“And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on”. Those are some of my favorite lyrics in all of the hymnody I know, and they come from the traditional hymn that Annie McEwen reflects on today. I had the privilege of directing Annie in a choir at Boston College, and can attest that she is a lovely singer and marvelously creative in many ways. She shares that creativity here today as part of the How Can I Keep from Singing series.
As a young girl I sang and performed every chance that I got. School plays, talent shows, the works. And since I’m a cradle Catholic, most of my early singing career was in my school’s church choir. I learned about God and my faith through the melodies of church hymns more than I ever did from Sunday school or my religion classes. So I have continued to sing in the church choir as my primary form of prayer. In my time at Boston College the church choir became one of the most important parts of my life. It only seemed fair—God gave me the gift of song, I might as well use that gift to praise God.
In the midst of all this singing, how am I supposed to choose my favorite church song? The task seems insurmountable, but I hope the following story will help illustrate why I’ve chosen the folk hymn “What Wondrous Love is This?”
In spite of my constant desire to sing and my generally loud nature, in the winter of my junior year I signed up for a five-day silent retreat loosely based on St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. I didn’t know what I would find in all of that silence, but at the very least it seemed like a good chance to recharge before the start of second semester. So I packed my bags and headed to a large mansion in the middle of the woods to sleep, read, walk, journal, and maybe talk to God. What I never expected was that God would talk back.
It was the second day of the retreat, and I had already been drowning in an emotional tidal wave. Despite having experienced several versions of the Spiritual Exercises, none had ever hit me quite this hard. After reading scripture and poetry, going on long nature walks, and talking to my spiritual director on the retreat, I managed to break through to the reality of God’s love for me, of Christ’s gift to us. I was suddenly in love with God in a way I hadn’t known existed, and in exchange God’s total self-gift I wanted to give a gift in return. I wanted to sing, even if it meant breaking my silence. It seemed like the right thing to do, and “What Wondrous Love” seemed like the perfect song.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this
That caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!
To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb,
Who is the great I AM,
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing,
While millions join the theme, I will sing.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free
I’ll sing and joyful be,
And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
And through eternity I’ll sing on.
These simple lyrics perfectly capture what I was feeling that day. It seemed then (and still today) too wondrous that Christ would sacrifice so much my soul. And just as the song goes on to say, I want to sing about it for eternity. So I walked through the frosted woods until I found a place that seemed perfect—a stretch of land near the river with a view of a rustic barn, and a lone goose standing on the ice as my audience. I took a deep breath, ready to sing, when out of nowhere—HONK!
The goose stopped me in my tracks, as if he knew I was about to break my silence. In the distance I heard more honking, a cacophonous song that was the most noise than I’d heard all weekend. I watched stupefied as dozens of geese dove into the river, creating one of the most beautiful and powerful moments of my life. I was stunned back into silence, knowing that these geese were God’s way of singing to me, letting me know that She heard me in the silence, and that She loved me unconditionally. These geese were part of the millions joining the theme of God’s creation, and I was not about to get in the way of their song. Humbled and overwhelmed, I headed back to the house, wrapped in the warmth of God’s wondrous love.
There are few moments in my young life that I can compare to this one; this total immersion in God’s love that I wish I could say lasted beyond that silent retreat. But it comes back when I sing “What Wondrous Love” and the dozens of other songs that have lifted my soul over the years, or when I sit back in silence and remember to let the beauty of God’s creation sing to me, as those geese almost two years ago. So through eternity I’ll sing on.
Annie McEwen is a 2014 graduate of Boston College and former president of the Liturgy Arts Group. Until she goes on to pursue a PhD and teach art history, she is currently acting as a professional ice cream scooper, cake decorator, and barista extraordinaire. You can follow her adventures on her current blog, What Are Your Plans? https://whatareyourplans.wordpress.com/