Shauna Hannan began to fathom the connection between faith and music in unexpected places: in a tiny candlelit church in Norway, on a road in Zimbabwe, in her own heart.
Singing has sustained her during spiritual dry periods and in times of rejoicing, and it is her time with the renowned Concordia College choir that remains the primary experience of her life.
"There are these moments where it leads up to some kind of sound — it doesn’t have to be a big sound, there could be just a gentle sound — and you are just taken away to this other plane," said Hannan, now a professor at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.
"It was in those moments, rare moments, that I experienced sort of — I don’t know if I want to say perfection — but it is almost like in the beginning of Genesis, when God is creating and then at each point, God says, ‘And this is good.’"
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The Minnesota native, one of about eight area alumni, expects another "And this is good" moment Thursday, when the choir comes to Columbia for a concert.
The 72-member choir under the direction of Rene Clausen is known worldwide for its evocative translations of classical and innovative original choral works.
"Rene used to say it is no accident that God placed the voicebox halfway between the head and the heart," Hannan said. "And he would say as musicians, as vocalists, as singers, you need to have your head in this, you have to match the sounds around you. But you have to feel this — this has got to be a part of your being."
For area musicians and music lovers, the Concordia choir’s appearance is a rare chance to see one of the nation’s finest collections of collegiate choristers.
"You know what it takes to get that blend or to sing that concert without any music," said English Morris, the minister of music and organist at St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church.
"The choral experience is the connective experience to one another," Morris said. "What you experience is certainly bigger than what you are individually."
Jim Johnson, executive director of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians and an adjunct faculty at the Lutheran Seminary, said there is a quality to choral music that can reduce to listener to silence in order to "ponder the mysteries."
"This kind of music can be a wonderful surprise to people when they feel they have been drawn into something beyond themselves," Johnson said.
Concordia is among a number of private Lutheran colleges distinguished by a rich musical expression and tradition. Humorist Garrison Keillor has featured the Concordia Choir, as well as St. Olaf’s College choir, on his show, "A Prairie Home Companion."
There are five choirs at the college, Hannan said, and acceptance to them is rigorous. She made the top Concordia College choir her sophomore year, as an alto. She gave up three intramural sports to practice an hour-and-a-half, five days a week.
But Hannan said the sacrifices pale in comparison to the richness of the experience, which includes national and world tours and lifelong friendships.
When she returned to Moorhead as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the late 1990s, she served as a narrator for the choir’s famous Christmas concerts for nine years.
She joined the choir and college orchestra in the 2003 performance of "Memorial," a Clausen composition commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association to honor the victims of 9/11.
For Hannan, these have been high and holy moments that have persuaded her of the power of music to deepen faith.
She recalls questioning her own Christian faith and how the pure distillation of a sacred choral work made her realize "This is going to make me believe again."
Music has that capability, she said, recounting the 1990 tour of Europe when the choir stood in a circle around parishioners in a church in Stavanger, Norway.
"We surrounded them ... and first we sang this great Norweigian bar song," she recalled, "and then we sang a Swedish hymn, "Children of the Heavenly Father," "Tryggare Kan Ingen Vara."
Those who listened "were absolutely mesmerized by this moment... and you could see these little tears rolling down their eyes. Not that the goal is to make people tearful, but there is something beautiful about being able to be stirred in that way."
Hannan was moved in a similar fashion when she went to Zimbabwe on a mission trip with Princeton Seminary. There, the community lined the streets dancing and singing in welcome.
That kind of deep spiritual moment — "creation at its purest" — doesn’t occur often in church, she said, although it can happen with a great sermon, a baptism, or an invitation to communion.
"When a choir really hits it, that magical stuff happens all the time. I can’t help but think that the spirit is participating in that," Hannan said. "It’s almost like we are responding to the call to express ourselves in this way, that God has given these gifts."