Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Memory, NPR, and the Rhythm of Communal Prayer

Greetings, earthlings,

It's been a bit over a year since I've dropped by here. I'm back because I have to share part of an email I found from a gig in June of 2012. The note came to me in April, 22 months after the gig, but the memory of the moment is strong. There have been countless stories written, videotaped, and told about the ways in which music aids memory, many brought to us by a constant stream of new discoveries in neuroscience. This week on NPR, two stories about how rhythm works helped me to re-member. The first one - Sound Off: Where the Military's Rhythm Came From, talks about how Willy Duckworth began calling cadences in 1944 as a way of "chanting to build up the spirits of his weary comrades." Just the sound of someone calling a cadence can move us. It was still very much Jim Crow's army in 1944, and the story talks of using cadences that are trying to control your movements to elegantly evade control and maintain your energy. Nice. The second story, Your Brain's got Rhythm and Syncs When You Think is about using rhythm to enable people with Parkinson's disease to recalibrate and show off their smooth dance moves when movement is coupled with music.

Here's a story of the power of memory through the more liminal rhythm of communal prayer:

"I remember vividly from the conference that it was beastly-hot that summer of 2012. The sun was very hot on your skin, but in the shade it wasn’t too bad since we were by the water. We said Noonday prayer, held in the open-air building directly by the water; you led us in the prayers of the people, chanted. It was free form and completely improvisatory. I remember leaning against one of the walls, with the hot air blowing through the structure from the river, listening to the kaleidoscopic sounds of everyone’s prayers, hearing names of loved ones being lifted up, seeing the faces of those around me. Those faces shone with what I was experiencing as we corporately received the sheer sensory overload that I was experiencing.

It was one of the most powerful prayer experiences I’ve yet felt in my 34 years, because this was unrehearsed and totally improvisatory music yet all the same gorgeous music was something that didn't get taught nor rarely experienced, if ever, in my classical musical training. Yet it was so beautiful and perfect in some way; we even spontaneously cadenced without any provocation! Heck, for most of us our eyes were closed!

I’ve yearned for that experience to happen again but haven’t been able to get my folks here to get out of their own way to allow themselves to be moved as we were that day. It is my dream that our parishioners could experience what I’ve just described. I hope that such an experience will change them, open them up and perhaps experience the release that I felt that day.

Thank you for indulging me in my telling you of that experience. As you can tell, it’s as clear to me as if I were right there again."

I've heard from others that they remember this time as if it were yesterday. As do I. I can still see some of the faces. What I cannot remember is the sound of it, although I know it was a huge gift given to us, as we gave to one another. The people gathered, and those we prayed for and remembered during this prayer contributed to an unforgettable experience of connection that cannot be duplicated. There are, however, a billion ways to create similarly beautiful moments together.

May you find a reason to sing today.

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