In the last few month, my 9-year old discovered Spotify. On any given day, you can find us swerving through the neighborhood, switching the car over to Bluetooth media mode and listening to her channel of choice, some of which have been eye-opening. For instance, I had all my pre-conceptions shattered one day when we were listening to the Ed Sheeran station. It’s basically about 6 songs, which have been recorded multiple times in a variety of ways: live, duets, dubbed into Esperanto- you get the idea. In this instance, it was Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect.” Along with “Castle on the Hill,” this song has so many variations, they could probably have their own Spotify station. It was during Sheeran’s duet with Beyoncé that the scales fell from my eyes. I may not speak Framlingham, but I do speak Houston. Ready to belt out the line I thought I had heard, “Barefoot on the Cross,” I clearly heard Beyoncé say, “Barefoot on the grass.” Huh. Here I had been imagining this tortured love, so strong it was being described with the devotion of Christ, and it was just grass. Note to Ed: in no version of English should “grass” be able to rhyme with “cross.”
I know I am not alone in imagining the wrong words for song lyrics. There are whole web sites devoted to the phenomenon, and even a word for them: Mondegreens. One of the most hotly debated misheard lyrics is from Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”: mama-say-mama-sa-mama-coosa. Most agree that it doesn’t mean anything, but a friend in high school swore he was saying “Mama said she sold my moccasins.” She was not alone. Then there was the Breathe hit from the ‘80s, “Hands to Heaven,” which one friend as sure the lyric “tonight you calm my restlessness” was “tonight you comb my friend’s mustache.” A perfectly reasonable mistake. More recently, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” made headlines when the line “Got a long list of ex-lovers” was heard as “Lonely Starbuck’s lovers” or “Lonely starburst lovers.” I think if Taylor is wise, she will tell her future kids it was one of the latter.
Mondegreens happen in other areas of life, too, even prayers. Malachy McCort named his memoir “A Monk Swimming” as an homage to what he heard for years as a child in the Hail Mary: “Blessed art thou amongst Women.” Evidently, the Our Father has a number mondegreens as well. “Hallowed be they name,” is frequently misheard as “Harold (Or Howard) be the name.” When I was teaching religious ed, I used to love working with the kids on saying the “Glory Bee” (as in “buzz, buzz”) or the “Glory Bead,” (for jewelry fanatics). I loved imagining the rosary kids might say with these misheard prayers. I think Mary is up there laughing hysterically.
I stumbled across one explanation for this phenomenon on thecut.com, which states: “that our expectations have such a strong influence over what we hear that they can alter our interpretations of the sounds. ‘When we understand what someone says, it’s always at least partly a hallucination,’ University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman.” When I read this, it occurred to me that we spend a lot of time on discernment, deciphering what we think God’s messages are to us. I felt better knowing that part of my trouble discerning is actually due to my hallucinations. I wondered, do we ever worry that much about how clear our speech is to God? There are times, particularly when we have a specific request like healing, when clarity is not an issue. Still, sometimes we are less focused and our whole prayer life be reduced to a game of spiritual telephone. “I really need a new car,” may be garbled into “I heed a new star.” I swear I was asking for “fine deers in Boston” not “nine years in Austin” I know, God, it sounds weird.
Like anything, we get out of prayer what we put into it. We need to make sure we are being clear with God – and ourselves – about what we truly need and want. I read about the story of Bartimaeus from the Gospel of Mark in this blog post that talked about specificity in prayer. When Bartimaeus simply asked Jesus for mercy, Jesus kind of blew him off. When Bartimaeus said he wanted to be see, he was healed. It helps to be direct.
Today, my prayer is not just to receive clarity in God’s direction for me, but clarity in what I need to ask from God. And also, some relief for those poor, lonely Starbucks lovers.