Music has always really moved me. I remember being about three years old, playing in my room, listening to records, and trying so hard to imitate the voice on the recording. Even then, I knew that I wanted to sing. I find that the marriage of words and melody together in a song often brings out a deeper experience and meaning than either do separately.
Something I’ve also noticed over the years is that occasionally, I will hear or sing a piece of music, and for a moment, I will be overcome with this indescribable feeling of intense joy and intense sadness simultaneously. When I was younger, I might have verbalized it this way: the song I’m singing is about something really sad. But, the music is so beautiful, that hearing/singing it brings me joy. Or, I might have said: this song is a really wonderful song on its own. But, I have attached a memory of a certain person or a certain moment in my life, and I cannot hear this song without thinking of this person or reliving this moment. Either way, this is how I could feel intense sadness and intense happiness at the same moment, through music.
Earlier this year, I went through a break-up. As I was experiencing an overwhelming sense of loss, abandonment, and sadness, at church we were moving through our gorgeous and gut-wrenching Holy Week cycle. I got really obsessed with this one chant from Lazarus Saturday, which just happened to be from an album given to me by my ex-boyfriend.
This was perfectly fine for the days and weeks right after the break-up, but I started to get a little nervous later on, because I was afraid that I had so etched the pain of that time onto this chant, that I’d never be able to listen to it again without returning to that state.
I Googled “sorrow” and “joyful sorrow” a lot earlier this year. This would inevitably lead me to thinking of the Joy of All Who Sorrow, the Theotokos, and the seven spears that pierced her heart in her holy sorrow. I started wanting to find that kind of sorrow, because clearly, this life is not without sorrow and never will be until the Judgement Day, so if we must have sorrow, can I at least figure out how to make my sorrow joyful? This led me back to that Lazarus Saturday chant. “Rejoice, O Bethany,” it begins, “on this day God came to thee, and in Him the dead are made alive…”
How can I, can we, reconcile the sorrow of death to the joy of being made alive again? I’m not sure I know words to explain this. What I can tell you is this: When I sing this chant, I understand it, not with my head, and not with my heart, but IN my heart. Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit in my heart that understands, when word or thought or reason fails–He knows the sorrow and the joy of this life, and He feels them simultaneously, and by way of His presence in me, I feel His understanding.
Or maybe it is that I feel the sorrow of what the music is communicating (Mary and Martha’s grief at the loss of Lazarus), but I know that this very sorrow connects me to my Lord, which immediately brings me joy. I think this may be why time and again, I hear people say that the times when they felt closest to God, and felt Christ’s presence in their lives and hearts the most, are those times when they felt they were in the pit of despair–because that sorrow opens us up to Him, and to the sorrow He felt when He was here. It’s like a gardener tilling the soil and pulling out all the weeds before planting. When we are raw and torn apart, awash in emotions that make our heads spin, we are opened by that sorrow, we become aware of Him more, and this brings us joy.
Either way, in this chant, and in most singing in general, I find examples of joyful sorrow a lot now. And thankfully, I have also found that this chant is not imbued with any residual emotional recall. Which is great, because I’m singing it a lot these days, as a way to stay connected to the Joy, and the Sorrow, and the Joy of All Who Sorrow.
Our Guest Author today is Elaine Wade. Elaine is a member of the OCA parish of St. John the Wonderworker in Atlanta, where she has been since 2010. During the day she is a case manager at an Atlanta law firm. She sings wherever and whenever she can, most often in the choir at St. John’s