What Are You Singing This Lent?

As the years pass, it’s not unusual to look on certain aspects of our childhoods and realize that we took some things for granted—things for which we’d now be much more appreciative. For me, one of those things is having been raised near the shore of Lake Michigan. It took about a minute to walk from our house to the water. Lest you think this was a marker of affluence, it was exactly the opposite. When I was a boy, the waterfront was still largely a place of industry. There was an abandoned factory across the street, another that had burned down, and both oil tankers and coal boats were regular features of life. Along with the excitement of watching those ships come in was soot on the windowsills, and the occasional stink of petroleum in the air. But there was also change in the air, and by the time I was in high school, there was a clear view of the lake, and I rose each morning (to play the organ for a 6:00 a.m. Mass at the local hospital chapel) to a view for which people in Chicago—where I now live—pay $1,000 per square foot. Needless to say, these days I don’t have that same view! Like many people raised near a body of water, I’m a life-long water lover.

It’s not just the water I love, but swimming as well. There is something physically litanic about the activity of swimming. As a musician, I am consciously “tuned” by the rhythm of it and am very much aware of how it rhythmically integrates various groups of muscles with my breathing, the same as when I sing. My lungs, my mind, and my spirit conspire—literally “con spire,” they breathe together. I’m sure the neuroscientists would explain it better, but quite often the conspiring Spirit that once moved on the face of the waters also stirs the synapses; She seems to have as much fun as I do, splashing about in my cranium.

A favorite way for me to exercise, not surprisingly, is swimming. One morning several years ago, as I had gotten my laps underway, my brain assigned me a musical earworm (this often happens to me in the pool): “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative” by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. I adore the version by Ella Fitzgerald, but my brain that morning preferred a version by Sam Cooke, probably because it’s more upbeat and provided a better rhythm for swimming.

Perhaps it was being in the water that morning, but the fun thing that happened in my brain was a realization that the refrain of this song really could serve as something of a “theme song” for the season of Lent. (Bonus: The song has a verse about Jonah and the whale/Noah and the ark—two great biblical water-themed stories.) The refrain bears a resemblance to the instruction from the RCIA about the purpose of the scrutinies, which are meant “to uncover, then heal all that is wrong, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect . . . to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong, and good” (RCIA, 141).

The RCIA puts the two activities in a different order than the song, but the basic idea is very much the same! I think the RCIA is telling all of us, in its own way, not to mess with Mr. In-between.

Lent can serve as a lens for the rest of our year, if we keep the negative/positive, sin/grace, penitence/forgiveness dynamic in healthy tension, and in focus. Some of us, I fear, still think of Lent as forty days when we need to think exclusively about our sinfulness. Yes, Lent is a penitential season, so we recall our failings with an extra degree of fervor, but if that’s all we do, then we are left focused only on the negative. Simultaneously, Lent must also lead us to experience, celebrate, and live out the grace of God’s mercy, to reveal and see in ourselves the goodness that God sees in us, as in all creation.


  1. Often when in the garden where no one can hear him, this mute Jansenist sings as he labors (in vain toil?) before his sovereign Lord.

    A great hymn for Lent was originally conceived of as a harvest and rogation hymn. “We Plow the Fields and Scatter” (originally, Wir pflügen und streuen aus). This is hymn #138 in The Hymnal 1940. Here we sing of our dependence on God’s providence for all human sustenance. In turn, God promises his everlasting eternal love.

    “No gifts have we to offer / for all thy love imparts // but that which thou desirest, our humble, thankful, hearts.” Amen.

  2. Thank you Alan for a great Ash Wednesday reflection. It also points out the universal human need for a Lent-esque annual, or semi annual, or daily experience in one’s life. Whether Ella, or the RCIA gets the order of the negative/positive right, my sense is that the reflection on both has the possibility to deepen one’s understanding of light and darkness.

    Swim away and thank you for not earworming It’s a Small World After All.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *