Sunday, December 30, 2012
But I write today from yet another remarkable place: Vail, Colorado. Michele and I, along with Father Peter Rocca, c.s.c., came out here several days ago to provide liturgical support and sacred song for a wedding celebration – the daughter of our dear friends John and Mary Rosenthal. It has been more than forty years since I was here, and walking through this village, bedecked with sparkling lights in fir trees and skiers flying down the slopes, provided an aura of holiday joy to the events of the weekend.
A couple of days before the wedding, I wrote to the father of the bride, and being great friends with him, offered up a little advice: delegate well! And along with this, offered an observation which has long been felt in my heart. "At a wedding," I wrote, "the veil between heaven and earth is stretched very thin. It is the closest we might come to heaven on this side."
Watching the events of the weekend – the joyous gathering of the clans, the way the cousins (yay, Bax sisters!) threw themselves into the singing of solos and psalms, the feast of sumptuous food that was lavishly placed before us, the overflowing tears of joy and happiness, the crazy dancing late into the night (close your eyes right now and hear Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline... so good! so good! so good!) – all these things seemed to me to be one amazing foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where love is continually overflowing, where the holy mountain witnesses a feast that never ends.
But along with all these holy and blessed things, I would reverentially add the tears of a father who walks his daughter down the aisle. Few things in life, I think come close to the power of such a thing. It is not a long moment: depending on the length of the church nave, it could only amount to about a minute in the span of life. But in those sixty seconds, an entire lifetime comes into perspective: your daughter's first mastering of a two-wheeled bicycle; her first communion day; her first report card; her first date, first prom; driving her off to college for the first time. All of these moments and many, many more, all crowding into those steps down the aisle. It is astounding that the human heart could hold such extraordinary memories.
But hold them we do. And they make our lives worth living. And at the end of the year, when memories and looking back and looking forward come into all-too-clear focus, it is this that fills my heart tonight – the ability of our souls to hold all memories dear, even to the point where our very beings overflow and tears are the result.
I am not concerned with resolutions. Let the tabloids have their time with those. My New Year's Eve thoughts are with memories themselves: how they shape us, how we choose to love, how we let go of faults and failings, how we choose to go on from here.
This weekend's wedding gave me much to celebrate, much to ponder, and more than enough spiritual fodder to keep this pilgrim's pen occupied. And my hope for all of you, as we head into 2013: attend a wedding or two. And delight in the thin veil between heaven and earth.
Sunday, November 25, 2012
But walk around this campus for a few hours, or, like me, spend a little time with our students, and you find that these realities are impinging on lives here as much as anywhere else.
And every Thursday, when the Folk Choir ends its rehearsals with intentional prayer – then you really do hear about all the things that are in the hearts and souls of our young people.
This is how it happens, every week:
One of our students (this year it's Francis) comes up and lights a trio of candles before the icon of the Madonna and Child (This image is very important to us, as it was given to the choir by the monks of Gethsemani Abbey). Then the lights go out, and we are surrounded by darkness and the candlelight before Mother and Child.
We sing "Day Is Done" – as we have for the past twenty-five years. And then, after a little quiet, the intentions begin to pour forth: "For my dad, who lost his job." "For the loneliest person on campus tonight." "For the men of Michigan City prison." "For a friend from my high school, who just committed suicide." "For my uncle, who was just diagnosed with cancer."
Every week, the litany of needs pours forth. In the quiet of that rehearsal room, week in and week out, the intentions are named.
This past month, it's been a little different. Just before prayer, one of our seniors had asked if he could take the podium. He came forward, slowly, and pulled out a letter to the choir.
He wrote the letter because what he had to say would've been impossible to deliver off the cuff. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Chances are he would be looking at surgery, perhaps in the next couple of months. He had lost feeling on half of his face.
And then he spoke of the love he had for the choir, of how important it was to share this news with the people he loved and loved to sing with. He spoke of how, if he had to walk such a valley, how he couldn't conceive of facing it without all those loving faces in that room.
Then he sat down.
And, again, as always, the lights went out, and we sang "Day Is Done." It was sung softly, but from my place at the podium I was overwhelmed by the quiet strength, the utterly gentle but fierce protection blanketed over our choir by that old Welsh hymn.
Since that moment, we've had others – another operation in the choir to remove the threat of cancer, a former member of the ensemble who suddenly but inexplicably had a stroke, a family member who was hospitalized for a week.
These are the realities. But there are other realities, too – powerful ones. Like what happened when that young man sat back down after announcing his tumor. The lights went out – but the arms reached out as well. As we moved from verse to verse, and my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I could see arms and hands strongly but gently placed on the young man's shoulders.
We are rocketing right now into the season of Advent, and those who know campus life know that this quiet season is anything else but on Our Lady's campus. But in the here and now, as life slips from the trees and solstice begins to knock on our door, there is that amazing thing that Christians keep deep in their souls – their rage against the night, their steady stance against the darkness. It is the Easter Vigil, every day – our chance to light the Paschal fire in the hearts of those we love, those whom we care for.
Even at night, the day may be done. But Love and Light are never very far away.
Thursday, November 1, 2012
The Concert for the Missions is a longstanding tradition (at least, in the world of Notre Dame, where anything that's done more than once is put into that category). We've been raising money for the Congregation for almost twenty years, and the support of our assemblies has reached out to Bangladesh, Haiti, India, Uganda – even the House of Brigid in Wexford, an apostolate close to the hearts of the Folk Choir.
And in that time, the total contributions are approaching nearly a hundred thousand dollars. A wonderful witness from the campus and those who listen to our work.
This year's concert has us singing some choir favorites: "Jina La Bwana," and "Come to the Living Stone" are great examples of pieces our students love. But we're adding some new twists as well – a fabulous arrangement of "Walk Together, Children" by Moses Hogan, and a piece the choir has been dying to learn for a while – an a cappella arrangement of "Baba Yetu" (Zulu for "The Lord's Prayer"). When we announced it was going to be learned, the choir gave an ovation!
Pat Reidy, c.s.c., who has spent a good amount of time on the Dark Continent, will be giving a bit of insight into evangelical efforts in and around Kampala, Uganda. Here's a picture of Pat with some of the students of St. Jude's school in Bugembe:
Our goal tomorrow night is to fill our beloved Basilica with so much joy that the saints of our stained glass windows will be dancing as well! It's almost impossible to stay put when those drums begin!
To those of you who plan on being in attendance, thanks for joining us! To those who wish they could be there and cannot – support our brethren in Holy Cross by sending a donation along to me! I'll make sure your contribution makes it directly over to Africa.
And to my choir, who seems to have this affinity for joyful music of every continent: make those saints dance tomorrow night!
Friday, October 19, 2012
But this week, I've been working with an astute, attentive, precocious, talented young musician.
The prodigy I am speaking of:
So, it's been a big switch from Make of Our Hands A Throne and I Want to Walk As a Child of the Light to a more formidable repertoire. I've had to change gears into classics like Make Believe Town and The Marvelous Toy.
(These, by the way, are from the epic album, Peter, Paul and Mommy. The album was so named because Mary's young daughter, Erica, would always introduce the trio this way. And – further proof of this trio's amazing abilities – they recorded the thing live in a kindergarten classroom. You can hear the squeals of the kids and the joy of the teachers, unedited, on this fabulous collection.)
I am convinced, after this week, that any church musician worth his or her salt should spend time, regularly, with 18-month olds. Size 2T's don't put up with a lot of bull. You either have the goods or you don't. Your music either delights them or it doesn't. There is no in-between.
So I had a ball this week, on fall break, with my wonderful daughter Jessica and her husband Drew (who teaches on the musical faculty at Appalachian State University). Now, to be fair, I judge them both to be extraordinary parents (I mean, really, who else puts their kids to bed by letting them watch YouTube videos of flash mob versions of Ravel's Bolero or Mozart's Lacrimosa?).
So for all you budding church musicians – and for those of us who've been around the block and the cycle of liturgical seasons a bit – it's good to remember that, as Jesus once said, "unless you be like one of these, you don't stand a chance of getting into the kingdom."
Let those who cannot laugh at themselves.... beware!
Saturday, October 13, 2012
Her name was (and is) Sister Anne Curtis, and she hailed from Rochester, New York. She's one of those humble, courageous, warrior saints, a woman of great grace, moving quietly among the faithful. We used to have long conversations, the two of us, on how to engage young people in the faith.
I vividly remember, even after more than thirty years, a dialog the two of us had about ministry, where we were trying to narrow down our ideas and our enthusiasms into a single word.
"For me," said my friend Anne, "the most important word is Joy. It is the most important aspect of my religious life."
And now, almost two generations later, I am able to say, in agreement with Sister Anne Curtis, R.S.M., that indeed, the most important word in my own philosophy of ministry is also: Joy.
Joy makes faith real. Joy gives us something far more tangible to sink our teeth into, something far more important than any of the trappings this world can offer. Joy makes the gospel a living reality, a vital stance. A joyful liturgy can turn even the most disastrous scenario into an opportunity for hope.
Even sorrow cannot escape the grasp of Joy, for sorrow is, as Gibran once said, "your joy unmasked." Sorrow still implies a deeply lived life, a passionate stance. We should not fear sorrow. Fear, rather, and keep at bay their secular cousins: apathy and cynicism. For they are poison.
Over the years, I have become more and more convinced that joy holds the key to prayerful liturgy. Joy puts the gospel into an unbridled stance of prophetic witness, a chance to say: "I DARE YOU to stay on the sidelines!" Few people can resist Joy.
These past two months at Notre Dame have been some of the most profoundly demanding of my years in Campus Ministry. Yet, throughout these weeks, if there is anything that has been my compass point in the midst of the labors, it has been the ability to cling to Joy. Every liturgy we have done, from Dublin Castle to Maynooth Seminary, from Mepkin and my eldest son's wedding to Notre Dame's Freshman Orientation Mass, from the Game Day Mass at Holy Name Cathedral last Saturday to the Board of Trustees Mass yesterday morning in a small, carpeted conference room – for every one of these, the compelling invitation is a call to Joy.
Last week, we sang a hymn that has a sly last verse – a sneak reference to the Joy of the Incarnation, a quick allusion to the hallowed Christmas Carol "Joy to the World." It's an ingenious way to remind us that the Joy of the Nativity encompasses a far greater landscape than the days surrounding the winter solstice. Here is the text:
Gracious Spirit, help us summon other guests to share this feast
Where triumphant Love will welcome those who had been last and least.
There no more will envy blind us nor will pride our peace destroy,
As we join with saints and angels to repeat the sounding joy.
"Repeat the sounding joy." That is what we do. Repeat it, practice it, get it strong in our hearts and on our lips and in our minds. Repeat it over and over again, like a song we're rehearsing, until we sing it well – really well.
In all my years with my musicians in the Notre Dame Folk Choir, I truly believe that we have set our hearts on the right thing – giving people, weekly, the chance to be joyful about their faith.
Anne, you were right. Whether by your prayers for me or based on that momentous conversation years ago, you have kept me on the right path. And for that you have my thanks.
It is Joy that makes all the difference.
Monday, September 24, 2012
In the first place, my eldest, Nathan, got married! A mere six days after the Dublin ND/Navy game, our family converged on my middle son's former monastery – Mepkin Abbey, outside of Charleston, South Carolina.
And as with any great event, there is a Story To Be Had.
The two days surrounding the wedding day were typical of September in the Low Country – huge thunderheads muscling their way through the region, portending a change in season. The day of the wedding rehearsal, Mepkin Abbey was spared their wrath.
But on the day of the wedding, Friday, September 7th, we arrived at the monastery around 4:00PM and watched with horror as an enormous storm system bore down on the outdoor gardens... the very spot where the wedding was to take place.
Thunder rolled up the river, announcing the mayhem that was soon to be celebrated. The musicians had frantically scrambled up and out of the garden area, leaving the presider and myself alone by the banks of the Cooper River.
The priest was a man I've admired for many years: Fr. Tom Tunney, a wise Irish pastor who'd spent half his life in Africa, before coming back to New York City and taking the helm of St. Mark's Catholic Church in Harlem (founded by Katherine Drexel, I might add). This is where he and my son first met and worked together.
So there we stood, Fr. Tunney and myself, watching as forked lightning and monsoon-like rains encroached. First they were down by Charleston... and then, the lightning and thunder and buckets of rain had reached the far side of the river. We just stood there, helpless.
And then some pretty strange things happened. I did my best Charlton Heston imitation, looked at all that water, and parted my hands like a Moses-wannabe. Fr. Tunney laughed, and I pointed up to the sky with a menacing look and said, "You will NOT rain on my son's wedding this day!"
Then the two of us just stood there, quietly praying on the riverbank, watching the Thing bear down on us.
As God is my witness, what happened next is the truth. And if you don't believe me, ask the priest, because even if he's Irish, he wouldn't lie about this.
We stood quietly for a couple more minutes, praying and watching the crazy weather.
And then the storm front simply turned around and went the other way.
Fr. Tunney looked at me, and I looked at him. He grinned, and gave me a high-five. "I'd say," said he, "that we'll do well to raise a glass over this!"
And so we did, later on, at the wedding reception.
Neither of us fashioned ourselves as being able to go up against the forces of nature or the One who authored them. But it sure was something else, watching that storm turn tail and run.
And if I were a betting man, I'd say the storm was more fearful of the wrath of my son's beautiful red-headed Welsh bride, than any kind of menace I could muster up.
Thursday, September 6, 2012
The Irish, and those who wished they were, had begun to depart, headed back to the States.
But I was not to be part of this early exodus, for there was one chapter left for me, my wife, and a few of my colleagues: a long-awaited visit by friends and benefactors to Teach Bhríde, the House of Brigid.
We are now into Year Four of this amazing witness and sharing between Campus Ministry at Notre Dame and the Diocese of Ferns in Southeastern Ireland.
Simply put, this was a chance for some of our wonderful supporters to gain a glimpse of the fruits of these first years of work.
Here is the roll call of our House of Brigid/Folk Choir graduates: Carolyn Pirtle, Martha Calcutt and Chris Labadie (Year One); Carolyn, Jessica Mannen, Patrick Duffey and Clarisa Ramos (Year Two); and Jessica, Kurt Nowak, Dan Masterton, and Molly Mattingly (Year Three). Their enthusiastic labors have spilled over into neighboring schools, shaped the repertoire of faith communities from Wexford to Galway, given consistent musical leadership to the liturgies of the Keough-Naughton ND program in Dublin, and been of steadfast help to their home diocese and the parishes of Ferns. And for two precious days, following all the football craziness, our benefactors had a chance to take in this legacy.
And now, three new members will join in this next year of witness. Nick Galasso, Emily Puscas, and Nicole Storey, all formidable musicians and teachers of the faith in their own right, will be led by House Director Molly Mattingly as they launch into the waters of spiritual and liturgical joy.
We parted from the members of Teach Bhríde late last night, families and clergy and friends and musicians all bidding farewell to one another.
The Irish, perhaps because they value friendship and hospitality to such a high degree, have a marvelous respect for gatherings and good-byes. A parting glass, if you will. And while we raised a few yesterday evening, it was not the wine that spilled over. Rather, what overflowed from the cups were words of love and common mission, of deep and abiding friendships, of souls that had been shaped and strengthened by the gospel.
And by way of farewell, let me share with you the eloquent words of Emily Ward, the Co-Director of Music at Our Lady's Island:
Teach Bhride has, perhaps without realising it, contributed so much to our music.... Our ‘musical landscape’ has been transformed and for this we thank you all. To follow the mustard seed parable, the Teach Bhride community sowed the musical seed and we now take on the responsibility to water and nurture it. . . and, young though this seed is, it is already bearing rich fruit.
Such parting words are full of hope. And gives us yet more reasons to continue bringing the gospel back to the land of our ancestors.
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Monday, September 3, 2012
But there IS a four letter word that is a pretty good reflection on the events of the last few days. It's one that college students use a lot (though, often as not, used in crazy ways).
That word would be EPIC.
It would actually be safe to say that these past five days have been epic.
For instance: on Saturday morning before the game, liturgy was celebrated in the courtyard of Dublin Castle (at which more than five thousand people showed up). It was the very first time in the history of Ireland that mass was celebrated there... A remarkable thing, given this was also the place where England routinely subjugated and humiliated the Irish.
Or that, on several occasions, mass was celebrated at the Merrion Hotel, in the actual rooms that were once occupied by the Duke of Wellington. And I'm sure he's rolling over in his grave on account of that.
Or that close to ten thousand people crammed into the O2 Centre a few days ago, Irish and Americans alike, to hear The High Kings and Anúna and Liam O'Flynn and a host of other singers, musicians and dancers. (And yes, the Notre Dame Marching Band and the Folk Choir).
Temple Bar was transformed into Joyce South: thousands upon thousands of crazy Americans mingling with the Irish (and sopping up their Guinness).
And the day after the game, yet another extraordinary gathering took place: a mass in St. Mary's Church on Haddington Road. It was estimated that about a thousand people – a congregation that stretched all the way out to the sidewalk – cued up for this liturgical celebration.
And here's another thing that was epic: at that Sunday liturgy, which was largely made up of Notre Dame alums and family, they sang, as we would say, with "full heart and voice". The priests of the parish were, as the Irish would say, "gobsmacked". Our family knows how to raise the rafters... And that is precisely why we brought the choir to these green fields.
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Sunday, September 2, 2012
Months and months ago, there was a meeting in Dublin, at Staunton's On the Green: John Kennedy, the executive producer, Noel Eccles, the music director, and their assistants asked me to sit in on a dialog about what this celebration would look like. The elements were staggeringly diverse: a marching band, trad Irish bands, singers, a comedian (Martin Short), a pep rally-like feel, a talk show and a sentimental homecoming, all thrown in together.
How in the name of Saint Patrick could they pull all of these elements together?
I have to say, even from my own perspective backstage, the writers and producers of this homecoming did a simply amazing job of weaving the whole thing together. At times both contemporary and yet deeply cognizant of their rich Irish traditions, the whole night was a joyful reunion of two great families: the returning Notre Dame community, and their kin from Eire, welcoming them home again.
Click HERE to go to RTE's main page (you may have to download the RTE player, which is a free app). A quick word of advice – take in the whole show! The Folk Choir sings at several places (I'm not going to tell you when), but each time is with a singer or ensemble that represents an amazing contribution to the Irish musical landscape.
Of all these collaborations, though, I think it would be fair to say that there is now a very special bond between the Folk Choir and Anúna. We worked very hard on our Irish and Scots-Gaelic pieces, but so much more than that. Michael McGlynn is one masterful choral director, and the singers he has accepted and formed into his ensemble are fabulous men and women. It would be safe to say that we anticipate other chances to work together in the future!
More on Dublin and our labors in the next post!
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Location:The O2 Centre, Dublin, Ireland
Sunday, August 26, 2012
From the very beginning, we were on a pilgrimage, not a trip. And the distinctions between these two words are enormous. We have been looking for different things, listening to other stories, searching for experiences that the ordinary traveler might not be looking for.
Weeks and weeks ago, we were in Rome, having braved the summer heat and walked all the way from the Basilica of Saint John Lateran to the lovely section of the city known as Trastevere. We had gone there to visit two people with Notre Dame connections, Paolo Mancinelli and Charlie Gardner, members of the S'ant Egidio community in Rome.
Midway through a delightful evening dinner together, we got on to the topic of pilgrimage. And, true to the night's animated conversations, we all had things to say about what it means to be a pilgrim in contemporary Europe.
And at a certain point in the conversation, Charlie put forward this remarkable, simple observation: "Tourists," he said... "tourists demand, but pilgrims are grateful."
I've thought of Charlie's insightful comment a lot over the consequent weeks of our journey through Europe. Over and over again, we have seen this observation of tourists' demands played out. And we have also seen what jeopardy is before many places of pilgrimage at present, places like Notre Dame in Paris and Mont Saint Michel, both sites that are thoroughly inundated with tourists.
How these places continue to walk the line between an attraction and a place of prayer is not something I can influence. But what Michele and I could influence, every day of our travels, was the disposition we ourselves carried with us when visiting these holy places.
We kept Charlie's words before us, almost like a daily mantra. We remained dedicated to a daily stance of gratitude, whether it be for food (even though we didn't know what it was, or how to pronounce it), the weather, a crazy set of road directions, or a simple glass of red wine. "It's an adventure," Michele would exclaim, "Let's keep laughing!" Gratitude and laughter are close friends, and we made sure they stayed good companions through our journey.
In the end, we visited five different nations: Ireland and Scotland with the Folk Choir, and then, the two of us traveling to France, Italy, Switzerland, far into the West of Ireland and then back to Edinburgh. Throughout that time, I became convinced that, even in the midst of an overwhelming culture that speaks to the contrary, humanity cannot escape its need to make sacred journeys. I am more certain of this than ever before, and I saw signs of it, no matter how many tourists, no matter how spiritually compromised the environment. As my friend Jerry Galipeau puts it, simply and directly, "people still gotta sing, people still gotta pray." To that list I would add, "people still need to journey."
America has gotten pretty good, over the years, at stripping whatever is left of holiness and, instead, offering a cheap secularization of the same. Witness was has happened with many of our feasts: Christmas, New Year's, Easter, and the like. In their stead, we have been offered a cheap, one-dimensional, fast-food approach to festivity. Instead of a crèche, we get a weirdo in a red jump suit. Instead of the jaw dropping reality of an empty tomb, we get a bunny and some candy. And somehow, our culture accepts this.
The stripping away of the sacred could be said of journeying. In earlier years, we used to make pilgrimage. And now we travel. We travel as tourists, and, just as Charlie said, we simply make demands. But where has gone the sense of joy, the sense of wonder, the sense of gratitude in our movements from place to place? There is, indeed, much to ponder over this landscape.
I am going to continue to write. It has been a humbling thing to watch how so many people have been interested in my commentary. That commentary will shift now – back home to Notre Dame (though there will be another brief adventure with the Folk Choir in Dublin over the next ten days). My observations about young people and their hunger for a spiritual life is only heightened by the wanderings of the past few weeks.
So to all the Charlie Gardners of the world, I would offer this encouragement: let us keep making pilgrimage! Let us keep being grateful. And let us not demand... but be joyful along the way.
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Sunday, August 19, 2012
"We did it!" she said.
We did indeed. We were on pilgrimage for two and a half months, and before that, on tour with the Folk Choir for another two weeks. We had actually seen through an itinerary that had been painstakingly constructed back in November.
While planning the pilgrimage, we took into account temperatures (who would want to be in Rome in August?), sites of musical and ecumenical interest (Taizé in Burgundy), places that had historic and national interest (Omaha Beach and Caen's Peace Memorial).
We spent significant periods of time with monastic communities (Tamié in the Savoie) and with priestly communities that shared our vision for evangelization in Ireland (the Irish Pontifical College in Rome).
And we went to places far off the beaten path, places that would've been impossible to take the entire choir (like Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, and the Aran Islands off the coast of County Clare).
Back at home on Monday evening, I took a piece of paper off the front door of the fridge. It was the map that contained all four phases of our trip, the map that we had constructed at the end of last year.
"Look at this," I said to Michele. "Eight months ago, this was just a bunch of lines of a map."
They aren't lines anymore. They are now part of a living history of our pilgrimage of faith.
There is a profound difference between travelers and pilgrims. Travelers, I think, have a different attitude upon their arrival back home. Perhaps it's one of "what's next," or sorting out mail, or looking at kind of shape the lawn is in. Now, we did all those things, too, believe me, upon crossing our threshold. But often, over the past few days, we will hear one another say "Can you believe we did that?. And a sense of wonder would overtake us.
Maybe it's this pervasive sense of wonder that defines a sense of travels taken, of pilgrimage accomplished. Wonder and admiration are always signs of the holy in our lives. That, and gratitude.
We traveled thousands of miles. Never once was anything lost or stolen. There were no messy luggage scenarios. Our flights were just about always on time, and we never encountered a pickpocket or a thief.
But this I do know – the lessons and experiences that we hold between us are only beginning to be unpacked. And we better unpack them well, because all too soon (a fortnight's time), we will be traveling back to Dublin with the Folk Choir!
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Monday, August 13, 2012
Now, perhaps you have heard of this tiny little church. It is the place, infamously, where Dan Brown concludes his mildly successful (!) novel, The DaVinci Code. I'm not going to comment on any of that (save for the amazement that so many people could get worked up over what was admittedly a work of fiction). Yet it is a fascinating place, and there were a few memories of the visit that bear repeating, if only to muse over them with a sense of wonder.
Entering this tiny chapel, the sense of architectural mystery is tangible. Patterns of flowers, stars and lilies, all carved from stone, adorn the ceiling. And yet, hidden within these patterns are all kinds of surprises: Christ, holding up a hand of blessing; or a little green man, sprouting vines out of his head and his mouth; or the image of the sun and the moon, tucked into the carefully aligned shapes. It is a palette of images, seemingly unrelated, with only conjecture and hints to somehow link them all together.
We walked around a bit, and then found out that a talk on the Chapel would be given at two o'clock. And who would miss that, given the trove of mystery we had just encountered?
So after lunch, we headed back. And we were greeted by this bespeckled, diminutive docent, an elderly woman who seemed to be about as old as the place itself. She pointed out some of the more fascinating and obvious legends about the Chapel, one of which concerns the Mason's and the Apprentice's Pillars.
These two works in stone are found on either side of the sanctuary. The Apprentice's Pillar is a jaw-dropping masterpiece in stone, surrounded by a legend of malice and pride. Our elderly guide told us a story of the chapel mason who journeyed to Rome, wanting to find a way to carve an elaborate, circular pillar. But upon his return, he found that the apprentice had actually created the work. And the mason, full of rage, killed his apprentice.
Then our docent pointed her laser pen to the opposite end of the chapel: a face was there, in stone, of a man filled with sinister rage. "It is the mason," she said. "And now, from here, he can look at the Apprentice's handiwork for all eternity."
Drama, murder, everlasting angst... All artfully contained in a church nave. No wonder historians and novelists alike were drawn to the place!
But our elderly docent had a few more surprises in store before her talk was over. My ears perked up when she started talking of a symbol we'd been encountering often on our journey: the image of the clamshell, signifying the route of a pilgrim.
"Tradition has it," said the aged docent, "that Rosslyn is the seventh church along the ancient road of the pilgrims, of which Compostela was only a part. And each church was associated with a planet... which means Rosslyn was associated with Saturn."
Then her voice took on a mysterious timbre, and she said, almost as if she were speaking to another age, "and, unfortunately, the god Saturn is also the god of secrets. So we can surmise that very much is hidden here."
Heck, after a talk like that, this little old lady could've told me that Santa Claus was hidden under the altar and I would've believed her.
Rosslyn Chapel was the last church we encountered on our three month long pilgrimage. It was a church of mystery, a church with deep roots in the process of sacred journey, a place that holds securely the secrets of mystic associations between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity. A portal, of sorts, to what awaits us.
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Thursday, August 9, 2012
One of the last things we've done here is attend the magnificent Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, held in the Esplanade before Edinburgh Castle and at the very top of the Royal Mile.
I learned a lot from this impressive gathering of the clans! First of all, Notre Dame isn't the only place that uses a fly-over to get things started: at precisely 9PM, the Royal Air Force sends one of their squadron to buzz the Castle and send everyone's hearts into their throats.
And here's a little background on the term. Tattoo is not a Scottish word, per se, even though the Highlanders have made this the centerpiece of their national expression. "Tattoo" comes from the Low Countries; it is Dutch in origin, from the phrase tap doe, which is a command to the local pubs to turn off the beer taps and send the soldiers home for the night. The command was followed by a mustering of the troops by drum, and eventually the words and the action became one and the same.
In Edinburgh, which is probably the oldest and best-known tattoo, this gathering has been elevated to an entirely new level – it's become an art form. Military bands come from all over the world (the night we were there featured ensembles from Norway, the United States, Australia, and Switzerland).
In addition to the fabulous bands, troupes of dancers are integrated into the festivities. One number, played by the resident Scottish military band, actually played a medley from the just-released Disney film Brave, complete with Scottish kids romping around the performance field. This is clearly not the stiff, regimented military exercise known by previous generations.
The military bands were amazing, the precision of the pipers was inspiring. Yet with all the regal pomp, two memories hold out the strongest for me.
The first was the welcome of Norway's military band and rifle corps. A thousand years ago, when Norway showed up on Scotland's shores, they carried weapons just like their contemporary counterparts ... but they had other things in mind besides a stint in front of the Castle. Now they were cordially welcomed as friends, saluted by the General and Master of Ceremonies, and – lo and behold! – the Norse contingent left the field singing "You Take the High Road..."
Proof, in my mind, that humanity actually is moving forward, inch by inch, to a point where music can unite those who once were enemies.
The second memory came from a simple, yet utterly profound musical moment, toward the end of the gathering. High atop Edinburgh Castle, near the end of the evening festivities, a lone Highland Piper stood, illuminated by a spotlight and playing a beautiful Scottish air. The thousands of attendees were perfectly still... The only one to be heard was the solitary musician, sending out his call to all who listened. No procession, no fireworks, no precision drums or tossing of rifles. Just one man, using a traditional instrument to remind all who cared to listen of their national heritage.
Sometimes, it is the simplest of songs that speaks the loudest in our hearts.
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Wednesday, August 8, 2012
And those velvet curtain calls
I've got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if you're a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free
– Kirkwood, as sung by Joni Mitchell
One of the fascinating things about walking through Edinburgh this week is that the city has become a busker's paradise. Walk half a block, and here is another concertina or guitar player. All the styles are joyful and different – and some of the musicians are downright phenomenal.
I've come across guitarists that have blown my mind by way of technique and ability. And they'll sit out on the stoop, playing their repertoire, for hours.
Take this guitarist, for instance. His name is Tom Ward, and the first thing you'll hear is his fabulous flamenco style of playing. The second thing is the guitar he's playing – it has more holes in it than a colander, and would put Willie Nelson's pock-marked axe to shame.
But don't be fooled by appearances... This guy had his strings wirelessly tied into a street amp (which was perched on a skateboard... Nice touch!), and the amp was throbbing with the perfect execution of his Spanish-styled fretboard skills. He had hundreds around him, all of them mesmerized by his repertoire and the strength of his playing ability.
Then there was the concert we took in (one of a few) at the glorious St. Giles Cathedral, at the heart of the Royal Mile. Allison Tarriff was the name of this extraordinary musician, who did an hour-long virtuoso concert that embraced everything from Weber to Horowitz. And even with my own former stint as a clarinetist, I learned something from this artist: this instrument is an astonishingly versatile one! For what other instrument can move from jazz to orchestra, from folk band to Klezmer, from military marching band to symphonic soloist? That would be the humble clarinet. And how she played!
Then, back on the street, we came across this cool guitar player by the name of Adamkadabra. Go figure. He had tuned his instrument to F-A-C-F-A-F and was playing it, dobro style, with incredible hammer-on technique. I'd never heard anything like it!
With guys like this, who had been working so hard at their craft and who sounded so great, it was hard to simply walk by without picking up one of their solo CD efforts. So I'm coming home with a few off-beat collections of guitar music....
We've visited a lot of venues in the past couple of days, and have absorbed so much music, drama, and culture. But the saying is true – sometimes, the best things in life are free.
Just like Joni described, in a song she sang a generation ago.
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Location:Windsor Street, Edinburgh, Scotland
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
What wonderful delirium comes over this city during the entire month of August!
The original festival, the Edinburgh International Arts Festival, is dedicated to serious opera, symphony, and drama... And the other, the Fringe, is exactly what it says: a wacky diversion of comedy, street musicians, experimental theatre, and/or any combination of the above. Except instead of being tucked away in some suburb or obscure side streets, the Fringe is front and center, smack dab in the heart of the Royal Mile.
Set into the middle of all of this the internationally renowned Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo, and you've got a city that is simply buzzing with artistic activity. And not for a weekend, or even a week. It is for the entire month!
Where else can you see guys balancing on ladders (on cobblestone streets, no less!), juggling kitchen knives? Where else to see a woman posing as a gold statue, holding – a gas mask?
And buskers reign over the cobblestone walkways. On at least two different occasions, I ran across guitar players who were doing things I've never come across before – techniques for playing, novel approaches to tuning – but more on this later.
It has been said that a city isn't healthy unless its artistic life is flourishing. And if such is the case, Edinburgh is indeed the picture of a robust community.
We have three days left overseas. Three precious days. And if we are going to be anywhere to close off this remarkable trip, it would be in a city where art and joy and music and dance and spectacle are in full swing.
We ended the Folk Choir's Spring Tour in Edinburgh, and partly for that reason wanted to come full circle, back to where we said good bye to our musicians, at the end of our travels. But it was equally a draw to know that this extraordinary celebration was taking place.
So now, we have a simple and joyful task before us as our pilgrimage concludes: Jump into the arts! Plunge into the Fringe!
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Location:High Street, Edinburgh, Scotland
Monday, August 6, 2012
Ten weeks ago it was the Notre Dame Folk Choir singing in the National Concert Hall, albeit in the more intimate venue called the John Field Room. But this time, Michele and I were given a pair of tickets to hear Anúna, one of Ireland's premier vocal ensembles. It was the Choir's twenty-fifth anniversary concert, and by chance or good fortune our itinerary lined up with the event.
Click HERE to have a listen to this amazing ensemble!
Our presence at this concert, though, was more than just for a night of great music. In just over three weeks, the Folk Choir is going to be back in Ireland, singing with Anúna at Dublin's O2 Centre. Singing in Irish, it's an event which will be part pep rally, part concert. And we have a lot of work to do to prepare for this huge trip back to the land of our ancestors.
And – the thing is already sold out.
This is not, of course, the most important reason for our trip back to Eire. Hours before the ND/Navy game, an open-air Mass will be celebrated at 9AM Irish time, in Dublin Castle's courtyard. And there are other liturgical celebrations that we will have a hand in as well, including a Sunday liturgy at 11:00AM Irish time, hosted by St. Mary's on Haddington Road.
So now, even as our travels are coming to an end, we are beginning to look ahead, and to move into high gear!
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Sunday, August 5, 2012
Along the way, over and over again on this pilgrimage, we have seen how peoples and cultures have dealt with time: how they calculate it, how they celebrate their seasons, and most especially, how all of these ancient chapters eventually got folded into the grand liturgical year which is now our Catholic heritage.
And here is something quite astounding: as Catholicism moved and grew from nation to nation, it didn't eradicate customs, traditions, or even calendars. Rather, it assumed them, gathered them in, reinterpreted their focus and set them on a Christological course.
You can see this worked out, on a grand scale, in the Christian liturgical calendar. Sol invictus, the ancient Roman holiday of the sun's conquering of death (immediately after the winter solstice) became the celebration of Christus sol invictus: Christ, the sun of justice – Christmas. The great prefigurer of Christ, John the Baptist, finds his feast day set in perfect symmetry around Christmas: his feast is on the 24th of June, six months earlier.
The ancient Irish calendar was very different from its neighbors. It used four seasons, but those seasons were based on agrarian cycles. The seasons were Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtine, and Lughnasa. The festival of Samhain (pronounced "sow-en") began on the Feast of All Hallows: Halloween. The Irish celebration of spring, Imbolc, began on the first day of February. And here again, saints' days moved in alongside the pagan customs, providing a redefinition and refocusing of the day.
In Irish spirituality, Brigid is also the patroness and protector of the four elements: earth, air, wind, and water. So it would make perfect sense that Bhríd, Mary of the Gaels, would have her feast day set for the outset of the planting cycle.
The garden we visited put all of this in a beautiful alignment, as you can actually see from the picture of the compass points here.
As we were walking through this park, I asked one of my friends about the Celtic thrust of the place, wondering if they were attempting a new-age spirituality and merely glossing over Christian influences. "The Irish," she said, "wouldn't see these things as being opposed to one another. They would see Celtic and Catholic as complementing one another."
And that would seem to be the way of it, I think. Catholicism's remarkable journey has been one that hasn't approached cultures with a "either/or" stance. Faith met them on their own ground, listened to their stories, watched their celebrations... And made them part of the family.
What has bound our journey together, from country to country, is a sense of wonder before the mystery of Time.
From the streets of Rome to the flagstones of Galway, from Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (see the Meridian Line sundial pictured here) to Brigit's Garden in the foothills of Connemara (a similar, year-long sundial appears below), we have seen how the human family is fascinated by the movement of time, our sacred passage through the seasons. Just look at these two amazing calendar devices! They are thousand of miles apart, and from completely different cultures. But they share an undeniable common thread: an attempt to unpack the secrets of life, seen through the lens of time.
This trip to the West of Ireland has been such a beautiful pilgrimage for me and Michele! Music to absorb, a gentle culture to admire, mountains to climb, stories to share. Through it all, we have also been looking to Dublin, our next stop, where in just a few short weeks we will be returning with half the Notre Dame Folk Choir. But more on that in the next posting!
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Location:Rosscahill, County Galway, Ireland
Friday, August 3, 2012
One of the most important places of pilgrimage in Ireland is Croagh Padraig, Patrick's Mountain. It is situated near Westport, in County Mayo, up past the vast and empty loveliness of Connemara. It's only about 780 meters high (about 2500 feet) – not a big climb by most standards. But even for me, someone who has hiked the mountains of both on the east and west coasts, it was an arduous trek.
The reasons for the challenge are twofold: About halfway up the summit, this eerie rock pile begins to show up. The Irish call it scree. And it is an accursed pavement: each stone is about the size of a large hand, and all the rocks move around – there is barely a sense of footing.
The other challenge: this entire field of scree is situated on a pretty frightening incline. So steep and direct is the ascent (and descent) that the rocks seem to be in constant movement. Every step, therefore, is a decision. And if you choose unwisely, you could begin an avalanche of stone and humanity.
Now think of doing this entire journey as the Irish sometimes do: barefoot.
As I was trudging up this slope, grateful for a pair of sturdy hiking boots lent to me by my friends, I couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like to take on this mountain without shoes. As you get closer to the top, the rocks smooth out a bit, but for the most part they are a jagged, menacing landscape, and hardly the thing you would willingly inflict upon your feet.
As we were starting out, our longtime friend Tony Murphy stopped us, and put into his hand a small stone. "It is a custom with the Irish," he said, "to carry a stone to the top, and use that as an intention for your pilgrimage."
I found a small rock with a streak of granite white in it, that looked somewhat like the Greek letter tau, and held onto it for the climb to the top.
One other detail of note: the day before, Sunday, was what the Irish commonly call "Reek Sunday." It is the day many people of the country go to this mountain on pilgrimage. The day we climbed, it was fabulous weather and the beginning of summer holidays for some of the Irish; as a result, there were several hundred people making the journey.
But the day before, on Reek Sunday, twenty thousand people climbed this mountain. Twenty thousand! Look at these pictures, and try to imagine the assemblage of such a horde of folk, making their way slowly and painfully up the steep and dangerous slope.
When I made it to the top, I took out my small stone, and laid it in the cairn with the thousands of others on the summit.
I prayed for the continued success of the House of Brigid, and for the young people of Ireland.
There are many, many things being written about the state of the Irish Catholic Church at present. Her liturgies, her lack of administration toward the young, her vocational plight. But still and all, when I hear stories of this kind, of thousands upon thousands of people making a sacrificial ascent in the name of Ireland's great saint, I can't help but think that all is not lost, that, indeed, all will be well.
All will be well. We walk upon God's holy mountain.
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Location:Croagh Patrick, County Mayo, Ireland
Thursday, August 2, 2012
We started looking at the stone walls. Really looking at them.
Not that it took much imagination to do so. On Inisheer, you can't move three feet in any direct without tripping over these walls. There are hundreds of them, and they really are like a maze: some only a few cubic meters in size, just enough for the family horse (I'm serious). Others barely a meter wide, providing a long, narrow lane between two properties.
But for those with eyes to see, the stone walls are an amalgam of creativity and nuance. There are subtle designs and forces at work: the stacking designs; the little places where stones could easily be removed for access and removal of farm animals; the smooth, rounded stones of the north shore, or the rough, squarish granite of the southern side.
And other touches were evident as well: places where, almost by accident, stones would jut out from the wall in random order. But in actuality, they were far from random... They were staircases, subtly placed so that the farmers could navigate the rocky fences with ease.
A photographer from years past, Jill Uris, once compiled a book of Irish pictures, entitling it "A Terrible Beauty." Seeing this small island, once completely strewn with useless stone, could indeed be considered "terrible." But they have transformed this rock-infested place into one of intricate beauty, creatively joined together by webs of lane, pasture, road and garden.
All joined, remarkably and flexibly, by solid rock.
Astounding, what the human family can create with whatever they're given. Even from a quarry, a garden can take shape.
This shall be my last post about the Aran Islands before heading across Galway Bay to our friends on the edge of Connemara. There, if the weather cooperates, we climb Croagh Patrick!
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Wednesday, August 1, 2012
She looked very sad, this young girl. Bored, despondent, restless, all exuding from the language of how she sat next to that old boat. All pent up next to that curragh.
And I thought to myself, "Does she feel imprisoned here? She can see the mainland of Ireland right from where she's sitting. And she can probably follow everything of the world on the web. Is she at peace here? Or does she simply want out?"
Inisheer is very near to the Irish coastline: from the front yard of the B&B where we stayed, you could see the Cliffs of Moher – the way the Atlantic Ocean sees them. You could also see the shores of Galway Bay, most especially Barna, and Galway, and Spiddal, places where the Folk Choir has often sung.
But the sea separates you from the rest of the world. The sea – tempestuous, dangerous, unpredictable.
The shores of Ireland are near, but they are so far away! For even though just a few miles of choppy seas separate the islands from the rest of their nation, their language and their way of life have stayed locked in older ways.
A little later, I happen upon a young woman who was tending to our B&B, and I asked her what she thought of life on the island as a teenager.
"There are twenty teenagers on Inisheer," she said, "and if you talk to the girls, half of them simply want to leave. But," and here she continued thoughtfully, "there would be the girls who would love to find a man to marry from Galway, and come back here to raise a family, away from the tumult of all that." And here she waved her hand toward the mainland, in a dismissive fashion.
"The water is wide, I cannot cross o'er,
Neither have I the wings to fly.
Give me a boat that can carry two,
Then both may go, my love and I."
So goes the old song. And the song has lasted because the lyrics are true. Young people, like all of us, are looking for love, looking for safe places to bring their dreams. Some of them look at the sea as a curse.
And others view these waters differently, as protection from the craziness of the world, as the hopeful realization of a dream.
The waters are, indeed, wide. As are the stances of those whose lives are touched by the sea.
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Location:Baile Na Gleanna, Inisheer, Ireland
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
The first night, as we began to explore Inisheer, we walked past a windswept cemetery. And while it was a stark and inspiring sight on its own, we soon found out that a closer look would yield something we had never come across, even in all our Irish travels.
For the next day, as we walked through the little iron gate of this island cemetery, we found that, smack dab in the middle of those who had been interred, there was a church, once buried in the sands, but now completely unearthed as a place of pilgrimage. It was staggering discovery for us as travelers, and had we not actually taken the time to walk into the graveyard, it would've been a lost opportunity, for it was completely hidden from passersby on the road.
In Irish, the church is called Teampall Chaomháin: the Church of Saint Caomhán. This would be a name unknown to most of us Americans, but Caomhán (pronounced QUEE-vahn) is the brother of the famous St. Kevin. And while Kevin built his legacy around Glendalough, Caomhán chose a much more deserted landscape: the island of Inis Oírr. For this, he is also considered one of the patron saints of the Aran Islands.
What happened is quite incredible... This church, whose ruins date from the 10th to the 14th century, was abandoned and allowed to fall into disuse. And then the sands of the islands took over, eventually burying the stone edifice in an enormous dune. The near-perfectly preserved structure wasn't come across again until sometime in the 1970's, when a gale ripped open some of the dunes (and the surrounding grave sites) and began to expose a portion of the upper stone work.
But here is something that really took us off guard, and for those of you who have ever visited Glendalough (including the Folk Choir), you'll know what I speak of. The church of Saint Caomhán is a near twin to the small, intact structure found in the brother's monastery in the Wicklow Mountains. Here's a picture of the church from
You can see some similarities between these two ancient places of prayer. Yet an entire island, and miles of Atlantic Ocean, separate the two. The shape of the arches, the construction of walls and roof, they seem to have a common template as their source. And let's keep in mind the fact that these churches are more than a thousand years old.
There is one more unique part of the sanctuary found on Inis Oírr, and this is the presence of a beautiful piece of stonework: An Chrois Chéasta – the Cross of Christ – dating from the post medieval period, about the late 18th century. Buried under the shifting sands of this Irish island for more than two hundred years, it now stands as a striking witness to the faith of this community on the edge of the Atlantic.
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Location:Baile Na Gleanna, Inisheer, Ireland