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Terez Mertes

Faith in Music

March 31, 2009 at 6:44 PM

I had a Sunday afternoon symphony to attend earlier this month and decided to go up to San Francisco in the morning to taste-test a few Catholic Masses. The multi-Mass business is not something I make a habit of doing. I’m a lifelong Catholic, but not much of a practicing one anymore outside the major holidays. But I needed detail for my newest writing project, a novel about a spiritually bankrupt woman, a Catholic whose teenaged daughter’s charismatic religious experiences soon affect the family and church community, divided over how to interpret them.

In spite of years of waning belief in Catholic dogma, I have always felt welcome and comfortable inside a Catholic church. It’s kind of like Costco; once you join the club, you’re welcome at any location around the world. The first church I visited that day was Église Notre Dame des Victoires, located next to the French consulate, tucked between Union Square and Chinatown. The Mass was entirely in French, reminiscent of my Peace Corps days in French-speaking Africa, where I taught at a Catholic mission and attended weekly Mass. The San Francisco church was small but pretty, elegant, very European-feeling, making me feel far removed from my everyday world. I liked that; I liked the foreignness, even when I didn’t understand everything that was being said.

The vague disorientation lingered into the second Mass, despite the fact that this one was in English. St. Dominic’s, in Lower Pacific Heights, is a gorgeous Gothic-style church that sits on an entire city block, a city landmark with its flying buttresses and grey stone grandeur. This is a very important church for me—it’s where some scenes in my novel take place. I always give my characters a “real” house and setting so I can know where they might shop, take coffees, dine out. I love to seek out and pass “their” home, and yet, at the same time, gazing at it always makes me feel sad. I can be so close, pressed right up to these characters’ lives, but I can’t get inside.

This, I realize, is not unlike how I feel about my childhood faith.

St. Dominic’s 11:30am service is Solemn Mass. It’s the full shebang: an entourage of priests and altar boys, robed choir singing in Latin, booming organ, smoking incense, suspended lighting drawing the eyes upward, toward the stained glass, the high ceilings. It was pageantry and Catholic ritual at its finest. It was undeniably beautiful. How strange, then, that it should make me feel so ambivalent, so ungrounded.

From my corner spot I observed the others as they received communion and returned to their seats. I envied them their serenity, the faith and assurance I could see shining in their eyes. It’s been so long since I felt that way. If I could go back to that place of absolute belief in my religion, I would. But I can’t; my vision of humanity, of the human condition, has grown too broad. At the thought, a spasm of childish rage shoots through me. Why is it that faith for some people is something they try on in youth and it grows with them, whereas for others, we outgrow that childhood faith, that dogma, and are forced to set out to redefine our spirituality, outside organized religion’s parameters?

I stayed long after Mass ended, trying to focus on the beauty of the church, the ambiance, trying to drum positive thoughts into my head, dully wondering if this meant I needed to come back and try again to “earn back” my sense of belonging within the Church. When parishioners began to gather for the next Mass, I packed up my notebook, my bag, and headed out. It had begun to rain, a steady grey drizzle. I felt the same way inside.

I looked at my watch. I’d lingered too long; Anne-Sophie Mutter was playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony in less than an hour. Driving across town, the minutes ticked ever closer to two o’clock. Parking was a bear, I was stressed, angry with myself, weighed down with the heaviness I’d just experienced. I made it to Davies Hall with only minutes to spare, hurrying to my seat, tense, crabby, damp from the rain. I managed to unwind during the first piece, a short Prokofiev selection that was melodic and pleasing without being gripping. Then came the Mendelssohn.


Everything inside me that had been trying, analyzing, fretting, obsessing now simply let go. Everything that had been locked in now released. It was like coming in from the cold when you’ve been cold for so long you’ve almost gotten used to it and had made peace with its discomfort.

This, not the church, was where my spirituality found me.

And with it, a big life lesson. You can seek out spirituality all you want, trying to force a fit for any number of reasons. But in the end, it’s the spirituality that finds you.

I didn’t cry through the first and second movements so much as leak tears, like those irrigation hoses that release water drop by drop onto thirsty soil. Each drop seemed to relieve the pressure inside me, stabilize me. This coming-home feeling. This “now I can stop trying” feeling. This deep, profound gratitude to Brahms, to Anne-Sophie Mutter. She has surely played that concerto hundreds of times, but I could feel her respect for the piece, her thoughtfulness, particularly in the way the cadenza seeming to rise and fall naturally, like a breath. I myself have heard the concerto a hundred times and yet somehow, that afternoon, its freshness and inspiration caught me by surprise.

What a relief—indeed, a privilege—to seek out spirituality on a Sunday and find it. Just not where I’d assumed it should be.

Silly me. Of course, the music. Always, the music.


© 2009 Terez Rose


From Tom Holzman
Posted on March 31, 2009 at 6:58 PM

Wow!  What a wonderful blog.  You are very brave to talk in detail about such personal things as religious faith.  I hope your novel will be a great success. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 31, 2009 at 8:02 PM

 >You are very brave to talk in detail about such personal things as religious faith. 

Hopefully not foolish! : /

Thanks for the comments, Tom.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on March 31, 2009 at 8:12 PM

 I feel very similar too you!  Of course, I'm a catholic but have a very sceptical way of thinking. I analyse everything in an almost scientific manner and am not able to believe things that have not been proven.  But, I could say that my new religion, the one that I found out too late that really tells something to me is music!   I have for my saying that everything is ok if it makes you a better person.  You can learn life lessons by going to church or by doing music, listening to David Oistrakh (lol :) the Oistrakh fans will understand me here!)   Music is such a teacher, it teaches you to never never take things for granted, humility (missing your shot on front of many people is going through school of hard knocks to learn this!!!), willigness, self control when you become angry, respect of other's achivments, unite everyone from every contry...  If this is not close to what is suppose to be the purpose of each religion before being misunderstood by some extremists, I don't know what to say...  Good luck for you novel!!!


From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 31, 2009 at 8:53 PM

 Well put, Anne-Marie. Great to hear your thoughts on the subject. : )  (Et tu aurais aimé la messe en français! Tom, toi aussi.)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 31, 2009 at 10:28 PM

After a long search, I left my childhood church (mainline Protestant) and became a Unitarian-Universalist when I was around 30.  UU is a "talky" denomination, not much on ritual or pageantry, (at least as practiced here in New England, home of famous Unitarians like Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts).  I'm pretty involved in my church--teach Sunday School, was in the choir, play violin and viola in services--but I've also always found personal spirituality in music much more than in words.  It's almost like two separate spheres.  

From Thomas Gardner
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 2:29 AM

I'm sure you're book will be great as you are a very polished and appealing writer.  I myself spent the first 20 years of my life as an agnostic.   At best I had some sort of quasi metaphysical, carpet bag hodgepodge of spirituality the served zero purpose but to help me feel better about myself.  I remember dating a girl my senior year of high school who kept trying to get me to read the Bible and on one date grabbing the Bible out of her hand, throwing it on the floor, and shouting at her to leave her religious "crap" at home.  Funny thing is that now I am a reformed Presbyterian.  TULIP and the 5 Solas and all that.  People change.  Anyway, best wishes with the book.  Let us know when it comes out.


From Jose Correia
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 3:22 AM
That must have been an incredible experience,sometimes I feel weird in the church specially during the mass and is not that I stoped believing I dont know but I.have been feeling confused, so Im glad that happened to you I hope one day I can have an experience like yours
From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 3:23 AM

Karen and Thomas - I really enjoyed reading about your experiences. And Karen, I remember you bringing up choir a few years back, b/c we were both singing for Xmas, I think. Believe it or not, I'll be singing with my former choir for Easter. Just can't fully leave the Catholic church!

I hope others will share their experiences too - it's very therapeutic for me to hear others' stories. This afternoon I took a jog in the redwoods at a nearby state park and I sat for a few minutes in the middle of a huge grove and it was just so great. I'm reminded that this, too, is a place where I find great spirituality in my life. Actually, i find the Quaker faith to be strongly appealing. I go once or twice a year to a retreat center a few miles from my house (again, in the redwoods) and it's a private, secular retreat, but I like to read their flyers on what events are coming up. A very subtle, naturalist kind of religion, it would seem. 

Oh, and thanks to those who've wished good luck on the book. It's still in its infancy and will be a work in progress for quite some time, I'm sensing. Spirituality is a huge, multi-faceted subject, with avenues leading all over the place. It's both fun and daunting to explore the places it will take me (and I'm opting for the grand tour). 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 3:33 AM

Jose - just read your comment as well - thanks! I'm oddly glad that I'm not the only one to get those feelings of confusion. My whole family (seven brothers and sisters and my dad) is/are still quite happy and comfortable in the church environment (one brother is a Catholic archdiocesan priest) and I feel like quite the oddball on the issue within the family. 

From Anne Horvath
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 5:11 AM

There are similarities between formal church services and classical music concerts:

-You have to dress up

-Latecomers are frowned upon

-You get a program/bulletin

-Once seated, you can't make noise

-Unruly children are discouraged

-Rituals of clapping, standing ovations, just ordinary standing, and sitting are strictly enforced

-Cell phones are instantly vilified

-Monetary donations are welcomed

I could go on...

Nice blog. 


From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 12:42 PM

Karen - you are correct that the UUs are a "talky" group.  What folks used to say about them was that UU person, given a choice between going to heaven and a discussion of what heaven would be like, would choose to go to the discussion.  I always liked the UUs.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 1:05 PM

"Tu aurais aimé la messe en français" ha ha!  You are good in french!

Ton blog est fantastique!  Merci de partager ces idées intéressantes avec nous tous!


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 1:24 PM

Tom, there's also a joke, "Why is the singing so bad in UU churches?" "Because everyone is always looking ahead to see if they agree with the lyrics."  

From Tess Z
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 1:13 PM

Mass and music were one in the same centuries ago.  The modern study of Medieval and Renaissance composers has led to some very beautiful recordings of polyphonic music.  Gregorian chant is just as appealing and comforting to its fans.  If you've never experienced a Latin High Mass, I suggest you attend one because it's a beautiful experience with choir and orchestra.

It's unfortuante that most modern American churches have cast off chant and polyphony for services that only use unison hymn singing.   Most church music today is quite uninspiring to the soul.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 7:39 PM

Anne H: Funny, funny. : ) Don’t think the incense would go over too well with the symphony snobs, though!

Anne-Marie: J’adore la langue française, mais c’est plus façile de parler qu’écrire. Les erreurs sont plus évidents en écrivant. (I imagine I just illustrated my point right here.) Merci pour ta reponse en français!

Karen: that UU joke is hilarious!

Tess – your comments made me pause to think. Will reply in greater depth separately. 

From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 7:51 PM

Tess's point is a very good one.  Recall that part of Bach's job in Leipzig was to prepare a new cantata each week for the service at the Thomas Church where he worked.  Nothing like that happens these days.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 8:01 PM

 Okay, I'm back with more thoughts on Tess's comments.

The service I attended in the second church was indeed High Mass, or close to it. (They call it “Solemn Mass.”) And while it was gorgeous and impressive and had a wonderful a cappella choir singing Latin, I suddenly realize that’s part of the reason I felt oddly left out. I’m used to singing in choirs and in fact, that’s my Catholic Mass experience 9 out of 10 times. When I moved to where I live now, I couldn’t cut the umbilical cord, so I would (and still do) reunite with the choir a few times a year for the holidays. And I love singing; I will always be a better and more effortless singer than a violin player, but the two have been very compatible over the past 3 ½ years since I picked up the violin. So, maybe I felt left out at that Mass because I wasn’t singing. St. Dominic's has lots of Mass options, but unfortunately, I’m not usually hanging around in San Francisco at 9am (their “family mass” with choir) and/or 5:30pm (their “contemporary” mass and choir). Ah well. It really was a beautiful service to watch, the 11:30am one. Like I said, there’s such a strange feeling, though, like being separated by a glass wall. Beauty and music right there, but I couldn’t get in.

Whoops, I’m repeating my blog here. As if it wasn't long enough already... : )


From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 8:08 PM

 >Recall that part of Bach's job in Leipzig was to prepare a new cantata each week for the service at the Thomas Church where he worked. 

On this subject, I must add that the last time I visited this church, over a year ago, after the Mass the organist performed a Bach cantata and it was soooooo incredible to stay and listen to. I think that, too, detracted from this last visit, that something like that wasn't repeated. Luck of the draw, I guess. (And actually that experience found its way into my novel, although I'm using Bach's Toccata and Fugue. A very cool piece to hear in a church.)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 8:25 PM

Terez - There is a group called the Washington Bach Consort.  The first Tuesday of every month, they perform at noon for an hour in an Episcopal Church in downtown DC.  First, the leader performs a Bach piece on the organ.  Then, they do one of the cantatas.  It doesn't get much better than that, even though it is not part of a service.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 8:57 PM

A beautiful blog, Terez, it gave me much food for thought, being a former Catholic myself. I do go to church religiously these days, a UU church with a fantastic and very traditional music program, led by a director for which I have enormous respect. He can sing Schubert lieder and accompany himself, play the organ fantastically, come up with years of Sunday music where very little is repeated, get fantastic musicians together and arrange whatever is needed...It's really wonderful. I often think of Bach when I think of him: just a total immersion in constant performance. He also has a huge family, like Bach did!

The music is what brought me to that church; I was asked to play there many years ago and simply stayed. I have a hard time feeling spiritual in a church with music that is strained, too thin, frightened-sounding, or music that stays on the church's altar and never seems to make its way into the voices of its members.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 1, 2009 at 10:52 PM

 >The music is what brought me to that church; I was asked to play there many years ago and simply stayed.

Laurie - this is so cool, a very inspiring thought for me to pocket and keep in mind. Love the other stuff you wrote as well.

Tom - sounds great. What do you say we there next Tuesday? I might be a little late because of traffic between here and there. Oh, and I have to be back by 4pm for my violin lesson. But, aside from that... : )

From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 2, 2009 at 1:03 PM

Terez - works for me.  Let me know when you arrive.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 2, 2009 at 1:44 PM

 I'll be the one waving.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 2, 2009 at 1:52 PM

I was brought up with almost no religion, certainly without faith in a personal God.  I do feel that there is something bigger than us and that we are part of it.  I feel most nourished spiritually when I listen to music, commune with Nature, or practice the spiritual side of yoga.  I believe that it's important to nourish the spirit as well as the body.  I've attended Unitarian churches in the past, and one of the best parts was always the music.  Unitarians take music very seriously.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 2, 2009 at 2:19 PM

Just to be clear, the joke about UU singing was meant affectionately.  As someone who has done a lot of singing in UU churches, and who actually found her singing voice in a UU church (the woman standing next to me in a service asked me if I wanted to join the choir and I did), I don't have anything but the utmost respect for the UU musicians I've worked with, sung with, and played with.  But it did take me an embarrassingly long time to learn and remember the UU words to the doxology, rather than the Presbyterian or Lutheran ones I'd sung as a child and adolescent.

Laurie, I was wondering if you went to Neighborhood Church in Pasadena.  That was the first UU church I ever went to.  I first became a UU when I was living in Pasadena and I went to both Neighborhood and Throop.  Throop was within walking distance of my apartment, so I went there more regularly.  Neighborhood had great music back in 1996 too.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 2, 2009 at 3:37 PM

 >Just to be clear, the joke about UU singing was meant affectionately.

Oh, RIGHT. Sorry. You've already been reported to the UU police.  ; )

Pauline - I love your current spirituality description - it's very much like mine. But I knew that about you already. Kindred souls, and such. : )

From Anne Horvath
Posted on April 2, 2009 at 4:29 PM

Terez, I don't think burning incense would be noticed by 99.999% of concertgoers.  Maybe strong perfume is really trendy right now, or older people have lost some olefactory skills, or rudeness is totally cool, but every concert I am in the audience for is "enhanced" by overwhelming, eye-watering reeking perfume.  Bleh.

"Smells and Bells" indeed...

From Adelle Romero
Posted on April 3, 2009 at 1:55 PM

I experience the same thing when I hear music at its best. I agree that music can make you feel different emotions, that you can find spirituality just by hearing it. I admire the way you put your experiences into words. :)

From Terez Mertes
Posted on April 3, 2009 at 4:16 PM

 >Maybe strong perfume is really trendy right now, or older people have lost some olefactory skills, or rudeness is totally cool, but every concert I am in the audience for is "enhanced" by overwhelming, eye-watering reeking perfume.  

Anne - Remember my "Joshua and the Symphony Snobs" blog? : )

Adelle - thanks for sharing your thoughts and nice comments!

From The Weekend Vote
Posted on April 4, 2009 at 3:28 AM

Indeed, Karen, that's where I go, what a coincidence!

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