Praying Twice

Editor’s note: the following post touches on sensitive topics such as child abuse and should […]

Editor’s note: the following post touches on sensitive topics such as child abuse and should be read with discretion.

I am a member of one of the very smallest of American fraternities: the tiny and shrinking group of men who grew through early adolescence singing in Anglican boychoirs. Because I could and can sing, I was given in loco parentis when I was ten years old to an institution that trained boys to sing in an ancient English tradition of choral worship. We wore red or black cassocks and white surplices with ruffs loaned by the local Episcopal parish. The pictures were of course perfect; the clergy were always delighted. We sang in English, Latin, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese. We could sing for up to nine hours a day, five and six days a week when on concert tour. We were not permitted to contact our families by telephone for up to five and six weeks at a time. We were not allowed to wear wristwatches. We were not allowed to send postal correspondence in which there were any complaints about the choir’s management. We were not permitted minor decencies like Band-Aids for late-childhood cuts, foot powder for routine adolescent shoe problems, privacy in showers, or deodorant. We slept overnight on busses when the choir fund didn’t have cash resources for rooms. Our meals were regulated by an elaborate system of merits and demerits. We were never allowed to buy postage stamps or seal our own envelopes. 

Of the hundred-odd alumni I met in the choir, I do not know a single adult today who was not abused in some way: emotionally, physically, sexually, by the separation from his parents and friends, by the distortion of his self-understanding through a system in which the beatings only ceased when one’s voice changed. The epoch-marking event of my eleventh year was witnessing a friend thrown during a rehearsal into a piano so hard that his ribs were cracked—and the piano’s wood was splintered. He was later made to apologize for having interrupted Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater. The brutality was matched only by the heights of achievement and pitch our voices could reach as boy sopranos. I can still sing you Die Zauberflöte, batches of Bach Cantatas, Handels things, and the best and worst of late Renaissance polyphony if I am feeling particularly good or bad. 

The belts, the stinging-slapping-groping-joyous hands, the humiliations, the systemic and clergy-enabled church-sponsored cruelty, are all things we expect to find from the pen of Dickens in 1850, and not alive and well in Pennsylvania in 1993. But there we are, outside of the statute of limitations and in the twisted company of too many boys whose lives were mangled and destroyed before they began.

With the enthusiastic assistance of Episcopal priests who are still in ministry in Tucson and in scattered parts of Pennsylvania, the founding director of this choir—who is now deaf and in state prison after his guilty pleas to more than a thousand counts of child pornography possession and the sexual assault of unspecified numbers of minors—the choir flourished for 40 years as it carved streaks of an Anglican choral sideshow across the United States, Europe, and Asia. I rue the day of my audition in fourth grade and my success at it, the difficulty my family experienced in paying the tuition for an abstruse educational process and its requisite uniforms, the pretenses of virtue or piety that hid utter depravities of human darkness. 

Still and all, I was the choirs permanent beneficiary in having been given the opportunity to learn a half-dozen languages, to travel the world as a child, and to be the rote-memorized inheritor of the pages of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and the 1940 Hymnal. I am also now the silent and eager organizer of the choirs demise, a man possessed of a perfect and clean hatred for any kind of religion used as a cloak for the harm or confusion of children. This has been my unspoken, painful, wrathful, white-hot work for a decade, and everything but childcare has taken a second chair to it. The choir is gone now, though it appears to still have a 501(c)(3) still, and you can this week meet a dozen Episcopal clergy over coffee who will tell you the whole thing was the best thing that ever came over the transom.  

I don’t believe today that God forgives the ones about whom Jesus said it was better that they should have millstones tied around their necks when they are cast into the sea. But this I leave to a higher judge than I. It is past my understanding. 

I have stopped counting the suicides, the substance abuse, the broken marriages, the poverty, the failed careers, the prison sentences, and the distorted religion created by the choir among its alumni. This is not the experience of every Anglican boy chorister by any stretch, but it is the experience of the lion’s share of the ones I know. The Church will take and destroy your childhood, your innocence, your basic senses of decency, because you can sing with some power and understanding in a high vocal range. And then the Church will say you are lying about your own self-destruction, because it can—because the Church is inhabited by persons who are actively collaborative with evilbecause the Church is a place in which aesthetics remain in a position of priority over morals, over the safeguarding of children, over the honesty of its temporal inhabitants—because the Church is not on Earth in any way conformed to the Good Shepherd who cares for the sheep when the truth-tellers are young men with unchanged voices. 

I am one of the lucky ones, with benefits of education, some self-understanding, a constant, bright and active faith, a community of parishioners and friends who are gentle and strong, the kindness of strangers and the regular opportunity to use the gifts I have been given to care for my children, the hungry, the dying, persons I love, and persons I meet. There is a strength and resilience within me I know as an infused gift from God, before and after the experience of the choir in which we were taught we were praising God twice by singing rather than just speaking. And then beaten, spanked, stalked, and locked in closets or basements no matter how well we sang. If there were laws against this, we didn’t know about them. 

A part of the luckiness snatched from the jaws of a childhood in which I was slapped for the sport of an idiotic Pennsylvania German martinet of dubious musical ability is that I know thousands of lines of psalms and hymns by heart. There is never, never, quiet in my mind; there is always, always, even when I am not speaking out loud, a song—and this is a wounding again even though it is a gift. 

To speak happily and honestly: the great benefit of this is that I meet prose and poetry over and over again at various stages of my life with fresh understandings. Memorization is a gift for which I never asked and of which I have often wished to be relieved, but it is mine. In a window between photographic recall and just very excellent retention, the treasures of the Coverdale Psalter and Anglican hymnody course through me ineluctably, and I once picked up languages with the ease that other children caught colds and viruses. The words always come back, and something tells me they will remain after the love-light has left my eyes.

Last week I stood near the Jordanian border with Syria and sang alone in full adult voice a hymn for the first time I have known how to mean it: 
In simple trust like theirs who heard 
Beside the Syrian sea 
The gracious calling of the Lord, 
Let us, like them, without a word 
Rise up and follow thee. 
O Sabbath rest by Galilee! 
O calm of hills above, 
Where Jesus knelt to share with thee 
The silence of eternity 
Interpreted by love!
Drop thy still dews of quietness, 
Till all our strivings cease; 
Take from our souls the strain and stress, 
And let our ordered lives confess 
The beauty of thy peace.
I have the simple trust. I have seen the silence of eternity. I am ready for the beauty of the peace.


10 responses to “Praying Twice”

  1. Debbie says:

    Thank you Richard for sharing yoyr story. I cry with you. It is hard to read and not have a stirring inside to hunt down all the predators and….
    I love & appreciate the beauty in your honesty of what music & hymns are to know….roses with thorns. I have four sons but none would have passed the audition….I wanted to hug and comfort each boy as i read your story.
    I can only imagine the beauty of your voice.
    Jesus bless you, your family and ministry to others. Amen

  2. Patricia Kae says:

    First, I am grateful for your sharing, painful as it must have been for you to re-visit it.
    Second, I am grateful just to know you.
    Third, institutions and societies in which women do not share in the power are, in my opinion, more likely to abuse both women and children. We need only look around us to see that no institution is immune from harboring predators.

  3. duo says:

    deeply moving: necessary: it allows us to know that these travesties are all too often present, but make the miracles of great good efforts, traditions, gifts even more precious…

  4. Jim Hodgson says:

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. Oh, Richard, my heart breaks for you and all other choristers treated with such evil and brutality. How brave you were and still are. And how great is the God who has kept your faith alive despite such abuse. I pray that the Church roots out such predators, and I pray that God grant you “the beauty of the peace.”

  6. Elaine says:

    I am in shock about that abuse.

  7. James says:

    Richard, thank you for your strength and integrity. I complete agree with the other commenters and feel great sadness for you and the others who went through that hell on earth. I am sad too for I have little confidence that men will not, ultimately, destroy this one home we call Earth.

  8. Janet Fife says:

    Thank you for a heartbreaking and beautiful piece of writing.

    Here in the UK we have no such stature of limitations and you would be able to pursue justice. You might even get it, though the process would be harrowing.

    God bless you with the still dews of quietness, even amidst the ongoing battle.

  9. Jamie Maury says:

    Another powerful story of evil in the most unexpected place, the Church, and the long road back to a feeling of wholeness and blessedness. I pray for you, Richard, and all those who have been victimized.

  10. Michael Tessman says:

    Richard, dear man/soul, I stood near that same border and sang that same hymn from memory, just last week for the first (perhaps only?) time in my nearly 75 years. “How can I keep from singing?” Let’s make time for a visit, some time soon; we have a gift for one another, I feel certain.

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