catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 11 :: 2012.05.25 — 2012.06.07


So lonesome I could dance

After college, I moved to Bolivia as a missionary to teach high school English at a boarding school in the middle of the Andean foothills. Even though I was surrounded by students and colleagues, I missed the camaraderie of my college friends, and felt incredibly lonely. It was also my first year teaching, so much of my time was spent alone in my little adobe apartment, preparing for class. My prayers were variations on the theme, “Lord, help me.”

My friend Sarah, still in college, sent me a cassette tape of her talking to me. Just talking, as if we were having a conversation. Her voice filled my empty apartment, surrounding me with presence. When she finished talking, she played a song from a new local-to-Indiana artist named Josh Garrels.

The sounds switched from one woman talking into a man singing with his catchy guitar and a reggae-ish gospel beat. Josh Garrels turned the first syllable of “alleluia” into ten swooping notes and then finished the word with three quick beats. He repeated the word dozens of times, each time using a different configuration of syllables, beats and notes to sing it. The song made me smile. I got up off the couch and danced, bobbing my head, stomping my feet. When it was over, I rewound the cassette tape and played the song again. And again. And again.

I danced to “Alleluia” in my kitchen whenever the boarding school generator had the power to play the tape deck. I overplayed the song in worse ways than an American radio station would have. It filled my time, my mind and my loneliness.

After I left the boarding school, I stopped playing the song, mostly because it was on cassette. But I came across Josh Garrels online and downloaded the song to my computer. When I heard it again, I couldn’t finish listening to the song because it was repetitive and it reminded me of my lonely apartment. The song had lost its magic.

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Josh Garrels talk about his music and give a concert at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Michigan. In the car on the way home, I listened again to “Alleluia.” Nine years after my experience in Bolivia, I saw the song with new eyes.

The song is a meditative mantra. “Alleluia” is the centering piece of a meditative prayer in which there are no other words. According to the online Catholic Encyclopedia, “Alleluia” comes from two etymological roots: “Allelu” and “la.” “Allelu” is a form of a word that gives praise to God, and “La” is a pronoun for God. The encyclopedia says, “it may be literally rendered, ‘All hail to Him Who is!” All hail to the great I AM.

The Taize community in France sings many songs that repeat a word or phrase. They say that the songs “express a basic reality of faith,” and that by repeating the words, “this reality gradually penetrates the whole being.” I think this is what happened. “Alleluia” was, perhaps, my first experience in meditation and centering prayer: using a word to focus on a spiritual reality beyond my physical circumstances.

In a lonely little apartment, the gift of Josh Garrels’s song through Sarah reversed the mantra of “Lord, help me,” into the praise of “Alleluia,” if only for the length of a song. Now, when I listen to “Alleluia,” I don’t remember the loneliness. I remember it as a dancing prayer. 

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