Spirituality of Music and Merrymaking – Mary Kay McDermott

 Spirituality of Music and Merrymaking: One woman’s journey to connect with the divine, creation, and her community through music & dance

By Mary Kay McDermott

I truly appreciate and am honored by Calvin’s request that I present to you all this morning.  This idea that music and dance might play a role in my spirituality has been something that I may have intuited for most of my life but have never contemplated as deeply and completely as I might have liked.  This past year we all suffered loss on some level which often came with new insights… for me, pandemic restrictions meant a slowing of almost all of the musical activities that had become part of my life.  They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and for me this loss (maybe insignificant compared to loss others experienced) meant truly coming to realize the role that music plays in my life and spirituality in ways that I hadn’t previously understood. 

In a general sense, the relationship I nurture with the divine I would increasingly describe as one of co-creation- which I would define as “the act of partnering with God to create something that reflects God’s beauty, truth, and love.” (repeat) I believe that not only are we created in the image and likeness of God and entrusted with the care of God’s creation, we are all more highly called to be co-creators with God, who was the original artist. Currently in my life, this spirituality of co-creation manifests itself in various ways- keeping bees, tending a garden, raising children, living in an intentional community, making a home, cooking meals, and the most rewarding of these, in my mind,… making music and dance.  All of these acts, in some way, “take the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands” as the Catholic tradition’s eucharistic prayer aptly describes the bread and wine, partner with God and creation to create something that reflects the image and likeness of the creator.  How can one know when they are engaging in an act of co-creation? I believe the answer is that one will feel fully alive, engaged, and connected- a vibrant ebb and flow of energy- an infusion of heaven on earth.

To give you all some of my story, after graduating from highschool, I was drawn by the way I might use music in my future work as a way of ministering, comforting, and healing.  I entered my first year of college as a music therapy major, but soon discovered that the rigors of music theory were more than I could handle.  I dropped that major and the dream of ministering through music just ½ way through my first year. I continued to be part of various choirs, bands, and plays where for the most part there were primary performers and an audience who paid money for the privilege of watching the well rehearsed performance.  While I appreciate all of the skills those performances taught me (though they were sometimes anxiety inducing) and for the role they may have played for the audience, I also felt something lacking.      

During college and after I had the privileged opportunity to travel to other countries and cultures and was fortunate to experience a different relationship to music than the one I had known most of my life.  In these places, primarily Haiti and East Africa, music and dance were not reserved only for those people who were “trained” but for all people- young, old, trained, and untrained.  Music and dance were and are just part of everyday culture and living. So much a part of their lives, in fact, that I read once that in some indigenous cultures when a person isn’t emotionally well, they ask the person 4 questions to figure out when the dis-ease began… “when were you last comfortable with silence?”, “when were you last entertained by storytelling?”, “when was the last time you sang?”, and “when was the last time you danced?”  I imagine in our culture those might be difficult questions to answer.

I came home from my travels abroad wondering how I could start to make music and dance more a part of my everyday life and less a final performance I was rehearsing for.  Taking it a step further, I had these questions… how could I begin to use music as a way of co-creating with God?  How could I best “take the gifts I had been given and give them as gift?” as Matthew 10:8 so eloquently put it, and how could I implement music as a way to help others feel a sense of connection and belonging?

I joined my church choir which felt like a step in the right direction… singing with my fellow parishioners the comforting words of psalms like,“God is my light and my salvation of whom should I be afraid, of whom should be afraid” felt like a form of music therapy at times. Also, singing in choirs, joining my voice with others to create balance and harmony, has always been like an express highway to feeling the presence of God. I still appreciate ministering with my church community this way most Sundays. 

Many years after returning from travels abroad though, I found myself crying tears of happiness as I listened to a radio program that described a way to minister through music that felt much more attainable and natural than the academic music therapy major had.  The program was about Threshold Singers, volunteer groups of women throughout the country who sing songs of comfort and healing to those who are on thresholds in their lives.  The very next day after hearing the radio program and with Brenna’s encouragement, I marked a date on my calendar and began inviting all of my musical, female friends and relatives to join me on whatever this journey was I was about to begin.  Thankfully some did join me and so… 7 years ago the Threshold Singers of Dubuque was born. Our mission statement reads: “We sing these songs for people who are in need of a song for any reason: illness, comfort, transition, confusion, joy, birth, death, celebration.  We gather once a month to sing through some of the songs, to keep both the songs and our community with one another alive.  When we hear that a friend’s mother is ill; that a baby is born; that a new home is found; that someone is dying; that a time of sadness has come– all of these and many more are times to offer our songs. When people in our wider community request it, we arrive in groups of three or more at homes, bedsides, hospitals and care centers, singing for about 20 minutes.  Our gift is so freely given that it is sometimes hard to convey to others what we bring and how easy it is to get us there.  In a world where so much beauty is sold for money or direct payback, we rejoice in this opportunity to model what humans do better than we know: to give and receive freely, knowing that there is no distinction between giver and receiver.”

I’ve asked a few Threshold singers to join me today to sing a few more songs for you so you can get an idea of what our musical offering is like.  Our songs are all acapella and are very mantra-like in their repetitive nature.  Our hope is that this will allow the listener to truly be comforted or uplifted by the music instead of trying to process the words. Songs:1.angel wash 2.i wish that I could show you 3. Surrounding you

I imagine any of us Threshold singers would tell you that being with people during these very sacred, delicate, and liminal moments in their lives has very much felt like a collaboration with the divine creator.  We hope that our songs help to ritualize these vulnerable moments and allow people to feel a sense of being a part of a beloved community in some small way. 

To this point in my talk I’ve talked a lot about singing but since merry making was part of the title I want to mention two other paths I’ve pursued on my journey. Two years after the birth of the Threshold group, while searching for a square dance band and caller to lead a celebratory dance for the opening of the Catholic Worker intentional farm community of which I am a part, I stumbled upon an ad- “learn to be a square dance caller!” I had a flashback of some of the square dances I’d been to, one in particular where my then 3-year old energetic son was in the middle of every square and circle dance, surrounded on every side by the smiling faces of people of all ages who were experiencing collective joy through dance. A few days later, I followed my calling to be a caller and signed up for the workshop and have been calling dances in the barn on the farm where I live, at weddings, and at other gatherings where people want to connect through dance ever since. What I have found and truly come to appreciate about square dancing is that in this ever-growing disconnected day and age, where most entertainment is purchased, screen-heavy, and individualized, there is something about dancing together in this way that goes against the tide and reminds us of our basic connection to each other. This type of dancing is for one and all and is another activity where I feel as though I am partnering with God and others to create something that reflects God’s beauty, truth, and love.

And lastly, as some of you may know I am a staff member at a sweet, little, community oriented craft brewery, Jubeck New World Brewing, where many years ago some of us staff members decided to start a ‘house’ band. As our ideas evolved we realized that what we all wanted most was for the band to somehow manifest more singing in the world, and not just our own. So we became the Jubeck Family Band that (before covid- BC) held monthly sing-a-longs in the taproom that supported various local nonprofits. This too has become such an absolutely delightful way of bringing some joy and singing into other’s lives.

In closing, I’ve expressed some ways in which I have come to co-create with others and God through music and dance. What are ways you and the Divine collaborate to manifest more beauty, truth, and love in the world? In the end, my desire is that like Pete Seeger’s reading says, that when people engage in or experience the Cathedral Choir, the threshold singers, square dancing, or a sing-a-long with the Jubeck family band that they will know there is hope for the world. And I would go on to say that I hope that in some small way or for just a few moments they have also felt some song, dance, joy, belonging, connection, or God’s loving presence return to their lives.  Thank you.

Songs:Opening- Open my heart

Song before meditation- Holy Ground

Closing- How can I keep from singing

Readings: 1.“Once upon a time, wasn’t singing a part of everyday life, as much as talking, physical exercise, and religion? Our distant ancestors, wherever they were in the world, sang while pounding grain and paddling canoes, or walking long journeys.

Can we begin to make our lives, once more, all about peace? Finding the right song and singing it over and over is a great way to start.

And when one person taps out a beat while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a new harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.”

— Pete Seeger – American Masters, PBS – broadcast June 13, 2010

  1. Psalm 98 Sing!

Sing songs of praise and thanks!

     for the cosmos around and the     moral law within.

Shout with joy, all you lands;

   lift up your voices, rejoice, sing!

Sing with harps, with voices,

   with trumpets and horns.

Listen! The sea thunders along!

  All life sings its song.

The rivers clap their hands

  The hills ring out with joy.

All these—the voices of God,

   Who is everywhere.