Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Inis Oírr: A Church, Rising From the Sands

Sometimes you have to keep your eyes wide open while traveling, because things are not always as they appear.

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

Monday, July 30, 2012

Inis Oírr: the Renting of a Bike

We arrived yesterday on Inisheer, or, as the Irish would spell it, Inis Oírr, the "eastern island." Inisheer is the smallest of the three Aran Islands, and as soon as you step off the boat, you know you're not in Kansas anymore. The sign announces this to you right away: "An Gaeltacht," – the land where Irish is the first language.

And this is not just some kind of tourist come-on; walking through the little pathways of the town, you would rarely hear English spoken. The conversational tongue is Irish, all the signs are in Irish, notices and posters are all in Irish. English is the second language here.

I have, in the past, been gently corrected on my own usage as well. In my early years of visiting Ireland, I inquired as to their language, and used the term "Gaelic." Then came the correction: Gaelic is a family of languages, and Irish is one of them. So here we are, at the mouth of Galway Bay, and on the edge of the Atlantic, surrounded by the Irish tongue.

When we arrived on Inisheer, we did a little exploring about the place as we made our way to the B&B. It didn't take long for all six of the men who drove their pony trams to know that the two Americans were going to walk to their residence. Only two hundred and fifty people live on this island – news travels fast.

And so it was that on the second day, we rented bikes for an island excursion. At the siopá, the bike shop, the lady said, "And aren't ye the folks from America?"
"Yes," says I, "We're staying up with Brídh Poil at Radharc an Chláir."
"Ach," says she, "I knew that."

I'm sure she did.

"We'd like to rent bikes for the day," says I.

"Well," says she, "you'll be needing to watch out for the brambles along the side of the roads... They're starting to grow out into the pathways. So mind yourselves."

"And do I need to pay now? Leave my license? Or my credit card?"

She looked at me with that half quizzical, half amused smile that the Irish sometimes bestow on tourists. "Oh, you can just pay at the end of the day," she said. "And no, there's nothing to sign. No locks needed, either."

If I rented a bike in America, I'd have signed things in triplicate, promised my first-born to lawyers if I scratched a fender, and left a hundred dollar deposit.

But this is the Aran Islands. Population 250. Irish is spoken here. And we are most certainly not in America.

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Location:Baile Na Gleanna, Inisheer, Ireland

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Considine's Craic

Anyone who knows me also knows that I absolutely love a session of music, where people can simply break out their instruments and play long into the night, harmonizing, laughing, working off the creative energy of each other. And if there's anywhere in the world where this kind of environment flourishes, it's in the West of Ireland.

And to have such a thing happen in a pub – well, that's pretty close to a suburb of heaven!

Our friends Joan and Pat hauled us out one night to the center of County Clare, the city of Ennis. And being the expert guides that they are (not only in leading people around the Burren), they knew exactly where to go for a phenomenal night of Irish traditional music.

The place was Considine's Pub, smack in the heart of the town. And as the night progressed, the instruments came out: fiddle, Irish Bouzouki, six-string guitar, a set of Uilleann pipes, a bodhrán, and a superb wooden flute. Even up at the bar, someone pulled out a set of bones and kept time with the set.

It was fast and furious stuff – if you've ever listened to the high-energy work of Solas you'd be very pleased with what you heard that evening. And after every piece, a shout would go up from all in attendance.

In the meantime, the Guinness flowed, as did the conversation.

Prayer is not too far away from these hijinks, I think. And tradition has it that the good St. Brigid herself weighed in on such gatherings. Her words:
“I should like a great lake of ale,
for the King of the Kings.
I should like the family of Heaven
to be drinking it through time eternal."

The Irish have a word for this mystical fusion of ale and song and merriment and just plain infectious camaraderie. They call it "craic."

Click here to enjoy a few moments of music from this little slice of heaven!

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Location:Ennis, County Clare, Ireland

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Mass Rock

During the era of the Penal Laws in Ireland, which would have been around the late seventeenth century, if you were caught by the English going to Mass, you were shot. The same would be true if any kind of sign of Catholicism was found on you – a rosary, or especially a crucifix. The "penal crosses" were the result of such terrorism: it was a crucifix with very small arms, one that could be tucked up inside a jacket or shirt and instantly hidden.

So when Catholics wanted to go to Mass during this period of persecution, they explored the countryside for safe, secure, isolated places that would still have the dignity appropriate for the mystery they knew as the Sacrifice of the Mass. And they found what they were looking for with mass rocks.
Here in East Clare, close to the McNamara family, we had the great privilege of being led deep into the mountains yesterday and shown an immense mass rock. They dot the countryside of Ireland: random sentries of granite that have a solitary existence, found in some forest or on a hilltop.

The Mass Rock in Clare is an immense formation, a huge hunk of stone that actually serves as a backdrop to a smaller rock – this smaller one ideal as the altar.
During the times of the Penal Laws, sentries would be placed at high points at the periphery of the place where the mass was to be celebrated. It was a covenant of trust for an entire community, for if one person turned coat and became an informant, the whole village could be facing a firing squad. Our friends, Joan and Pat, showed us these points where the sentries would've been able to see the entire landscape.

It was a bright morning, and we quietly walked around this compass point of history and faith. Throughout the journey, I kept being reminded of how dangerous it was to be a Catholic under English rule, of how deep go the roots of this thing we call the Catholic faith. And I kept wondering how all of us in America still might have a hand in assisting the faith of these, our ancestors and kin.

I say this because the Irish, on their spiritual road, now face something far more threatening than a firing squad. They face money, pop culture, betrayal by some of their shepherds, and a wholly apathetic generation.

And yet, this is a country that died for its faith, died for its language, died for its song, died for its own freedom and expression. They built those convictions hundreds of years ago, built them on rocks, secretly hidden from their persecutors. Surely... surely there is something here to build upon.

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Location:Newgrove, County Clare,Ireland

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bleak, and Beautiful

One of the most isolated topographies of Ireland is just around the corner from where we're staying. It is called "The Burren," or boirinn in Irish, meaning "the great rock." And that it is.

It is almost two hundred and fifty square kilometers of rock, bordered on two sides by the Atlantic to the West and Galway Bay to the North. And though, to most people, it might seem utterly desolate and grey, when you actually walk this area and look closely, you find it teeming with flowers of every variety, from Mediterranean to Alpine. From afar, it seems like nothing but a vast, ominous, oppressive boulder. But walk into this area, and the number of species of plants and beautiful flowers is just staggering.

Here are two words that were not part of my vocabulary until yesterday: grikes and clints. Grikes are the long, almost perfectly formed fissures that appear in the rocks – almost as if Mother Nature decided to take a plough and till these stubborn stones. Over the years, the fissures have opened up, and yielded area for some of the most diverse plant life in Ireland. You can see from this picture just how incredible is this landscape (take this snapshot and multiply it by miles and miles.)

But the other thing I learned, and it surprised me greatly, is that this supposedly barren outpost has the longest growing season in Ireland? And again, it is related to the rocks: the rocks store the heat of the day, creating a huge area of warmer climes. Grass can grow here year round, which makes the place ideal for cattle grazing as well.

Over the years, we would drive by here with the choir, always on the go, and only once had a chance to stop briefly. But we spent an entire morning here (before lashing rains drove us, soaking wet, back to our cars and into Ballyvaughan). And with this extraordinary amount of time, we could admire the thousands of flowers that were insistently poking their heads from between the rock fissures.

There was one more thing to admire, too. Mile upon mile of old stone walls, walls leading nowhere. They are a testament to the brutality of English domination and their shocking response to the famine years. The Irish were forced to construct these meaningless barricades, a comfort to their lords and masters who wanted to make sure this starving race wasn't getting a handout.

The English are gone now. But the walls remain. Walls, and millions of flowers.

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Location:The Burren, West Clare, Ireland

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Back to the Green Fields: the Final Leg

When Michele and I put our itinerary together, we really wanted to get to places in Ireland that, despite touring there for years, we'd never had the chance to visit. How do you miss these spots when you've been touring for more than twenty years? Because when you're traveling with more than fifty college students, there are places you just can't go.

So some of the last days of our trip are devoted to places we've never had the chance to visit, deep in the West of Ireland.

There may be some of you reading this (especially members and alums of the Folk Choir) who may disagree with this, and pretty much think that we could go everywhere. But let me tell you, it would be difficult to bring the entire choir on a hiking trip of Croagh Patrick, out in the middle of nowhere. Or to visit the special little towns of Doolin or Milltown Malbay, where Irish traditional music still thrives: a bus would be hard pressed to make it into those areas, to say nothing of the fact that host families would be pretty difficult to find.

So these destinations, among others – including the Aran Islands – are on our itinerary for the next week. They all fall into the category of "can't do this with a bus and the whole crazy lot of our beloved choir."

We've flown, then, from Nantes, taking us out of France, and directly to Shannon Airport in the west of Ireland, and we've been met by two longtime friends, Joan and Pat McNamara, who live in the town of Tulla, County Clare. From here, we'll explore the Burren, and if Mother Nature cooperates, climb Croagh Patrick as well.

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Location:Tulla, County Clare, Ireland

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ending at the Beginning

About eight years ago, Michele and I had the opportunity to travel with ND's Board of Trustees, upon an itinerary that included parts of France and Germany. On that trip, we had the great privilege of visiting LeMans for the first time, and descending into the crypt of the parish church.

We did so, because in that quiet, darkened, humble place was to be found the resting place of the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the Rev. Basile Moreau.

If there's one thing we've learned over these past weeks, it's the fact that windows tell stories... Everywhere from Chartres to Rome, Scripture has been unfolded in beautiful, radiant splendor. We have learned to keep our eyes open when it comes to the windows of a church.

The parish church that witnessed the beginnings of the Congregation of Holy Cross is Eglise Notre Dame de Saint Croix. Upon entering, you can see, on each side of the sanctuary, two brilliant stained glass representations. The one to the left of the sanctuary has a resplendent golden dome, surrounded by students and teachers, watched over by Mary, the Mother of God. It tells a story, and it is a representation of the place where I work.

The second one, to the right of the sanctuary, shows an immense Basilica, embracing the image of a family, and watched over by Saint Joseph. This is a depiction of the famous Oratory in Montreal, and it, too, tells a story: the story of a Holy Cross brother, a simple man of prayer, who went on to be the community's first canonized saint.

The fact is, neither of these places would exist were it not for the man buried in this church in LeMans, Basile Anthony Moreau.

Sunday was our last full day in France, and by design, Michele and I ended our time in this wonderful country by going back to the beginning: back to the founder of Holy Cross. And we did so by simply stopping in for a Sunday morning mass. No state visit, no special call ahead of time. We just wanted to be in the congregation with these folk, and experience a weekend liturgy at the birthing place of the order.

There was a trumpet player and an organ, and a marvelous leader of song. We sang Gelineau's famous setting of Psalm 23 – My Shepherd is the Lord – in its intended language. Always finding curious moments of cross-pollination, we joined in the French acclamation for the Mystery of Faith – an adapted text sung to the hymn tune "Amazing Grace."

It was parochial liturgy at its ordinary French best, filled with women and men from the wide diversity LeMan's population. And it was a marvelous reflection of the founder of the religious community with whom I've worked for more than half my life.

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Location:Eglise Notre Dame de Saint-Croix, LeMans, France

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Erosion of an Island

Mont Saint Michel is one of the truly unique spiritual and physical landmarks of France. It has held its ground for years, in the face of incredible forces of nature. The abbey, which crowns the bluff of rock, was inhabited by monks more than a thousand years ago. At one point, erosion compromised the foundation, and part of the abbey church collapsed into the sea.

Then there is the Couesnon river: the long-standing boundary between Brittany and Normandy heaves out loads of silt daily (so much that a new dam and set of hydraulic lifts had to be constructed, to keep the stuff from clogging up the bay).

Consider, as well, the rip tides and patches of quicksand. The tides come in at about 12 miles per hour, over a tidal plain eight miles long. Watching this drama – you can actually observe the tide coming in like a herd of animals – is a sight to behold.

But the fury of the sea, the weight of silt and ripping tides are things that Mont Saint Michel has endured since the dawn of the world. There is one thing, however, that is now crashing against its rocks, and from which the island has no real defense.

That would be tourists.

Recently, the French government has opened an immense system of parking lots just across the causeway to the island. This set of lots can accommodate hundreds of cars and fleets of buses every day. Free transportation takes the hordes of people up to the gateway of the Mont.

When we were first putting our itinerary together, Michele and I had really looked forward to a visit and even a stay at Mont Saint Michel. But we found, to our great sadness, that the iconic mountain of rock, and the abbey that still survives, is fighting for its very soul.

It used to be, for instance, that the gates to the town were closed by dusk. The streets emptied, leaving only those who were staying on the island, along with the religious up in the abbey. But bus service now extends to 1AM, and even the abbey church participates in the late night hours, offering a music and light show in the nave during the summer months. There is no rest at what was once a sacred destination.

And here, too, was another great disappointment. The only time you can visit the church – without paying a nine euro admission fee – is at noon each day, when you can join the Jerusalem Community (the current monastic community at the Abbey; the Benedictines vacated several years ago) for mass. But even here, the press of tourists in the rear of the nave makes it difficult to be attentive to the prayer and song of the community.

And let's remember this: Mont Saint Michel was designed and built centuries ago, as a medieval town. Her streets are simply not designed for bus loads of tourists all hitting the cobblestones at the same time. It's not Disney World. And yet those who are "developing" this area seem to think that the Mont can handle an infinite number of people.

This holy citadel has long been one of the most important places of pilgrimage in all of Europe. But tourists have now overwhelmed the pilgrims. Completely and totally overwhelmed them. It is the desecration of a sanctuary, the moral erosion of an island.

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Location:Le Mont Saint Michel, Normandy, France

Sunday, July 22, 2012

B&Bs (Beasts and Bathrooms)

We are now approaching our last days in the marvelous countryside of France, and as we prepare to bid this country farewell, I thought it might be fun to show you a couple of the places that we lodged in during our travels.

Our places of rest have varied from city to city and country to country. In Rome, we stayed at the Irish Pontifical College. In Paris, we rented out an apartment flat for the week. But once we headed back to France and were deep into the countryside, we began hopping from one B&B to another. Michele, in her marvelous way, had researched these places. But of course the website will only show you so much...

One of the places we stayed, in the little country town of Cherville, ranks among the very best of places! We were staying on a farm, and one of the buildings had been refitted as a place for guests. Wooden beams, a beautiful room with a view out to the courtyard, and a hostess that was full of help and encouragement – this little inn was at the top of our most enjoyable and relaxing. (Unfortunately, we took no pictures here. We were so relieved at being in a "real" bed, as opposed to the bunks at Taizé...)

Then, there was another one, on our way to Caen. As we pulled into the driveway – whoa – there was road kill nailed to the garage door! I couldn't figure out if it was a boar, or a bear, but it was big and brown and looked like whatever had once been attached to it would've ended up on a plate.

At this B&B, the surprises never ended. When we were shown to our room, both of our jaws dropped. There was knight's armor casually standing in the corner, a synthetic tiger skin next to the bed, and then we happened upon the sink.

The sink was a thing of wonder: all wooden, a three-tiered homemade marvel hewn out of a hunk of tree. When you turned on the spigot, you heard water begin to gurgle about the height of your forehead, and eventually the stream would fill up one trough, then another, and then another... Until it finally cascaded over your toothbrush!

Nothing ever whipped up by Holiday Inn could compare with such a thing!

Now, today and tomorrow, we are at the last of our stays in France, and we are staying at a wonderful villa out in the middle of nowhere... But close enough to our last two visits, to the Abbey of Solesmes and the birthplace of the Congregation of Holy Cross, in LeMans. This picture will give you a little idea of the neat living area that we're in for the next 48 hours.

Finally.... In the B&B at which we encountered the road kill on the garage, there was one more surprise. In the shower – was a tree. I jest not. We are SO looking forward to staying in the (safe, cozy) homes of friends in Ireland!

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Location:A lot of places in France

Saturday, July 21, 2012

When Words Fail

I can walk this beach.

Now, almost seventy years since that awful day,
I can freely walk this beach.

Generations of people have done so, before me.

We can walk here now, because more than nine thousand, five hundred men allowed their lives to be cut short.

So that ordinary people, like my wife and I, could walk here.


Sometimes Michele and I go to the ocean, or the shores of Lake Michigan: it's an opportunity to collect our thoughts, talk about things that have passed and what they mean for the future, sort out what is and what is to come.

But from the moment we approached this beach – Omaha Beach – we knew that it was not a place for words.

For a very long time, we walked quietly, hand in hand, and looked all around us. The barbed wire had been removed, there were no more iron barriers or wooden entanglements. The mines had been detected and cleared. All that was left was the pristine sand, and the hushed, steady mantra of the waves, crashing against the shore.

I spent a long time that day, listening to the sounds of those waves. I hoped that I might hear the voices of all those young men who had lost their lives. But their voices deferred to the waves... The men were at peace, laid to rest up the hill.

All was as it should be. And yet, all around, there was the unspoken knowledge of the cost, the terrible cost in lives lost.

For the last two days, we have taken a very different tack on our pilgrimage through France. Instead of cathedrals and monasteries, it has been time for memorials, beaches and cemeteries. Places of other kinds of sacrifice.

We went to Caen, and spent an entire day at Le Mémorial de Caen, the Museum for History and Peace. We spent time learning about the events that led up to the Second World War; the debt paid by Normandy, which absorbed the brunt of the first Allied assaults; and the eventual outcome...including the Cold War that followed. We listened to recorded stories of people who had been caught in bombings – in London, in Dresden, in Hiroshima. We watched, with no small amount of terror, and took in the manic anger of the Third Reich, the staunch responses of the British, and the covert valor of the French Resistance; and later, we weighed the back-and-forth propaganda of the United States and the USSR.

And then, the next day, we simply went to Omaha Beach and walked. Walked for a very long time.

In the most important of places, words fail to convey the enormity of what has transpired. Lives lost, bravery before death. Commitment in the face of fear. Actions done with modest but unflinching heroism when the highest ideals were at stake. All completed by young men, most of them less than half my age.

There were two conclusions to these days, each on a slightly different note. The first, in Caen: to see, in bold press and photographic witness, the erection of a wall that divided Berlin in two, and the eventual triumph of that city when her population finally tore it down, tore it down and defaced it, let graffiti run rampant over it, sold the whole damn thing off, in pieces, to museums. What a fitting way to end a very intense and overwhelming day in Caen, to see the triumph of peace overcome the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Republic.

The second, at the end of the day at the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach: to walk amid the gravestones of the young men who gave their all for me, and for us. To walk in a place which is so ordered, so beautiful, so full of dignity – in stark contrast to the day they died, which was hell, complete and utter violence, hatred and pandemonium.

I can walk here now. Because of their sacrifice.

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Location:Omaha Beach, Normandy, France

Friday, July 20, 2012

Joan's Church

The lance and helmet of a warrior.
The beams of a ship, lending contoured grace.
The threat of a dragon, and the fire that might ensue...

One of my friends, Drew Remick, is someone knowledgeable in the discipline of sacred architecture. And I wish he could've been with us when we visited Joan of Arc's church in Rouen... For this sacred space contained many of the critical elements that contribute to a holy place of prayer. And they were done in an imaginative, yet incredibly symbolic and meaningful way.

Designing this new church was Louis Arretche, the famous Rouen architect who was at the heart of the reshaping of Saint Malo. His idea, at least in the interior of the structure, was to model the church on the shape of an upturned wooden boat.

Where had I heard about boats and sacred space before? In true serendipitous fashion, it was from the person mentioned in my last entry – Fr. Nick Ayo, the very person who set me on to the stories of Joan of Arc.

Fr. Nick talks about the origin of the word nave in his marvelous book about Notre Dame, Signs of Grace. "Nave," from the Latin "navis," that is, a vessel upon the sea. From this word we derive others in English, all having to do with navigation.

In fact, is that not what we do in a place of prayer? We navigate our way through life.

When Arretche designed the square and church for Saint Joan, he had many considerations before him... even beyond the demands that would accompany the church itself. For the old market square, where Joan was burned at the stake, was one of great historical significance, and the government also wanted the market plaza to be part of the design. So both the world of the sacred, and that of the marketplace, would have to be integrated into a single model.

And... There was the issued of stained glass windows, that were crafted during the Renaissance. They had been carefully removed from the earlier church before the onset of the Second World War. These, too, needed to be part of the new structure.

ust as daunting, this space had to be a vessel for the heinous crime that had taken place six centuries before, an action that gave France a martyr and a heroine. The plaza needed to be a noble testimony to the deeds and witness of Jeanne d'Arc.

On the interior of the church, I have already mentioned the hull of the ship that the architect wanted to convey. But the exterior was another matter, and I hope the picture that's included conveys the genius of the design. In a sweeping canopy, the roof has the appearance of the protective gear of medieval combat: helmet and soldier's mail are suggested in the slope and ridge pole (or, push your imagination a little bit... It also looks like the scales of a dragon).

And, as if to confirm what your imagination might be suggesting, here is the southeastern corner of the church:

Finally, there is one more element, that which rises over the entire complex of the square. At one and the same time, it is striking in its simplicity, functional and descriptive of the woman that is honored. Here is the cross outside the church. But look closely – for when you do, you will see that the part closest to the earth is an accurate representation of the lance of a warrior. But as it leaves the earth where it is planted, it is transformed – into the Cross of Christ.

Sometimes, the designers of our houses of prayer do everything in just the right proportion: Pragmatic considerations are addressed. The imagination has room to wander (and wonder). Catechesis informs the design and shapes the outcome. And it all comes across in a simple and straightforward manner.

It is a fitting place of prayer named after one who raised her soul heavenward, raising it like a lance.

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Location:L'Eglise de Sainte Jeanne d'Arc, Rouens, France

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Commander in Chief

If you've been following our itinerary, you know that we have been been making our way toward Normandy. And given the title of this entry, maybe you think I'm writing about the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces for D-Day, General Dwight Eisenhower. I'll save that for another day. (Soon.) Today I want to write on another extraordinary military leader, yet another person who saved France from foreign aggression.

No, not Charles de Gaulle. Go back about 600 years. I'm talking about Jeanne d'Arc, the Maid of Orléans.

About a year ago, a dear Holy Cross priest and friend, Fr. Nicholas Ayo, csc, made an interesting suggestion to me by way of something to read. It was entitled "Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc." Evidently, there was another person who was fascinated with this woman, himself being an accomplished writer. Father Ayo heartily recommended this as a great read.

The author's name? Mark Twain.

From the outset, the facts behind Joan's ascent to military leadership are nothing short of astounding. Consider the following:

She inherited a war. Not one of a few years' duration, but one that had been going on for almost a hundred years. That war, fought between France and England, had just about broken the backs of the French.

She had no military experience – including the fact that, when she assumed leadership, she did not know how to ride a horse.

She was illiterate. Which meant that in addition to not knowing how to read and write, she was also at the mercy of others in terms of written, diplomatic documents and lettered articles of military engagement.

She was a woman. In the twelfth century. Enough said.

And finally – here is one of the most striking things – when she became commander of the national armies of France, she was seventeen years old.

Seventeen years old.

In order to comprehend the magnitude of such a thing, I'd invite you, when you have a moment, to spend a few minutes with a seventeen year old. And then, using that experience as a filter, think about giving the reins of your nation's army to this youngster.

I took Fr. Ayo's advice, and read both volumes of Mark Twain's narrative, about seven hundred pages of magnificent writing. And I just fell in love with this single-minded, courageous, brilliant and faith-filled woman.

Twain had done his homework, checking on all the official court transcripts of Joan's ecclesial trial from the fifteenth century. Joan had successfully orchestrated huge military campaigns, campaigns that ultimately brought the throne securely back to France. And yet, when she was captured during an ill-advised sortie outside of Rouen, that same monarchy turned its back upon her, leaving her at the mercy of clerics from the aggressor nation.

And if her military genius wasn't enough, her own self-defense before the most cunning (and deceitful) ecclesial minds of her time was nothing short of breathtaking. Her answers to impossible, rigged questions brought her judges to stalemates, over and over again.

Bearing all these stories in mind, and now finally walking down the Rue de Gros Horlage, in Rouen, I was anxiously waiting to come across a very sacred place.

It was the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.

I sat in this square for a very long time, thinking of the young woman, what she had done, what she had risked, how incredible – how very much beyond credible – was her story. I tried to push my mind past the cheap souvenir stores and the sidewalk cafés, the old lady playing the concertina in the alleyway, the street vendors. I tried to push my mind back six hundred years, to that day in May when a brave, young woman – a woman who, simply through faith, broke the power of five generations of English aggression – was led like a common criminal to a brutal public punishment, tied to a stake and burned alive. The only thing the ecclesial court could pin on her was the wearing of men's attire – they were attempting to try her on charges of heresy, but she outflanked their arguments every time.

I sat there, and looked carefully at the ground that had once received her ashes.

Saints have always been cut from different cloth. They see the world in utterly Other and uncompromised ways. And in just about every case, they embrace their deaths clinging to the love of God and the vision they were given.

I am in awe of this woman.

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Location:Rouen, France

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Compass Points and Labyrinths

If you traverse the sidewalks of Chartres, you will find something a bit unusual, something that, at first, may seem misplaced – the sign of the clamshell, a guidepost to pilgrims of Compostela.

But Compostela is hundreds of kilometers, and another border and mountain range, to the south.

A few friends of mine have done portions of the Camino: Colin Campbell, rising senior and incoming President of the Folk Choir, and my dear friend Michele Von Ebers, colleague and permissions editor at World Library Publications. Both of them came back with amazing stories of their travels on the pilgrim way.

The reason why Chartres has the sign of the Clamshell for her peregrina is because she is seen as a major pilgrimage point for people as they head further south. The Cathedral is a compass point, a beacon for people on foot and by car, making their way across a holy countryside.

We left Taizé a couple of days ago, heading out of the rich countryside of Burgundy, and set our sights on the region the French call the Île de France. Even while driving, it was like stepping into a painting by Van Gogh: huge storms were rolling in from the English Channel, painting the sky a dark, vivid grey. But occasionally the sun, low in the sky, would pierce the clouds and turn the wheat fields in every direction into a brilliant gold color.

We were staying at a country inn just outside of Cherville, smack dab in the middle of those fields of gold. And upon arriving and dropping off our gear, we headed out, at dusk, for Chartres.

Even from twenty kilometers away, on the horizon, Chartres' cathedral began to rise up out of the fields. The sight of those huge spires, washed in sunlight and from very far away, was jaw dropping. It was as if, even in broad daylight, she could not help but be a beacon for those who were on their pilgrim way.

A few years ago, I gave a talk at an NPM convention in Indianapolis. The talk was on labyrinths – perhaps, more precisely, on what it means to be a servant of the church and walking the mystic path that a labyrinth signifies.

Chartres Cathedral has one of the oldest and most amazing of these meditative pathways, set directly in the floor, embedded in the nave of her 12th century foundations.

When I spoke at the NPM convention, the focus of the talk was the difference between a maze (those things you can get lost in) and a labyrinth (the other kind of pathway, the one where the way is already set before us).

That talk was about five years ago, and I've had a lot of footsteps in between. Yet my appreciation for the spiritual tool called the labyrinth is all the more profound now that I have given that talk.

And the point is this: as our road unfolds, it is the rare moment when we are utterly lost – so lost that it appears we are caught in a maze. Most often, in life, we put our feet one ahead of the other – the way we do in a labyrinth. And on that path, there is really only one way: the way God intends for each of us.

Chartres does two things: its physical greatness provides a compass point across the plains, showing her pilgrims how to avoid getting lost. But once inside this magnificent place of prayer, her floor opens up to the true spiritual journey: the quiet, interior one, that traces its footsteps, deliberate and true, according to the design of our Maker. All we need do is walk.

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Location:Chartres Cathedral, France

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

When Little Children Lead

It takes a lot of prophetic witness, at times, to actually do what is proscribed in the Bible. Think about it: when was the last time you picked up a stranger who'd been mugged on the side of the road and paid for his hospital expenses?

So that is, perhaps, an extreme example. But my point is made.

And so, it was with tremendous fascination – and joy – that I watched how Taizé does their liturgies. Specifically, with how they treat their children in the liturgical environment.

First, allow me to define my terms. By children, I do not mean the teenagers who flock here by the thousands every week. I mean the very young, those who are four to eight years old, and who accompany their parents to Taizé for a pilgrimage.

You would think that there would be no place for the very young here. And you would be wrong.

Each week, a new set of young adults arrive at Taizé. Most of them come by the bus load, accompanied by chaperones. But there are a growing number of families that come as well, and they come with vans crammed with tents, camping chairs, outdoor equipment – and little kids.

At the beginning of the week, some of these very young are placed in a position of liturgical honor in Taizé's Chapel of Reconciliation: at the very end of the long column of monks, where the abbot is seated, a representative group of the little children is also seated. These children are not just ornamental: they actually lead the abbot and the monks out of the worship space during the dismissal at the closing of every prayer service. During the Veneration of the Cross, they are the ones that spread the light to the assembly with lit tapers. And during the distribution of Communion, they again lead the monks to the places where the Body and Blood of the Savior will be shared.

It takes a lot of energy to be committed to such a model. Asking children to do ceremonial things in front of thousands of people is not necessarily the easiest thing to accomplish. But I'll tell you this – the sight of an abbot being led through an assembly of thousands, led by the hands of little children who escorted him and his community through the church – this is a sight I will not soon forget.

The Book of Isaiah speaks words of hope, and when doing so, says that "a little child shall lead them". At Taizé, those words have taken on flesh and bone, in tiny hands and earnest, joyful faces. In the midst of recent scandals in the Church, it was prophetic to see such a bold and hope-filled gesture take place within the liturgical assembly. Taizé simply took the words at their face value, and made them come to life.

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Location:Taize, Bourgogne, France

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sailing, on Dry Land, at Taizé

Jesus said to Nicodemus...

"The wind blows where it pleases; you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going...."

One of my fellow musicians in the Folk Choir, Catherine Hackbarth, is an avid sailor. And I'm pretty sure she has a lot to say about the wind: how to anticipate it, how to work with it, how to respect it. When you are sailing, you are at the mercy of the wind, and subject to her dispositions.

I am not a sailor, but lately, I've been thinking a lot about the wind. Where the wind is blowing. And especially how the ecclesial winds have been blowing around this place called Taizé.

When you're on a sailing vessel, everything must change, and pretty constantly: the sails must be trimmed, or unfurled. The rudder is in constant play. The ship will need to tack, moving back and forth to take advantage of the changing flow of the air currents.

Taizé, despite being hours from the ocean, is like a craft upon the sea: it is a dynamic example of change and adaptability. For instance, during the summer months, the number of people here per week swells from several hundred to several thousand. Who cleans the facilities? Who cooks the meals? Who are the musicians? What will the catechetical sessions look like? All of these things are in constant flux through the course of the seasons.

But more than this – Taizé is also a study in the changing currents in the church. There are more than sixty men in their community, and these men are from every corner of the world. Though Christian-based, they are one of the loudest proponents for ecumenical dialog. Their repertoire has become part of the faith expression of most Christian communities over the past two generations. They are sought out as a place for spiritual refreshment, regardless of language and sometimes, regardless of creed. They have a substantial outreach to the poor. And lately, they've begun to figure out how to take their expression on the road – this past May, a number of the brethren brought the Taizé experience to Chicago; in December, they will do the same in Rome.

I think, if I were deep in conversation with Jesus about all of this – shooting the breeze, if you will – I think he'd have a few things to say about which way the wind is blowing: the wind, that is, of the Holy Spirit.

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Location:Taizé, Bourgogne, France

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Babel, Deconstructed

We are standing in the food line, next to Tent F, the tent for the adults who are on pilgrimage at Taizé. It is like a UN translator's nightmare: on all sides, we are surrounded by Germans, Poles, Dutch, Portuguese, Italians, Koreans, Chinese, Ukrainians – oh, and let's not forget French speakers as well. All of us, rolled up into one big hungry family, waiting for our lunch of carrots and lentils, with a side dish of applesauce.

Earlier in the day, all of us had been in Bible study, exploring the Suffering Servant texts of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It was slow going... Our catechist, a Brother from Taizé, would first read a passage in English and give an explanation, which would then be followed by the German translator. And immediately after this, you could hear the buzzing all around the tent, as this teaching was interpreted in all the various languages that had gathered for the week. In short, the whole thing was this mesmerizing dance of communication, of finding commonality across huge distances of language, culture, idiosyncrasies and euphemisms.

And yet it all worked.

There are a lot of things that work here, in spite of what you might think are impossible circumstances. For instance, music works here. Music works here so well that their repertoire has been emulated the world over. And who knew?

Who knew that Latin, that dead language, would be the bridge that united such a faith expression in modern Europe?

Who knew that people could routinely gather together, hour after hour, week after week, with absolutely nothing in common, and achieve a sense of orderly, beautiful, compelling musical prayer (in four part harmony, nonetheless) – morning, noon and night?

Who knew that, with such a massive obstacle as simple speech, hundreds of people could work together daily to feed, house, welcome, direct and teach thousands of young people around the world?

What it is, quite simply, is a daily reenactment of the miracle of Pentecost, that fabulous post-Resurrection moment when everyone, standing in the square, could understand the message of Peter. "Who knew!" they said. "how does it happen that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites... Jews and Arabs..."

Who knew? We are Americans, Brits, Belgians, Irish, Ukranians, Germans, French, Italians, Portuguese, Romanians, Danes, Finns (there was a huge contingent here this week from Finland). Who knew? Who knew we could sing together, work together, learn together? Who knew that the evil legacy of the Tower of Babel could be dismantled, deconstructed, and that the families of humanity might once again be joined in common purpose?

It was as if it were Pentecost, all over again.

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Location:Taizé, France