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December 2019
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Song of The Soul


My life goes on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?

–Pete Seeger’s version of Robert Lowry’s 1860’s hymn How Can I Keep From Singing?

Although the song existed as a hymn more or less a century before folksy troubadour Pete Seeger played it on his banjo, I love his adaptation of How Can I Keep From Singing? a hauntingly beautiful rendition of which was later recorded by the Irish singer Enya. The Seeger/Enya version omits much of the original Christian liturgy, thereby recasting a spiritual hymn into a timeless omm meditation.

I have heard the folk version of the song over the years, yet only relatively recently have I truly comprehended the glorious and deeply contextual meaning behind the words. And this comprehension was gleaned only after poring over the teachings of Jan Frazier and Eckhart Tolle, enlightened humans who have dedicated themselves to gently demonstrating the profound joy that lies beyond the fear and ego-based distortions of the mind. Tolle and Frazier both write of the soul’s glorious birthright as dazzlingly whole, intact and utterly free of suffering. Our essential natures shine with a radiant and pure energy fueled by an indescribable and causeless joy.

How Can I Keep From Singing? (I realize now with a simple understanding somehow divorced from my thinking mind) conveys this message. The lyrics set up a clear contrast between what Tolle refers to as the “life situation,” in which any number of contrived happenings, including the oppressive descent into a hell of prisons, dungeons, roaring tempests, tumult, strife and the ultimately loathsome demon death are juxtaposed against a lovely and eternal refrain.

Of course, the question is rhetorical. On the deepest of all levels, you just can’t. Keep from singing, that is. And that’s because continual rejoicing is the soul’s most profound and sacred promise to itself. And it is one it will keep, no matter how many lifetimes one passes through.

In essence, the soul never stops singing. It never stops rejoicing. And it never ceases to recognize the truth of its Being. This Being, or essence, I’m quite certain, is the metaphorical “rock” to which Lowry describes himself as “clinging.” Paradoxically, I find this particular line of the song the most liberating, since “clinging” generally connotes attachment in some form or another. But here, the clinging represents a kind of impermanent and transcendental faith that exists beyond the mind. It is what is left when the “dream of form,” (as Tolle calls it), dissolves into the puddle of illusion that it ultimately is.

I’m not sure what kind of call to faith Lowry experienced, or exactly how it inspired him to write the song. Certainly his central image of faith belongs to the corporal image of Christ, which seems altogether fitting given the time period Lowry lived and wrote in. That Lowry was a devout Christian and Baptist minister inspired by Christian faith is clear, but it is also in many ways extraneous to the universal message of the soul’s deep rejoicing independent of any religious doctrine. How Can I Keep From Singing? takes us somewhere beyond faith and certainly beyond what the thinking, analytical mind can conjure up. Few of us can conjure  anything as beautiful, formless or eternal as the lyrics of this song. Yet the tonal quality of the music is really where the transcendence happens, and for that, understanding alone (which implies the process of cognitive thought), is more or less an extraneous word here. And here is why: when I grasped the meaning of the song, it came to me as a feeling rather than a thought. A feeling of unexplained peace and serenity  arising from somewhere beyond the narrow confines of my mind.

Not long after I began listening to Enya’s achingly beautiful rendition of How Can I Keep From Singing? I was driving home from a day in Brattleboro. More than a few weary and limiting mental processes were in place. They felt like cement blocks of oppression. I don’t have a working stereo system in my truck, so I couldn’t turn on the song. I needed its help to reach beyond that confining place and into the light of the eternal present. Nevertheless, I was thinking of the extraordinary teachings of Jan Frazier and her deeply grounding presence. As it turns out, Jan is a writer and poet who holds workshops in this area. And I’ve attended these workshops and have heard her read her work aloud.

As my heavy truck was gunning down the highway, I became peripherally aware of a nondescript older green car in front of me, tootling along in the slow lane. And it was traveling without haste in a peaceful fashion, seemingly unconcerned with its final destination or with a time frame in getting there. Unconsciously I found myself either unwilling or unable to move beyond that car. Behind it I somehow felt safe and secure.

And somehow, like the gradual unveiling of Lowry’s hymn, the identity of the driver came into soft focus for me. The long, straight brown hair. The teal knitted cap. The unhurried pace. It was Jan, traveling at her own speed.

I stayed behind her all the way to exit 4, at which point we both left the highway. And drove behind her through the gentle country hum of Putney and the four mile strech of W. Road. At P. Road she continued on and I turned, but I saluted her silently. I felt a deep peace in knowing that the form beyond that green cap and car inherently and deeply understands the meaning of How Can I Keep From Singing? without ever hearing it.

Someone once told me that the secret to prayer is to pray ceaselessly and continually so that there is never a gap in prayer. In that way, our every thought is a prayer. Our every breath. This is how the soul calls us to leave our false selves behind. It calls us to sing from the depth of our beings, and to never keep from singing.

© All rights reserved by Mary Alden-Allard. Content may not be reprinted except by express written permission of the author.