Beliefnet
Reprinted from the February 2004 issue of Seeker Journal with permission.

I was complaining to our High Priestess about the lack of singing in our coven, and she replied with several suggestions: "How about 'Moon River' or 'You Are My Sunshine' or 'Oh, What a Beautiful Morning' or 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone' or 'The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Music'? All are nature-based, and lovely..."All the groups I've been with have loved to join in song. When I was a kid in the Presbyterian Sunday School, we sang "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." I grew to dislike the words, but they were fun to sing. Later, when I was a counselor at a camp near the village of Lake Orion, it was my job to take the Protestant kids off to a church service every Sunday, where we sang that rousing hymn, "Onward Christian soldiers," ending it with "Lake Orion for Christ!" That was the summer when I decided for sure that I wasn't going to be a Christian soldier. Still, it was fun to sing the words, loudly, to help keep us awake through the coming sermon.When I was a minister myself, in a deteriorating church in Colorado Springs, we were expected to sing the semirousing Victorian hymns in the official hymnal, most of which helped to ease the congregation into slumber. But there were a couple of hymns that I loved and scheduled as often as I could. There was the wonderful Quaker hymn, "How can I keep from singing?" My favorite verse went, "When tyrants tremble, sick with fear, and hear their death-knells ringing, when Friends rejoice, both far and near, how can I keep from singing?"There was also the Shaker chant, "Simple gifts": "'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free, 'tis a gift to come round where you ought to be," to be sung while dancing in a circle. It comes as the climax to the Shaker wedding in Aaron Copland's ballet "Appalachian Spring." Most church hymns, though, are dull, dull, dull.
One of the great attractions of the Witchy groups I later discovered was that they loved to sing. At Yule this year, I remembered the time when our small coven went out to serenade the neighborhood with our own Pagan carols. These were generally re-written versions of traditional carols, so the neighbors, who couldn't hear the words clearly, didn't know they were getting Pagan sentiments instead of the usual Christian doctrines. We tried this again at a Yule ritual recently, and our carols were the high point of the evening.For many years, Pagan chants were a regular part of our coven meetings. The chants are totally different from traditional hymn-singing, which is a dull repetition of old doctrines. Their main purpose seems to have been to make the congregation stand up, to relieve the strain of sitting through a lengthy sermon. For us, the purpose of the chant is to bring us out of our mundane lives, out of our body, and into direct contact with the Sprit around us. At times, we've chanted for an hour or more, reaching for a high point of personal ecstasy, entering into the realms of magic. We might sing "We all come from the Goddess, and to Her we shall return, like a drop of rain, falling to the ocean." As we sing these words over and over, we come to a sense of our spiritual source in the Great Goddess. The coven comes together in this recognition, which becomes the basis for healing and personal growth. At another time we might chant some of the names of the Goddess, "Isis Astarte Diana, Hecate Demeter Kali, Iananna," feeling their presence among us. They never leave us, but we have to recognize that they are there.

Over the past few years, we seem to have lost our ability to sing. While there are some performance pieces, there are few new chants. We keep going back to chants that were familiar to us twenty years ago, and we mostly sit in silence when we should be singing. I've thought of the old songs while I was out running through the snow. I was chanting the old words of my Quaker ancestors, "How can I keep from singing?"

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