Singing is Praying Twice
By Barry & Joyce Vissell
It makes me (Barry) sad when people tell me they can’t sing. Sometimes I hear their reasons: “I’m tone-deaf!” or “As a child, I was told I couldn’t sing, and was instructed to just mouth the words!”
I often hear people’s fear of singing in public: “I’m afraid of making a fool of myself!” Perhaps this is true of all forms of artistic self-expression, like dancing or painting. It all involves some degree of risk of making a fool of ourselves.
We just finished leading two back-to-back retreats, our four-day beginning mentorship retreat, and then a three-day couples retreat, both in our home. We love to do what we call “circle dances.” This was inspired by Sufi Dancing when I was a psychiatry resident in Portland, OR in 1972. Now called “Dances of Universal Peace,” these weekly dances in the middle of the week were a spiritual haven for Joyce and me, especially for me, swallowed up in taking care of seriously ill mental patients. I realized the power of singing sacred phrases while progressing person to person in the circle. Our work is so much about opening the heart and, for me, singing to another person while making eye contact, is a great tool for opening to more love. Anyway, I cherish each time I get to sing my love to each person and, just as much, receive their love through their voice. Each voice – I mean it – each voice is beautiful!! Each voice expresses the person’s love in a unique way!
And here’s the thing about singing: technique is overrated. The beauty of a singing voice comes not from the vocal cords, but from the heart. When your heart is in your singing, your voice is magnificent.
I am right in there with most of you. I was told I couldn’t sing when I was young and in school. And yes, this was traumatic to me. I was terrified of all forms of artistic self-expression. Meeting Joyce at the age of eighteen in our first year of college, she naturally wanted to dance with me. I simply refused. Four years later, I even refused to dance at our wedding. And sing? Forget it. It was not until my mid-twenties that I started opening my heart and, with that, finding out that I actually could dance – my own unique and initially awkward way – and sing.
Is my singing voice perfect? No way. Do I have a wide range? Not very. Am I always on key? No. But do I love to sing with all my heart? YES! And therefore, what people hear is my love, much more than my voice.
Many years ago, at a Hawaii retreat we were leading, there was a man named David who declared that he needed to take a big risk and sing in front of the group. I’ll never forget that moment, when he opened his mouth and nervously began to sing. It didn’t sound good at first, but he kept on. He bravely moved through his nervousness and self-consciousness and finally entered his zone of joy. We the listeners seemed to all smile at the same moment, when his heart opened and spilled out through his voice. I was aware that his actual voice had not changed that much, but the quality of heartfulness changed everything. It sounded wonderful. We were listening to his heart, not his technique.
The quote, “singing is praying twice” has been attributed to St. Augustine. And I wholeheartedly agree, especially if the words are uplifting and we sing from our hearts. Our words are the first prayer, and then the singing reinforces the prayer.
Covid has been a sad time for many, especially those who have lost a loved one to this illness. And for Joyce and me, our workshops and retreats seemed to evaporate one by one. We did a few online, video-conferencing retreats, which were mostly okay. I occasionally sang with my harmonium (a small pump organ from India), but it sounded terrible when people tried singing with me on Zoom.
I had extra time on my hands. So, sitting with my harmonium or at the piano, I ended up writing over thirty songs and chants. It was a burst of creativity. But I sorely missed singing with a group. I emailed a friend, Adora, who led the Dances of Universal Peace locally. She told me all forms of group singing were still on hold because of Covid. Then, this past October, Joyce and I travelled in our truck camper to Montana for a few weeks, a place we have never been. It was awesome! In Glacier National Park we saw in the wild our first grizzly bear, a truly impressive creature. Yes, we were at a safe distance, standing next to a ranger.
On that trip, one evening in our camper, while snow gently fell outside, we talked about our desires and dreams. I shared with Joyce my desire to sing and chant in a group of live voices. Joyce said, “Let’s pray about it.” So we did. The very next morning, there was an email from Adora letting us know it was time. She said there was a new minister at the Center for Spiritual Living in Santa Cruz, and he wanted more singing and chanting at the center. And masks would only be required for the non-vaccinated. It was truly the answer to our prayer. Our first group singing, although small, was precious to Joyce and me.
In his song, “10,000 Reasons,” Matt Redman sings,
The sun comes up.
It’s a new day dawning.
It’s time to sing my song again.
Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me.
Let me be singing when the evening comes.
I hope this article will inspire you to “pray twice” through singing, and discover how beautiful your voice is when your heart is behind it.
And if you live close enough to Santa Cruz, please join Joyce and me at our next spiritual singing/chanting group Monday, January 3, 6:30-8pm. Bring in the new year with an open heart. More info
Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA, who are passionate about conscious relationship and personal-spiritual growth. They are the authors of 9 books and a new free audio album of sacred songs and chants. Call 831-684-2130 for further information on counseling sessions by phone, on-line, or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at SharedHeart.org for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.
A Free Gift for You
We would love to give you a free gift, our new audio album of sacred songs and chants, available for download at SharedHeart.org, or to listen on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGml4FDMDyI&feature=youtu.be