Last night, we gathered in the home of the dearest of friends for an evening of music and fellowship. It was a celebration of God’s bounty in our lives, the most treasured and notable of which were the people that filled the rooms of our friends’ new-old house. With each year that passes, we take these loved faces less and less for granted. I seriously do not know what I would do without them, such trusted companions of sunshine and shadow, and I can hardly even begin to thank God for their influence in my life.
Every person there was a beautiful sight to my eyes. Some of the friendships represented were brand new, bright with lovely promise, while others were of a lifetime’s duration. Parents and siblings filled the circle, and the angel-fresh faces of three little girls whom Philip and I love with a devotion akin to servitude.
My friends and I sang some of the old favorites in our repertoire, with a couple of Early American “shape note” songs as an eager hat-tip to Christmas. There were readings of original poetry and essay, an exquisite selection on classical guitar, and a husband and wife duo that literally broke our hearts with the sheer beauty of their oneness expressed in words and music. The kind of music that makes you smile with your eyes full of tears.
At the end of our little program, before the ‘congregational singing’, my friend Rachel and I sang a piece that is very dear to both of our hearts, “When They Ring the Golden Bells”. I had come across a version of it years ago, a collaboration between Natalie Merchant and Karen Peris, and was immediately struck by both the beauty and the familiarity of it. I had always wanted to learn it with Rach, and we did play around with it a bit. But when my grandmother died, Rachel agreed to do the song with me at her funeral, and it was while we were practicing it that I made the connection where I had first heard it–at Rachel’s wedding, of all things. It was such a sudden, poignant illustration to me of the sweet brevity of our days, and of the glorious perspective on life and death held out to us in the Gospel. When we sang this song together at my little grandmother’s funeral, with my brother accompanying us on the guitar, all I could think about was the great Marriage Feast that was awaiting. The real end of the Story.
Last summer we set down a few tracks of some of the duets we’d worked on, and Rachel’s long-suffering and extremely talented brother came to play the guitar for us. I can’t express how patient he was with our demands upon his prowess, alternately instructing him to speed up or slow down according to our whimsy as he strummed and plucked and picked his way through songs like, “I Saw a Maiden” and “Oh! Tell Me How to Woo Thee”.
Don’t tell anyone I’m doing this, was the look he gave us when the songs leaned too heavily on the sentimental side. But we all had a fantastic time together, and I think that when we came to “Golden Bells”, he was relieved that here, at last, was a song in which there was no dighting me in array or Fie! Nay, pritthee-ing.
My rendition of it last night was considerably less sound than the one we recorded on that sunny July day, as my voice wavered and broke a couple of times at the vast span of emotion and association connected with the song for me. I was overwhelmed with what it all meant; with the faces in the room and the faces I can’t wait to see again in heaven. And with the deathless promise of the One who “will wipe away all tears from off their faces…”
Here it is, if you’d care to hear it. It’s not perfect–at least, certainly not my part–though Rach sounds like an angel and Joseph like a master and Philip did a great job mixing it down.
Thank God I have these people in my life. I love them so.