Sing a New Song to the Eternal

Sarah Richards
October 18, 2015

Sing a New Song to the Eternal


Did you sing in the shower this morning? Did you hum along with the car radio or your ipod on your way here? Well, if so, you were performing the kernel of spiritual practice, even before you set foot in this Fellowship. Today I want to meditate a bit on singing as a celebration of the Eternal—a celebration of our spirit, individual and collective, of memories, daily routine, future hopes.

A little background to our meditation: I grew up in a musical family–my dad called us the “Von Trapped Family Singers”—and I sang in school choruses as well as with my pal Jenny at the UU Fellowship of Ames, Iowa. But I stopped singing regularly in college—and it’s not a coincidence that I also stopped attending UU services. During the fifteen or so years in the desert, I didn’t put those two voids in my life together with being miserable —I thought it was graduate school. Then gradually, I came back to both my spiritual home and spiritual practice, when I joined the Arlington Street Church Choir. However, my insight about the power of the divine in the act of singing didn’t come to me in church…it came in a nursing home. Let me explain:

My grandparents got married in 1930, the first year of the depression in a house, not a church. Their wedding song was “I Love You Truly”, my grandmother’s three sisters singing and playing piano.

I love you truly, truly dear,

Life with its sorrows, life with its tears

Fades into dreams when I feel you are near

For I love you truly, truly dear.

That song fit my grandparents perfectly, they were close companions through life’s ups and downs for 60 years. When my grandpa died in 1990, we assumed that Grandma wouldn’t last long. She proved us wrong for a decade, but in her mid nineties her health deteriorated, and in the last months of her life, dementia had robbed her of her ability to speak, eat, walk, and her sight and hearing were much diminished. When we visited, we could no longer communicate, she wasn’t there. But when we sang “I Love You Truly”, she sang along, perfectly in tune. That, to me, is evidence of the eternal, the divine spark of music in one’s core, in our souls, and her example is what made me be more mindful of my own singing, and of the power of song.

I began to think about this simple, incredible fact—our bodies are the instruments of celebration of life—our breath, lungs, vocal chords, and emotions are the only things we need. Even those who have hearing loss or vocal capacity can access this spiritual practice, feeling a song’s pulse and expressing themselves. Alone or in community, listening or taking part, we can all be transformed by singing. And we also transform the song into something new. It doesn’t matter how many times you sing the same tune, it is always different, because it was sung at that particular moment in time. When we are humming along with the radio, rocking a baby, singing hymns in church or spirituals at a peace rally, we are singing a new song to the eternal.

Whenever I hear I Love You Truly, I think of my grandmother, and my grandparents’ enduring love. In your mind’s eye, can you think of a moment when hearing a song has transformed you? Maybe it was your child singing ‘Wheels on the Bus’, or Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma, or Silento’s Watch Me. Listening mindfully to singing can also be spiritual practice, if it connects you to the breath, emotion, beauty of others’ experience.

As it transforms individual singers, we know that song can be a mighty instrument of social change. A single singer can ease pain and grief of communities, calm crowds and bind them together, or incite them to action by singing truth to power. Paul Robeson said, “I shall take my voice wherever there are those who want to hear the melody of freedom or the words that might inspire hope and courage in the face of despair and fear.”[i]

In this spirit, Virginia Tilley will sing, Mountain Song.

Mountain Song

Thank you Virginia. That was inspiring!

We’ve just heard the power of one voice, let’s think about many voices joining together. A few years ago, in a UU reading group, I read Muriel Barbery’s novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog.[ii] In this excerpt, a girl describes listening to a high school concert:

Every time, it’s a miracle. Here are all these people, full of heartache or hatred or desire, and we all have our troubles and the school year is filled with vulgarity and triviality and consequence, and there are all these teachers and kids of every shape and size, and there’s this life we’re struggling through full of shouting and tears and laughter and fights and break-ups and dashed hopes and unexpected luck—it all disappears, just like that, when the choir begins to sing. Everyday life vanishes into song, you are suddenly overcome with a feeling of brotherhood, of deep solidarity, even love, and it diffuses the ugliness of everyday life into a spirit of perfect communion. … I’m no longer myself, I am just one part of a sublime whole, to which the others also belong, and I always wonder at such moments why this cannot be the rule of everyday life, instead of being an exceptional moment, during a choir.”

A book group member commented, “yeah, it works when it’s a good choir”, which brings me to the primary obstacle, whether in private or with others, that has kept some of us from singing. We think we can’t. We’ve been told we can’t, we listen to our voices and compare them with Placido Domingo, or Beyoncé, or Virginia Tilley, and they come up short. Well, of course. 99.9% of us have bodies that do not conform to the standards of beauty we see on tv and in movies, but does that mean we shouldn’t go out in public? Remember the song, “Everything is beautiful, in its own way…?” Well, same with singing—and for definitive proof, I have two words for you: Bob Dylan. Say what you will about the man’s songs, I doubt you’ll find many who characterize his voice as beautiful. And don’t get me started on his harmonica playing. Yet the influence of Dylan’s songs—and his singing—is incalculable, crossing national, cultural and generational boundaries.

My point is, our singing is part of our being, an expression of ourselves, and our connection to the Eternal. It’s time to let go, and give it a try: close your eyes. Take a deep breath, feel it filling your lungs, then let it out slowly.

Now take another deep breath, this time hum any note or tune you want, until all your breath is gone. Feel the vibrations of your vocal cords, your lips, and listen to the sound you are making.

Last breath in, this time as you hum, as you are aware of your own sensations, listen to those around you, listen to everyone breathing, humming.

This exercise in mindful singing demonstrates the simple power of singing. We are all familiar with some of its personal aspects: expressing feelings, hearing our voices, feeling our breath and so forth. When we are mindful about those aspects, it doesn’t matter what tune we are singing, or humming or what sound we are making—we are singing a new song to the eternal. When we make an effort to do this regularly, it can become spiritual practice.

And we do ourselves—and the world– a great disservice when we hold ourselves back from experiencing what is to me, the most spiritually powerful aspect of singing—singing with others. This brings me to another memory. One winter when I was a kid, our family was invited to our friends’ home for a carol sing. The hostess gathered everyone, kids and adults, into the living room and arranged us in five groups: sopranos, altos, tenors, basses and tone deaf. Although I’m not sure this was the best way of doing it, the point is, everyone was expected to join in. And they did. This pertains directly to singing as spiritual practice—when we lend our voices, our sounds, ourselves, we add volume, emotion and shape to the song of the group. When we sing the song, “We are a Gentle Angry People”, does it matter if we don’t sound like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or the cast of Glee? Isn’t it better that we don’t? Let’s give it a try, please join me in singing hymn # 170

We are a Gentle Angry People

Well done!

So, my fellow celebrants of the Eternal, however you feel comfortable doing it, I commend you to mindful singing as spiritual practice. With our bodies, our breath, we are instruments channeling the mundane and divine. And when we sing together, we are part of a sublime whole, at once transformed and transforming. Sing by yourself, sing with others—sing every day. Since love prevails in heav’n and earth, how can we keep from singing? Let’s not keep ourselves from it—let’s end with singing hymn #108

My Life Flows On in Endless Song


[i] Robeson, Paul. Reading #462 in Singing the Living Tradition, Boston: UUA, 1993.

[ii] Barbery, Muriel. The Elegance of a Hedgehog. Alison Anderson,trans. Europa Editions, 2008, p.185.