For some time now I have been haunted by the image of a vast and shadowed church, in darkness but for the thin grey daylight streaming from clerestory windows. A group of boys stands about with hands in their pockets, held spell-bound by the music of an organ:
Louder and louder it grew until it became like the din and roar of some mighty tempest, or like the ocean surging upon the shore…. What was that? WHO screamed? WHAT screamed—that terrible, musical scream? … Was it man or demon? … Or was it some despairing monster … begging, screaming for freedom…. It was the vox humana!
The scene is in the children’s book Hans Brinker; or the Silver Skates, by Mary Mapes Dodge. The story goes on to explain that the music the boys heard was produced by the vox humana, a small reed fixed into an organ pipe in order to make the sound resemble that of the human voice.
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The image haunts me because I feel as if I am in that dark church, as if I hear, from day to day, the beautiful, terrible music of the vox humana….
I work as a reference librarian in a city and county public library in the South.
Our public library is locally considered to be a place of some culture and prestige. The Board is composed of well-to-do Southern ladies of a certain class; the Daughters of the American Revolution meet there for sweet tea and cake; book clubs and writer’s groups hold session; country singers perform at fund-raisers; authors and historians come to speak.
But it is also frequented by the homeless, the unemployed, the under-employed, and those on welfare. The public library is a warm place in which to spend the day when the Salvation Army Shelter is closed, a place with restrooms, newspapers, and internet. One can job-search, get help in writing a resume, or maybe just play computer games for hours and forget about it all.
Such people come in regularly, and I get to know them. People like to talk, and as I listen, day after day, I begin to feel as if each story is a part of a great music that can be heard only with the ear of the soul. I wish that I could make this music audible—and I hope that perhaps, by sharing some of these stories, I might do so.
These are just a few things that I hear and see:
A red-headed young man, surely not much more than twenty years old, with a cheerful, vacant smile: “If I seem a little confused, Ma’am,” says he politely, “it’s likely because I am…. Used to ride horses at a riding school down south…. I was thrown twice—after the first time, that is—and landed on my head again. That was before I hitch-hiked from Louisiana….”
Steve* is from some kind of assisted living facility. He’s thin, unshaven, of an indeterminate age, and wears a long dirty coat. He has a stack of books under his arm: Kierkegaard, Hegel, and Kant…. When I engage him in conversation he responds haltingly at first, with a sharp frown between his brows. He feels a burning need to make some kind of sense out of the world—so he reads philosophy with an almost anguished attention, searching for a key…. What else has he read—Plato, Aristotle? Yes. St. Thomas Aquinas? His face kindles. “I love him!” he cries softly—and then words are tumbling from his lips and he’s trembling all over: “It’s all so ordered—it—it—helps me to read him—I had the Summa on my kindle, but it’s broken now….”
A young mother, staying at the Salvation Army Shelter, speaks viciously to her over-tired two-year-old whom she has been ignoring for the past forty-five minutes: “You, with your whining and making messes—you’ve ruined my day! Why did I ever have you! If you don’t shut up I’ll take away your toy…. Shut up now, or I will!”
Later, another woman remarks to anyone who will listen: “I can’t believe people like that get welfare and are allowed to keep having kids. It’s not right. The Government could pass a law that they all have to be fixed so they can’t have kids until they make a certain amount of money and pass some kind of parenting class….”
A young man in cut-off shorts and with long pink nails comes in with his mother. Though there is nothing masculine about his slender frame and slightly affected voice, neither is there anything in the least feminine…surely there cannot be such a thing as a completely sexless human being? He is gentle and polite, but his manner is guarded. His face is wooden, his eyes opaque….
A vulnerable-looking girl, eleven or twelve years old, is wearing an over-sized wide-necked tunic that exposes most of her chest…. “You need to put your jacket on,” I tell her gently.
“Oh—okay.” She giggles and stares as she zips the jacket—what is that in her eyes? It is not innocence, but it reminds me of innocence … perhaps because it shows such profound ignorance of her own worth?
“Mr. Johnson,” I remark, “your language is unacceptable. I have already spoken to you about it and–”
“Jesus, Ma’am, what you pickin’ on me for? I apologized for the f-word, and I haven’t said a single swear-word since! What, you call that swearing? I mean no disrespect—I’m a Christian man…. Okay, if you say so. Jesus! Sorry—sorry.”
A paper covered in neat, curly handwriting is found in a book. I glance down at what I expect to be a school essay or poem, and my blood runs cold. It begins, “Hail Satan,” and there follows, in formal language, but rather a childish hand, a dedication of the writer to the service of the Evil One….
Vincent brings me poems to read. Vincent is a tubby young veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress. He’s convinced he’s under constant surveillance by the government—he thinks they put a computer-chip in him while he was in rehab. He writes free-verse poems full of obscure allusions to Disney movies, The Matrix, the Knights Templar, and the Monsanto Corporation. Every one of these poems turns out to be about the crucifixion. “Because everything,” Vincent tells me with his gentle, crazy smile, “is about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, to save those who believe in Him. The thing is they don’t want you to know that.”
A woman who has just applied for the new “Healthcare” is steaming at the nostrils because it turns out that she and her husband, are supposed to pay an appalling monthly sum….
“Well, I don’t have that money!” she says. “At that rate I might as well try and pay for a doctor’s visit myself.”
“You might have to anyway,” I remark. “Depending on your deductible.”
“Nobody told me about no f*&#ing deductible! Free healthcare, my foot!”
Another woman puts her head on one side and laughs. “It’s like this, girl,” she says, “it’s a nice idea Obama had, for everybody to be taken care of for free, but it won’t never work! Who’s going to decide who gets taken care of, and how much care they get? I don’t believe for one moment it’s going to be equal for everybody. There’s always somebody trying to take advantage of somebody else in this world.”
A woman in a gypsy-skirt with a bag over her shoulder approaches me. “Ma’am, I have a question to ask you: what would you think of a family that had one child they didn’t love—one child out of ten they didn’t love?”
“That’d be awful….”
“Well,” she draws herself up, trembling, cocking her head on one side in a challenging manner, “that is what my family did to me! What do you say now? What do you think of that? Is that all right? Out of all ten children I was the only one they didn’t love!”
“I’m so sorry you feel that way….”
She sniffs haughtily and turns away. Later, her voice can be heard from the restroom where she is on the phone: “All I ever wanted was you to love me,” she yells in a voice of anguish, “that’s all I ever wanted!”
Old Mr. Meriwether has lost both legs, one above the knee and the other below. In a mechanized wheelchair he makes his way about town in all sorts of weather, driving in the street along with the cars. He likes to sit in the library, ostensibly looking at a newspaper but actually watching with sharp bright eyes everything that goes on. It’s difficult to talk with him for long, because of the overpowering smell of urine, but if you ask him how he is you’ll hear a slurred mumble from a mouth full of rotten teeth: “Can’t complain. My Lord is good to me….”
A massive, three-hundred pound walking hill of a woman, with a face like a full moon and a body-odor so foul that it would make a person gag just to get on the elevator after she’s used it, is talking loudly to the woman across from her at the public computers: “I told my niece, I said, ‘Trust in the Lord! There ain’t nobody loves you like Jesus!’” She realizes that her high, carrying voice is causing heads to turn, and cheerfully addresses her point to the public: “That’s true, ain’t it? Y’all know it! Ain’t nobody in this world loves you like Jesus!”
All these stories, all these phrases and others far too numerous to mention, seem to blend into one—the vox humana, the human voice! This is the sound that Chesterton called “the dreadful everlasting voice of man calling to his gods from the beginning to the end of the world.” Who could hear it without awe? The music steals forth, softly at first, and then, with growing power and passion it reverberates throughout the church and amidst the great stone pillars that soar up into the shadowed roof.
It begins somberly, laden with poverty and anxiety and sadness:
“Finally got a job at Kroger stocking shelves, but it’s only part-time…. I’ll never have grandchildren–my son is dead…. Anyway, thanks for listening—I just had to share that with someone…. If I get that unemployment check I’ll be able to pay my bills—otherwise…. If I seem confused it’s because I got thrown on my head again. God, I need a job, I need it now! I’m pregnant an’ I just got out of jail….”
But there are some light, humorous notes:
“Whoo-ee! I am out of breath climbin’ them steps! I’m too fat, and that’s a fac’! Mr. Williams, baby, you better not get down on your knees, you might not get up no more…. Jesus, Ma’am, I ain’t swearing!”
And running through it, returning again and again in variations, there is a theme of humble faith and hope, something even approaching joy:
“St. Thomas Aquinas—he helps me…. If I didn’t believe, I don’t know how I would face life…. After my son died I walked in the dark valley, until at last my Lord took me by the hand and led me out of shadow…. I need a picture-bible—never read it before, but I intend to read it to my kids…. I can’t complain; my Lord is good to me!”
Then there is sudden, shrieking dissonance:
“Well, f*&# you—I ain’t goin’ to pay no lib’ary fine! You stupid kid, you’ve ruined my day with your whining…. Why did I ever have you! The government should fix women like that so they can’t have kids! Hail, Satan!”
The look, the sly, foolish, pathetically ignorant look on a young girl’s face as she zips her jacket over her bare breast…. A young man with long pink nails, whose guarded eyes hide what sorrow, what misery?
Then it becomes indignant, solemn, longing, yearning—building, building, to the climax:
“They didn’t tell me about no f*&#ing deductible! Always somebody trying to take advantage of somebody else in this world—it’s human nature. But all I ever wanted was you to love me! All I ever wanted was love! All I ever wanted was love!”
A reply comes … a repetition of the earlier theme … very low, ever so softly now, but joyfully and with restrained power:
“Nobody loves you like Jesus…. Jesus Christ who was crucified…. You know it, brothers and sisters, you know it—ain’t nobody in this world will ever love you like Jesus.”
Silence. The cold stone floor under our knees, the smell of unwashed bodies, sweat, urine, and stale cigarette smoke…. Then, so deep and low that it is less heard than felt as a vibration:
*All names changed.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Scream” painted by Edvard Munch in 1893.