Late last fall, I gave my first public singing performance. I had picked up voice lessons for the first time in my life just previously, and was totally shocked by how much I enjoyed it.
I appreciated the music I was learning. I liked my teacher, and, while I am not what one might refer to as a “good singer”, I enjoyed hearing myself get better bit by bit. A dear Jesuit friend, someone I’ve lived with for almost four years, said one day, “You know, your voice has really improved… like, noticeably.” I suspect he might have been saying as much about the “before” as the “after,” but I choose to remember the moment as a compliment.
As much as I liked my lessons, I was far less excited about singing for a “voice jury” at the end of the semester. I felt well enough while warming up, but as I walked into the room to sing I could feel my stomach and chest tightening as my nerves fired up like little engines.
Predictably, my performance was mediocre. I was off pitch, off time, and my voice had little passion or power. The nerves had taken over, and it showed.
But the performance wasn’t a total loss, as one of the jurors made an interesting observation on his evaluation card as the last notes of my performance were still fading from our ears. It’s an observation that’s stuck with me. “Singing,” he wrote, “is an athletic activity, not an intellectual activity!” And he was absolutely right, at least in my case.
Put in a situation where I was uncomfortable, where I was in the midst of the unfamiliar, I started to think about all the things I was supposed to be doing, thinking about the words of the song, the musical score, my breathing and technique. The trouble was that I thought so much about these things that I choked off the emotion, the athleticism, that would have brought the songs to life.
Often, when I talk to people about their prayer, I notice in their stories the same sorts of preoccupations that I notice in my own prayer. Even after several years of formation as a Jesuit, I sometimes still get preoccupied by thinking about whether I’m praying the “right” way; I get to thinking about whether I need to “fix” something in my prayer, or even whether I should be praying about something else altogether.
Eventually, I’m thinking about prayer so much that I can’t pray.
Thinking is a good thing. Here at The Jesuit Post we encourage thinking (mostly). However, especially in prayer, it can be really important to clear the clutter of thought out of the way. When that happens, when I remember that prayer is as much an athletic activity of the soul as an intellectual activity of the soul, I find myself rediscovering prayer the same way I rediscover my voice in a song. I feel that familiar lifeblood of passion and energy, that excitement that helps me fall topsy-turvy, head over heels, in love with God all over again.