Monday, October 31, 2011

All Hallow's Coin

It is just a little custom, something that I got into the habit of doing after my first trip to Ireland. If you’ve ever been to a foreign country, you know that a hazard of the trip will be a pocketful of odd coins, completely useless upon your return home.
Here is my custom: For years, I would manage to keep one of those coins in my pocket, and every May before the Folk Choir made an overseas musical tour, I would go down to the Grotto, take that coin that I’d been hanging onto, and say a prayer to Mary. I figured it was most appropriate to pray to the Mother of God before a pilgrimage; to the woman who knew exile and pilgrimage so well. As a mother, she more than any would keep her daughters and sons safe on the road.
For several excursions I kept this habit of dropping a single Irish coin into the slot at the Grotto and lighting my candle, whispering a prayer for safe passage at the same time. But as so often happens, life came along and interrupted this little ritual, for after the third trip to Ireland with the choir, my father passed away.
I remember my last moments with the earthly temple which I had known to be my Dad. After all the grieving and crying by the family, in that precarious moment when the coffin was shut, I asked the funeral director for a last few moments alone with him (I am the eldest son and figured it was my due, after all the experiments that came my way because of this dubious honor). I asked that the casket be opened one last time. I prayed to Mary, and to God, that Dad would have safe pilgrimage to a place in their presence. And then, for some reason known only to my Maker, I reached into my pocket. My hand came across something that I had been saving: a single Irish coin. I took it out, and placed it in the pocket of Dad’s suit coat. “For your journey,” I said. Then I closed the coffin.
It so happened that I had the opportunity to be in Dublin for the Football Game Across the Pond, more than a decade ago. And as fate would have it, I was there for the Feast of All Hallows. There, on a cold and blustery autumn night as little goblins scampered around the neighborhood of Raheny pleading for nuts and fruit and an occasional Cadbury bar, I sat for my evening meal with old friends. Anne Marie had made cuilkullin, a traditional meal for Halloween made from potatoes (what else?), kale and onions. I could hear the wind howling outside. I thought of my own children celebrating Halloween across the Atlantic.
But here is the thing that brought the night to life for me. As I was sitting down to my meal, I happened to glance down at the plate, and there, slightly hidden by the vegetable-laden dish, was a bright new Irish coin – a twopence. When I asked my hostess whence came this little monetary offering, she offered me a mysterious smile and said, “You know, on the Feast of All Hallows the Irish have been known to keep their doors unlocked, that the souls of our ancestors may come in and sit and warm themselves by the fire and gather strength for the rest of their journey.”
Of course, you may think, it was my gracious hostess that put the coin in my supper. But whom, may I ask, put the thought in her head? Or linked these two symbols so preciously together in my life? You may see the story as you wish. I, for my part, see the hand of God at work.
Here we are on the doorstep of November, the month wherein we keep holy the memory of our ancestors, those who have gone before us marked with a sign of faith. I can tell you this: the marks of our ancestors are vivid and real. I see those that go before me, woven in little symbolic ways, threaded through my life in a tapestry that surrounds me and supports me and keeps me warm. When I doubt my father’s safety, when I wonder where are the souls of those whom I love but now cannot touch, it is somewhat easier to remember them when I think of how my father, and my Father, visited me through the gift of a simple coin.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lights, Camera.... Sing!

It's the calm before the musical storm! Tonight we have our final rehearsal before our Annual Holy Cross Concert for the Missions, and the energy is high... Soloists are prepared, instruments (will be)tuned, and please God a great crowd will turn out for our yearly gathering, tomorrow evening, Friday, October 28th, at 8:00PM in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. The table is set: Now all we need is is an assembly to attend the musical banquet!

Every October, we raise funds for some mission associated with the Congregation of Holy Cross. Over the years, these funds have been scattered across the globe, to far-flung apostolates in Haiti, Bangladesh, Chile, Peru, India, and East Africa. More than a hundred thousand dollars in nearly a generation, all coming from this musical gathering.

And this year, we focus our energies on our own: the House of Brigid. Our volunteers are hard at work in Ireland right now, working in many different landscapes – with grade school children, with young adults who have recently returned from World Youth Day in Madrid, with choral programs in the parish, and with outreach to the diocese (especially in this year of tremendous change in the mass texts and musical settings). It is an exciting and challenging time to be in Ireland. I envy these four graduates of the choir!

You can read the weekly blog of the House by clicking here. And, if you can't be at the Concert for the Missions and are interested in contributing to their ministerial efforts in Ireland, you can also make an offering on the same website (look under the tab "Giving.")

Keep us in your prayers, if you can't be there in person. The song endures – and compels us to go forward, announcing that hope and joy will always have the last word.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Beyond Leprechauns, part 1

What are your own images of Ireland? Are they of some idyllic scenes from the movie "The Quiet Man"? Maybe you went there at one point, to find out about your family roots. Or traveled the countryside as a student, perhaps having your own, unique perspective on the land. Maybe you carried a guitar when you went, like me. Or, like some of my friends, you might've slung a bag of golf clubs over your shoulder.

The fact is, many of us claim this country as the touchstone of our familial heritage. Yet for all our ownership of this place as our homeland, we usually cling to some very outmoded, and even downright quaint, images and misconceptions about Ireland. Especially when it comes to the church. For right now, the Catholic Church in Ireland is in a desperate state. And if we, from Notre Dame, claim the right to this heritage – even going so far as to use a culture as our mascot – then we must embrace a certain responsibility as well.

This Friday, the Folk Choir sings for Ireland. We do so with eyes wide open, and not hanging onto some cute or trivial icon of the country. We sing for a place that means a lot to people at Notre Dame, and we sing for a church that is in dire straits at the moment.

We've had a lot of experiences in this country over the last twenty-plus years of touring. We've sung in the highest church of the land: St. Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh, home to the Cardinal Primate of the Catholic Church. We've sung in what used to be Ballymon, the huge cluster of high-rise tenements that had, at one time, been the focal point of poverty just outside of Dublin. We've been hosted by parishes large and small. And we've sung for masses that officially "closed" the local seminary.

The fact is, only one seminary remains in Ireland. More than twenty have closed in the last two generations.

The laity, too, are without much of a home. Even with an alarming shortage of priests, the Irish presbyterate has not done what we did in America – make way for a corps of trained, collaborative professionals to work side-by-side in the vineyard of saints and scholars.

Church leaders in Ireland have estimated that, despite a statistic that boasts more than ninety percent baptized Catholics, barely over fifteen percent of these people regularly go to Mass.

So, Friday night, we sing for this country.

It is an act of witness for our own singers, because a handful of the Folk Choir – four graduates – are now working in County Wexford, the Diocese of Ferns, to help revitalize the landscape of the church, through song and prayer and story.

They are working shoulder-to-shoulder with priests and women religious to bring music back to parishes. And they're taking the skills they learned at Our Lady's University and putting them to good use, just as the founders of this place hoped they might.

They are also learning precious things from these lovely people – learning how to approach life with joy and laughter, learning the gentle art of wit and storytelling, learning that not all we do in this country, in the name of triple-tasking tedium, is worth the craziness. There is more to life than frenetic, driven, resume-building madness. There is also tea and conversation with people around a hearth.

I'll be writing more over the weeks about the House of Brigid, Teach Bhríde. It is a small venture, right now – a small community of four men and women, hoping to rekindle the faith through song and catechesis. But most good works start small.

And Friday night, we sing for them. How can we not?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

From DOG to Dome

The last two days, I've accompanied my wife to her twenty year reunion at the College of William and Mary, home of the Tribe (who lost their football game yesterday to Towson State University) and DOG Street (the Duke of Gloucester Street, along which Colonial Williamsburg serves as a front porch to the academy).  I always have loved Williamsburg – walking along this venue of living history is like stepping back in time.

There have been a lot of people to connect with here, particularly those involved in Michele's early ministry years with the Catholic Students' Association here at W&M.  It was great to meet some of the pastoral staff of St. Bede last night, to walk the campus during the day, and head to a football game!

But today, the idyllic autumn days come to an end, and there are huge events waiting for us back at the Dome.  This Wednesday I give a talk at St. Mary's College on the writing of "Cross of Our Hope," the hymn that was composed during the year Fr. Basil Moreau was canonized.  And, of course, this coming Friday is the annual Folk Choir Concert for the Missions (8:00PM in the Basilica), being held on the Friday for the first time in its history (thank you, football!).  You can find out more about the concert by clicking here.  So much to look forward to and prepare for....

These have been amazing days of fall splendor.  Such a wonder to be able to walk not one, but two campus communities, and be able to call them home!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

When day is done

I still have vivid memories of my first visit to a Trappist monastery: we had driven all day long from Notre Dame, arriving at dusk, and finally, along with my companions, walked into the expansive chapel (it’s actually a basilica) of the Abbey of Gethsemani.  It was there that I heard Fr. Chrysogonus’ arrangement of the Salve, Regina for the first time.  It was Compline – night prayer – and we all stood there, clothed in the dark of a November evening, listening to the monks sing their haunting anthem at the end of the day, the only thing visible being the icon of the Madonna, surrounded by candlelight.

The integrity of that prayer and song has influenced all I’ve done back at Notre Dame.  I’ve always been caught up with this extraordinary paradox, a community of quiet men standing before the image of the Holy Mother, night after night, singing of their affection, petitioning for her protection. 

It is no different here at Mepkin Abbey, except the chapel is simpler and on a smaller scale.  Yet this only lends itself to a heightened sense of intimacy: we are closer to the image of Mary, closer to the scent of beeswax, shoulder to shoulder with the tremulous voices of the elder monks.  There is a fragility and earnest attitude here that the world could learn much from.

The end of the day, celebrated through Vespers and Compline, mirrors the end of life.  It provides a chance to look back on the work of our hands, a chance to embrace peace before darkness envelops everything, still confident that light awaits.  Whenever I visit with the monks, well aware of their own faults and failings and human imperfection, I am still cognizant of just how closely they live this daily reality.

We leave Mepkin soon, having spent some wonderful days with Brother Dismas, our son.  He, like us, has miles before him, especially when it comes to the implementation of the new liturgy and the musical demands that have been placed on his own shoulders.  But we are so much better for the time together.  And for both of our communities, Notre Dame and Mepkin, there is a clearer sense of the days that lie ahead, and how we are to be poured out.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Lauds and the Teeth of Beasts

First you wake up, very, very early in the morning.  All is motionless and dark.  In some ways, there is nothing really special about the time – all you know is that it still seems like the middle of the night (and in some respects, it really is!).  Sunlight has not even begun to creep toward the horizon.  Heading toward the chapel, you might see something wild crawling out of the woods.

Today is the feast of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, and I’m surrounded by Trappist memories.  The Post-Communion prayer that was spoken today are Ignatius’ words:  “I am the wheat of Christ, ground by the teeth of beasts to become true bread.”  My dear old monastic friend Chrysogonus composed a piece on those words, a song that eventually made it onto our collection “Witness of the Saints.”  And now I am hearing these words in the pre-dawn hours on the feast of the martyr.

When you wake up for Lauds, you also make a decision to literally greet the day.  This part of the year, Lauds starts in darkness and by the time Mass arrives, the sun has begun to make her presence known.  The passage of that time, from pre-dawn darkness to early light of rosy day, is something that most of us miss, if only for the fact that we are hurried through our morning rituals of getting ready for work.

But right now, we are not getting ready for anything.  We are just praying.  And standing in silence.  And listening to the Word.  And breaking bread.  In the midst of all this, there is the slow, steady, purposeful advance of dawn.

About thirty years ago, almost by a fluke, I made a trip down to the Abbey of Gethsemani, while I was taking a course on the Book of Psalms at Notre Dame.  That one trip changed the trajectory of my life and my friendships, influenced the way I approached the craft of music writing, and eventually brought my own son to a Trappist monastery. 

Here we are then, standing in the quiet before the break of day, caught up in the quiet.  This is what I was thinking: 

In some ways, we are all grist for the mill, our lives being ground up into the flour that, hopefully, might feed others.  Whether it be through our songs, our witness, our labors, our commitments – every part of our life eventually makes it into the mill of life, that we might, please God, be bread for others.

So, like every other morning on this planet, the dawn broke again today.  Except today, I marked every minute:  quietly, deliberately, with peace-filled prayer.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Silence and Spanish Moss

Today we arrive at Mepkin Abbey, and before any other encounter, before you step into the cloister area or walk into the chapel, before you walk the labyrinth or discover the Cooper River, you know, undeniably, that you are in the Deep South.

In her former life, Mepkin was a stately plantation, and her roots go almost as far back as the Revolutionary War.  Early in the 20th century the property fell under the ownership of Clare Booth Luce, heiress to the Time Magazine fortune, but around the 1940's she donated the entire property to the Order of Cistercians, Strict Observance: the Trappists.

The lane is your first encounter with the monastery, and it's hard to think of a more genteel or beckoning welcome to a place of quiet and prayer.  The live oak bends down to meet you, arching over your head like an attendant mother.  The soft fronds of Spanish moss whisper in the wind, adding other, quiet voices to the welcome – if you care to listen.  The monks have taken this property and gently made it their own home, building a beautiful chapel (the shape of which is modeled, serendipitously, after tobacco barns in the South).  Miss Ursula welcomes you at the gift shop, where there are precious collections of pottery, jams, and spiritual books.  Most days, recordings of orthodox chant waft gently through the shop.

If you've ever seen any movies about cloistered orders – Into Great Silence or Of Gods and Men – you will know that at a monastery, schedules are important.  Small sounds are important.  Bells mean something beyond their mere sound.  There is a gentle rippling, an almost imperceptible purling to the passage of time here, not unlike the movement of a very small stream of water..  If one can open up the heart and settle the soul, there are spiritual landscapes that can lead to wonderful discoveries.

So today we step into that landscape.  After two months of frenetic, non-stop labor in the vineyard of Notre Dame, here is where we choose to find some rest.

There is music here, too.  Not just the audible kind.  But more on that later.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Songs in the South

The threshold of fall break gets tantalizingly closer!  And you can actually see it on everyone's faces – especially the rectors and hall staff personnel. These past nine weeks have been tremendously demanding on everyone, and the coming nine days will offer a brief but well-needed and deserved respite for us all.

My wife, Michele, and I will be traveling into the Deep South, making our annual pilgrimage to see my son Joshua, now Brother Dismas, of the Order of Cistercians, Strict Observance – he is a Trappist.  These are exceptional days: a chance to spend time with this gifted young man, a chance to drink up the quiet of the abbey, a chance to enter into a different pattern of life (we always get to most of the daily prayer services, with the exception of Vigils at 3:15AM!).  This quiet fabric of prayer, music, and a tiny abbey nestled on the banks of the Cooper River make for a much-needed change of pace, as compared to the driven, high-energy culture of Notre Dame.

You can see from this picture that the entrance to Mepkin just whispers of the South: the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, the long, graceful lane lined with live oak trees. It is a place of uncommon quiet and solitude. And it is now the place our son calls home, and has for seven years.

One of the vows professed by a monk is that of stability, and I find myself caught up more and more in this aspiration. What does stability mean in this culture? So much of what we experience is fleeting, transitory, and bound up in self-serving diversion. Yet here, things are quiet and slow. There is time to think. And lots of time to pray.

We will be walking this lane a lot in the next week, often in the pre-dawn hours and at dusk, as we join the brethren in their prayer, and in their song. Despite their quiet, there is not much that can stop a monk from singing, unless it be their final breath.

Monday, October 10, 2011

'Tis the gift to have simple mass settings...

Autumn greetings, everyone!

One of our blog readers commented a couple of days ago, asking if there was a simple mass setting that was designed for a "very small church with few resources."

This very issue has been on my mind for quite a few years, and about eighteen months ago, I had an experience at Corby Hall on campus that really shaped my composition (and the work load for the next six months!)

You see, I've always been attracted to simple chant settings.  Not the elaborate, highly ornamented and melismatic lines – rather, the ones that average congregations can hang on to and sing back with great gusto.  My ultimate "parochial best chant" is, of course, Veni, Veni Emmanuel.  But surely there must be another, accessible tune that might fit this criteria?

But along with simplicity of tune, I would want the setting to work well both with organ and guitar, and to have the straightforward integrity to work either unadorned or with a little bit of instrumental help, if available.

So.... back to Corby Hall, during the Second Week of Lent, 2010.  You see, for the past 15+ years, I've been providing music every Wednesday night for the men of the Holy Cross community, and this Wednesday night was no different than any other.  I chose an Opening Hymn which I've always enjoyed hearing the Corby community sing so well: "Where Charity and Love Prevail," which was originally arranged by Dom Paul Benoit.

Well, we hadn't gotten through verse 1 before I started hearing other texts aligning in my ear – the "Holy, Holy, Holy" and the "Kyrie" and the "Lamb of God."   And by the end of the week, I had presented the idea to my editors at World Library Publications.  The result is below:

This setting, which incorporates the revised texts of the Mass, is a very simple musical accompaniment for the liturgy.  It can be done on guitar, or on organ, or on both.  It can be done unadorned, with no instrumentation whatsoever.  But it can also be done with a complimentary C instrument (we recorded it with my daughter Jessica playing the oboe, which was beautiful).  And for dressing up at times, there are descants at appropriate places.

Most important, though, is the notion of simplicity and integrity.  Some parishes just don't have the resources, nor is it a true reflection of their community, to do a mass setting that "pulls out all the stops."  And in that instance, this is a musical treatment of the texts that just might find a home in smaller parishes, at military bases, or – who knew – in some of the residence halls at the University of Notre Dame!

As I've said, we spent the last three years preparing for these days ahead.  And much of that, for my colleague Karen Kirner and myself, has been devoted to looking at the new mass settings, and finding something that would fit our needs, something sacred, but also some new wineskins into which we could pour the new wine of these words.

So, at the risk of trumpeting the news – here is a new mass setting!  And it is doable, even for parishes with the simplest of resources.  It was borne out of an a cappella experience and the singing of a hymn that has been a mainstay of parochial life for two generations.

May we keep singing that hymn!  And fear not the First Sunday of Advent!

The theology of a color

One of my great friends and a fellow composer, Carolyn Pirtle, makes no apologies for her ardent love of the hymn "For the Beauty of the Earth". There is much to admire about it: the celebration of earth and sky and hours and human relations, all find their place in that for which we must simply accept as gift.

These are good days to be tuned to the beauty of the earth, especially on a campus with the inherent loveliness of Notre Dame. It seems that around every corner lately, there is some breathtaking, golden view leaping into the eye of the beholder:

In one of my favorite contemporary novels, "The Color Purple," the heroine makes a statement that has stuck with me for many a year. She says, "I think it must piss God off when we pass by the color purple and don't thank him for makin' it".

I'd say amen to that. Or any other color out there, too - especially now, during the season of red and amber and yellow and gold and cobalt and earthy brown. It is time, even when walking across campus or coming upon a tree that is exuding an optical alleluia, to simply say thanks for the gift.

Every morning when I go to work, I walk the same route: up from Lyons Hall parking lot, through the archway, then along the south side of Howard and Badin Halls. I know the trees well along that route, when they shout out their colors, those that are early and those that are late. One of them, a particularly old and decrepit maple that was half-patched with cement, finally succumbed to the ND landscapers last year. But not before gracing my morning walk with one more season of visual glorification.

Indian summer at Notre Dame is a miracle of visual joy for anyone who cares to see. And the words below, whenever we sing them, give us a way to unlock that Mystery.

For the joy of ear and eye,
For the heart and mind's delight,
For the mystic harmony, linking sense to sound and sight:
Lord of all to you we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Armed and Do-Re-Mi-Fa-bulous

Yes, we are on the verge of Fall Break at the University (Ah, fall break – when all our students can go back home and try to recover from the sleep deprivation they've brought upon themselves over the past month and a half!)  But for me, the countdown has begun: we're about six weeks away from the big kick off on the First Sunday of Advent – new texts, new mass parts.

But it's not really six weeks away for us.  On Saturday, November 5th, we'll be taking over the Coleman Morse Center, lock, stock and barrel, and doing our best to bring in every priest, rector, music director, and liturgical commissioner on campus.  We have a new mass to learn.  

Truth be told, we've been preparing for this workshop for more than two years.  Longer, if you consider the work that's gone into the composition of our own mass settings for the campus.  

This "Liturgy Day" at Notre Dame will be offered by both myself and longtime colleague Fr. Peter Rocca, the Rector of the Basilica. Peter will be working with the Presbyters and Rectors; I'll be focusing my energies on the residence hall musicians and liturgical commisioners.

More as we get closer to the day! And thanks to all of you who've been so encouraging - blogging is an art and it takes time and patience. May we all sing well this weekend (and not lose our voices at the game!)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Setting sights on Scotland

About six years ago, the Folk Choir received an email from someone across the Atlantic: "We're doing a setting of Psalm 104," said the post, "and I'd like to know more about the group that sang it." Thus began a dialog that led our choir to Edinburgh in 2008 – and that dialog continues next spring, as we will make pilgrimage there once more in May/June of 2012.

The parishioners we've met in Scotland - at St. Kentigern's Catholic Church, to be precise – became extensions of our own family from the outset.  They welcomed us into their homes, their churches;  even the Lord Provost's (Mayor's) chambers hosted a luncheon for us!  So we look forward to our collaboration with great joy this year, as we begin to set our sights on Scotland.

Last weekend, we Skyped with our principal hosts, led on the Scottish side by Dr. Maureen Bruce.  We're planning a great set of experiences while the Folk Choir is there, but one of the things most important to all of us is to make sure we leave something tangible behind.  By this I mean, not just a concert program or a great musical experience.  Rather, a chance to empower the young adults of Scotland to form musical ensembles of their own, to help them find their own voices.  To that end, our hosts in Edinburgh have many high goals set before them, ones that we embrace with great enthusiasm.

The Catholic Church of Scotland is as besieged as her neighbor in Ireland at present.  Last year, they closed their only seminary.  But unlike Ireland, Catholics are a minority in Scotland, so our presence and companionship with them on their faith journey is all the more keenly felt.

We will, as well, be working hard to offer our services to both the Catholic Archdiocese of Edinburgh and, with a little bit of planning, bring the Presbyterian, Anglican and Catholic families together for an ecumenical service in the heart of Edinburgh.  We have much work to do!

All of this prefigures a huge gathering that will be taking place in Dublin a few weeks after we leave Scotland's shores – the International Eucharistic Congress, which will be hosted in Ireland's capital city in the middle of June.  We'll be taking along plenty of music for Eucharistic celebrations, as this will be on the minds of many while we travel.

Pictures can tell much of how a nation spreads the welcome mat:  Here's one of the reception we were given when we pulled up to that wonderful parish in Edinburgh almost four years ago.

May we keep on singing!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dancing with the Angels

Years ago, Father Theodore Hesburgh, csc, made a comment about the choir I direct, the Notre Dame Folk Choir:  "...wherever and whenever they sing, you suspect that somehow angels may be hidden in their ranks."

Like most observations made in his long and storied life, I believe Fr. Ted's comments are right on the money.  And if they're true, then it means that I've been dancing with these angels, in and amongst the choristers and instrumentalists of the Choir, for many years.

This blog/journal/set of meditations come out of that dance.  I'll be writing about the experiences of our choir, about our creative projects, about new songs that are being crafted.  I'll be marking our exploits in monasteries and overseas.  There are new mass settings, podcasts, and a fascinating new website devoted to liturgical planning that's spreading like wildfire.  So much to write about!

Here's the first posting, written on the vigil of the Feast of the Guardian Angels.  How appropriate!  I write with the hope that these angeli, these angels, are in fact what we are meant to model:  messengers of hopeful tidings for our world.

I'd like to encourage all of you who've been part of the Choir, who've supported our efforts over the years, who've come to our concerts, or who've been following our community in Ireland, to forward these journal entries along to any other readers you think might be interested.  At last count, there were more than 500 alums that have graduated out of our humble ranks – and many of them have become liturgical leaders and innovative pastoral voices around the world.  This blog is a way to keep everyone up to date with what's going on back in the Loft.

... back in the Loft, where we continue to dance with the angels.

Keep singing all!

Steve Warner