soli deo gloria, or, what I learned from being a non-believer at a Lutheran school

My religious identity was ever evolving when I was growing up. My family migrated from church to church. First we were Catholic. I don’t remember this because I was a baby, but my parents were married in the Catholic church and I was baptized there. Then we were Lutheran for awhile. (My dad was raised Lutheran.) All I really remember about that was going to Sunday school, coloring in pictures of God’s creatures, and the Christmas pageant, which I’m pretty sure I cried all the way through or something. I hated church. I was too shy for church.

Eventually we landed at the Unitarian Universalist church in our town. This seemed like the perfect fit for my oddball family: a pluralistic approach to the search for spiritual growth and truth within a community. My parents were all over that shit. And it was good…for awhile. Sunday school still sucked, though, and I didn’t fit in with the kids in the congregation. They were too loud. They all went to a different school than I did, and I always felt like a tagalong. My parents gave me the option of sitting in on the Sunday service, but I got bored. Even as a pre-teen, I was beginning to think that church just wasn’t for me.

We eventually stopped attending the UU church, at least on a regular basis. It wasn’t that we didn’t like it, but my family just wasn’t a church-going family. Christmas and Easter, those were our church holidays, and I liked those because it meant seeing my grandparents and aunts and uncles and sharing church (and dinner) as one big family like we did every year. Church on those holidays was a tradition, but every Sunday, it was not.

When I decided to attend a Lutheran college, I think my parents were understandably anxious. They knew it was a good school with the right kind of music program for me, but they worried I wouldn’t fit in with the average Lutheran students, the “Religious Kids,” who went to church every Sunday and knew all the hymns. But I kept telling them, “I’m not going for the church, I’m going for the music.” And it was true. All I wanted was a place where I could sing all day and be around other people who sang all day, too. A school with five massive choral ensembles was my dream.

So I went to college. I made friends with some of those Religious Kids, and most of them only went to church when they felt like it (because what college student likes waking up early on a Sunday morning?). Nobody cared that I didn’t have any religious beliefs whatsoever. I studied music, and I sang in choir, which is what I was there for. Every once in awhile, my choir would be asked to sing on Sunday or at a morning chapel service during the week. Strangely, it was not uncomfortable for me, a kid who had really only attended church two times a year for most of her adolescence. I took comfort in the camaraderie of singing with a group of other people who loved music as much as I did. It didn’t matter that the religious texts of our music didn’t hold a spiritual significance for me. I connected with the thick, textured harmonies, the rise and fall of the soprano line, the firm weight of the bass anchoring the entire piece together. I was continually awed by the sound of many unique voices blending together in one song. I felt the most at peace when I was singing, and the fact that I was in church didn’t change that. My peers around me may have been singing to glorify God, but for a few brief moments, we were all singing together and that was all that mattered.

I don’t think religion will ever be a significant part of my life. I have gone most of my life without it as an anchor, and I am completely fine with that. But what I do need, I think, is a musical anchor. I need the reminder that music can take you somewhere else or give you relief from the stress of your daily life. I’ve been missing that in my life recently, and I look back on all of those college rehearsals, concerts, and church services with longing. With all of the emphasis that is placed on the well-being of others within my job, I sometimes forget to do things for myself. Sure, I spend time with people I love, I go to yoga, and I sing alone when I get the chance — all of these things can be a release. But there is something extremely special about the sense of community that goes along with a choral experience. A challenging piece of music, when finally polished and performed, is nothing short of magical. The focus connects you. Those collective breaths and sustained notes, the simultaneous internal counting of the difficult rhythms your section has pounded out time and time again in extra rehearsals, that ringing moment when the last note has been sent out into the air, leaving behind the exhilaration and exalted faces of the people who gave it life. I’ve worked in groups of artists many times before, but this feeling, this sense of accomplishment and artistic release, is the most rewarding one I’ve ever found.

So even though I may not have taken away any big moments of religious discovery in my four years of undergrad, I certainly did grow in my appreciation for musical and artistic fellowship. I am continually thankful for all of the friends and colleagues I’ve met over the years merely through a mutual love of singing, and I hope I can one day find another sense of community like the one within the choirs I’ve been a part of. That’s all the religion I need.

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2 thoughts on “soli deo gloria, or, what I learned from being a non-believer at a Lutheran school

  1. Pingback: how a cheap ukulele made me learn to love music again | musings by madeline

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