Of the hundreds of women in attendance, I’m pretty sure I was the only Catholic. I was there as a guest of my dear friend Lisa-Jo Baker, who seemed to be both excited and a little bit concerned about what I’d think of this event.
We walked into the Austin Music Hall, where a praise and worship band hand already begun blasting out a song that filled the auditorium. When we got settled at our table I noticed that almost all of the hundreds of women in attendance had their hands in the air!
Needless to say, a million question flooded to mind: Was this a requirement? I thought about doing it too, but I wasn’t sure of the proper procedures. I mean, am I allowed to do it in the front row? I might block the view of the people behind me. And am I obliged to keep my hands raised for a specific amount of time? I could only confidently commit to 30% of the song since, you know, my arms might get tired. And if my arms do become fatigued, could I lower them a bit, or is the 65-degree angle that most people are holding the preferred position?
It all seemed very complicated, so I just stood there like a statue of a startled Catholic woman.
“What is going on here?” I whispered to Lisa-Jo at a break between songs. “Is this a church service? Or a concert? Or a conference? What happens if I don’t raise my hands?”
Lisa-Jo looked over at me with a huge smile, barely containing her laughter, and said, “This is going to be so much fun.”
I had no idea.
I’d never seen anything like it. We Catholics aren’t known for this style of event, and when I was an atheist I never got together with other nonbelievers to sing about nothingness.
And I have to admit, when I walked into the conference, I didn’t think there’s much of a place for this kind of thing in my spiritual life. After all, this is a religion of truth! There’s no end to the craziness you can believe when you start letting emotions cloud your thoughts. In order to have authentic relationships with Jesus, we must first have an accurate understanding of who he is — and in order to do that, we must remain focused on what is true about him and his Church, not what makes us feel good.
So when I first looked around the auditorium, I felt a little guilty for using a ticket. I was grateful for the invitation and I enjoyed everyone’s company, but, really, it was kind of a waste for me to be there. Who needs an experience when you have the truth?
Then Angie Smith and Annie Lobert took the stage together to share their stories. The lighting was perfectly calibrated to focus our attention on them and not the distractions of the crowd. The sound system was crystal clear. The video feeds allowed us to see close-up images of their faces, so that people all the way in the back row could catch even the most subtle flickers of expression.
They took turns telling their stories, and it was obvious that their words were the fruit of great sacrifice in the form of experience, prayer, and preparation.
Annie Lobert spoke of her descent into prostitution, and Angie Smith spoke of drifting away from God due to a life of comfort. They wove their tales together, demonstrating that even people whose lives seem utterly different on the surface have the same need for God at the core. When Annie said that she first got involved with pimps because they claimed to be successful businessmen and she was desperate for comfort and love and approval, I felt a tightness in my throat. When Angie shared about the time in her life when she felt like she didn’t need God because she already had everything she wanted here in the world, my face flushed as the words hit a little too close to home.
In my own prayer life I had been pondering these same themes, considering just how far off track things can go when we look to other people to fill our empty places. But now that I was encountering these same thoughts in a new way — experiencing them through a well-delivered story — they took on a new dimension, like a flat picture coming to life.
I would find this over and over again throughout the two-day event:
I kept having these powerful emotional reactions — and, despite myself, I kept feeling like they were good things. The brain-in-the-jar side of my personality firmly warned me that events designed to produce emotion were dangerous and manipulative, but my heart kept telling the brain in the jar to shut up and cry about Jesus for a minute.
I squirmed in this tension for most of the conference. And then, toward the end, something clicked.
Aaron Ivey of the Austin Stone Band was on stage, signing a song called Jesus Is Better. He poured great emotion into each word — but, more than that, he and the other musicians delivered a superb performance. Each guitar chord and drum beat came together at just the right time in just the right way to accentuate the ebb and flow of the lyrics. It was breathtaking to see the way all of these elements coalesced so perfectly to form something so much bigger and more powerful than the individual parts. Praise and worship isn’t normally a genre I enjoy, but this wasn’t praise and worship music as much as it was simply good music.
And when the singer began belting out the lines begging God to help us understand how much we need him more than we need anything else in the world…I’ll go ahead and admit that I cried.
As I wiped a tear from my eye, I realized that this was emotion as a response to beauty, not emotion for emotion’s sake. I can see how an event where there is pressure to have a certain reaction would be dangerous. If there’s a feeling like “IT’S THE CRESCENDO OF THE JESUS SONG, SO ALL GOOD CHRISTIANS WILL CRY NOW,” that’s a problem.
But if you have an auditorium full of people getting teary-eyed or waving their hands as an authentic response to beauty, it’s something different — something good.
When you walk into a great cathedral, that rush of emotion that overtakes you is the sensation of an impossible-to-understand truth suddenly penetrating your soul; it’s a moment of finally understanding that God is so great and we are so small in a way that you never could when you read about it in a book.
And so it was with the conference.
I already knew that Jesus’ love for me is unconditional; I’d been thinking about it a lot in prayer. But when a woman got up on stage and conveyed that same truth through a soul-stirring song, the melody of the music and the poetry of the words opened valves in my soul that were normally slammed shut. The truth was no longer confined to my intellect, but flooded with warmth and power into every part of my being.
That is, ultimately, what I took away from the IF Gathering:
Beauty helps us digest truth, and the type of feeling that is the product of a response to beauty is not dangerous or artificial. In fact, it’s a sign that something really good is occurring, because it’s the feeling of truth penetrating the soul.
As I walked out of the auditorium after the last song, I was filled with inspiration to make beauty a bigger part of my spiritual life. Whether it’s through singing Vespers with the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist or praying in front of a richly colored icon or blasting O Sacrum Convivium through headphones while I pray the Rosary, I see now that beauty is an essential aide to the absorption of truth.
As surprised as I am to hear myself saying this, I think I’d like to go to another praise and worship conference too. I’ve heard that there are gatherings out there that feel more manipulative, but I’d definitely sign up to go to another one like the IF Gathering — because the hallmark of this particular event wasn’t the emotion per se, but the fact that it was the fruit of a lot of hard work and sacrifice from people who were willing to create something beautiful for God.
(Maybe next time I’ll raise my hands.)