Finding reason to sing in the midst of despair
Many years ago while visiting Ocracoke Island, one of the barrier islands of the Outer Banks in
North Carolina, I visited an old graveyard dating back to the time of the Civil War. The headstones were lined up in tight rows, almost touching one another.
What caught my eye were the stones in the front row, all with the same surname. Several children from this large family had died just days apart from one another, most likely from a
plague of some kind, and several more within a year or two. If I remember correctly, the mother lived to see the death of all her children and her husband.
As a mother myself I wondered how this woman could survive such an ordeal. I stood for a long
time in front of all those graves and prayed for that family which so long ago suffered such terrible losses. I’m not ashamed to say I cried.
There are many obstacles in life that can knock us off our feet, but none seems to have the power to undo us as the death of someone we love. It is then that the substance of our hearts and souls becomes visible as we become most vulnerable. Often we succumb to anger, despair and loneliness, unable to find any peace or consolation, even in the God we thought we knew.
To endure multiple deaths close together, then, could easily be more than the fragile human spirit could handle.
This was the experience of my friend, Mary Beth, who, three weeks after the sudden death of her husband, would be singing the “Ave Maria” at her mother’s funeral Mass.
I was deeply touched by the resilience that allowed her to sing this moving and emotional hymn
following such deep loss, but I was not surprised. Her powerful love of her family and her devoted care of two ailing parents could only be fed from a deep spring of love for God.
Though I didn’t know the mother from Ocracoke Island, it is not hard to imagine that she shared something special with Mary Beth – a similar substance of soul, an attachment to God woven so tightly into the fabric of their lives that nothing could keep them from gathering strength in the arms of their Father and moving forward in faith.
Being with Mary Beth as she sang for her mother brought a new depth of meaning to my own
favorite hymn, the traditional Shaker hymn, “How Can I Keep from Singing.” The refrain always will remind me of the power of her faith, her belief that death is not visited upon us by God but, rather, that God walks with us in our Garden of Gethsemane: “No storm can
shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging. Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”
Today, as we all face often-overwhelming losses brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic or struggle with anxiety, anger, fear and despair, I pray the words of the final verse will soon reflect our own experience: “I lift my eyes, the clouds grow thin, I see the blue above it. And day by day this pathway clears, since first I learned to love it. The peace from love makes fresh my heart, a song of hope is ringing. All things are mine, since truth I’ve found. How can I keep from singing?”