When fear stares you in the face, what do you do?

susan singingA month ago while attending mass we sang a song I had not heard in years. It triggered a happy memory; in my mind’s eye I was back in my cantor’s place, playing that song on my guitar, singing, and leading the congregation.

It had been a long time since I played that song. It had also been over five years since I had enjoyed a happy memory of cantoring.

The next phase of healing

A while back I wrote about losing my singing voice and then having it restored when my throat was blessed on the Feast of St. Blaise (see previous posts). I described how that healing was more than physical—that there was an emotional healing as well. That healing unfolded over time; I consider it now complete with that pleasant memory of playing and singing as a cantor.

Kevin B 3 FEAR, Flickr Creative Commons

It would prove to be the prelude to the psychological portion of the healing yet to come: how to deal with the fear of performing in public again, especially when it was in public that my voice would fail me.

Never again

Five years ago I made a pledge—that I would never again be controlled by fear. I made a conscious decision to accept what I deemed as invitations from God, even when those invitations aroused dread within.

The challenge

Two weeks ago I received such an invitation, one that inspired so much fear that it felt oppressive. After that sweet memory of cantoring, God was issuing me an invitation—to go public again with my singing.

Cesar Mascarenhas Child Imagination, Flickr Creative Commons
Cesar Mascarenhas Child Imagination, Flickr Creative Commons

Sounds simple enough. But to me, cantoring was that was the proverbial monster in the closet. It was as a cantor that I suffered mortification as my voice failed in spectacular fashion in front of a full church. Not once, but several times.

Fear was staring me in the face. Sitting on my shoulders, leaning on me, unrelenting until I decided how I would respond.

My response? “I’ll think about it.”

I kicked the can down the road. I told God I would “pray on it” when I knew full well I was supposed to accept that invitation.

God then responded with sweet mercy that I did not deserve. It came through that interview with The Priests (see previous post). In listening to them I was struck as they described how they reflect on the lives of their parishioners while they sing. They don’t think  about performance techniques. They don’t worry about their voices. They aren’t swept up in their fame.

They are thinking about people like you and me.

That gave me great pause. It was time to get over myself and accept God’s invitation to cantor for my parish. I knew then I would have to run straight into my fear.

Taking the plunge

photo by Ellen Linn
photo by Ellen Linn

So, I offered to sing at the 9am mass on Easter morning. Fortunately I forgot that it was the children’s mass and that the church would be packed to the rafters. I forgot too how difficult it can be to get parking and how little time there is between the masses on Easter to set up the equipment and get ready.

Remembering

I didn’t remember until the day before and then I was really afraid! I could feel fear rising up inside of me, paying no heed to my mind which said simply, “Practice, prepare and you will do just fine. Keep your head about you and own the moment.”

I knew in my mind I could do it. But the fear raged on nonetheless.

I broke out in a cold sweat and felt pressure on the chest. Fear pressed down to my gut.

I knew I had to run headlong into it. I called on St. Paul to come with me. He’s good at dealing with fear. And he has always come quickly to my side when I needed bolstering.

Time to face the music

I stood in front of the packed church, guitar strapped over my shoulder. It was ten minutes before mass and I wanted to sing to the people to help them get into the mood. It would also help me to work out my fear.

Some things you never forget

As I started playing and singing, the song flowed out of me as if I had never stopped cantoring. The mass began and I led the people in the opening hymn; the church filled up with voices singing “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!”

And at that moment I understood.

This is what it means to be living in the present moment. This is how you conquer fear.

You own that moment. You claim that moment. You call it out and hand it over to God and you stay rooted in that moment.

And fear cannot harm you.

Oh, you will feel afraid! That’s a given. But feelings cannot control you if you stay rooted in the moment. This where God can best help you because he is always in the moment. Time has no meaning for him.

Be not afraid.

St. John Paul II was famous for that expression. But I don’t believe he meant that we were never to experience fear.

I understand now that “Be not afraid” means fear will not conquer. It will come and it will go, and you will still be left standing if you call out that fear and give it over to the One who knows no fear.

Madeleine Deaton Conquering that fear of heights one step at a time, Flickr Creative Commons
Madeleine Deaton Conquering that fear of heights one step at a time, Flickr Creative Commons

The monster in the closet shrinks perceptibly when you name it, claim it and push through it with the Lord at your side.

And that’s what happened on Easter morning. The longer I sang, the more fear retreated. Fear is a coward when confronted.

Fear will try to come back each time I sing. But it will never again control me.

What has caused you fear and how did you overcome it? Maybe like the woman in the picture we just do it one step at a time, knowing our Friend is at our side.

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The most precious of gifts: listening

I created a video for this post with a musical backdrop and images to inspire you. You can read the text below:

Recently I wrote a post about dealing with the noise, busyness and general chaos of the Christmas season. Our involvement in the many worthwhile activities of decorating, cooking, entertaining, party-hopping, buying and wrapping gifts, sending cards, volunteering our time and treasure to charities, and spending time with our families can make our heads spin. I proposed that a renewed focus on the season of Advent, with its call to simplicity and quiet, would make a wonderful antidote.

Elderly woman sits alone for Christmas by simpleinsomnia, Flickr Creative Commons
Elderly woman sits alone for Christmas by simpleinsomnia, Flickr Creative Commons

A reader responded with an unexpected comment: “I have the opposite problem. I would love a bit of noise and chaos at Christmas.” Jay described her situation of caring for a homebound mother and a disabled husband, with other family members living too far away to visit. Suddenly my assumption that a quiet Christmas was best for everyone felt arbitrary. “Quiet” can assume many forms, including loneliness and isolation.

I immediately wrote back to Jay, attempting to offer some consolation; I wanted to do something to mitigate her circumstance. In the writing I realized that I too understood the ramifications of a Christmas “gone quiet.” My own family circle has grown noticeably smaller over the years with my parents gone and my sister, brother-in-law and nephews scattered across the country. Although the circumstances were different, Jay and I ended up sharing a common problem.

1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström, Flickr Creative Commons
1935 Juldagen by Britt-Marie Sohlström, Flickr Creative Commons

Jay responded to my letter, opening up about her situation. Because of her husband’s disability, it is nearly impossible for them to visit friends. In fact, in order to see her mother on Christmas day, she has to leave him behind. She waxed nostalgic on the past, writing, “we had such a lovely time with the cousins and aunts and uncles when I was a child, and when we lived closer by.” She wrote of longing to help others, of getting a tree only to leave it unadorned and of the futility of buying gifts when no one really needed anything. She gently berated herself in her longing for Christmases past full of Santa Claus, gifts and overeating; as a teacher in the Methodist church she is keenly aware of the true meaning of the day.

However, as we continued to write back and forth, I noticed her mood quickly shifting from laments to gratitude. Jay began recounting her blessings, most notably the love she has for her husband and mother. I could feel the warmth of that love coming across the Atlantic from her home in Ipswich, England to mine in North Grafton, Massachusetts. It was then that I began to understand the power behind listening.

I had entered into the correspondence assuming my usual role of problem solver; I was going to make everything better! It soon became clear however that I was meant to be a friend; to listen to and acknowledge another person’s life story. It was not about me solving a problem and looking like a hero; it was about Jay needing someone to be fully present, listening with mind and heart. Paying attention to her life rather than mine required humility.

Yet, once I surrendered to the idea, I could see God’s grace unfolding. The focus of our letters changed from melancholic remembrances to gratitude for the blessings we both enjoy. Gratitude fueled action with Jay vowing to get into the spirit by attending a couple of get-together lunches and taking in a local concert of carols presented by her town’s brass band. I, in turn, volunteered to join a band of Christmas carolers in our parish, and inquired about taking communion to nursing home residents. Jay and I are exchanging gifts through the mail. Listening has turned strangers into friends.

Virginia McMillan cuddled up cats, Flickr Creative Commons
Virginia McMillan cuddled up cats, Flickr Creative Commons

Our correspondences caused me to examine myself: why do I insist on giving people what I would not want for myself? When I share my heart with someone, I don’t want judgment or unsolicited advice or easy answers. Many problems cannot be solved but rather, must be endured. I just want a sympathetic ear. Doesn’t it make sense then that sometimes my family and friends, neighbors and even strangers just want someone to accept where they are at that very moment and sit close by, saying nothing?

I experienced this recently as another friend shared with me the pain of watching her best friend slip away behind the fog of dementia. I empathized, recalling my mother’s mental deterioration and personality change, but decided that it was best just to let her talk. We ended our conversation in silence, looking at each other with misty eyes.

Jay taught me how to do that.

If I were to sit on Santa’s knee, I would say: “St. Nicholas, please ask the Lord to help me grow in grace as a good listener.”

For listening is one of the most precious gifts we can give to each other.

Note: It turns out Jay and I have something else in common–Foster Dad John’s Critter Room!

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Listen to Susan’s music Read Susan’s blog, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion