Music to a Listening Heart

By Sally B. Palmer

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    Hymns bring me lessons, healing, and hope that the Lord hears the melodies of life his children try imperfectly to sing.

    The rows of empty benches in the chapel stretched away to the back of the room. High overhead, a solitary ray of dusty light beamed down from a window. I lifted the lid on the organ and switched on the power. Arranging my stack of music on the rack, I paused, considering the row of stops in front of me.

    What registrations should I select for the conference meetings tomorrow? Which voices would most pleasingly accompany the chosen hymns, most movingly express the message of the solo? My fingers ranged, irresolute, over the levers. An organ contains such a variety of voices, infinite combinations. In harmony, in accord, they blend wonderfully in a praise anthem. They blend like the congregation itself, I mused, depressing the crescendo pedal as the magnificent, compelling chords of “The Spirit of God” began to fill the empty chapel.

    The first really significant outpouring of the Spirit in my life had come while I was singing this hymn. As a fifteen-year-old seminary student, I had traveled far to attend a long-awaited temple dedication. I was impressed by the beauty of the new temple and its landscaped setting, awed by the number of General Authorities present (led by the revered, white-haired prophet), and moved by the dedicatory prayer and the Hosanna Shout. As I stood with the crowd to sing “with the armies of heaven” (Hymns, 1985, no. 2), I found my knees wobbling weakly and my facial muscles trembling so much that I could only cry. On that occasion, I felt that the Spirit was indeed interceding in our behalf with “groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Rom. 8:26.)

    Modulating downward now to begin “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” I thought of the richness of experience, among members Churchwide, with this beloved, familiar hymn.

    I would never forget the moment at age nineteen when, heavily costumed for the King Benjamin scene, I had stood late one summer night upon the slopes of the Hill Cumorah after a performance of the well-known pageant there. Ten thousand tired but awed and reverential spectators packed up their belongings and filed toward their cars. The audio system transmitted, as a postlude, the Tabernacle Choir’s recording of “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”

    My daily pre-performance efforts to interest the pageant-goers in the Book of Mormon had given me an entirely new feeling: charity. Leaning against a tree in my robe and veil, hidden by the night, I felt my heart swelling and reaching out in love to every confused, unhappy individual in that vast throng. Tears ran down my cheeks as I prayed for them, that the darkness I had seen in some of their faces might be taken away, that the seed planted tonight might grow toward the light of truth and expand into faith in their lives.

    So many great hymns have carried spiritual messages into my heart over the years—and I am only one of millions. Who has not dropped “a tear or two” (Hymns, 1985, no. 142) during the sacramental hymn, remembering the Savior? Who has not yearned for his presence while singing “I Need Thee Every Hour”? Who has not felt a lump choking off the final words to “God Be with You Till We Meet Again” at a missionary farewell, or felt his or her heart leap during general conference when the congregation, seeing a beloved figure enter, rises spontaneously to sing, “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet”? Surely the hymns are, in effect, scripture to many members.

    In my practice session, I now began to play the next hymn, adding a note of importunity, of pleading, to the melody by increasing the tremolo. The melancholy air reminded me of the heartbreak of my first miscarriage as a young mother.

    It was the first real sorrow of my life. How I agonized, pleaded with the Lord to take away the pain of this tragedy! One day as I was recuperating, I found myself unconsciously humming an insistent melody that had been circling, unbidden, in my mind. Startled, I began to sing the familiar words, shamefacedly realizing their meaning for the first time:

    Are you ever burdened with a load of care?

    Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?


    Count your many blessings; name them one by one,

    And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

    (Hymns, 1985, no. 241.)

    Several years later, the number of miscarriages now increased to five, I at one point deliberately memorized all the words to “Come, Ye Disconsolate” in order to get through each day by singing to myself, “Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot cure.” (Hymns, 1985, no. 115.) One evening soon after experiencing the last grim, grief-filled loss, I had slipped, depressed, out of a baptismal service. As I stood in the deserted foyer, pensively staring out the door at a joyous little boy playing outside and telling myself I’d probably never have another baby, a voice came into my mind. It was a soft, intimate voice, and oh, so kind. I had heard it before, in the temple. It now spoke words of comfort and reassurance. Immediately, a warm light seemed to turn on, and I no longer felt sorry for myself. Instead, I felt honored beyond expression. What greater privilege could any person enjoy than to be comforted and consoled by a loving Father? I returned to the baptismal service just in time to slip behind the piano and play, with full heart, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.”

    Moving on in my practice at the organ, I shut off the combinations and selected a solo stop for the prelude—one voice to sound “Lead, Kindly Light” alone. Devoid of the sustaining bass, the notes ascended singly, as a solo voice. It reminded me of the poignant aloneness of my own life now. A single stop, a single life, a solo voice can be beautiful, though. Ringing at this moment pure and sweet in the stillness, it was unutterably pleasing before it blended into harmony with another voice in the final resolution of things. A single voice is not easily noticed when overwhelmed by a large and noisily sociable congregation, I recalled ruefully, thinking of tomorrow’s conference. Perhaps only one would be listening. This one, Lord, is for thee.

    I heard a sound from the shadowed far corner of the chapel. Someone must be there, listening to the music. Embarrassment temporarily disturbed my composure; I had made many audible mistakes. But then, this was only the hymn rehearsal, the practice interlude, a time to prepare. Saturday’s wrong notes, though always momentarily jarring, were to be expected and forgiven.

    But as I practiced, I wondered if, in the discerning ear of God, dissonances resolved made as sweet a music as they do to our mortal ears. Can a life be sung? I wondered if the chords and melodies and rhythms of our individual and collective strivings might somehow culminate in an orderly, pleasing resolution at life’s end. I wondered if our Father’s eyes and mind could divine harmonies in living human fugues too diverse and complex for mortal perception.

    The final notes of my practice session died away, ringing in the stillness of the holy place. I closed and locked the organ, gathered up my music, and walked toward the exit. As I passed in the darkness, the choir seats seemed filled, in my mind’s eye, with members whose joyous if unprofessional voices sang “Hallelujah.” I could imagine priests at the sacrament table, deacons sitting on the front row, the bishopric on the stand. I envisioned the whole congregation, with every bench in the chapel overflowing with squirming babies, busy mothers and fathers, patient octogenarians, lively ten-year-olds. All had gathered here in their rich diversity to learn, to repent, to worship, and to sing. As I closed the door softly behind me, their hallelujahs continued to swell.

    They were practicing, too.

    Jesus Christ, by Harry Anderson

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    • Sally B. Palmer is a counselor in the Primary presidency of the Oak Hills Sixth Ward, Provo Utah Oak Hills Stake.