By Erik Oland, S.J.**
The first time I ever got up to sing in public my heart was in my throat.
I had left the quiet beauty of my home in Rothesay, New Brunswick for the uncertain excitement of full-time musical studies. Destined soon after, I was sure, for a life on the stage. The comfort and protection of family, friends, life by the river in Rothesay--I was eager to trade them all in for a career in the cosmopolitan halls of Montreal and beyond. The exacting judgements of directors and critics, the rigors of auditions, performances, and reviews: I thought I was ready for them. Bid good-bye to training in anonymity, I told myself. It was time to become a professional. Maybe even star.
All of this, a libretto of ambition, ricocheted in my head as I debuted before the audience assembled at my small undergraduate college. Now would begin my remarkable flight.
The piece was “Quia fecit mihi magna” (For the mighty one has done great things for me), from Bach’s Magnificat. We know the scripture passage well: Mary’s confession of faith and her acceptance of God's will for her in Luke Chapter 1. During the three short minutes of performance, my mind was on anything but the meaning of the Latin text I was singing. When I wasn't preoccupied with imminent stardom, I was wracked with fright. Would the audience notice? Would God even notice, if (when?) I fell flat on my face?
My heart was beating so fast I don’t know how I found the breath to sing
As a newly ordained Jesuit priest, I look back over the 15 years I spent as a professional singer, and I still see that moment on stage as emblematic of my journey in life and faith.
The performing arts seem so romantic to the outsider: Imagine! The artist -- singer, actor, dancer -- manages to make a living out of…creativity! Some might dream of it, but few dare and even fewer succeed. A crazy faith in your gift and a crazy love for sharing it are required; an impossible tolerance for work and disappointment, practically mandatory.
Despite the odds and the obstacles, finding an outlet for that creativity, polishing the expression of his or her talent is the most important priority for an artist or performer. We spend years, even lifetimes, refining our gifts with training and performing. Still, while we work feverishly for the chance to perform, every time we do step onto a stage, and realize some small portion of our dream, we suffer a “little death.”
No matter how much training and rehearsing and experience a performer can summon, the moment the curtain goes up on another performance, on a new audience, he faces the unknown. Will you reach that high note at the climax of the piece? Win even one lonely ovation? Satisfy the critic in the fourth row? More importantly, the one in your head?
So much is uncertain. You open up yourself to all manner of criticism (from the audience, from the impresarios and directors, and from yourself); and you do it at a terribly vulnerable moment--just as you are delving into your very core to free that deep truth, that deep creativity that lies within.
It’s challenging, unpredictable and you need a thick yet porous skin to survive it, to filter the good criticism from the bad, to breathe in nourishing ideas and exhale the fullness of your creative potential.
The little death that a performer endures is really a metamorphosis, not unlike the butterfly's. On the other side of that death, something courageously new emerges, takes flight and carries the audience away with it. Her protective cocoon cast off, the performer's unbound and winged energy reaches into the cocoon of each of those gathered and says, “You, too, are released."
In this way, does God call all of us to "perform." Whether we’re at Mass praying with the rest of the community, at home struggling to communicate with our loved ones, in school or at work, jostled by peers, supervisors, responsibilities, we are called to step out of our protected spheres, away from the trappings of fear or self-interest, and into freedom, into generosity, into a fullness of love. Imagine Jesus Christ, of whom Paul writes: "In him we live, we move and have our being," (Phil. 2) releasing you from your cocoon, ushering you into this fuller expression and experience of life. God beckons each of us to listen to and follow Jesus in his great mysterious act of bursting into new life. The desire is there in all of us, in spite of our fears and in spite of our breathlessness (not a good thing for a singer), to become the wonderfully creative creatures God intended.
Bit by bit, if we allow God to work in us, the cocoon that shields us from the world continues to breathe, to give way, and we emerge closer to God's own image and likeness: Artists and workers who lend their labor and their love to building the Kingdom on earth. Like Mary in Luke's Magnificat, we become "handmaidens" of the Lord.
As Advent moves to Christmas, and Christmas to Lent and Easter we might reflect on the eternity of “little deaths” in our lives; on the invitation to come out of our cocoons; on those moments when we faced fear, found breath, and re-emerged renewed and transformed into something that we were not before.
Surprise! When the creative spark is truly alive, the performer and the audience, before you know it, are bursting from their cocoons in a dance of bright wings. Christ is moving among us, and we choose, fearfully and wonderfully, to accept the invitation to perform, to follow him onto the holy ground of new life.
image to enlarge in separate window.