Saturday, January 28, 2012

What you take from a place, and what you give

First of all, apologies for not getting back to my blog sooner! I was at the beloved Abbey of Gethsemani for five days, and then, with my colleague Karen Kirner, another five days at the Liturgical Composer's Forum, being held in St. Louis, under the wise direction of my Jesuit friend, John Foley.

So it's time to backtrack a bit! When I wrote, a while back, about our heading into silence, I wanted to also follow up on this retreat experience with our students.

Over the course of the weekend, a representative from each of the classes gave a talk. And this was followed, at the end of each day, by a reflection from our chaplain, Fr. Drew Gawrych, c.s.c. It was a joy to watch how these talks progressed, starting with the freshman perspective ("the trauma of joining this musical community!") to the upperclassmen (two superb talks, one on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and the other on stepping into something challenging and uncomfortable). As each year progressed, you could see how the world was getting larger, wider with issues, full of questions and hope and promise.

Our time together was focused on the famous prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, the "Serenity Prayer." And when we make these pilgrimages, we usually have three complete days for peace and quiet – which, in a way, is a good thing, because we're also able to create a "triptych", a threefold presentation of a particular spiritual insight or way of living.

Such a rich reflection is the Serenity Prayer! It fit, hand-in-glove, into this three-day journey of meditation used by our students. The goal of the words is to petition for serenity; but that gift cannot be had without two previous requests, one, for courage, and the other, for wisdom. Only with these two can the last, the sense of peace, be found.

I always marvel at how much we take from a place that, ultimately, has only silence to offer. We had a lot to offer as well – a beautiful concert on Saturday evening before the entire monastic community, and music to share for their Sunday eucharist as well.

But Monday morning came, and I found our students almost reluctant to strap on their earbuds and jump back into the wired life they've grown accustomed to. The silence had found their way into their hearts. Yet leaving is what we had to do. And as the bus wound its way through the Knob Country of Kentucky, surrounded by winter frost and early morning sunshine, we all had the chance to reflect on what we had taken from this kindly, quiet place.

So much to be taken, and so much to give, written on the canvas of quiet.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Into Silence

This week (if we can avoid the snowstorm that is supposedly heading our way), the Notre Dame Folk Choir will be heading off on a "quiet adventure," traveling about 6 hours directly south, to the Abbey of Gethsemani, in Trappist Kentucky.

We make this trip about every two years, if we can. And it's an integral part of what we do as a choir. Paradoxical, some might think - that in order to figure out ways to better make a joyful noise, our inclination would be to go someplace utterly silent. But our longstanding relationship with the monks has taught us that this is one of the very best things we can do.

Every year we travel to Gethsemani, we choose a particular theme for our time together. Two years ago, the theme was "Tuning the Heart." Our superb Campus Ministry intern at the time, Jessica Mannen, put together a marvelous prayer/meditation/journal resource for the ensemble, complete with a new song, "Tune My Heart," based on the writings of Thomas Merton.

This year's theme, which also embraces the blessed silence of the monastery, is "Serenity." We have a superb new CM intern, Emily Puscas, who has been working on the student talks and helping to articulate the theme with our traveling chaplain, Fr. Drew Gawrych, c.s.c. We will be focusing on the three elements of Reinhold Neibuhr's famous Serenity Prayer – looking for courage, seeking wisdom, so that serenity is a pervasive element in our spiritual landscape.

It's an important message to carry with us, in a society that is so bent on constant multi-tasking, video games that extol violence as a captivating pastime, and gadgets that rob us of any time for contemplation. Hopefully, the silence of Gethsemani will be something that brings us all closer together as a prayer community and gives us a great start to the spring semester of 2012.

While we're there, we offer a special concert for the monastic community and friends of the Abbey. Like the retreat itself, this concert is an integral part of the weekend, allowing us the chance to leave a little musical gift to our gracious hosts.

So for those of you (especially choir alums) who read up on our activities through this blog, please keep us in your prayers over the next few days! This time is always sacred to us in the choir, and we hope it will yield great spiritual insights for all involved.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Of wineskins and song

It has now been about six weeks since we launched this amazing new adventure called the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. For the first few weeks of this period I was here at Notre Dame, working with our students and residence halls on the implementation of all the new music into our thirty residence halls, the Basilica, and various other communities associated with the academy.

But about mid-December, the students headed home, and my wife and I had the chance to head out into various parishes, both here in the South Bend area, and while visiting family and friends around the country. And that meant – attending mass with many different assemblies.

And I've got to say, after experiencing the old rewrites and some of the completely new settings, my unqualified vote at this point is a vote to be "out with the old." Perhaps it's because I visited a great parish at Christmas, one that had a wonderful tradition of participation, but still was surrounded by a lot of stumbling when it came to old versions in a new rewrite. But my intuition has now been verified by several experiences. It's time to change.

I was preparing a liturgy here at Notre Dame for all our returning resident assistants, a week from now here at Notre Dame. The gospel passage for this Monday celebration goes as follows:
"No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak.
If he does, its fullness pulls away,
the new from the old, and the tear gets worse.
Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins.
Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins,
and both the wine and the skins are ruined.
Rather: new wine is poured into fresh wineskins."

This is the philosophy I've taken toward the implementation of new music in the liturgy: old wine, old wineskins. New wine – new wineskins.

There are several mass settings that have well served the church over the years. And we can, with delight and gratitude, now say to those settings, "well done, good and faithful setting!"

But now, it's time to put new words to new songs. Let the words, their inflections, their implied nuances and the tunes that spring from them – let these new ideas come forward, not just be forced into old tunes. They deserve more. And we're smart enough to learn new ones.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Keeping Christmas (and no, this is not late!)

If you're like me, you've probably washed up on the shores of some mall over the past few days. I couldn't resist (having a few extra gift-shekels in my pocket after Christmas) proceeding, unlike the Three Wise Men, to my local bookstore to ponder a few delights. Alas, I was not guided by a star.

It was December 27, the Feast of John the Evangelist, still well within the Octave of the Nativity, and here I was, walking down the aisles of a famous bookseller, but wait! What was that I heard? My ears were straining to hear what I thought would actually be the appropriate music of the day – real Christmas Carols! But no, the commercial gods had deemed that the season was past; we were back to other classics, crooned by Frank Sinatra, Michael BublĂ©, and other famous whatnots.

Thank God I only partially live in this secular, time-warped marketplace! Christmas seems to be treated, like most things in this country, as a "what's next" kind of enterprise: work like crazy to get all the stuff done, make sure everything's ready to go (make that list! check it twice!), throw yourself into it for a few crazy minutes, then it's on to the next thing. Which, in the liturgical lexicon of our world, are the feasts they call Clearance Sales.

Notre Dame can be rather grey and quiet this time of year, and nevertheless I find it a very poignant time. It's a time to move with the ebb and flow of family. It's a time to actually savor the message of carols, take them in, ponder their meaning. It's a time to box a few things away, but all the same to dwell on the sacred memory of those things we are storing: pictures, moments, songs.

The mall, of course, has moved on. No time to savor out there. It's only "what's next." The problem is, it's always a series of what's next – no chance to ponder, to contemplate, to rejoice in what is, or what has been.

Despite all the signals around us, we still have time. Let us keep Christmas well! The season is not over, not in the least.