Perhaps two years ago, I discovered the music of Palestrina. Specifically, his Missa Aeterna Christi Munera, a church Mass setting written in 1590. I discovered this because my choir sang it one Sunday. I immediately ordered this beautiful piece of music on CD; it lived in my car and was rarely taken out of the CD player. There were times it remained on repeat consistently; this exquisite music was one of the few spots of light in darkness, one of the few flickers of beauty in the bleakness of living in a domestic violence war-zone. It was also a reminder to me of the choir, around which my week revolved, my one point of safety in what was narrowing down to a small and hostile universe.
Then, perhaps a year and a half ago, things got to be too much. I could not see a way clear. I could not see a future other than the one I was living, the one that was slowly killing me. I could not see hope, or that I was worthy of something more. As far as I could see, the darkness had entirely overwhelmed the light.
It was a Sunday morning. I don’t remember specifics, but, with the weight of the alcohol-fouled words and actions of the night before riding heavy on my shoulders, I left home early and drove up to King Edward Park, a small botanical garden which overlooks the cliff face. You park at the lookout and then climb some steps to the very top; from there you can stand at the fence with nothing between you and the oblivion of rocks and water but for a few fragile railings. The fence is laughably easy to climb. I did this, and I stood overlooking the water. There, with the sun on my shoulders, watching waves pound themselves to roiling rage on the rocks far below. All the things that meant anything to me were screaming distantly in my head, but they weren’t loud enough to penetrate foggy despair; I didn’t feel frightened: all I felt was a gentle sense of relief. Then, I was visited by a thought: Fuck. We’re singing the Missa Aeterna today. If I do this, if I step off the edge and commit myself to the rocks below, I’ll miss out on Palestrina.
So I climbed back over the fence, walked down the steps, got into my car and drove to rehearsal at the Cathedral, as though nothing had happened.
We’ve sung that Mass once since that day, but today we sang it again. I stood, listening to the intertwining parts of the Agnus Dei, the final prayer before the bread and wine are given for Communion; waiting to sing my part, listening to the flowing arabesque of melody, I felt a profound sense of being alive, and of being grateful for that. I felt it filling up my chest and flowing in my voice as I raised it to mingle with the others’. For the first time ever the tears in my throat didn’t stifle my music. I sang the vibrant reality of my own survival, of the strength and wholeness of my own soul. I sang the unyielding solidity of the knowledge of my own life force connecting me so intimately with everything around me, to the Source of all. I sang pure, living gratitude.
Four hundred and twenty three years ago a man sat down to write a Mass because it was his job; four hundred and twenty one-odd years later that music gave some girl in a country he’d never heard of, thinking to escape a world he could barely imagine, something to hold onto. And now that same piece of music stands testament to her survival. To the reality of the sacred Source.
My parents carry the pain of this within them and I can never express how grateful I am for their love, how they too kept me going through this shadow. My mum said that she blesses Palestrina for that moment in my life. I bless Palestrina too. This morning I blessed him with my tears, and they were grateful tears.