Ignore the shushing sounds and shine, shine, shine (forget decorum!)

Posted on June 27, 2010


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Have you ever been told to pipe down, shush, pay attention, keep it down?

How about when you were singing or dancing or yelling or jumping for joy, with exuberance, filled with energy and optimism?

I have an embarrassing story to share.  You decide who should be embarrassed.

We go to church on Sundays, and our church has an amazing music ministry.  As in, we’ve had professional musicians perform during mass, we have 3 awesome choirs and both a heavenly church organ and a baby grand piano in the church.  Our cantors sound like angels.  Our director of music carefully selects music and musicians for the mass to complement and enhance the service, and the quality of the music is one reason my family passes by half a dozen suburban Catholic churches to attend mass downtown.

But there’s something about Catholics and music that puzzles me.  Maybe it’s just my fellow parishioners at this particular church, but Catholics sing quietly, politely, with decorum – or not at all.  Maybe this is why it’s helpful to have a great choir – so you don’t notice the subdued volume in the pews.  When things get bad, one of our priests threatens to bring in the Baptists to show us how it’s done.  And this quiet – or nonexistent – singing feeds on itself.  It’s hard to belt out a hymn with passion when everyone around you is warbling quietly.  In fact, when people DO sing loud, it’s pretty common for their pew neighbors to turn around and look at them – not in disapproval, but more in surprise, like a flock of blackbirds finding a rainbow-hued macaw in its midst.  The look on their faces seems to say, “Oh honey, sounds like you got lost, did you need directions to the Baptist church?”

So, a couple Sundays ago, we were doing our quiet and polite singing thing, and I saw the flash of light that meant someone had opened the inside glass door and was coming in late for mass.  We were singing the opening hymn and suddenly a VOICE thundered out over our singing, so loud I didn’t understand what was happening at first.  Then I realized one of our parishioners had entered the church and was joining the hymn as if her life depended on it, singing for all she was worth, with a glorious (and extremely loud) voice.  About half of the congregants had the willpower to remain facing forward, concentrating fiercely on the priest and the cantor, and warbling quietly, while the other half turned to see which heavenly angel was entering the church, trumpeting a message from God.  I turned to look – and I saw one of the ushers hurrying toward one of our homeless members,  whispering to her in a friendly but firm manner, then patting her on the back.  She stopped singing, but she took a seat behind me.  And for the rest of the mass, she sang politely and, for the most part, quietly, though on a couple occasions, when the music was particularly catchy, her voice swelled and threatened to break free of her restraint.

I felt torn.  It WAS rather startling and perhaps disruptive to hear her loud voice in church.  At the same time, the intensity of her singing seemed like a sign from heaven.  I wanted to tell her, “You sing well” or “I love the way you sing your love for God,” but I felt shy and worried that I might seem patronizing.  So I waited for the sign of peace, when we shake hands with our neighbors and wish them peace, and I smiled at her and squeezed her hand.  When the mass ended I turned to look for her, but she was gone.  I felt a little guilty about the missed opportunity.

This incident made me think about how we treat people who express joy, love and passion.  I wonder if we pull ourselves and each other away from the passionate, exuberant and joyful edges of life, back to the safe, passionless middle.  What do you think?

  1. Have you ever tried to express joy, passion or enthusiasm for someone or something – only to be told by others to shush, calm down, keep it quiet?
  2. Have you ever worried that someone you cared for was going too far, maybe making a fool of themselves – and tried to pull them back to the ‘safe’ zone?
  3. How do you maintain that passion in the face of the pressure to conform?
  4. How do you encourage that passion in others?

I think it’s easy to listen to the shushing (or do the shushing).  Frankly, sometimes you should heed the shushing.  But often it’s EASY to follow the crowd – but not necessarily BEST.  So for today, think of the times you were shushed – or the times you shushed someone else – and think about whether taking a risk and making a different choice would have changed your life.  Remember that lesson the next time you hear that shushing sound.

thanks all,


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