By Dana Haight Cattani
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
—Leonard Cohen “Hallelujah”
Today I arrive a little early so I can post the numbers on the hymn board. As ward music director, I select the hymns, arrange for soloists and ensembles, and lead congregational singing during sacrament meeting.
It is a good calling for a person who sometimes finds music to be the only solace from religion.
From the stand, I watch my tribe. I see the people who always arrive early and the ones who slip out before the closing prayer. I see siblings sparring behind the pews, and youth with lidded eyes biding their time. I see faces: hopeful, skeptical, bored. I see the cocked eyebrow of someone taking silent exception to a speaker’s words. I see discreet tears and defensively crossed arms. I see spouses who smile silent messages to each other and spouses who rarely make eye contact—much less brush shoulders.
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to ya?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
Recently three young friends departed for missions to the usual fanfare: callings to unfamiliar locales, farewell sacrament meeting talks, and open houses of well-wishing. Each returned within a few weeks or months, tails between their legs. Their respective mission presidents had determined that these teens were not able to serve. No fanfare this time. In the ensuing silence, they had plenty of time to search, ponder, and pray. Had they failed? Were they unworthy? Dishonored? To help them negotiate the shame and anger that accompanied them home, protocol specifies that they be offered six visits with a Church mental health counselor.
Does it take more or less than six visits to explain how these idealistic or compliant volunteers can abruptly be transfigured from community paragons to pariahs? At least one of them did not bother to find out.
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
From my perch on the stand this morning, I see, as always, the people of Jesus: the blind, the halt, the maimed, the brokenhearted and depressed, the manic. I see wheelchairs and walkers and headscarves. I see the father of a suicided son and the proud new mother, the defiant ex-wife and the hair-trigger husband, and the infertility patients trapped in a room full with babies. I see the never-married, the formerly married, the unhappily married, the widowed. I see the parents of Eagle scouts and temple-married children, of gay children, of handicapped children, of contrary or addicted or incarcerated children, the ordinary run-of-the-mill families—forever or not—trying to get through another week. I see the patriarchs, the madonnas, the Thomases, the Levite priests, the stewards, the prodigals, the Ammons and Almas, the Marys and Marthas. I see, in short, a ward.
When, after reading some online articles about Mormon history, a young friend in my ward told me that she had decided to stop attending church, I could think only of our own shared history. On long outdoor walks and in quiet moments in the church building, she had wanted to have hard conversations: feminism, marital tensions, a family tragedy. I mourned the institutional history that rendered our own shared history collateral damage.
Baby, I’ve been here before
I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor
Used to live alone before I knew ya
But I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Our love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
This Sabbath morning, inevitably, I see women I have helped to move or recover from childbirth or organize funeral lunches, women whose children I have watched, whose private heartaches I have carried as my own. I see home teachers who have attended my children’s school band concerts for years, scout masters who have taken my occasionally-surly sons camping in all kinds of weather, bishops who have visited me and listened to my concerns and still asked me to serve. I see my pickup basketball team and my writing group, the pillars of my physical and mental health over the past decade. I see friends, and where I do not exactly see friends, I see the people who have covenanted to bear my burdens, and I theirs.
After the 2015 policy change on gay families, several young people I know decided they were done. The moral foundation of the Church—an inclusive Zion—seemed to crumble beneath their feet. I was not surprised to see idealistic young people recognize flaws in an inherited institution and abandon it; this pattern recurs every generation. It was the leave-taking of their parents—the ones who had loved the Church and served in it and offered it to their children in the hope that it would guide and nurture them—that arrested me. Following their children’s lead, these parents walked out through the double glass doors one last time, slow but resolute. I could not decide if they were the ninety-and-nine or the one, the children of Israel in Sinai or Sariah in the wilderness. Perhaps they were simply people who found themselves unable to defend their church and turned their hearts to their children.
I knew who I was: Lot’s wife, salty with grief.
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I have ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
It’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
This morning before sacrament meeting, I whispered to our organist—a professional musician—that the opening hymn, “Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah,” is one of my favorites. He nodded sagely and brassed up the stops. Then he played the hymn, improvising rich tensions in the harmonies and a gorgeous walking bass line. In the pause before the last verse, this wonderful musician tossed in a majestic interlude and key change. I felt the rush that comes when a group of disparate people all look up at the same time and seem, briefly, to share a single thought: How can I keep from singing?
A wave of tenderness washed over me. These are my people. I have served them, they have served me, we have taught each other’s children and fed each other, visited each other in friendship and obligation, in good times and in bad. We don’t vote for the same candidates or interpret the scriptures in the same way or even make the same recipe for funeral potatoes, but we are brothers and sisters.
The animating beliefs I have breathed in during a lifetime in the church pews and classrooms and kitchens and gyms include the innate worthiness of each child of God, the continuity of life and relationships beyond mortality, and the understanding of eternal progress as a group effort. These values—agency, discipline, honesty, fidelity, sobriety, education, service, provident living, and charity—form the foundation of my character, such as it is, and I am grateful to be rooted into this bedrock. I am convinced it has prevented me from slipping into more than one abyss and offered me a footing toward a productive and satisfying life.
The Church has no monopoly on these values, so I cannot tease out which of the bounties of my life are the result of Mormon living and which are not. I do know that if I placed the blessings of my life in the Church on one side of a scale, it would sink. I also know that if I then put the burdens of my life in the Church on the other side, it, too, would sink. (The point of equilibrium would vary, depending on the day.) Particularly in recent years, that side of the scale has seemed freighted with doctrines and practices I cannot condone: patriarchy, excommunication, homophobia, secrecy, exclusion, and gerontocracy.
Guide us, o thou great Jehovah.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion
….How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Psalms 137: 1, 4
Indeed, how? Some days the strange land is as familiar as modest steeples, green hymnals, and the stark, windowless wall behind LDS pulpits. Some days I struggle to find my voice. And some days, the music reverberates through me, and I hear the tenors and basses and sopranos and know why I am needed, where I fit, and which note to sing in this particular broken chord.