I cannot think of Christmas without picturing Mr. Shaw standing in the very back of the church, listening to the students sing.
Back in the 1960s and first part of the ’70s, the Rev. Thomas N.F. Shaw was headmaster of Trinity Episcopal School in New Orleans, a private PreK-through-8th-grade bastion of excellent, holistic education for some 300 students. Each year the school held a Festival of Lessons and Carols as its closing act before Christmas break. In a candle-lit church just after dusk, students read their lessons; other students played a song or two with guitars and/or bells (the rest of the songs being accompanied by an organist); still other students acted as acolytes and ushers and choir.
But Mr. Shaw’s particular pride was in inspiring the whole student body to sing out, enthusiastically, each of the traditional hymns and carols. It couldn’t be a half-hearted or shy bit of singing; it had to be clear, sonorous, rich, and lovely.
The church would be utterly packed, with the students in the pews up front (taking up almost half the space) and all the parents, grandparents, and other attendees in the back half-plus of the nave.
After a few years as headmaster, Mr. Shaw realized that with even somewhat decent effort, the singing almost always sounded pretty good up front in the apse and sanctuary, where he led the service. But because of some odd acoustical tricks of the church design, it was only by standing in the very back row that one could really tell how good the singing was.
Strangely enough, if the singing was of a quality that in other spots in the church would sound reasonably acceptable, it would instead sound muffled, tinny, and weak in the very back. But if the singing was truly excellent, it would sound especially good – achingly, tear-catalyzingly good, better than anywhere else in the church – in that very back row.
That’s why, when the students in our daily chapel services practiced at least one or two parts of the service every single morning between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Mr. Shaw would walk from the front of the church to the back row and stand there, listening intently, as we sang.
Mr. Shaw was a tall man, fit and vigorous, and he had a deep voice to match. If our practice singing wasn’t up to snuff, his voice would boom out from behind us: “Stop! Start over! Sing like you mean it!” And again, if we were still too weak: “It’s Christmas! Sing with joy! Come on!”
And, memorably, Mr. Shaw about once every second year would be moved from exhortation to scolding. Let’s just say he knew how to get our attention and set us straight in a hurry.
But he usually didn’t need to resort to anger. We loved the man. We knew he cared deeply about us. And we were proud to try to make him proud.
So by the time the service rolled around, we always were ready. I guarantee you that no parent sitting in the back of the church ever thought anything other than that we students were a veritable choir of angels. Mr. Shaw brought out the angelic host within us.
“Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!’”
So, joy to the world. Find the right place from which to listen, and you will feel it.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Georgetown University and has served for years in various forms of ecumenical lay leadership.