Friday, September 16, 2016

Isaiah 64 – And a Daughter's Hands

These days leading up to our departure from the States have been a real blessing.  And one of the greatest of these gifts: the chance to have intentional time with family and friends.  Each day is precious, and has lent itself to a great set of memories.

Here's what took place a few evenings ago:  My daughter Jessica took me to a local pottery studio where she's set up shop.  Jess has devoted herself, over the past several years, to becoming a skilled potter.  Her house is filled with vases, cups, dishes and bowls, all made by her own hand.

So after dinner the other night, she dropped a great question: "Dad, wanna throw some clay?"  Vaguely understanding the invitation, I went ahead and said yes.

I'd never been at a potter's wheel before.  I've frequented craft fairs and admired the artisans who've shown off their finished products, but the opportunity to get down and dirty (literally) with a lump of clay is an experience that's never been afforded me.

The first thing to note about manipulating a hunk of clay is just how intensive and complex a labor it is.  As I smashed down my clay on the potter's wheel, Jessica urged me on:  "Dad, the clay is your domain.  You own that domain.  Don't let the stuff push you around.  Use your palms, your fingers, and insist on centering it and fashioning it the way you want, not the way the clay wants to go."

Simple, right?  But hardly.  I found working with this stubborn earth to be a delicate dance of upper body strength, focus, balance, and artful movement of palms, fingers, and wrists.  It was not an easy task in the least.

As I was working with my daughter's encouragement and practical guidance, I found myself going back to a Scripture passage that I've heard through the years – the quote from Isaiah 64:
  "Yet you, Lord, are our father.
  We are the clay and you our potter;
  We are all the work of your hand."  Is. 64: 7

There is nothing like entering fully into an analogy to find all the nuances of its meaning.  I'll never be a potter, at least one to match my daughter's skill.  But I'll also never forget what it means, how it feels, or what it takes out of you to craft a lump of earth into a bowl for my porridge.

This brief human experience makes me marvel all the more at how the potter's image works for God the Creator – how much it takes to craft a human being, to be fashioned according to the Creator's image, to be the result of God's hands and palms and wrists.  Am I receptive to the divine movement of focus and balance, the strength to keep things in alignment so that an inimitable work of life might be achieved?  I contemplated how often we resist the touch of the Potter's hand – just like that stubborn lump of clay – content to be spinning around, off-centre. And just like the clay, we are not complete until we subject ourselves to the creative and parental set of divine hands.

And in equal measure, when I'm with my grandchildren, it makes me appreciate all the more what it takes out of parents to mould their children as well.  Days spent raising children, while not a potter's wheel per se, bears a striking analogy to what takes place with lumps of clay.  And come sundown, the exhaustion that follows their efforts to is very plain to see.  Parents, like the Creator, spend a lot of time at that would-be potter's wheel, creating what is to come.

Finally, a shameless plug:  Looking for some great pottery?  Think of my daughter, and check out her work by clicking here!



Monday, September 12, 2016

What You Can Learn from a Key Chain

So, this is limbo.

Eagerly awaiting the new assignment, feeling a bit like a horse in the gates before a race, pawing at the ground.

And while this span of time is a bit confusticating (Tolkien's word, not mine), there are lessons to be learned in this quiet, liminal landscape.  One of them, curiously, came from an ordinary key chain.

Before I had completely shut down my office in Coleman Morse on ND's campus, I went through a series of purges.  These had nothing to do with the obvious ones – goods, or cars, or clothes, or any other belongs: the "stuff" of this world, if you will.  It had to do, rather, with keys – the real badge of engagement at an institution.

Over the span of a couple of weeks, one by one, I gave all these material means of access away – the key to the choir loft, the storage room in the sacristy, the door to the Log Chapel, CoMo's basement, the choir rehearsal rooms, car keys, my own office key.  (And hey, I even gave back my access card to all the ND security gates!  How noble!)  As each one was handed to the appropriate steward, the action carried with it a sense of liberation... and more than a little vulnerability.

It's interesting how we hold on to certain things to provide some definition of our lives.  Most of these things have to do with the "stuff" – credit cards, favourite restaurants or watering holes, familiar routines, work spaces, environments.  But take a leap off the cliff, and all these compass points disappear pretty quickly.

Watching the ND football game last weekend, I was inundated with a commercial message:  "What's in YOUR wallet?"  I could accurately say, "Not much!"  And I now have a key chain with only two things on it: the first is a tiny fob with a caricature of Saint Brigid.  The second is a key that, quite honestly, I'm clueless as to what it unlocks.  I'm keeping it there, though. It's a telling reminder of the fact that, in many ways, I'm uncertain of what will be opened in the months and years to come.  But I'm fairly confident that letting go of all these props has something to do with a journey of grace, and that the lessons learned from this time should be kept close to the heart.

Jesus urged his band of disciples to head out without a whole lot in their backpacks.  And probably, by 21st century standards, my wife and I are moving in the right direction.  I'm a long way from just a walking stick and a pair of sandals.  But a lot has been let go of in the past three months.  And there's much to be learned in this journey of abandonment – starting with a simple key chain.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Summer of the Long Good-Bye

The ND Guitar Pilgrim blog has been silent since the twentieth of June.  It was at that time that I announced to readers and friends that, after thirty-five years at the helm of the Notre Dame Folk Choir, a new opportunity had made itself known on my ministerial horizon.

It is an opportunity fraught with opportunity and challenge, in a land and with a people that, throughout the touring history of the Choir, I have come to love and cherish.  And so I said yes – yes to the chance to work in downtown Dublin, Ireland, in an historic church whose founder I have admired for most of my ministerial career.  I've studied his words, even put his poetry to music.  It took very little convincing to sign me up, that I might walk and work in the church built on the legacy of John Cardinal Newman.

My silence on the blog was rooted in the simple fact that, for the past two and a half months, we have been packing, allocating, choosing what to keep, what to send, and what to let go of.  A pod of precious books and resources is on its way, by boat, to Dublin – even as I write this.  Some of our furnishings went to family members.  Some things on the walls of office and home went to longtime friends.  And a good many things were simply given away or sold in a weekend-long estate sale.  But all the time, for the past ten weeks, we have been letting go, letting go, sorting through what was deemed essential and what was not.

All of this is, of course, took place within the practical vision of moving a household from Granger, Indiana, to Dublin, Ireland.  But there was another lens that made itself equally manifest over these warm summer days… the lens of friends needing to say good-bye.

Throughout the weeks of June, July and August, my wife and I were humbled to have countless doors open to us – friends who had regularly gone to the 11:45 Sunday liturgies during the academic year or the 9:00PM Summer Folk Choir celebrations.  Each time we entered a household, we were greeted with warm embraces, not a few tears, eager questions, reflections on the ministry and song of an ensemble that had become so very close to their hearts.

It has been the Summer of the Long Good-Bye.  And I doubt that, even after sixty-two years of living on this earth, something like this could ever be experienced again.  Every day was a holy experience, walking with friends who had been touched by the song of these exceptional singers and musicians.

I suppose, when you name an ensemble after the assembly (for that is what the tag "Folk" has always pointed to in the choir's title), that very assembly will make its voice heard – especially about its Director and the direction he is taking with his life.  Throughout these weeks, I've been surrounded by a familiar theme:  "Notre Dame's loss will be Ireland's gain!"  "I am overjoyed for you – and heartbroken for us!"  These were the thumbnails.  But woven into these themes were personal stories: memories of a particular song, moments of grieving or gladness that had somehow been better illustrated by the repertoire and witness of the Folk Choir.  All these stories needed to be shared.  And Michele and I became the recipients, the place where all those stories were collected.

As of Tuesday after Labor Day, everything was disposed of – home, cars, property, kayaks, excess clothes, furniture, even a precious collection of compact discs.  We will soon be on our way across the Atlantic, and only the necessary things will do.

But we carry other things with us – far more powerful things.  And these things weigh nothing.  They are the stories, the sacred memories, the legacy of almost two generations of singers and the witness they created.  We carry these with us, these precious chapters that will need no suitcase.

And as we make our way toward the shores of the Emerald Isle, we can hear the song of these past few months – the song of a Summer of the Long Good-Bye.  Please God this song will be an encouragement when we arrive at Saint Stephen's Green at the end of September.

Monday, June 20, 2016

It's official!

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has announced the establishment of a new centre for dialogue between faith and reason, between Church and society.  The American Notre Dame University, one of the most distinguished Catholic Universities worldwide, will steward the initiative at University Church in Saint Stephen’s Green in Dublin.  Newman’s University Church in Dublin is a unique icon of the place of faith in Newman’s vision of university formation.

Archbishop Martin said, “I see the establishment of the Notre Dame – Newman Centre for Faith and Reason as an opportunity for University Church to return to its original vocation as a focal point for reflection on faith and reason.  It is an opportunity for Dublin to take a lead in today’s changed social context in something which is part of the rich heritage of Newman’s presence in Dublin.   I appreciate especially that centre will not be just an intellectual debating centre, but will also work in the formation of an active and committed faith community of young people”.


He added, “We live in the context of wanting to be a modern Irish Church authentically present in – but never completely at home within – contemporary Irish society. Pope Francis constantly recalls us to be a Church which is out in the world in service and in dialogue.  He does not want a fearful Church obsessed just with the evils of the world.  He does not want a Church in which we try to keep Jesus locked up within our own categories.”


University of Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., said, “We are honored by Archbishop Martin’s invitation to expand the University’s presence in Dublin. Notre Dame stands in a proud legacy of uniting faith and reason, and Cardinal Newman is a giant in that pursuit. We are grateful for the opportunity to deepen appreciation for Cardinal Newman and his writings, and to bring the University’s mission to an iconic church on the Dublin cityscape.”

Built by the then-rector of University College Dublin, Blessed John Henry Newman, University Church opened in 1856 and has since been an iconic landmark in Dublin’s city centre and a testament to the harmony of faith and reason. Newman would later be named a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, and was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.


The new Centre’s operations will begin later this year, and will have a special focus on outreach to young people in Dublin, many of whom have not otherwise been drawn to the Church. The centre will give particular attention to excellent liturgy and music, a lecture series and other intellectual activities which aim to integrate faith and reason, service to those in need and cultural events inside and outside of Newman University Church.
Father Jenkins has appointed Notre Dame lecturer in law Rev. William R. Dailey, C.S.C., as the Director of the centre.  Father Dailey has served as a Lecturer in Law an the Notre Dame Law School since 2010, as the St. Thomas More Fellow of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture since 2013, and as Rector of Stanford Hall on the Notre Dame campus for three years.  In 2009, he returned to Columbia Law School as a Scholar in Residence. Father Dailey’s teaching and scholarly interests are in the areas of Jurisprudence and Legal Ethics.  He has appeared frequently on MSNBC to comment on faith and culture and has written for the New York Times and Washington Post on faith issues.

Steve Warner, the Director of the Notre Dame Folk Choir for the past 35 years, has accepted the role of Associate Director of the Notre Dame – Newman Centre for Faith and Reason, and will have special responsibilities regarding music, liturgy and outreach. In his nearly four decades with Campus Ministry at Notre Dame, Warner established the Folk Choir as a vital component of on-campus worship, and has played a significant role in Notre Dame’s liturgical traditions.  His liturgical music compositions are published exclusively through World Library Publications.

The Notre Dame – Newman Centre for Faith and Reason will complement an array of Notre Dame University activities already active in Ireland, including a portion of which is mediated through its network of Global Gateways. The University’s five international Global Gateways—located in Dublin, Beijing, Jerusalem, London and Rome—provide academic and intellectual hubs where scholars, students and leaders from universities, government, business and community gather to discuss discover and debate issues of topical and enduring relevance.

Additionally, the University’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies is a teaching and research institute dedicated to the study and understanding of Irish culture. The Institute supports undergraduate and graduate students in their pursuit of Irish Studies and provides opportunity for language study, travel classes,  summer study in Dublin, internships in Dublin, conference support and more.


In 2015, Notre Dame entered into a partnership with Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, County Galway, to create a centre to advance their shared spiritual, cultural and educational missions. Notre Dame operates the House of Brigid in Ireland, a post-graduate service program focused on parish-based liturgical and catechetical ministry.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Parting Glass: Coda and Finale

As I write this, I am on Aer Lingus flight #123 back to the United States of America. It is Thursday, June 9th, a full week after the end of the Notre Dame Folk Choir’s tour to Scotland, Ireland, and Northern Ireland. 

In the span of that week, the landscape has changed a lot. 

Now it can be said: what I have been holding, quietly, secretly, in the depths of my heart for the last two months, now can be shared. 

For three or four years now, my Maker has been urging me on, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And at this point, what has been created at the University – a jewel to reflect the glory of our God – is ready to pass along, into the hands of another steward. 


One of my first directors of Campus Ministry, Fr. David Schlaver, challenged me with a quote after he left his post for Ave Maria Press.  That quote stayed perched on my cork board for many years – until I had burned the words into my heart:
"Missionaries go to a place when they are needed but not wanted,
and leave when they are wanted but not needed."


Some are asking, “why would you ever consider leaving the Folk Choir?” And the answer is really quite simple. Many people have expressed their want for me to stay at Notre Dame – but the reality is that there are far greater needs in other places.  And that beloved ensemble has really been given everything they need to succeed for many, many years to come.

Years ago, at an NPM convention, I spoke about how hearts are broken – not in the romantic sense, but rather that hearts are broken apart so that they can hold so much more. My sense is that the choir has done this, collectively, for years – participated in the fractio, the breaking apart, the very human fraction rite of our liturgy, so that many, many others may be fed.  And we are all called to this.  Myself included.


The Folk Choir, contrary to what many generous people are saying, was never something I created. Nor was it, or should it ever be, primarily about music. It was, and is, the creation of the Creator, and it was, and is, kindled into being every time we've look into each others’ eyes and hearts, and witnessed to one another’s voices being given over to the courage needed to take up the song. All we can ask is to be good stewards of this gift.

Come September, Michele and I will be moving to Dublin, Ireland, and I will take on a new title, given me by the University, a reflection of the work that, God willing, will bring Irish people closer to their Creator. But I will also inherit a second title as well – that of Director Emeritus of the Notre Dame Folk Choir. I gladly embrace this title: it is a reflection of the more than six hundred amazing people I’ve had the privilege to stand before all these years.  And, quite honestly, it gives me the opportunity to invite them to the other side of the Atlantic, to take part in some liturgical and musical opportunities in the future.


We live in a society that all to often robs us of permission to be spiritual, to share our sacred songs, to pass our divine dreams on to our children. And yet, all we need do is cling to the Rock. No storm can deter God’s will if such is done. We simply need to find the courage to sing. Keep singing about that great mystery of Love that has the last word – in the heavens, and on earth. 

Nunc dimittis.