I had the great pleasure of singing with Liz all through college, where we both cut our teeth on a wide variety of liturgical and musical styles. I’m so glad she agreed to write about a piece for the How Can I Keep from Singing? series.
When I first volunteered to write a short piece about my favorite church song, I thought that this would be an easy assignment. I often feel like a living version of Spotify for liturgical music after so many years of active participation in this ministry. However, I swiftly realized how difficult it was to narrow the field.
As a child of the 80s, I love the St. Louis Jesuits, and their songs conjure memories of some wonderful times in my life. There are songs from Biebl, Gounod, and Faure that fall into the “favorite songs to sing as a soprano” category. There are somber songs that are favorites during Lent, and then there are others like “Though the Mountains May Fall” that are simply fun to hear and conduct when you have instrumentalists playing the flute, viola, violin, soprano saxophone, guitar, bass guitar, and piano.
But as I spent more time trying to come up with THE favorite, I found my thoughts returning constantly to “Canticle of the Turning” by Rory Cooney. I must add that until a few years ago, I really did not care for this song at all. I never focused on the words, because I was distracted or turned off by way it was being played: heavy-handed piano or over-the-top flute or a ridiculous tempo that left the congregation gasping for breath. And then I heard my friend, Michael Iafrate, play it: single instrumentation and harmonies, slower and more reflective. That was when I realized what a powerful prayer this song was.
So why this song for this simple reflection? Perhaps it is because I recently spent some time in the southern coalfields of West Virginia and have been reflecting on the extractive industries and the power they wield in my home state. Perhaps it is because I daily encounter people in my work who face massive inequalities and barriers and who often feel hopeless and powerless in the face of their situations. Perhaps it is because I too often feel small, insignificant, and paralyzed when I analyze the depth and complexity of many issues in my state: poverty, high unemployment, drug use, the brain drain, and so forth.
For all these reasons and many more, this song speaks to me at my core, especially the second verse.
Though I am small, my God, my all,
You work great things in me.
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
To the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
And to those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
For the world is about to turn.
Liz Paulhus is the Northern Regional Director for Catholic Charities West Virginia. On Sunday mornings she can be found directing music at the chapel at Wheeling Jesuit University.