There is a feeling, deep in the pit of my stomach, when I sing. It’s not there when I sing just anything, though. I can belt out “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” at a Cabaret night in high school or sing along with Jack Johnson that senior year beginning in the fall with the lazy sunset and the cabin where the seniors got to spend the last night, without it. It isn’t just the love of opening my mouth and hearing my vocal chords spill over into the air, into the room, into your hearing.
It only happens when I sing hymns.
I used to think them too old, but I didn’t grow up in the youth groups and the guitar lessons, the right chords to Hillsong and Chris Tomlin. A friend who went to a congregational church did, filled with stories of the ski trips and missions trips and summer bible studies, filled with games and the healthy junk food and the praise songs, that got you up off your chair and swaying, as you closed your eyes and, it seemed, something wondrous happened.
I was an Episcopalian becoming Anglican, thinking about Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and I didn’t know those songs, only the old hymns, the 1982 blue hymnal hymns, the tunes we would plunk out on the piano or I would offer to sing into the few standing microphones we had at the church. I wanted to sing with some kind of lark angelic sound. I wanted to bring others near to God with my singing, make something happen in the seats, in the church, out in the world. But I didn’t think hymns could do that.
But St. Patrick had a hymn – we call it St. Patrick’s Breastplate – the hymn of “I Bind Unto Myself Today”. It has seven verses and verse six has a completely different melody than the others, and verse one is short -
I sang it first tripping over the words and syllables in a small church in New England where the altar was hidden far back and the priest climbed stairs to the pulpit to preach, and then again in St. John’s Hall, where the praise band played it with guitars and a drum set as we set a kitchen table groaning with altar cloth and frontal piece and those gifts, through and by the Spirit the Body and the Blood, where we made the space alive with our voices and cupped hands. I sang it unsure then -
and then again, and again, I have watched that hymn follow me across state lines and countries, through empty fields where I only remembered one half of one verse in England or along highways and -
you see, when I sing it, the words coming and going like water, when I sing it, close my eyes in church or stand in the shower or just hum bits of it to myself in the car, I realize -
the hymn binds me to Christ.
This song is an act of prayer, this song is an act of worship, this song, this hymn, with all its mystery, the cadence of its sounds, this binds me to Christ.
I bind unto myself today, the strong name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three.
The feeling in the pit of my stomach is less about my singing, more about my spirit.
I bind unto myself, today.