Touching the Divine

Jason Howard - Berea, Kentucky
As heard on This I Believe Podcast, May 27, 2014
Jason Howard
Photo by C. Williams

When Jason Howard was young, he spent many afternoons listening to his father's record collection on an RCA turntable. That was the beginning of Howard's lifelong belief that music and art are connected to the divine.

Age Group: 18 - 30
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Every few weeks, I make a pilgrimage to CD Central in Lexington, my local record store, to while away an hour or so, thumbing through rows upon rows of compact discs and vinyl. This is a time-tested journey for me, one I have taken in cities too numerous to count. I go in search of new music, which I inevitably find—the latest release from long-time favorites like Rosanne Cash or Teddy Thompson, to more recent discoveries such as Caitlin Rose and Emeli Sandé—but I also make this trip for something more.

I come to these buildings to worship, to retreat into some inner sanctuary and commune only with the music and the artists who have created it. Here, within these hallowed walls layered with posters and shelves of box sets, I turn myself over to ritual. I hear my own private Eucharist coming from the speakers scattered throughout the store. I recite a liturgy of familiar lyrics, commune with relics of timeworn vinyl. I take in the familiar incense of must and mold, paying tribute to images of singers like Nina Simone and John Lennon that have been cut from worn album covers and posted on the walls—Stations of the Cross. I make my offering at the cash register, an attempt to keep these churches and their ministers going. When this service ends and I exit back into the world, I go in peace, eager to share the good news of my finds with friends.

This ceremony has its roots in my childhood. As an only child, I spent many an afternoon in front of my father’s RCA turntable in his library, kneeling on the orange shag carpet, absorbing the catholic tastes of his record collection—the sounds of Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, the Beatles, Barbra Streisand, Herb Alpert, and the Andrews Sisters. There, in that room, surrounded by vinyl and books, I slowly made a connection that endures in my life—that art and the divine are inseparable. Since then, I have committed to living a life circumscribed by this union, to be a captive of beauty and enlightenment and creative revelation, whether it be found in the nave of a cathedral or at a listening station in a record shop.

“He who sings, prays twice,” tradition holds that St. Augustine said. It’s a creed I know to be true whenever I hear the ambered voice of Patty Griffin or the tattered sounds of Billie Holiday, each time I listen to the Scottish folksinger Jean Redpath croon Robert Burns’s “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose” in tones as clear as the River Dee.

This I believe—that in lifting our voices or pens we approach the divine, offering a prayer that rises through the air like incense.

Jason Howard is the author of A Few Honest Words and coauthor of Something’s Rising. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Nation, Sojourners, Paste, Equal Justice Magazine, and the Louisville Review, and on NPR. A finalist for the 2013 Kentucky Literary Award, he was awarded the prestigious 2013 Al Smith Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction by the Kentucky Arts Council.