Thursday, December 7, 2017

"Lady Bird" and the hermit

From here in Dublin, it appears that a joyous kerfuffle is brewing across the Atlantic – a particular anthem from Songs of the Notre Dame Folk Choir has made its presence known in the new movie Lady Bird, with Saoirse Ronan in the title role.

For the record, I haven't seen this movie yet. So this post is generated based on rumours, always a somewhat cautious task. But this is what I've heard: that the NY Times is howling Oscar choruses for Ronan; that the Catholic Church, finally, is shown in a rather kindly fashion; that this coming-of-age chronicle nails it, in all its messy, vulnerable, grace-filled humanity.

On Thursday morning, November 23rd, I got a crazy e-mail from my dear friend and former president of the Folk Choir, Colleen Moore.  Have you heard?, she said, "Rosa Mystica" has made it into the movies! I just about jumped out of my chair. Steve, it's OUR version!

Hit pause.  Rewind to 1982.

That year, a bunch of us took a field trip six hours south, to the Abbey of Gethsemani, nestled in the knobs of Kentucky.  It was on that trip that I met a man who would become one of my closest friends, a mentor, a partner in the crafting of sacred music. It was the most unlikely of collaborations: he, a hermit and a Trappist monk, trained as an organist, composer and Cistercian scholar; me, a liturgist and guitarist, working almost exclusively with college students. For some inexplicable reason, we hit it off from the start.

Over the years, I grew to love and admire this man all the more. We'd talk often (How he was able to use the phone so frequently?).  At the outset, I'd always ask "how are you?"  "Miserable!" he would chortle.  And I knew all was well (as a matter of fact, it was only when he stopped this exclamation that I knew things were not).

His voice resembled that of a baritone, oversized Yoda; when traveling to Europe, somehow he managed to get a night in NYC, finagling standing tickets at the Metropolitan Opera; he found innumerable, creative ways to hide soda cans (and probably other stuff) in his monastic garb; one year, while at Notre Dame to participate in a recording session, he stumbled onto "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" on TV – and stayed up all night watching reruns.

And despite, or maybe because of, his extensive training in music, he had an ardent love for the length and breadth of sacred music styles, choosing no priggish attitude toward a particular genre, but unequivocally embracing all that was good and glorious – what Keith Kalemba would later, poignantly describe as "honest liturgical music."  It was, perhaps, one of the reasons why he dearly loved the diversity of the Folk Choir.

A joyous custom soon began, of sharing liturgical compositions.  We'd seal off the chapter room at Gethsemani and throw scores at each other. One fine spring day, he pulled out an old, weather-beaten manuscript. "I wrote this just before taking my vows," he said. The piece was called Rosa Mystica. He played the whole thing through, and I simply sat there at the end of it. I remember two things: the sound of a robin outside the chapter room window (joyous in ovation); and himself, staring down at the keyboard, almost embarrassed by what he had just shared. I was blinking back tears.

Years later, heading into Thanksgiving week, I got a rare phone call from Gethsemani. It was not from Chrysogonus; it was one of the brethren, Thaddeus, telling me that my friend had suffered a major stroke. "Steve," he said, "he hasn't much longer."

In desperation I called my publisher, Mary Prete, in Chicago. Her counsel: "Steve, you must write to him. Write to him now." And so I did. I called the Abbey, and asked if I could fax my letter, to which they immediately acquiesced. Closing my office door, I spent the next few hours crafting one of the most important epistles of my life.

I went to Gethsemani a few days later, arriving just hours after he had passed. Chrysogonus was laid out in choir, and as is the custom with the Trappists, all one hundred and fifty psalms were being proclaimed over his body, a monk seated on either side of him.

But there was a third chair, empty, placed there by the brethren. That chair was for me.

The blur of emotions, the requiem mass, the slow procession to the graveside, the empty hole, the slow lowering of his body into the earth (Trappists use no coffins) – all of it washed over me with deep and enduring power.

As we were walking away, Thaddeus came up to me quietly, and whispered in my ear.  "Steve," he said, "that letter you wrote to Chrysogonus....he couldn't talk after the stroke, but for those three days before he died, he used sign language to tell us that he wanted it read to him. Every day."

Fast forward to now. I weep – albeit with joy – as I recall the fullness of my days with this amazing friend. It is the most ironic thing that a movie depicting all the struggles and moral choices of a young woman (at least, so I'm told), has as its epilogue an anthem to the Blessed Virgin Mary, written by a Trappist hermit cloistered in the foothills of Kentucky. He would've laughed out loud (as he often did with me) over such a happening.

Oh, and there's one other thing.  Colleen notified me of Rosa Mystica's place in the movie on November 23rd.

That date was the anniversary of his passing into eternal life.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

And about that guy from Assisi....

If you're familiar with the words (few) and actions (many) of the saint whom we just honoured a few days ago – Francis of Assisi – you are well aware of the polarities between which he dwelled.  A lover of beauty, yet committed to a life of chastity; born of nobility, yet abandoned it for poverty; extolling the radiance of sun and moon, yet content to live in the cell of a monk.

And you're probably aware of that crazy moment – one of many – when his world, upside-down as it was already, was turned around again, when he heard the Voice from without and within say to him: "Rebuild my church."

Francis would've done well to run from that voice, just like others had done their best to do – Jonah, for instance (jumped into the sea – look where that got him).  Or Moses (couldn't handle public speaking, so a PR agent was provided).  But thankfully, Francis did not run from that Voice.  He threw himself into it.  So much so that, in the end, he earned the burnéd marks of his Redeemer.

We, over here in Ireland, we are no Francis.  But I can honestly say that the admonition to "rebuild the church" is at the heart of everything we're doing.

No doubt, you've all seen movies where, over the span of about three or four minutes (because that's about as much as our attention spans can take), a Whole Lot Is Accomplished.  Cinema teachers no doubt have a phrase for such a segment of screenplay: you know, when the Bridge over the River Kwai gets constructed in about the time it takes cross a sidewalk – or when half a season of baseball gets constrained into the time it takes to eat a hot dog.

But reality teaches us that rebuilding takes time.  Years.

At University Church, there are two parallel tracks taking place as we embrace this task of rebuilding.  The first is straightforward: working with contractors, planning replacement ceilings, keeping the church as clean as possible while we attempt to have weddings and masses and funerals and baptisms in the midst of never-ending plaster implosions.

But the second track is far harder, more nuanced, and definitely more trying: the long, slow slog to bring people back into the pews.  It is this reconstruction that is the most important, if one believes the encouragements found in the First Letter of Peter: the Church is built of living stones.  The brick and mortar are nice, but the voices and vitality of the faithful are the foundation upon which all must be built.  This is the most precious kind of reconstruction there is to find, and it is the reconstruction that moves the slowest. 

I always love those movies when the screenplay moves into fast forward – and the ensuing montage shows a great enterprise reduced to the blink of an eye.  There's something childishly satisfying in it, like ordering fast food and knowing it'll be sitting in front of you in sixty seconds.  But truthfully, it's the arduous efforts that yield the real satisfaction ... and rarely do you see that portrayed in that cultural storyteller called movie making. 

I look down every week from the choir gallery from which this last shot was taken.  And while I'm not into spiritual bean counting, it is rewarding when you can see a tangible change in the singing decibels, the number of heads, the warm and lingering remarks at the end of a morning of prayer.  It is all wrapped up in the mystery of rebuilding, that most patient and delicate of enterprises, the craft at which Francis was a master.

Monday, September 25, 2017

An Open Letter to the ND Folk Choir

Dearest Folk Choir, past and present,

A year ago, on this day, my wife and I had our final days on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.  I chose to get up very early, walking around the place that had been both home and vineyard for the past 35 years.  And I contemplated it all – the dorms (some newly built), the spire of the Basilica, the statue of the Sacred Heart.  As do many pilgrims, I made my way down to the Grotto, praying to the one who so many years before had said her own "Yes" to the unknown.

A year now.

This morning, I took another walk, but instead of a pristine, sleepy campus, my journey took me to Grafton Street and its environs in city centre Dublin.  Little did Michele and I know what our yes would entail: a choir gallery littered with broken timbers, chicken wire, and years of dirt; a congregation that barely counted four dozen; an organ with acute bronchitis; a Lady Chapel that was, literally, filled with mould and on the verge of collapse. But it is like so many things we say "yes" to – and the reason why marriage is a sacramental Yes.  It was the launching into the Unknown.  And it is wise to approach both the launch and the journey with reverence.

There have been victories, both large and small.  As with anything holy, it is the small ones that are seared into your soul. Here's one: every morning, I open up the doors of Newman's University Church at 7:30am.  It is not the grand, dramatic parting of the portals that announce Bishop Barron's Catholicism production; it's a simple gesture of service.  But time and time again, as I open those doors, I notice all kinds of people – business suits, city street cleaners, garbage collectors.  And quietly, almost imperceptibly, some of them make a sign of the Cross as they pass our entrance.

The large victories are the stuff of common knowledge now: two broadcasts on RTÉ in six months (one, a first, on television; the other a radio broadcast two weeks ago); the creation of a choir of young professionals where once there was nothing; the growth of the Sunday congregations, both morning and evening.

But I keep going back to that quiet signing of the Cross: it never ceases to capture my imagination. Generations ago, the Irish were persecuted if they dared do such a thing. Nowadays, the persecution endures – but not because of an Anglo invasion.  This time, it is a far more subtle and dread foe: secularisation.  It is a menacing adversary, one that says you're a fool to believe, and an even crazier fool to talk or (God forbid) sing about it.

Yet quietly, almost secretly, a good many of the Irish still cling to their faith.

I had a moment today – an almost Merton-like moment, when that ridiculously talented Trappist monk stood at the corners of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky, and was caught up in a profound love of the people he saw passing by.  As I walked around Dublin, taking in the blue sky, looking at the hands of the clock near Pete's Pub and Snug, watching the merchants opening their own doors, I realised that I had, in fact, embraced this city and her people in ways far deeper than I had ever imagined. To be sure, sometimes only three-quarters of the work is accomplished, the newspapers never arrive as promised, and bills take months to sort out.  But they love song, and story, and their faith is in their bones.  They only need permission to own it once again.

You who gather twice a week on the third floor of the Coleman-Morse Ministry Center, you who diligently practice and so often bring joy and inspiration to countless worshipers: I know you, and I know the question you are always carrying around in your back pockets: What am I to do?  It is the great question of anyone who attends a place of higher learning.  It is also the great question of the family of mankind.

And I can tell you this: there are not many things that can compare with the joy of unlocking the power of the human voice.  That, essentially, is what we are doing here.  Giving permission to people to sing once more.

From my office window, I can see where John Cardinal Newman started his Catholic University.  I can see the window of the room where Gerard Manley Hopkins passed away.  Above my computer screen is a picture of the ND Folk Choir, and it has a place of pride. I look at it often: not in a spirit of melancholy ("I'll never know that again!"), but rather as an icon of hopefulness – what was created there can, in its own unique way, be created here.  We often sing "We are fed by the hand of the Lord; every need is answered by our God."  If we believe the psalmist's words to be true, then the same will happen here in Dublin.

And so, as you make your way through the year, I predict that sly question will continue to pursue you like the hound of heaven: "What am I to do?" Consider answering it wisely. Remember that your own voice is the embodiment of the Holy.  Use it well.  Sing well.  Never keep from singing, from letting your voice be heard, from unlocking the voices of those with whom you journey.

With my undying admiration,


Saturday, August 19, 2017

When It's Not Just a Shout Out...

It was an evening long-awaited, and in some ways, fraught with a tinge of anxiety.

Even as long as eighteen months ago, Fr. Gerry Kane, Parish Priest at Our Lady of the Rosary (otherwise known as Harold's Cross Church), was objective – almost brusque – about the fact that he was to be assigned to a new parish in the summer of 2017.  A tireless administrator and utterly superb pastor, he threw himself into Harold's Cross and made it a beehive, building a parish centre, reinvigorating the liturgy, and, in the last two years, making his community a home for Teach Bhríde, the House of Brigid, when it made its first foray into the city of Dublin.

But this night, this evening, was his last at Harold's Cross, and the parish did what only they could do: allow him to preside over the liturgy one last time, and then have a colossal tea party in the parish centre next door.

My wife and I had been asked, early on, if we could partake in these festivities, and join the choir for the Mass.  And so, my trusty backpack encasing my guitar, we set off on the Dublin 16/Ballinteer bus for church.  John Egan was at the helm of the choir – and all I had to do was sit in the tiny gallery and play the accompaniment for The Mass for Our Lady – and a few other things I might just know.

What impressed me, though, was the fact that, in the midst of all the acknowledgements of gratitude to Fr. Gerry, three names came up: Geoff Burdell, Emma Fleming, and Biz Honeywell.  These three were the members of the House of Brigid this year, and they were mentioned by name as the closing accolades were festooned over Fr. Gerry.

It's one thing to come into a parish and make an American splash – or even, in my case, to come in as a celebrated composer and hear your music being sung.  It's quite another when you hear the description of a decade of devoted parochial service, and in that roll call are these words: "the joyful welcome of our Notre Dame students into the parish."  And then came their names: Geoff, Emma and Biz.

(Yes, Biz, I know you are a Terp.  But I hope you will forgive Harold's Cross this one instance of grouping you with your effervescent leprechaun colleagues).

Clearly, this was not just a shout-out.  These three, and the two previous years of Dublin House of Brigid members who came before them, held such an emotional bond with these parishioners that they made the honour roll of memories for this beloved pastor.

There are now watchwords in the Holy Cross lexicon, and they have become part of the verbal DNA of that religious community: "known, loved, and served."  To Geoff, Emma and Biz: clearly, you were and are known to this parish.  Clearly, they loved you, and you loved them.  And clearly, none of this would have taken place had you not served them with selfless devotion.

I stand in awe of my colleagues in the House of Brigid this night.  What began as a tiny dream almost a decade ago is touching the lives and changing the hearts of whole parishes.  It is nothing short of a grace to behold such a thing.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Naming of a Choir

It has been a long, long time since I named a choir.  Thirty-seven years, to be precise.

Back in 1980, when a certain choral ensemble I know was in an embryonic state, we were searching for a name.  There were eight of us and no choral library (except a very large pile of illegally photocopied music of the St. Louis Jesuits). The keyboard used was an eighty-eight key Fender-Rhodes, a beast that had to be lugged up the icy stairs from the basement of then-Sacred-Heart-Church in the winter.

It was dangerous stuff, hauling all that gear in the frozen February waste of Northern Indiana.

It was also dangerous to name an ensemble. Seriously, the Notre Dame Folk Choir?  

Critics are found everywhere, and many years down the road I still hear from people who objected to that four letter word, "folk." They thought I was creating an homage to a genre, or to one of my favourite trinities. Was it Peter, Paul and Mary? Crosby, Stills and Nash? Larry, Curly and Moe?

I'll never tell!

But in truth, back then that four letter word was actually a reflection on the powerful import of the Second Vatican Council: music needed to belong to the people.  "Full, conscious, active," was something I embraced from the documents of the Council from the start, and I still do.  So this choir was to be a reflection of those encouragements.  The repertoire had to belong to the people, to the folk.  Liturgy was not to be a concert – at every possible turn, we would do our best to involve the assembly in everything we did.

And it paid off – in vocations, in volunteer service, in a repertoire that spread in many directions.

Now, in the year two thousand and seventeen, I have the opportunity to name a choir once again.  It is a process I take seriously, something that I've given careful thought to over the past months of making Dublin and St. Stephen's Green my home.  And like the choir that was named before this one, you only get to do it once, just as you can't change the name of a child a few years down the road. ("Well, I thought we were going to name him Henry, but now, two years later, I've changed my mind....").

Nope.  You get one chance.

So where has my thought led me? I've walked this land for nearly a year, and visited it for almost two generations.  I find our American past and Irish histories to be both unique and similar: we both fought the British Empire and eventually won.  We both were taxed and silenced to the point of humiliation.  And we both cherished the notion that we needed our voices – that government meant nothing if we had no voice.  The Americans coined a phrase: no taxation without representation. The Irish couldn't even coin a phrase: they had been stripped of their language.

I believe the same principles are at work in religious expression. Our lives aren't worth much if we have no voice. And we've proven, generation after generation, that we'd rather go to our graves than remain silent.  As with government, so with spirituality: it all hinges on whether we have a voice or not.  Does our ecclesial institution simply ask us to "pray, pay and obey?"  Or are we called to something more sublime?

All of this leads to the naming of a choir.

At University Church, on St. Stephen's Green, we've created a new musical community of young professionals.  Some are career organists and singers.  Some are already in other choirs.  Some are mathematicians, some are architects.  But all of them have been breathtakingly committed to creating an intentional gathering, choristers one and all.  We started with three singers, and now are past one dozen, four months in. It will continue to grow.

They have been named the Newman Vocare Ensemble.  "Vocare" is the operative word, for it is caught up in a calling, a receptive response to another's voice.  It is the root word for vocation.  And as such, it clearly marks a compass point as to what we are attempting to do with this tiny, city-centre assembly, week after week:

Cultivate the call.  Nurture the voice.  Acclaim and praise.  Foster that attitude in those who gather with us.  And always, always, help unleash the power that arises when human beings own the joy of life in the Spirit.

No pictures for this chapter.  If you want to hear what we are doing, click here.