Thursday, June 15, 2017

Whispered Voices at Kafka's

It was an ending to a great saga – and a beginning, too.

My good friend and ministerial colleague, Geoff Burdell, was on the threshold of leaving Dublin, after serving here for two years as first a member, and then House Director, of Teach Bhríde here in the city.  Geoff's parents and his parish priest invited us to dinner, down the road in Rathmines, at a restaurant called Kafka's.

It was a great night of catching up, enjoying one another's company, listening to stories of the last two years, talking about golf (the men played 18 holes that day), and answering the myriad questions from the Burdells about life in Dublin's fair city.

Throughout all this merriment, about halfway through our Guinness, a young couple came in and sat at the table next to us.  I didn't notice them much, save for the fact that the woman seemed to be from South America (at least, that's what I guessed from the accent).

Just as the food arrived, we did a simple thing, instinctive to us who labour in the vineyard.  Someone suggested grace, we clasped hands quickly, bowed our heads, and entered into a bit of gratitude: not only for the great food, but for the precious gathering of friends, the completion of much good work.  We didn't think a moment about it – just doing what we normally do.

As we were preparing to leave, at the end of the evening, the South American lady (I was right; turns out she was from Brazil) leaned over and said a few words to Geoff's mom, Jeanette.  It went something like this: "I was so inspired that all of you said grace tonight.  I've wanted to do this here in this city, but never thought I could.  Seeing you do this – now I am going to say grace at restaurants as well."

Jeanette shared this with me as we left Kafka's.  The significance of it was not lost on me – what a moment of quiet, seemingly insignificant witness can do to shape a landscape of prayer.

Two days ago, Geoff concluded his time in Dublin, boarding an airplane, heading back to weddings in the Midwest, and soon after that to seminary studies with the Congregation of Holy Cross.  I shall miss him greatly.  And I'm sure he could speak of the many theophanies that took place over the past two years.  But I'm also dead certain that the most important ones are the smallest – the searing, naive inquisitions by his school kids, the conversations after mass, the unheralded moments when divinity broke through in unexpected ways.

A lot like Kafka's, where whispered voices announced gratitude and grace.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Behold the Wood, Part 2

At least when you're watching an artist, you can see something tangible, something discernible, taking shape every day.  I wonder about that when it comes to the craft of music composition, pushing notes and lyrics around on a page.  Only those literate in this language can comprehend a piece of music in their heads.

But the visual arts are different: the work is there to behold, to take in, to affect the senses.  So it was that even on day two of Mona's work on the Taize cross, already there were things to behold, directions I could tell she was headed, ideas that would eventually come to the fore.

You can see a "rough" of what will take shape under her hand.  On either side of Jesus are the images of Patrick (on the left, treading on a snake) and Brigid (on the opposite side, holding her traditional symbol, a bishop's staff).  Above, looking down on the Cross, is a heart shaped image, around which will appear the words "Cor ad cor loquitor" – "heart touches the heart," the motto of Blessed John Cardinal Newman.

There are weeks left on this project, but the changes between days one and two are dramatic.  


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ecce Lignum Crucis: Behold the Wood

We come here, we observe, we see where the young hearts are, what they are listening to, what helps them to pray.  And after we survey this landscape, we try as best we can to add to it.

That's what is at the heart of our advocacy of Taizé prayer here at Newman Church.  I hesitate to say that this French community is a "trend" or the "latest thing," for the brethren themselves would reject such a notion.  It's too calming to be trendy.  And it's not new – Taizé came to birth as a sanctuary for people fleeing the perils of the Second World War, and have now become quite a different sort of sanctuary, especially for young people seeking out spiritual truths in an age sucked dry by secularism.

Frére Roger, Taizé's founder, was a man of the Spirit, and as such simply allowed the winds of spirituality to bring their craft where it would – which, in this case, would be the entire world... including Ireland.

There is a Taizé Dublin Facebook site, and they promote gatherings around the Archdiocese (as they did for us, graciously, on Tuesday of Holy Week this year).  Those who love this spirituality know no age bracket.  But a good many are from the ranks of young professionals here in Dublin – a demographic we really hope to engage here at Newman's University Church.

The focal point for Taizé prayer is a large wooden cross, most often Byzantine in shape, style and theme.  Early this year, my colleague, Fr. Bill Dailey, c.s.c., and I decided that it would be well worth it to commission a cross for Newman's University Church.  And we knew of such an artist: a young Romanian woman who had created a similar Taizé cross just down the road, in Dolphin's Barn.

Our artist, Mona Maria Damian, started work on the project as soon as the plywood template was finished.  And like any good artist, her work needed to begin with a blank canvas; the cross was first covered with a white primer as she commenced her work.

Most Byzantine representations have, on both sides of the corpus of Jesus, images of Mary and St. John standing on either side.  But to accentuate the placement of this cross, ours will instead display the figures of Bridget and Patrick.  You can see these, roughly sketched, in the accompanying photo.

Over the next several days, I'll be posting Mona's progress as she creates a new spiritual centrepiece for our gatherings.  And starting in the autumn, this will serve as a weekly focal point for our singing and praying in the style of our brethren from France.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Sodbusting, Volume 2

In front of the double presbytery that adjoins Newman University Church lies a courtyard.  When we first arrived here, our Irish colleagues brought us out to the area, and with a somber demeanour, announced that the place has devolved  (insert brogue here) "into rack and ruin."

They were right.  Snuggled in the midst of Newman House and Iveagh Gardens (where Blessed Cardinal John Henry began his Catholic University of Dublin), it is a precious little oasis, a sonic and visual retreat sealed off from the noise of the city.  But it had become a pseudo-parking lot, overgrown with moss and weeds, filled with root-bound potted plants and broken crockery.

I saw it not as a parking lot – but as a gem of a place where friends and parishioners could eventually gather in the evenings.  The locust tree in the centre of the lot could serve a double purpose, both for summer shade, and as a maypole for strings of lights, creating a festive canopy over our congregants after Mass. Few places in downtown Dublin could boast such a gathering place, and here was one, smack dab on our front doorstep.

So week by week, we began the slow and careful task of attacking each square foot of crushed gravel, eliminating the moss and weeds by hand, using wire brushes on the pavement stones, repotting the root-bound geraniums and fuschias, and making a couple of treks out to the garden centre for ideas on native Irish plants.

In this picture, you can see how moss had invaded everything; the only really effective way to get rid of it was to do the job by hand, then maintain it.  Spraying nasty chemicals would kill a lot of things (including birds), but wouldn't necessarily clean things up.

It was a companion job to the choir gallery.  Inch by inch, week by week, as the sun started getting stronger and the days grew longer, we conquered the parking lot, with an eye to making it into a city garden.  If you're wondering size, think about an area that could hold maybe five or six compact cars.  It has been a long, slow haul.

We found surprises:  a whole exterior lighting system that had fallen into disuse.  Careful rewiring (by an electrical contractor) brought evening lustre to the walls surrounding the courtyard.  But not before the contractor found a crypt-like dungeon underneath our residence – which likewise held all the wiring connections for the garden lights, all of which needed to be replaced. But tons of money was saved by repurposing the lighting that was already there. And with a little bit of geometry, we were able to calculate how many strings of lights we would need to create the lighted canopy over the entire area; true to our hopes, a few weeks later our faithful electrician got up on a ladder and transformed the yard into an umbrella of light.

So here we are, on the doorstep of June, and we can look at this effort and be grateful.  We've already had several gatherings outside – once, for our entire "parish community" at the end of the Easter octave, and a second last weekend for the Irish Alliance for Catholic Education community.  It has been time well spent, as we see these gatherings as a place to build what we hope will be the foundations for a new Christian community here in Dublin city centre.

By the middle of June, we hope to have much more frequent gatherings – board members, choir evenings, teaching colleagues, Notre Dame supporters, journalists and parish folk.  Here, in this little oasis in the heart of Dublin, wedged in between St. Stephen's Green and the walled Iveagh Gardens, we will rebuild our community. Sodbusting.  It is what makes things grow.  

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Sodbusting, Volume 1

It has been almost four months since I've posted on the Guitar Pilgrim.  And while I enjoy writing and reflecting on what's going on here on St. Stephen's Green, blogging is a luxury – especially when you have many liturgies to do with precious few resources.

About the same time I wrote my post during the Octave for Christian Unity, Newman Church was approached about an extraordinary opportunity – televising St. Patrick's Day Mass from our humble sanctuary.  More on that two-month project later, but back to the matter at hand.

Looking back on eight months since landing here in Ireland, one of the best descriptions I can use is "sodbusting."  And yes, we're working in the Auld Sod – so maybe the pun is intentional.

Twenty years ago, when Michele and I moved into our home in Granger, Indiana, we decided to create a series of raised beds for gardening in our backyard. The task was backbreaking – shovel and spade, digging deep into the hard earth and turning it over, leaving the turf upside-down, buried under the soil so that it eventually fertilised what was about to be sown – this took weeks to do.  But eventually, the task was done, and the earth began to yield her fruit.

Sodbusting: it is the task of turning over impacted ground, breaking it open, and releasing the hidden gifts so that they may grow.  And it's the best descriptive analogy to what this first year has been like here in Dublin.

When we first arrived here, our choir loft ("gallery," in Irish-speak) was a junkyard of broken pews, splintered wood, chicken wire, dust and mould.  It took months to clear away the dirt, remove and repurpose the old timbers, treat the area for infestation, even remove walls and partitions so that the choir could have an active hand in the liturgy.


Once that that was done, the earth could begin to yield its fruit again.  We purchased a set of five new cabinets, and ordered sheet music from all over the world: chorales from Taizé, some of the best-sellers from the Folk Choir's octavo series, anthems from Ireland, England and America. Psalms were added from the precious repertoire of Fintan O'Carroll, masses from both Ireland and America.  New Irish composers' works began finding a place in our filing system.  All of them were carefully sowed in alphabetical and thematic order, ready to use and to be organised into what the choir(s) had never had before: choral folders, with legitimate, written sheet music contained therein. Harmonies that could be given to the sopranos and altos, tenors and basses.  And instrumental scores for the eventual arrival of flute, violins, viola and cello.

The pictures above and next to these words show the transformation of one small corner of Newman University Church.  Portion by portion, section by section, we've been hard at work revitalising this old gem, this beloved sacred space, visioned by a priest and poet and philosopher a century and a half ago.

And now, all we need to do is continue to sow the seeds.  The earth is ready, painstakingly tilled and prepared.