When I’m in a funk, I generally feed into it and make it worse. Once we are in a rut it is easy to continue the spiral downward. I’m good at admonishing myself for lacking gratitude when I feel this way. It might be a Catholic guilt thing.
A few days ago, I was in a dark place; but this time I tried to own my sadness, acknowledge it, and let it go. The only thing I could think to do in hopes of shifting my emotions was to put on music – something up beat that would allow me to transcend the moment.
I listened to a live version of “Stay” by The Dave Matthews Band, a song about embracing the beauty of our lives and the idea that those moments where it feels like we are just wasting time are often our most precious; the ones that allow us to connect with each other and ourselves. It was the sermon I needed — and an important lesson my uncle taught me — but more on that shortly.
I often say that I think music is the sound of my spirit — our spirits. As I started writing this, I struggled with finding the words to articulate the feeling music provokes within me. There is little else that creates such an indescribable experience and that is why I think that music is where I find my connection to the divine.
Traditional religious services have always felt challenging to me. I don’t connect to much of anything and generally find myself feeling angry and rejected by the Church and the community where I am supposed to find God. My grappling with Catholicism aside, we are told that our spiritual lives must take place within particular dimensions, and for many of us God is not there.
As a feminist theologian, I’ve struggled with connection to the divine and instead have embraced Mary Daly’s concept of God as verb; the idea that the sacred is revealed through just action. I still very much believe that. Nonetheless, it occurred to me to have such an indescribable, emotional, and transcendent experience should also be described as sacred.
Music has the ability to convey messages of greater meaning that can unify and allow us to recognize one another’s humanity. A song is a shared story, an opportunity to know we are not alone, and to learn from one another. It can be perceived as a prayer, a prophetic message, a call to action, and a life philosophy.
For me, music has always been a source to cope with suffering, connect deeply with others, and celebrate or observe significant moments. It invokes nostalgia and can carry us to a place that allows us to re-experience meaningful times we might not recall in the same way. For instance, I recently received this message from a friend about a moment we shared in high school twenty eight years ago. I laughed and cried at the same time as I read it and found myself back in that moment — two teenage girls laughing, dancing, and singing to one of our favorite songs that played over a speaker in the town square. Without the Doors, hanging out with a friend on a bench one random evening would likely had been forgotten.
Music as a conduit of spirituality makes sense to me. I’ve come to define spirituality as that which is life giving; connecting to our spiritual selves gives us the opportunity to do more than simply survive the daily grind. It enables us to find joy in those moments we sometimes overlook and offers the ability to experience the divine.
I love that Joan Baez posed the question, “All of us are survivors, but how many of us transcend survival?” Music can take us there. It takes me there. I can’t always articulate it, but I know it when I feel it.
Too often we discount our physicality in favor of a spiritual after all. While music allows us to transcend, we are not transcending our bodily existence; but instead, it empowers us to experience the spiritual as physical beings. It reconnects these two aspects of ourselves that we sometimes pin against one another; and in doing so we recognize ourselves as sacred and become whole.
I’ve never thought of myself as a creative person. But a shared love for music inspired me to attempt to make a gift for a dear friend — who is also an artist. I wanted to create something that represented one of our many bonds. Although I feared the end result would look like a kindergartner’s project; I decided to at least try. I found that engaging in creative practice around music was cathartic and I’ve started making sound wave art from songs that are the sermons I’ve needed to hear. I’ve listened to them more times than I can count, I just didn’t know how to process them.
This past week I visited my Uncle Ralph who is in hospice. I wanted to take him something meaningful. I wanted to put the time and effort in so that he would feel my love for him. I didn’t know what music he liked other than to guess it included “the oldies” and I spent a lot of time thinking about what song would be fitting in a moment where words generally fail us. I finally decided on “Over the Rainbow” by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole. I chose this because it was my mom’s favorite song — his sister — and their cousin knew IZ in life and has a strong spiritual connection to him. That said, I wasn’t even sure my uncle had ever heard it.
Within moments of me beginning to work on the piece, my uncle sent me a text message of a picture of himself wearing a lei and playing a ukulele that read, “Look, I’m just like IZ on an island in my own paradise.” I cried. God was there.
The next day I went to see my uncle and gave him a framed image of the sound wave art eager to tell him about the timing of his message. He looked stunned and asked, “how did you know?” I wasn’t sure what he meant. As I held my uncle’s hand he said to me, “this is my very favorite song ever. I listen to it every day.”
Forever the comedian, my uncle has always been known for making everyone laugh. He told me that as he sat and looked out at his yard, the garden he and my aunt spent so much time caring for over the last forty years, and all that they created with their two children, he finally realized that what sometimes seemed like wasted time produced the most precious moments in his life. He said, “I always thought that laughter is the best medicine. I was wrong. Love is the best medicine.”
In my dear Uncle Ralph, I saw God. And so, when I listened to “Stay” in my car a few days later, I thought about him and I felt the spirit of the infinite within me.
We experience our spirituality and the divine in so many different ways. As with all social structures, when we try to fit into oppressive norms we stifle all that gives us life. We cannot force a connection with God through a faulty conduit. What is important is that we affirm ourselves when we find it — when we feel it. Embrace those experiences, name them for what they are and recognize that you are sacred and the divine – whatever that means to you – is present.
Gina Messina, Ph.D. is an American feminist scholar, Catholic theologian, activist, and mom. She serves as Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College and is co-founder of . She has written for the Huffington Post and is author or editor of five books including Jesus in the White House: Make Humanity Great Again and Women Religion Revolution. Messina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, Tavis Smiley, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives of women around the globe. Messina is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Instagram: @GinaMessinaPhD, Facebook, and her website ginamessina.com.