- The Beautiful
In my senior year, I pulled some interesting stunts at school, like the time I showed up to class in a shirt that read, "Got Atheism?" on the front, and "There is no God" on the back.
I had seen a kid in one of my classes wearing a "Got Jesus?" t-shirt the day before, which had greatly annoyed me. I went home that night and wrote on one of my own shirts with a Crayola marker.
I wore the shirt all day and received lots of interesting feedback. Some people loved it, while one of my best friends, a Lutheran, didn't talk to me all day. One of my history teachers saw me in the hallway, chuckled, and turned around as he passed to taunt, "Hey, Sarah! What does the fool say in his heart?"
Another time, on AIDS Awareness day, I drove downtown during study hall and picked up three paper sacks of free condoms at the Public Health office. Then, at lunchtime, I walked around and gave a condom surreptitiously to anyone who wanted one. I thought this was a more effective action to take against the spread of AIDS than the measly, tri-fold poster board display the school had erected in the commons.
The next day, I was called into the principal's office.
"I just got a call from a parent saying her daughter was given a condom at lunch yesterday by another student. She didn't mention the student's name, but I thought I'd call you down here to see if you knew anything about it."
I was so tickled that my principal had suspected me first, out of 1600 other students, that I eagerly confessed.
Then she suspended me from Student Council for six weeks. That was a bummer.
That year, I became a vegetarian, purchased World Religions for Dummies at Barnes & Noble, and gave up swearing for Lent, just for a fun challenge. I was trying hard to figure out what I believed, what I thought was "true" and "good." I had royally messed up my friendship with my French teacher, but I was having some profound interactions with Mr. Paulsen. I had read Walden and Civil Disobedience last year living abroad; this year, thanks to a fabulous English curriculum, I was mulling over the ethics in Huxley's Brave New World, the spiritual practices of Hesse's Siddhartha, and the eternal possibilities contained within Dante's Inferno.
Senior year was turning out to be my most soul-searching year yet, especially since I was trying to decide what to do after I graduated.
In the midst of all of this, choir had become my new in-school passion, now that French was out. I relished pushing myself as a musician, trying out and being selected for All-State choir, securing a solo during the Christmas concert, and putting in many practice hours for festival pieces like "The Flower Duet."
Part of the fun of choral festivals, events which can span several days, is that, when you aren't rehearsing or performing, you get to hear other choirs and ensembles perform. One particular performance I experienced that year at a local university left me with chills.
The piece was in French, and I recognized the lyrics as something I used to say during Mass:
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Grant us peace.
The piece starts off all beautiful and easy-going, and then it gradually crescendos and climaxes around the words for "Have mercy on us," which in French is "Prends pitier de nous." The word that kept jumping out, relentlessly, was the word "pitier," pronounced PEET-ee-ay, which means "mercy" and is definitely related to the English word "pity."
Prends pitier de nous!"
Their voices were haunting. I was sitting fairly close to the stage, in the first few rows of the large auditorium; the singers stood on risers on the stage so that they seemed to be singing down at me.
I thought about the museum in Normandy, the Holocaust, and how terrible human beings can be to other human beings. Something in me acknowledged that we are not good, collectively.
That was the first layer of what I thought about. It might have stopped there, except the singers kept singing louder and louder this word "pitier," and I was forced to wedge down even further, past the really obvious muck of the world, until I came to the hard bottom: I am not good.
PRENDS PITIER DE NOUS!"
For a few moments, I couldn't hear that little voice in my head which assures me I'm a "good person." All I could hear were sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses belting this desperate prayer above me, "Have mercy on us!"
Like some apocalyptic angel choir, united in their understanding of humanity, they managed to convince me on some primal level that we needed mercy, and we needed it from something outside of ourselves, something to which we were all accountable.
I thought of the only other place I had ever experienced this kind of seemingly irrational self-awareness.
Although I knocked my Catholic upbringing every chance I got, one thing I always hesitated to ridicule was the act of confession. I had only ever gone, like, three times in my life, but the experience was always so bizarre, and I could never explain it. I had no one to explain it to anyway.
Mom usually only made us go to confession when it was required for graduating to the next sacramental level in the Church, before my First Communion, or before Confirmation, for example.
I remember feeling pretty cocky while I waited in line.
This is such a waste of my time. I don't even know what I'm going to say in there.
Then it would be my turn. I'd enter the small, dimly lit room which was divided by a partition. On one side sat my priest, completely hidden from me at all times; on the other side was a kneeler and a box of tissues.
By the time I knelt down, eeked out the standard "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," and heard the go ahead from my priest to start confessing, my throat would have already become inexplicably tight, and my eyes would be red hot from fighting back tears.
What is my problem?! Why am I crying?
I was stunned and appalled that some secret part of me was affected by this situation. That I seemed to have no control over my emotions at that moment ran completely counter to the class clown, too cool, tough stuff image I usually shrouded myself in.
I think it was because there was no one else around--no mother to rebel against, no frumpy catechism teacher to torture, no other kids to laugh at my antics; there were no icons to look at, no hymnals to thumb through, no funny looking parishioners to stare at. It was just me and this faceless voice, which, in the trauma of the moment, might as well have been the voice of God--I felt like it saw me, at my core, and I had to agree with it that, underneath it all, I was actually a little shit.
I tried so hard not to let the priest hear the wavering in my voice as I barely managed to say, "I was mean to my sister," which was honestly the only thing I could ever think to confess.
After a few minutes, I'd pull myself together and wrap it up, rejoin my mother in the sanctuary, and set about burying that bizarre experience somewhere deep, counting myself lucky that no one else had been witness to those pathetic lapses.
For a few moments, that choir's performance of "Agneau de Dieu" brought me back to the same strange place.
Later on, in senior year, our choir rehearsed and performed a piece called "The Lamb," which is a poem by William Blake arranged for choir by John Tavener.
It's a really fun and challenging piece to sing. At times, it sounds kind of eerie because the parts are written to be reflections of each other. The tension between the parts makes it difficult for altos and basses to stay in tune.
But when all four parts come together, the effect is very powerful.
If you've never read the poem, it's written from the point of view of a child talking to a lamb.
"Little lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee?"
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child.
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee.
Little Lamb, God bless thee.
My choir director asked us to really think about the symbolism of a lamb, in order to perform the piece with the appropriate pathos. A lamb, for the Jewish people, was a sacrifice. Lambs are so gentle; they're not really an animal you would think deserves to die.
I thought about the symbolism a little further, since we were also studying the poem in English class: Jesus is called the "lamb of God." He was innocent, yet sacrificed. And he was willing to be sacrificed.
He didn't come to Earth as a powerful, fully grown man. He came as a helpless baby.
I felt like the child in the poem knew more about the character of God than I did. I admired his simplicity and his understanding.
And finally, that year, I also really loved performing "Once in Royal David's City." I landed the opening solo for it, which of course, on the night of the Christmas concert, with all those lights on me, and all those people in the audience, I sort of wavered on, but I finished it out quite nicely.
The adrenaline from that performance, when paired with the lyrics of the final verse and multiplied by the harmonies which were all around me, sopranos to my right, and tenors and basses in front of me, gave me the impression that my feet were leaving the risers, that I was surging heavenward along with the song's glorious conclusion--
Aaaand oooour eyes at last shall see him
Through his own redeeming love!
For that child, so dear and gentle,
is our Lord in Heaven above!
Even though I wasn't a Christian at all, I got caught up in the idea that one day, at last, I would see Jesus with my own eyes, and that it would be inexpressibly refreshing, the perfect consummation of a life of waiting.
Or maybe I was just trying to get into the spirit of the piece to be able to perform it compellingly, as an artist.
I wasn't sure.