Finding your voice

You may not believe me, but there is a severe malady that targets clergy. To my knowledge, there are no support groups for those with chronic cases and no medical advances from the pharmaceutical companies. Indeed, doctors can do nothing to diagnose or treat this malady. Attacks happen almost exclusively during worship when the cleric is praying aloud and cease only when he or she has stopped speaking.

Liturgical professionals have made great strides in diagnosing this debilitating affliction; after much research, they have discovered that clergy with high self-importance blast counts most often contract it. Once, in the crypt of a great English cathedral, I came across an ancient description, but my memory is now woefully incomplete. My mind’s eye sees a crumbling illuminated page filled with cramped Latin writing. As near as I remember, the recorder named the malady something to the affect of inficere fenestrae voce — what is now commonly called “Stained Glass Voice.”

National Stained Glass Voice Awareness Week
National Stained Glass Voice Awareness Week

If you have never heard of this affliction, please permit me to raise your awareness. “Stained Glass Voice” happens when the cleric prays aloud in a vastly different voice than he or she uses when saying anything else. Indicators of Stained Glass Voice include, but are not limited to, the dramatic pause (especially in the middle of a phrase); syllable elongation (especially “O” as in “O Lord”); pitch augmentation (especially an affected deep voice); and unnatural stressing (especially on words such as “who has”).

Most often, clergy contract Stained Glass Voice because they start acting instead of praying. Usually, they don’t even realize it because the affliction spreads gradually. They say the same prayers over and over again. In subconscious attempts to assuage the encroaching dullness of the repetitive action, they begin to say the words differently. Over time, the Stained Glass Voice replaces the original fervor of prayer, and clerics start competing for Best Supporting Actor in a Collect or Blessing.

Ever since I began leading worship, I have attempted to monitor my own vocal patterns when I pray aloud in church. At first, I suffered from Stained Glass Voice because I had trouble combining authenticity with volume. My natural praying voice is quite quiet, so my own voice felt foreign when I raised it to be heard by the congregation. Since my ordination to the priesthood, I have been praying aloud more often and for longer periods at a time. And I am coming to a point where volume does not inhibit authenticity. Attacks of Stained Glass Voice are less frequent (I hope), and I give credit for my remission to a mentor who probably has no idea how much she has taught me.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a foursome of women who attend Morning Prayer every single day. One of these women, a beautiful lady whose advanced years have not robbed her of what they called in her day “moxie,” adds a set of prayers near the end of our daily worship. She says the prayers in her normal voice, with the same tone and character she uses after the service when she wishes me a good day. For many weeks, I reflected about how wonderful it was that she prays the same way she speaks. Then I realized why her prayers affect me so. It is not that she prays the same way she speaks. She just never stops praying. In every syllable she utters, I hear her prayer for her friends and her community, whether she is talking about God or about all the doughnuts I need to eat to fatten up a bit.

The Apostle Paul instructs the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.” I’ve known few people in my life who live up to such a lofty charge, but my friend at Morning Prayer does. As I listen to her speak and pray at the same time, I am learning how to make prayer an integral part of my life —  to make prayer the studs inside the wall rather than the pictures hung to adorn it. As I continue to grow as a person and as a priest, I hope that my true voice rises to my lips, and that the only stained glass in the building is the windowpanes.


I totally made up the story about the crypt at a great English Cathedral because I couldn’t figure out how to say “Stained Glass” in Latin.

3 thoughts on “Finding your voice

  1. A common affliction among yoga teachers too. One of the best pieces of constructive criticism I received during teacher training happened in the first weekend. “You have a very soothing voice, but it doesn’t sound like your real voice.” What a revelation! Fortunately I had only been teaching about 6 months at the time so it wasn’t completely embarrassing.

    And fortunately I did not change my accent. One student told us a story. He was a in a class where the instructor lead the centering and invocation in perfectly normal voice (he was American) and then starting leading class in an Indian Accent!

    So as you find your voice, watch out for the Anglophile 😉

  2. I appreciate the need for sincerity in our prayers, but I must disagree with the notion that we must make the presentation of our prayers mundane.

    I believe one of the primary goals of the liturgy is to elevate ourselves beyond the worldly and encounter the sacred. During the Mass, we sing songs we don’t normally encounter in secular life, we wear sacred garments, and we should also speak with an awareness that what we are doing is sacred.

    Jews have Hebrew for their sacred language, Muslims use Arabic, and for years Christians had Latin. The only time I speak Latin, for example, is when I’m serving Mass. I’m also quite certain that the way I speak it in Church is different than I would speak Latin on the streets.

    In the Anglican tradition, this distinction is achieved through Prayer Book English.

    I would encourage you to notice that when you feel self conscious about your tone, etc. that you realize you have a unique responsibility to bring the Sacred into the lives of your flock.

  3. You and Eric both make good points. As one sitting in the pews I am affected by the sincerity, or lack there of, of the prayer leader. This is what needs to be transmitted in the voice, tone, projection etc. more than anything else. If those you are leading through and into prayer feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in your words and actions you are on the right track.
    I appreciate your words about the woman who conveys her prayer through her speaking. I am encouraged by this gift and also pretty sure it takes a certain amount of years and wisdom to achieve it.

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