Sunday, January 15, 2017

Nativity: Retrospect

The crazy thing about the gallery (loft) of Newman’s University Church is how it managed to function for so many years given the sheer restrictions by way of space.  The organ console was surrounded by a six-foot wooden wall; it almost completely blocked off musicians from the assembly.  The confined area held about eight singers; but if you brought in an additional instrument (or set of instruments), one would have to choose between singers and instruments.  The wooden box cut the choir off from the liturgy; even for me, closest to the sanctuary, I could never see what was going on in the assembly.  We were, almost literally, in another county.

Through some superb collaboration with the Archdiocese, and very hard work by skilled contractors, by mid-December we had carefully modified this precious area, opening it up so that the choir could grow and participate in the liturgy.  And musicians could be added without having to move choristers to remote areas. 

The first real test of this new gallery was about to take place, on none other than Christmas Eve.  We had hired a string quartet made up of members of the RTE Orchestra and the Irish National Symphony.  A special service booklet had been created, so that everyone could sing the carols, psalms and acclamations.  A new setting of the Roman Martyrology was composed, sung as the very last piece before the opening hymn, O Come All Ye Faithful.  It was a fitting conclusion to the whispered waitings of Advent. 

By the end, we all stepped back, taking in what had been accomplished – not just by way of the Christmas Eve and Morn liturgies – but all the efforts of the past three months.  My dedicated little choir had learned not one, but two new mass settings.  We added a fabulous violinist to our ranks on a weekly basis.  New folders, octavos, and printed SATB choral music were now in their hands: the floodgates had opened, and they reached their fruitful culmination with the blessed feast of the Nativity.

“Set every peak and valley humming.”  So goes the text from Eleanor Farjeon’s beloved hymn, People Look East.  I hope the Wicklow Mountains were listening closely:  the Lord, indeed, is coming.  Love is a Song, and it is on the way.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Silent Testimony

Three months later: weeks of changing light bulbs, crawling through garages to figure out how the heating works, the infamous broken disability lift (which keeps breaking, right before a major event), the gallery whose mould and dust seems to have no end (we’re on a crusade to create a healthy environment for our singers!).

Through it all, the liturgical year has carried us: the messages of the gospels, end-time, and then Advent.  And for the first time in more than fifteen years, I’ll get the chance to actually plan and see into reality the liturgies of Christmas. 

In the midst of all these labours, I’ve had small moments of breakthroughs – not that this is what it’s all about.  But they’ve been there to experience, if one has the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

Since the end of September, I’ve been making sure to be at almost every 1:05PM daily liturgy in Newman’s University Church.  Progress here is measured in centimetres... nothing spectacular.  Every day, I’ve quietly added guitar to the Communion Rite – no expectations of participation.  And the guitar has had to take on many new  Irish tunes as well – beautiful, evocative tunes that this country is known for.

But when we hit the “purple season” of Advent, it was time to make the small move: a printed booklet of hymns, psalms and acclamations from both sides of the Atlantic.  “Sein Allelu” appeared along with a lovely Advent Irish rendition of “Bi Íosa Im Chroise.”  Bit, by bit, we added sung repertoire to the celebration.

And we came, finally, to the last weekday liturgy of Advent, Friday of the Fourth Week of Advent – December 23rd.  Normally Fridays are a scant daily congregation... people are wrapping up for the week.  But this day, the crowd was much larger.  And for the last time in 2016, we sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  Just one verse (these people are on lunch break!)  And just to close out the season, I played the entire thing through instrumentally, thinking that people would jump out of their pews and head back to work.

No one moved.  Not a soul.  Everyone stood in silent witness, soaking up every note, every chord.  I didn’t even realize it until I looked up, halfway through the “postlude” on the guitar.

It was a silent ratification.  The quiet, appreciative, understated Irish way of saying “thank you for what you’re doing.” 

Now we look to the Nativity.  Step, by step, by holy step.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Hand(bells) Across the Waters

Advent bring changes to everything – purple and rose, wreath and candle, even the very light that surrounds us, bargained with every day as we slip toward the winter solstice.

And if those who move in the circles of sacred music are doing their best, there are changes in our own sonic landscape as well.  Restraint, hushed joy, anticipation: these are the unspoken attributes we try to encourage in our song.

Over the years, there have been a few acoustic colours I've adopted as we make our way through this season.  The elements are intentional: moments of pausing and yearning on the guitar, texts that are wrapped around minor modes, all heralding the images put forth by Isaiah: calf and child and wolf and viper, mountaintops and clear highways.

One sonic technique, used in the past, conveys a beauty that is perfect for the Advent season – the use of handbells.  Without a word, bells convey an immense richness.  We use them to mark our time. They are usually rung from on high (drawing our heads away from this world and into the heavens). Merely striking them creates a resonance felt in the soul.  When we hear them, we know something is about to be announced: the birth of a Saviour, the death of a loved one.  And their ringing, even when it is random, has the ability to convey an aura of peace.

Take that peal of the handbells, and wed it to an ancient chant tune, and you have a piece of music that perfectly conveys the season of joyful anticipation.

Now, this is all well and good – if you have handbells.  But my little ensemble is not equipped with such things.

Thankfully, I just happened to know a resource: the Notre Dame Handbell Choir, directed by my long-time colleague, Karen Kirner.  So two weeks ago, I wrote to Karen, and asked if she could record a three-minute peal of the bells, in E-flat major.  And last week the MP3 file arrived in my mailbox.

All I needed to do was download the file, and then plug an iPhone into Newman Church's sound system.  And there it was – a soothing, compelling tintinnabulation, gently reverberating through the nave.  Couple that with an evocative violinist and a text admonishing the assembly to "prepare the way" – and we were off.

It was a moment when one choir assisted another, even though thousands of miles and an ocean divided them.  And it was a gladsome thing, to know that the peals and tones and overtones that were created in Northern Indiana could find their way into a house of prayer on Saint Stephen's Green in Dublin, Ireland.  Handbells across the waters.  What a fitting lead up to Gaudete.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Theology at Carluccio's

It's Saturday of American Thanksgiving weekend, and a favourite little pastime in the morning is to take a stroll on Dawson Street, inspecting the artwork in Patrick Donald's gallery, and grabbing a latte to go.

Today's coffee stop was at Carluccio's, a bustling beanery across from the former residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin.  I walked in, and was deluged with smells of pastries and scones, all decorated up for the holiday season, wrapped around the aroma of roasting coffee beans.  It was a perfect sort of prelude for our plunge into Christmas preparations.

I approached the cashier and ordered a latte.  And jovially, I asked, "Don't you just love this season? It's such a marvel!"  "What season?" asks she.  And dumbfounded, I replied, "The holiday season! All these colours, smells and packages, and anticipation!"

To which she just shrugged and said, "All days are the same for me.  I don't much care about the seasons."

I left with my latte, in a thoughtful mood, reflecting on my own belief that all days are not the same for me.  Tomorrow we will put out purple and rose candles, and start to hold our spiritual breath for the days of the Incarnation.  On the way home, walking through St. Stephen's Green, I took delight in watching hundreds of pigeons flying in a spontaneous but perfectly synchronous ballet around the entrance to the park (I suppose that delight was due, in part, to the fact that they left nothing on my head). Grafton Street was sparkling with lights and ribbons and evergreen and holly.  This day was not like any other day. Nor would it bear resemblance to those yet to come.

I grew up near Underhill, Vermont, the home of one of my local New England heroes, Snowflake Bentley.  A pioneer in the craft of photographing delicate flakes, he finally advanced a theory: no two of these snow crystals are alike.  So far, no one has been able to disprove his theory.  He called the uniqueness of snowflakes "little miracles."  Other scientists, while uncomfortable with his theological overtones, could not dispute the awesome theory he advanced, a creativity beyond mathematics, impossible to comprehend, all taking place within a fraction of an inch.

You can look out on a field of snow and see white.  Sad, monochromist perspective.  You can also look out on the same field and see a quadrillion miracles.

Whether it be snowflakes or days of our lives, the person who took my money at Carluccio's gave me a lot to ponder, here on the threshold of Advent.  Every day is a miracle: seasons, colours, songs, flights of birds – they all advance the mystery.  Each nuance of life is a point of inspiration, a dawning of wonder.  And here we are, poised to enter a new Year of Grace.  It will not be like last year, from the very second we awake.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Door of Humility

I've never been to the Holy Land, but I've heard that, in Bethlehem, there is a very small opening of stone that serves as the ancient portal to the Church of the Nativity.  For centuries, that doorway has been called the "Door of Humility," for in order to enter you must, by mere necessity, bow down very low.

It may not be as ancient, and certainly not as prestigious, but in order to make your way to the place where I work and dwell, you must also enter what I've come to call my own "Door of Humility."

As you stand in front of the entrance to Newman's University Church on St. Stephen's Green (and be advised if you wish to visit – you can walk by this facade and not even know you've passed the church), as I said, as you stand there you can see, to the left, a set of heavy wooden double doors, painted black.  These doors can be opened with great labour, and a long tunnel greets you, a tunnel that goes underneath the building to the east: Newman House, maintained by University College Dublin, the place where Blessed John Henry taught.  It's also the place, by the way, where the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins passed away.

But back to the doors and the tunnel: the double doors were seldom opened, usually when the priests and their guests came in by horseback.  There are still metal rings in the inner courtyard walls that point to this practice, the places where horses were tied.  In order to make pedestrian passage easier, a small, lower door was built into the larger set.  It's only about three feet high, occupying the lower half.

So each day, as I go out and come home, I must bow and bend low.  Whether I'm about to meet a new composer or church musician, whether I'm coming home with things from the grocer (I want American peanut butter back in my life!), whether I'm conferring with a priest or religious who wants to "mark my card," (Irish for "giving counsel") – in all these settings and so many more, I must exit and enter by stooping low in order that other things might be achieved.

Our friends and guests who've visited us thus far are amused and delighted by this portal.  Eilish, our parish secretary, calls it something far less glamorous: she calls it the "donkey door."  My wife sometimes refers to it as the "hobbit door."

But for me, it will always be the "Door of Humility," a reminder that not all I want to accomplish can be done on my own terms or on my own timeline.  There are greater forces at work here, and my best stance, more often than not, needs must be a posture of bowing down and bending low, that I might understand completely the holy ground upon which I walk.