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December 22nd, 2007

Beauty's an arrow to the heart

Heartache, hymns and healing

I have this reaction when I hear certain songs, most of them religious. I particularly get it around Christmas (and Easter, too, but tonight we talk about Christmas).

I get this tightness in my throat, crazy-swollen and filled with tears - it's not a cliche at all, folks, it really happens - and they well up in my eyes, and my voice wobbles and cracks when I try to sing along. And I always try to sing along. I always know most of the words, you see, because I grew up in a Baptist household.

My great grandfather was a Northern Baptist minister, and my hometown was the home of one of the longest-running Northern Baptist universities on the east coast of North America (Acadia University, which, if I recall, was called Horton Academy when it was born in 1848) and one of the largest, most cerebral Northern Baptist churches on that same coast. I went to Sunday school every Sunday of my life after the age of five, and unto my 14th year. I went to Sunday service almost every Sunday of my life between my 9th year and my 19th.

And it was a good household to grow up in, and a good church to go to.  Northern Baptists don't do hellfire, they tend to do things more akin to love - curiosity, exploration, communication, and laughter were all part of the community, and, thus, the faith. I grew up in a church where the members were welcoming and happy, where the children were taught with love along with the thou-shalt-nots, and the thou-shalt-nots were generally given context. And the thous-shalts were given more heft - thou shalt do good, thou shalt embrace thy brother, thou shalt sing to the lord thy god. It was blessed with ministers who were loving, questing men. One I loved especially had such a love of God, and of ideas, and such awe at the world of wonders with which God had graced him, that his voice would drop to a whisper during sermons - in danger of worshipping with silence when he was supposed to be preaching the good news.

My church was a huge affair, brick on the outside and rich, age-darkened wood inside, three stories tall. It had huge and beautiful stained-glass windows: Christ triumphant in one window, Christ the gentle shepherd in another, the angel rolling away the stone in a third, and, in the fourth, a tiny family sharing the Babe's first night underneath a star. The sanctuary had a soaring gold cross at the front, a baptismal pool (Baptists, remember - full frontal dunking; I nearly drowned when I was baptized) a balcony that curved and ran along the rear wall. It had a room next to the sanctuary which was almost as large, where we children met to have Children's Service, then individual Sunday School in tiny classrooms around the first and second-storey borders of the room. It had a basement for community dinners, a nursery for the youngest of the community, a room for the MIssion Band, and strange rooms filled with things that had been forgotten since the 1930s and earlier. Behind the sanctuary, front and back, were halls. Some were short, some were long, the ones that held tiny changing rooms for the great baptismal evenings, and all were halls that went to stairwells that went up and up...one set going right up ino the steeple where the huge bell was. I still walk those hallways in my dreams.

It also had an organ whose pipes took up one entire side of the sanctuary. The music that came from that thing would thrum in your bones and become your whole world, and sometimes became a door to somewhere else. And that was no surprise; the church was always echoing with song. Many of those Northern Baptists were students at Acadia, many of them were ministerial students, and many others went to Acadia's music school. The result was as beautiful as you might expect. And at Christmas, the carols...oh, the carols! I loved them all, because we sang them in my home, too: The First Noel, Angels We Have Heard on High, What Child is This (this one, I love almost more than any other one), the Holly and the Ivy, Once in Royal David's City...old songs, from France and the British Isles, from Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
Our Christmas season services, (we rarely used the term Advent, but there you go) were often held at night, and the Sanctuary used to glow with candles. There were the old, old verses from Luke and Mark, interspersed with words of love from our ministers, interspersed with the beautiful music, the hymns.

I imprinted, like a baby duck on its mother, on those services. They always filled me with awe, and joy, and comfort. Awe at the beauty, joy, because everyone was joyous around me, comfort, because I always knew the words, and the melodies (I'm a right conservative old girl when it comes to conserving the good liturgies, I suppose)....

Years went by, and I decided, during a train trip from Moncton to Halifax, that I didn't believe in Christianity anymore. I was about 23 or 24, I think. I never stopped completely believing in something, although I got pretty close from time to time, and whatever formless faith continued to run through my veins maintained some sort of Christian essence, simply because it was what I was born into.

And I always mourned my loss. I could no longer believe, but losing that sense of community, that joy....that probably broke my heart, little by little, almost unnoticeably over the years. (And to answer the question no one out there is asking, no, I couldn't hang around the churches anymore, getting the comfort and eschewing the message. The underlying mythos made me crazy at the same time I yearned for it. Hanging around would have made my head implode.)

And so, when the songs of Christmas start playing, I remember the joy and the beauty, and the belonging, and the something-not-quite-definable - perhaps that frustratingly elusive thing called grace - and the beauty hurts my heart, and I weep like an eejit.

And then it makes me happy, so happy that I keep on weeping.

Which, on balance, isn't bad, I suppose. Hurt followed by healing, and all with song around me. Not bad.