I’m not much of a singer.
Except during Lent.
As hopefully is clear, the point of Lent is not punishment. It’s preparation. Lent leads to Easter. And for the last six years of my priesthood, that 40-day journey led me to clear my throat and keep the notes.
Lent was my annual preparation for the Easter Exsultet.
If you’re not familiar with hymn – much less the range-rollercoaster tune – you’re not alone. You think some Sunday songs are long? (He was up at his chair three verses ago…) This one is Easter-sized.
Coming in at a svelte 10 minutes (and zero water breaks), the Exsultet is an endurance test for both the proclaimer and parishioners. It usually is a cappella, which could be considered comforting. After all, it’s a little harder to hear a misplaced note if the organist is telling on you. But the comfort is a cool one: if you get off the muscle-memory script, your words might never make it back onto the page.
To make things even more challenging, it’s a one-night-only performance. The Exsultet comes uniquely at the Easter Vigil, the first service after the quiet-inducing Good Friday. And this is why even a daily communicant might not be following along: the Easter Vigil is Easter to the full, with Mass starting outside in the dark, readings numbering at least five, and people receiving all sorts of sacraments.
Put another way, it’s looooong. Beautiful, full-throated, but long. It’s a lot like Port Sulphur: you don’t make it there by accident.
And did I mention it’s dark? No just outside, but inside, too. The environment sets the tone for our movement with Jesus into light. But this also sets up another obstacle for the Exsultet singer: lights are off when the singing begins. Amazingly, the microphone never is.
At least they couldn’t see me sweat.
The final fluttering factor was the reason I was up there at all, gripping marble until it cried: the Exsultet, most properly, is sung by a member of the clergy. Really, it’s a song for a deacon, but when you don’t have a deacon – or are sensitive to the 8th Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment stuff – you it. Some parishes, instead, will select cantors (read: actual singers), and I understand that. I try to be a rule follower, though, especially when there’s no great reason to break it.
Which brought me to my Lenten voice training.
There’s an adage that public speaking is a person’s worst fear. Let me assure you, speaking words have nothing on singing words. It’s like the Seinfeld joke comparing dating to marriage: it’s shooting a paintball gun to driving a car filled with plutonium. Or something like that.
My training was pretty simple: go into church, stand in the spot, and record the attempt. The process is easier when you have keys to the place. When I moved to a new parish and started keeping the doors open during the day, this also disturbed more than a few prayers. My bad. Oh happy fault.
I also would listen to recordings throughout my 40-day sojourn – just in a car, not in the desert. Also to reduce the suffering, it was a recording of someone who could really sing. No sense to practice bad habits – or hear the fingers across the chalkboard. By the time Easter made it, I had memorized it, a skill especially helpful if you can’t read music (that note is higher than the last one, up we go!). The singing of it, however…that was a little tougher.
After my first liturgical attempt, I remember sinking deep into my chair, every bit a punch-drunk boxer, stuck to my corner stool, looking for a towel and some words of encouragement. It. Was Rough. And to think I had to wait another 300-something days for another shot at it. I coulda been a contender!
The encouragement came just in doing it. I didn’t die – or worse, faint. I got all the way from Exult to Amen. And I only had to change my shirt from the sweat, not the tomatoes.
Find whatever your singing is this Lent. There’s still time for it – I probably would still be looking for my sheet music.
This Lent I’m not prepping for a 10-minute marathon, but I am noticing music around. Surprisingly, it’s been popping up at daily Mass. If you’ve never been to Mass on a weekday, you’ve got try it. A quiet church. An easy seat to find. Twenty minutes (give or, ahem, give some more or take) from the rest of the day. Usually singing is not involved. But I’ve been downtown a little more, which brings me to my home parish for the 7am at St. Jude. And, of course, St. Jude sings. No song sheets. No forewarning. Just somebody piping up at the singing times. I’ve been especially haunted by the hymn “I Will Trust in the Lord.” The way we sing it at St. Jude, we ask “brother will you trust” and “sister will you trust” in the subsequent verses. It’s simple, slow, and moving. Kinda like Lent.