Just before 2013 began, I spent five days in silent retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. Guests are hosted on an estate on the Hudson River by Episcopalian monks, and invited to join (or not) in any of the five services per day.
The monks sit in two rows of six, facing each other in wooden benches across the width of the chapel, and sing the prescribed daily psalms back and forth for each other, line by line, in the same ritualized melodies passed down along the ages. At best, it’s hypnotic bordering on transcendent: the meterless rise and fall of tones, the unison punctuations of breath, the creak of the carved oak benches at each indicated bow.
The liturgy of the hours does not expurgate verses of extreme anguish or blood thirst, no matter how disturbing. I avoided the longer services in the daily order and there were still times I felt trapped in my chair, choked with incense and listening to cadence after cadence of unmitigated agony and barbarism—man-made and heaven-sent alike. It’s tough going for a cautiously agnostic Catholic convert to the United Church of Christ.
One of the monks has written that he believes that the psalms are the complete catalog of every last experience and emotion known to humanity. There is grim consolation in the fact that immediately before the 23rd Psalm comes the 22nd ( “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”)—so unremarkable for the canon that the original verses open with this prosaic note:
To the choirmaster: according to [the tune of] The Hind of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.”
“There is nothing new under the sun” is no mere truism; it is a deep solace across the ages, and across the nations.
Six months later, our delegation crowded outside of the recording booth at Benedición Stereo in Vijagual. As we guessed at how to present ourselves on-air, a delegate from the Central Atlantic Conference wondered if we might sing a song. She had no takers, but her idea persisted into the evening when we planned our contribution to the service the next morning.
That Sunday in front of the Foursquare Church, the American delegation sang the same communion song we sing in Spanish and English at my own congregation in the Connecticut Conference:
After a first few rounds, everyone present moved to join us.
The church leader acting as choirmaster in El Garzal that morning, a man named Samuel, was as meticulous as our own music director with a new song. Before the service was closed he made the congregation run through it a few extra times to make sure they knew it by heart. Afterwards I told a fellow delegate from my home church we needed to ask him for a song in return, and we approached him together.
I wanted an ensemble piece that was gringo-friendly and set to a simple melody, like the children’s song we heard. (We’re one of those congregations—clapping happens, and I guessed whatever we ended up with might also appeal to the tambourine lobby.)
What he insisted on sending us home with instead were the lyrics of a grave ballad he sung solo for the service. He explained the music it was set to was “very Colombian and traditional.” (Michael Joseph guesses the tune is a basic vallenato. Gabriel García Márquez claims that “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is a 400-page vallenato.) Samuel promised to be right back—he would quickly excuse himself to write out all the words in time to catch us before our departure.
I scanned and emailed a copy of the small notebook page back to Michael in Colombia once I was back in the U.S.
In the meantime, I put out a request for a local translator familiar with Spanish-language hymns. An American woman who replied had an uncle in Bogotá, a senior pastor in Salvador’s denomination, and he was willing to review it as well. She sat down with me to look it over for a first assessment, and expressed surprise:
I’m not seeing any of the traditional praise language I’d expect in a Foursquare song.”
The song Samuel chose to perform that Sunday, and then insisted on sending home with us, is titled “Sin Palabras”—literally, “Without Words,” though it can also be translated from the Spanish as beyond words or, words are not enough.
In its prosody and final reconciliation towards grace, it is a canonical psalm of lamentation.
Performed and shared by Samuel Mendoza
The Foursquare Church of El Garzal
Bolívar Department, Colombia
[From translation versions by Michael Joseph and Abigail Palmer, 2013]
I come that you might pardon my sins,
the times when I’ve doubted that You are faithful;
when my debt withered my being
and I showed my frustration to Heaven.
How many times have I fought with you,
kneeling there in my room.
I could not find a reason for all the suffering in my path.
How many times I disowned You until I wanted to die,
thinking that You were far from me, Lord.
I wanted to remove you from my heart;
I even intended to return to my past without You.
I never imagined that for my own good,
that to strengthen me,
You tested me as you did to Job.
You wanted to make me a different man,
A man more obedient and courageous;
You wanted to grow here in my heart.
I judged You because I did not know
that You had my soul in Your hands;
that You were always so close, my Lord.
I come that you might forgive
so many things that I’ve said against You, my Lord.
I weep as I sing this song,
because I doubted that You are my firm rock.
I could no longer play my guitar;
I didn’t want to worship You with my song.
I wanted to escape from all this lonesomeness,
from this misery that is so sad and bitter.
I got on a southbound train
but I didn’t bring the cross;
I left it hanging there in a corner.
I wanted to know nothing of You, Lord—
of Your peace, Your love, Your grace,
Your heaven, Your light.
I thank You for teaching me, without words,
the things I didn’t know about You;
about Your great love.
I learned that we also win through difficulty.
There is a hope that filled my heart.
A faith grew,
a courage and a hope grew.
I trust your word even more now, Good Shepherd.