Among the heartbreaking images of death and devastation from Haiti’s earthquake, one stood out for me.
It came from an Associated Press story of the disaster, the country’s worst in 200 years. "Thousands gathered in public squares to sing hymns," a report said.
Haitians thus proclaimed to the world that their human spirit was still alive, that there is a God that can help them, that their mental health, if not their physical one, had survived the shocks.
Singing is uniquely human, long-recognized for its power to revive our spirit, give us courage and heal us. From time immemorial soldiers sang as they went into battle. Worshippers of all faiths sang their praises to God.
In various cultures, it took different forms. For some it was mantra, for others chanting, scales or pure improvisation.
Professor John Cox, an Englishman, believes that singing can make a major contribution to mental health. In Victorian times, he said, according to a report in The Observer, asylums had their own orchestra and choir, conducted by the chief doctor.
My mother always sang as she worked, one of her most endearing traits. This proclaimed to her many children that, though times might be hard, there was always something to celebrate, to cheer us up.
My wife, however, never sings, except in church. She believes it is due to a childhood incident when she was singing a Christmas carol and her mother told her, "Why don’t you just keep quiet."
Unfortunately, in recent times, singing’s value is little recognized. At Mass the voices that are silent far outnumber those singing the hymns.
Too many think they can’t do it well. Men, especially in white society, tend to look on it as something they dare do only in the shower or in the forest by themselves. Often it takes alcohol to release inhibitions.
Singing is seen not as an activity to participate in but as one to be entertained by. While that can also be inspiring and perhaps healing, it is not as beneficial as doing it yourself.
Nikki Slade, who gives singing workshops in north London, suffered a psychotic episode in 1989. Singing helped her recover. "The only thing that really mattered was singing," she recalled. "I sang every day."
Moreover, doctors believe that singing is a valuable aerobic exercise, encouraging better posture and deeper breathing, according to The Observer report.
It is also believed to release endorphins that relieve pain and reduce stress. That is why singing is a growing therapy for relaxation, overcoming depression and anxiety, and even treating clinically serious mental health problems.
As the Scriptures often teach us, singing is an important form of prayer. The psalmist urges, "Sing praise to the Lord, you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name" (Ps 30:4).
"Give thanks to the Lord on the harp; with the 10-stringed lyre chant his praises" (Ps 33:2).
Perhaps there should be more singing in our liturgies, even in Lent when other forms of prayer receive more emphasis.
The fact that thousands of Haitians could gather in public squares to sing hymns after the tragedy that overtook them on Jan. 12 gives us all hope.
Their example can help us cope with our lesser misfortunes in these trying times: closing plants, unemployment, foreclosure, lack of health care and loss of retirement funds.
"Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all you lands" (Ps 96:1).
Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service.