Hitting the High Notes in Lent and in Life

Musicians, actors, and other performers can be very clever at employing mental exercises to improve their performance. When I was a teenager, my older brother, Charles, told me that he had been directed by one of his teachers to read Timothy Gallwey’s book, The Inner Game of Tennis, and to replace the word “tennis” with “tuba” whenever it came up in the book. Gallwey’s book was based on the principle that, in his words, “Every game is composed of two parts, an outer game and an inner game.” Naturally, being a little brother aspiring to Charlie’s high standard of musicianship, I got the book and read it. Almost forty years hence, I doubt that I can recommend the volume without big caveats — it is based upon “Zen thinking” — but from what I recall, it did live up to its general goal of helping the tennis, tuba, or (in my case), euphonium player to rid himself of the anxieties and self-doubt that get in the way of success.

Gallwey’s book came to mind recently as I pondered how a particular “inner game” trick I just learned — this one in the realm of vocal music — can be transformed into a valuable life lesson. Some weeks ago, Sister Mary Joseph illustrated the trick during a polyphonic warm-up at the beginning of one of our rehearsals, just before the Brothers and Sisters dove into the Agnus Dei of Palestrina’s Missa Aeterna Christi Munera. For context, let me mention that I am the “conductor” of our polyphonic chorale, but, as I have precious little vocal music training (we uncouth low brass players disparagingly called singers “throats” in my day!), Sister helps a lot by warming up the group with various drills and exercises.

If the reader will bear with me, it will soon become clear that I am neither engaging in gratuitous personal nostalgia at your expense, nor prattling on about musical minutiae that is irrelevant to your Catholic faith or how you live it. I hope to weave these threads into a relevant Catholic tapestry straightaway.

Back to Sister Mary Joseph’s trick. Here it is in her own words, which she kindly put in writing at my request:

Sometimes singing high notes can be challenging. We can tend to see them as “way up there,” which can lead to a strained sound when we try to reach them. I have heard the suggestion made many times from experienced singers and directors to think of the high notes as being low. When we imagine the note to be “somewhere down there,” sometimes even physically tilting the head slightly downward, we are able to sing on top of it. And singing on top of the pitch keeps us from loosing our pitch.

The underlining emphasis is mine. These were the points that Sister emphasized in our little rehearsal, and the ones that most resonated with me. Let me say that the trick works, as I hope some of my readers may attest if they are singers. But what is the lesson we can get out of it?

When we are met with a difficult task, stressors like fear, anxiety, and doubt can generate the very tension that renders those negative emotions into self-fulfilling prophesies. In the case of the vocalist, the stress of attempting to rise to that dizzying height makes us cramp and tense the very mechanisms we count on being relaxed and responsive when we need them. The trick of landing “on top of” the high note is a kind of self-imposed mind game that efficaciously offsets those negative emotions and their disastrous effects on the singer’s “instrument” (vocal chords, diaphragm, throat, facial muscles, etc.).

Does all this correlate to something in the spiritual life?

Most certainly it does.

There is a calmness, a serenity, and a confidence that come from genuinely trusting God. I mean the kind of deep trust that spiritual writers describe as Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, or Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence, or the like. The Lenten liturgy is filled with inspired imagery that stirs us up to this confidence and deep trust. I hope, below, to scratch the surface of what we find in this treasure trove.

The difference between the performance-enhancing “mind games” that people employ as calming or concentration techniques and what the Church offers us is that the latter is no mere “trick” or “technique,” but is rooted in the most certain of revealed realities — even if God and His Church employ similes or metaphorical speech in conveying them to us. Practically speaking, what I am proposing here is that Christian meditation upon, or even a simple prayerful and reflective reading of, these liturgical texts can effect in us something analogous to but so much higher than the enhanced performance experience that artists and athletes obtain as a result of playing the “inner game” well. Given the indispensable maternal role that the Church plays in nurturing the supernatural interior life of her children, the Catholic spiritual life constitutes the very pinnacle of the “inner game.” This is our domain. It is a species of foolishness to outsource it to others.

Lent was not meant to be easy. Every one of the forty days was traditionally a day of fast, which is why the traditional liturgy of Quadragesima mentions the fast so frequently. Moreover, we are enjoined to add more prayers and almsgiving, as well as (of old) to curtail our entertainments and even our sleep. Lent has been reduced in our days to a very bad joke, making us moderns a pale reflection of the strong Catholics of old. We can, of course, always add more than what is strictly required, and should do so with the help of our confessor or spiritual director. I mention the difficulty of Lent here for a reason. In the context of requiring these austerities of her children, the Church often goaded them on by such thoughts as the General Judgment and Our Lord’s cleansing of the temple, but she also encouraged them by presenting them with imagery that is consoling, calming, relaxing, and confidence-building.

On the first Sunday of Lent, the Tract comprises most of Psalm 90. In it, we are said to “dwell in the shelter of the Most High,” and “abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” God is our “fortress” in whom we “trust.” He rescues us from “the snare of the fowler.” He covers us “with His shoulders” and “under His wings” we “take refuge.” We fear neither “arrows” nor “pestilences.” People may die all around us, but we are safe because “to His angels He has given command about [us], that they may guard [us] in all [our] ways.” Moreover, these good spirits bear us up in their hands. In the end, God shows us His salvation. With such encouragement as the promise of angels bearing us up, we ought to be able to rise to the difficult “high notes” of Lenten discipline.

On Monday of the first week of Lent, the Epistle (Ezech. 34:11-16) presents God coming both to “seek” and “visit” His “sheep.” Dispensing now with the quotation marks, I will paraphrase and quote freely: God will find them where they have been scattered, gather them in, feed them in fruitful pastures, seek that which was lost, cause them to lie down, bind up that which was broken, strengthen that which was weak, and preserve what was strong. All of this is an Old-Testament prophecy of the “Good Shepherd” of John 10. In fact, the stational church for this particular Lenten day, San Pietro in Vincoli, is believed by some to have at one time had a depiction of the Good Shepherd decorating its apse (perhaps it looked like this or this). Imagine being one of the faithful hearing of this Old-Testament prophecy of the Good Shepherd while pondering the tender image of Jesus caring for His sheep. “I’m that little sheep there,” they might think, or “I’m that one that’s all fattened up!”

Imagine also looking up into the apse at that image while hearing these words of the Offertory of the same Mass: “I will lift up my eyes, that I may consider Thy wonders, O Lord; teach me Thy statutes; give me discernment that I may learn Thy commands.” Considering that these words follow minutes after the terrifying Gospel of the General Judgment is read — foretelling as it does the separation of the sheep from the goats — the combination of that image with that text is so very powerful. It is a plea to be numbered among the sheep who learn and keep God’s statutes, those whom Jesus leads, sometimes even carries, into safe and green pastures.

The Gradual for the Tuesday of the first week of Lent is taken from Psalm 140:2: “Let my prayer be directed as incense in Thy sight, O Lord. The lifting up of my hands, as the evening sacrifice.” The wafting of lovely-smelling vapor calmly emanating from the censer gives us an image of our prayers rising up to God. To those who have ever noticed the serene dance this sacred smoke can perform during a High Mass, especially when illumined by rays of sunlight from church windows, such a depiction of our prayers might make us less prone to desperation and agitation when we speak to the Almighty.

The Gospel for the Thursday of the first week of Lent (Matt. 15:21-28) narrates the story of the Canaanite woman who approaches Our Lord for the cure of her possessed daughter. When Jesus repels her by saying that it is not fit to give the food of the (Jewish) children to (Gentile) dogs, her response is amazing. Rather than taking offense and screaming that “Canaanite lives matter,” she humbles herself to the “Son of David,” and, appropriating for herself His own canine imagery, she cries, “Yea, Lord; for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters.” The Master commends her faith and fulfills her request. The image here is of a little dog begging from his master. That is how she imaged herself. Unlike Biblical images involving first-century Palestinian agricultural norms, this one speaks to us. After all, what modern American doesn’t know the look?

Later in Lent, we will encounter the parable of the Prodigal Son, Our Lord’s merciful encounter with the Samaritan woman, the healing of the man born blind, the raising from the dead of Lazarus, and so many other episodes that provide us with images for our own personal interaction with the Trinity and the God-Man, who is, by grace, our Friend and Brother as well as our God. The reader is encouraged to meditate on the beautiful texts of the traditional liturgy to mine these gems. Employing them in our thoughts and prayers can be very helpful. If we are in Him as His mystical members and He is in us by divine grace, then we can have the calm confidence that Saint John encourages us to have even when encountering the most formidable of adversaries: “You are of God, little children, and have overcome him [he is speaking of Antichrist!]. Because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world [again, Antichrist]”(1 John 4:4).

Saint Patrick, whose feast (March 17) always occurs in Lent, imagined Our Lord in and all around himself, as he so beautifully wrote in his Lorica (“Breastplate”):

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
[There exists a modern choral setting by the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt.]

What I am recommending here is not something at all novel, but rather the internalization of Biblical and liturgical texts, the bread and butter of our faith. The purpose is not to make us “feel nice,” but to encourage us in the practice of prayer, penance, and Christian virtue, which is itself a tremendous undertaking that is both arduous and difficult — but which should be approached with that peace that Jesus said He came to give us.

Otherwise, we will render the difficult impossible and crack a lot of high notes in the process.