaming, Audrey‘s thrill, and the Queen‘s fury all find their fullest expression in song: the emotions get amplified, the words are stressed, the heart soars and plummets with the notes.
Chenoweth’s observation reminds us that there is more to singing than speaking on a pitch. Indeed, singing takes us to a place where we can express in tones so simple sentiments too subtle for sheer speech to state. But singing not only allows us to communicate how we feel; it gives our hearer a taste of what we feel.
It is no different when we celebrate the liturgy. In fact, the Mass is where we hear the Good News that echoes through eternity, the Good News that is not just said but proclaimed, not just spoken but sung. It is where we hear again the herald angels sing as once they did on a midnight clear: “Glory to God in the highest!” It is where we hear the unending hymn of praise raised by the angels and archangels and the whole company of saints: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of hosts.” It is where we hear a resounding Amen! to the Triune God to whom is all glory and honor forever and ever. It is where we find God filling our cup to overflowing (cf. Ps. 23:5) and in Whose presence we find ourselves—like so many before us—unable to speak. And so, we do what those generations of believers had done: we join in the song of the choirs of angels, we chant with all of creation the canticle of praise.
The liturgy takes us to a place where God is so alive, so really present that we can no longer speak. Whether it is out of utter awe or out of an unutterable gratitude, with our God so near, how can we keep from singing?