Friday, June 19, 2015

Letting Loose in Sydney

Once the choir got over the crazy, surrealistic feeling of actually being in this beautiful harbor city, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work:  we had a dynamic parish in North Sydney that graciously hosted us for five days; we were shuttling back and forth from the nearby suburban diocese of Parramatta; we were there for the Solemnity of Trinity Sunday (which meant a whole new repertoire, a cathedral vigil mass, and two Sunday liturgies).  There was a whole lot of music going on.

Throughout this period of intense labor, I was transfixed, in awe, of the energy brought by our students to the parishes and workshops of Australia.  Here were a bunch of young people who had traveled across fourteen time zones.  They were moving in and out of various roles: as tourists and ambassadors and singers and clinicians, going home to host families every night (along with the requisite social demands there as well).  But all I saw was poise, spot-on singing and playing, and good will.

Once again, our students led the charge in the midst of a huge diocesan gathering – this one for secondary students.  The young men and women arrived, and they were tight-lipped: no sense of faith sharing, no singing along, only a tremendous sense of peer pressure – pressure to keep a lid on anything having to do with spirituality.

When we constructed our diocesan days, we knew full well that the best tonic for these younger students were the college students in the Folk Choir.  Aussie kids would be interested in the American accents, and most of all, high school kids worship their collegiate counterparts.  So we let our singers and musicians loose, let them lead, let them teach, let them exude the joy and enthusiasm which is so uniquely that which they bring to their expression of Church.

Both in Melbourne and now, again in Sydney, we let our student ambassadors and singers do what they do best – unleash the power of their song, give permission to be spiritual, encourage the voices and hearts of those around them.  One after another – Melbourne, Ballarat, and now Sydney, North Sydney, and Parramatta – each one now has the stamp of the Folk Choir left upon it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Something Like Moses Here

We were now deep into our trip to Australia with the Choir – Melbourne, Ballarat, and Canberra were behind us, the first one-third of our trip now in a place called "memories."  And as we had anticipated, our bus drove further and further north.  After many hours, the lush farmlands began to yield to urban development, and we knew we were fast approaching our next great city on the eastern coast of Australia: Sydney.

I usually sit in the front of the bus (don't ask, it's just better for me).  So I posed a question to our bus driver, as to whether we'd be heading in via the Sydney Harbor Bridge.  He just smiled a bit and said it would depend on the traffic.  I wondered where the smile came from.

Then, as we closer and closer, it became evident that we WERE going to take the bridge; now it was also my turn to keep my lips sealed.  We rounded a corner, and there it was, perched on Bennelong Point:  the Opera House!

The entire Choir spotted it at the same time, and an electrifying shout and cheer went up through the entire bus.  Now I understood the driver's smile – and I can't blame him for wanting to keep it a bit of a secret and savor the excitement of a group of Americans seeing this iconic building for the first time.

I took some time to prepare for the next day's tour of the Opera House, which had so generously been arranged by our ACU hosts.  I read up on the master architect for the Opera House, Jørn Utzon.  I pondered over the tragedy of his project getting caught up in the politics of a changing government in 1965 – which eventually led to Utzon's resignation from the project.

The sad truth:  he never got to see his work completed.  Even at the beginning of the 21st century, when he was awarded one of the highest architectural prizes in the field, he did not return to Sydney.  Like Moses, he went to the grave not tasting or seeing with his own eyes the very thing his life had led him to do.

I am drawn, now and again, back to the words of a guitarist from the 70's (what else?) Don McLean:
But I could've told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.

It is always a sad commentary when we see the great personal sacrifice made by those who are the artists around us. Whether their medium is visual, musical, or even oratorial, philosophical, or architectural – even political.  If their vision is too beautiful for us ... we end up rejecting them.

The result, at least for Sydney Harbor (and all Australia, really), is that one man came up with an idea that created, instead of just a building, a veritable icon for their country.  Sure, the thing took years longer to build.  Yes, it was slated for $7 million and ended up costing $102 (but the Aussie lottery took care of that).  In the end, an architect from Denmark, an artist and a visionary, was the one to give the Land Down Under its signature building.

So here's to the visionaries among us!  For the fifty members of the Notre Dame Folk Choir, casting eyes on Sydney's Opera House for the first time became a "bucket list" moment.  But these kind of moments, more often than not – whether they be Lincoln Memorials or Starry Nights or Opera Houses – are created by those who are Moses, in our midst.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Blending In, Like Whoopi

Few people knew Fr. Chrysogonus Waddell, monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, like I did.  While he still walked this earth, we talked to one another frequently, working our way through the many liturgical pitfalls and personalities of any given season.  I always looked forward to our calls – and delighted in them, in the midst of all his serious scholarship.

One of the things he liked to talk about – a lot – was movies.  I remember him being enthralled with the movie "Sister Act" when it came out (how he got to watch all this stuff I'll never know).

When given the opportunity, Chrysogonus could do a wicked Maggie Smith imitation, his normal speaking voice settling in somewhere between Yoda and John Cleese.  He preached a homily to the Folk Choir on one of our visits; perched in his 6'4" frame in front of the ensemble, he threw out the great admonition a la Mother Superior (Maggie Smith) as they were about to wreak havoc on a Vegas casino:  "ALL RIGHT,  SISTERS!  BLEND IN!"

Chrysogonus' point in this homily was actually pretty profound:  it is the duty and joy of a believer to both blend in – and yet be conspicuous at the same time.  Having a bunch of nuns running around a gambling hall in Sin City pretty much proved the point.

Here's a spoiler:  we're back from Australia now.  I'm writing these posts back in the Bend, and I've got plenty of material to work with from our pilgrimage.  But the sad fact is that I was just overwhelmed between traveling, hosts, and liturgical responsibilities to keep up with the blog.  But maybe that's a good thing, because I can be a bit more thoughtful now that we're not keeping dogged hours on a bus.

My last blog was written in Canberra, capital city for the Australian nation.  But here's just one more musing from that city:  the night we sang at St. Christopher's Cathedral in that beautiful metropolis, we did exactly what the old Trappist monk would've wanted us to do – blend in.

Sometimes, it's best when a choir doesn't act like a choir.  In other words, instead of a great expanse of space separating the singers from the congregation (from the gallery, for instance, or parked up in the apse), at times the better solution is to blend into the assembly.  We did this at all of our vesper stops – Canberra/St. Christopher's Cathedral included – electing to put ourselves in the midst of those who had gathered to hear us.

But there were other times when conspicuous witness was simply what needed to be done. Especially at airports.  But I'll talk about that soon.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The ACT, and a Song

Midweek, we found ourselves in the national capital city of Canberra, in the Australian Capital District (ACT).  It’s not exactly halfway between Melbourne and Sydney, but it did serve to break up the incredible distance between the two cities.  

Canberra came about as a result of a compromise: at the dawn of the twentieth century, two cities existed that could rightly claim fame to being the seat of the government.  Both had unique stores of wealth. Melbourne, which benefitted from being close by the gold rush that took place in Ballarat, and Sydney, with its incredible harbor, shipping and commerce possibilities.  And Australia was ready for the next phase in her trajectory of growth.

So it was decided to pick a point between the two goliaths, and Canberra was the choice.

It bears striking similarities to our own national capitol of Washington, DC:  a long promenade sweeping up to a war memorial; a planned city, built around the concept of creating a seat of government; a body of water close by.  Whereas DC has the Potomac River, Canberra created a man-made lake, Lake Burley Griffin.  But that lake still has the idyllic effect on this place of civic endeavor.

By far, the most significant part of our day was a visit to Australia’s War Memorial.  Beautifully laid out, interactive, historically compelling, it chronicled the sacrifices of the young nation, initially in the Great War and the horrors of Gallipoli, and then, a generation later, in the Second World War.  

I’ve been to a lot of museums and memorials in America – but I can say that this tribute ranks among the finest ever visited.  I could’ve spent two days there.  

And it’s interesting how just one piece of music can capture the imagination of the terror, slaughter, and sadness of war.  I was standing at the end of the WWI exhibit, have traveled through time to witness the world coming to grips with just how effectively they could destroy each other.  In the final room, there was a very short video presentation: a montage of young men heading out to battle, sitting in a transport vehicle.  They were bright eyed, full of vigor, confident, jovial.  Then a soundtrack came on – a lone folk singer, beautifully intoning the lyrics to “Waltzing Matilda.”  

It was as if you could capture the history of the nation in those sixteen bars of music: knowing that most of those faces would never return to their homeland, fearing what they would see when they encountered the hell that is war.  It was the song that contained the truth and tragedy of their journey.

Tonight, we sing at Saint Christopher’s Cathedral in Canberra, hosted by their archbishop.  It will also be a chance to visit yet another of ACU’s campuses, to visit with their Campus Ministry staff, and to share some of our repertoire.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Monday, May 25th – a week ago we were getting up at 5:00AM and headed for Midway Airport.  Now, we're on the other side of the planet, and preparing for a nine-hour trip from the Euro-centric city of Melbourne to the ACT (not a test score; rather, it means Australian Capital Territory) city of Canberra, the government seat of Parliament and the Capital of the nation of Australia.

What does one do to keep the natives happy on a bus ride of such length?

I'll tell you:  critters are the key.

And in Australia, there are lots of critters.

Lots and lots of them.

Take koalas, for instance.  They are NOT bears, something that the Aussies are quick to bring to the attention of our Yankee mentalities.

Back in January (which seems like a decade ago), Fr. Anthony Casamento brought over a boatload of these little creatures for our choir; many were adopted as personal pets and have found their way back to their homeland once more (see the picture above!).

And then there is Adelaide.

When we first arrived in Melbourne, our ACU colleagues presented us with an official "mascot" for the tour.  Our job was to name her (and her joey – the mascot is a kangaroo), and make sure she was cared for well and prominently displayed wherever and whenever we sang.

The consensus was to name the critter Adelaide, in honor of a lovely sounding city that we WON'T be visiting on this trip.  The joey is named Cookie Junior.  Don't ask me why.

At first, caring for Adelaide was reckoned a punishment for being late for the bus.  But what quickly became evident: the choir considered caring for our little stuffed thing a privilege... daily, she has been handed over to a member of the ensemble for exemplary behavior whilst moving through our tasks Down Under.

It takes a lot of stamina, patience, gentility, and love to wind our way through a demanding tour.  People are tired, pulled between the demanding roles of tourist, singer, instrumentalist, ambassador, boarder in a family home.  But thank God for the wisdom of our Aussie hosts, who put Adelaide and her young one in our midst!  All God's creatures, large and small – and stuffed – are helping us along our way.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Melbourne on the Lord's Day

Sunday in Melbourne saw us hopscotching the city, experiencing a vibrant inner-city parish, Victoria Market Place in the afternoon, and then heading out to the suburbs for our last event with our host parish, St. Dominic's.

If you walked along Lonsdale Street in downtown Melbourne and weren't paying attention, it would be easy to pass by the parish we sang at on Sunday morning, Saint Francis.  And that would be a pity for anyone, because it was clear, from the moment we crossed the threshold, that this parish was a beehive of activity: we arrived at 9AM (twenty minutes to completely prepare for the liturgy!), and following the 9:30 at which we were singing, another mass was soon to take place with a chamber orchestra, doing a Mozart setting of the Mass.  All of this commotion was presided over with great joviality by Tony Way, the director of sacred music for the parish.

We also had an unexpected, delightful collaboration: our presider for the liturgy was the renowned composer (and great friend) Rev. Christopher Willcock.  We've used his music for years at Notre Dame, and it was a joy to have him celebrate the Pentecost Sunday mass with us!

We brought along much of our repertoire to this mass:  our setting of Psalm 104 (thanks, Jerry Galipeau and Gael Berberick and other composer friends, for sharing your words about using this setting!); Chrysogonus' beautiful setting of the Pentecost Sequence, Make Of Our Hands A Throne, and our concertato setting of I Received the Living God.

Then, after Mass – it was off to Victoria Market, an open air, celebratory fusion of coffee shops, souvenir stores, Latino flamenco street buskers (so great!), and more places to buy boomerangs than you could count.  The weather was beautiful – cool, pleasant, the kind of thing we all call "Indian Summer," except we're heading into June....

Then it was off to our home parish, out in the suburbs: St. Dominic's Parish, which also serves as the Dominican Friary and House of Studies for their community in the Melbourne area.  We set up shop in the parish meeting hall, and transformed the place into a workshop for sacred music, meeting with deanery musicians.  It was a great opportunity to delve deeply into our repertoire, encouraging song, talking about all the resources we brought with us.  Song after song was shared, and new relationships created through the sharing of our repertoire.

Then – our final liturgy with our hosts!  It was an jubilant celebration of Pentecost Sunday, replete with an active, energetic youth group.  The church was a phenomenal place to sing... acoustics beautiful, and following the liturgy we gave a concert for all our host families and their friends.  It will be hard to say good bye to all of these wonderful families, who were so generous in the opening of their homes to us for five full days.

So here's a view of Melbourne's skyline... and I can gratefully say that we explored a good bit of this beautiful city, even in the midst of our many labors!  To the far left, you can see the spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral (where we sang Pentecost Vigil Mass).  This shot was taken from the rooftop of the Australian Catholic University downtown campus, on the seventh floor.  We'll miss these great colleagues from the ACU campus!  

Monday, May 25, 2015

Saturdays: NOT a Day Off

I’m not sure what other choral tours or pilgrimages look like, but for the Notre Dame Folk Choir, weekends are definitely not the stuff of sleeping in late or sipping lattes in a cafe (though we are finding that Melbourne is an amazing city for coffee!).  

No, for us the weekends are full throttle, as witnessed by our schedule:  a five-hour diocesan day workshop, beginning with Morning Prayer, three different sets of seminars on liturgical music, lunch and a concert, followed by the Vigil Mass for the Feast of Pentecost.  The former event, the diocesan liturgy day, was held at ACU’s campus headquarters in downtown Melbourne; the latter, a wonderful evening mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a short walk away through the busy city streets.

The liturgical scene in this southeastern part of the country is very, very different from the United States.  On the one hand, the vast majority of immigrants to the nation aren’t from Latin America.  They are from Asian countries: China, Japan, the Philippines.  Filipinos, especially, have a vibrant Catholic culture.  But Spanish is almost nowhere to be seen.  

Musically, about the only thing I have seen in pews is an antiquated hymnal called “Gather Australia,” a collection that’s about twenty years old – which means that all the settings for the mass are out of date.  And – a lot of good music has been written in the past generation as well!

So there was no small sense of excitement as we brought our repertoire to this group of church musicians, some of which had traveled from as far away as Tasmania to attend this workshop day.  The repertoire of the Folk Choir was received with great enthusiasm – everything from our standards, like “Set Your Heart” and “The Lord’s Prayer,” to newer compositions from our latest album (“Take From My Heart” and “Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life.”)

And after all of that –  we celebrated Vigil Mass at Melbourne’s cavernous St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  

What a great opportunity, to wed our repertoire to that of Christopher Walker, Bernard Kirkpatrick and Chrysogonus Waddell!  It was a momentous, energetic, rewarding day’s work.  By the time we were finished, we had brought our repertoire to a large swath of Melbourne’s parishes, just by holding a day-long workshop at a central Catholic campus.

And tomorrow, Sunday, will be just as filled with gatherings!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Something Like A Miracle

Sometimes, you can plan events like nobody's business: workshops and breakouts and prayer services.  And that is all well and good.  But sometimes other things happen in the midst of all this planning – it is what one hopes for, really – when all that planning breaks onto a completely different plane, creating a completely different kind of encounter.

Such was what happened on our first big day of work in Melbourne.  We were working at an amazing campus – the Archdiocesan Catholic Leadership Centre.  This facility, which used to be a parish, was completely transformed into classrooms, prayer rooms, auditoriums, a stunning chapel – even retreat facilities.  And for the greater part of the day, the Folk Choir was to work with about 150 Catholic secondary students from around the city.  Their task, in essence, was simply to give these students permission to be spiritual.

The day was scripted such that we would begin with a concert.  The choir stood all around the periphery of the auditorium, surrounding the students... we began with a new piece, written by John Kyler, c.s.c., and Karen Kirner:  "Take From My Heart."  The harmonies surrounded the high school students, enveloped them.  And the choir trickled in, one by one, gathering into a huge semicircle in front of them.

The song concluded – and then there was polite applause by the kids.  Polite – the kind of applause that said "this is nice, I get out of school, they're not too boring, but I'm not going to show my hand here."

The next piece was "Alleluia, Sing Now With Gladness."  For those that know how we do it, there is a point where, after the doxological verse, the song erupts into hand claps.  And it did this day – and much to the surprise of everyone there, the effect of that moment was something like throwing a match on a stack of hay – the whole place erupted, a spirit seized the room, the looks on the faces of the students were utterly transformed.  They were wide-eyed, receptive, eager, open.  It was something like a miracle.

Song after song, the secondary students wrapped themselves around the enthusiasm of the choir and their repertoire.  At lunch, every Folk Choir member found a table and sat with the kids... I was in the next room with the adult religious education teachers.  All of a sudden, we all heard the refectory burst out in song.

We taught them the Mass for Our Lady, from start to finish.  And by the end of the afternoon, they not only sang it – they owned it.  These young students took hold of the liturgy and threw themselves into it.  The atmosphere was fire-filled, tangibly electric... energy dancing everywhere.

In all my years of working with this amazing ensemble, I've never encountered anything quite like this.  A miracle took place before us: a vanquishing of peer pressure, encouraged by a group of four dozen college students.  And it was not lost on this Director that the event took place as we headed into Pentecost weekend.

Friday, May 22, 2015


On our first full day of liturgical work, the choir headed inland from Melbourne, about two hours' drive, to the diocesan seat of Ballarat.  It's a quaint city, built up in the 1850's from a gold rush much like the one that took place in our own state of California.

And it's also heavily influenced by Irish immigrants – the Cathedral is named (surprise) after Saint Patrick.

Sovereign Hill was our first stop:  a recreation of the mining and gold rush days of the nineteen century.  The choir had a chance to take a stagecoach ride, pan for gold, avoid fist fights with the character actors, and warm themselves by the fire pits that dotted the dirt streets of the town.  We are constantly reminded by the temperature that Australia is heading into winter!  The temperature upon arrival was in the 40's.

Australian Catholic University has a campus here, too, and so visiting this small outpost of our sponsoring institution was also a goal.  It's a small campus – still without even a chapel, though that will change in the next year.

Finally, after lunch (lamb sandwiches!), we headed to St. Patrick's for an afternoon of liturgical workshops, repertoire sharing, and a chance to work with area musicians and religious education coordinators.  It was a tough day to visit this cathedral city – a royal commission was investigating scandals from years past, under a former episcopal leader, and the press were out in droves (in fact, the cathedral was closed for a short time because the press were conducting interviews).

At the end of the day, we celebrated Vespers with the local bishop, Most Rev. Paul Bird (and himself a Notre Dame grad!).  A lovely, prayerful, gentleman, and someone who enjoyed our students' presence.  The cathedral was filled with great song that evening, even in the midst of the clamor surrounding the day – and that was a comfort to many.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Choir Has Landed!

At 10:48AM Eastern Australian Daylight Time, the Notre Dame Folk Choir arrived in Melbourne!  It took a total of about thirty-eight hours of bus, airport, flying, and holdover times to make it happen, but a momentous cheer went up from everyone when Air New Zealand flight #123 landed on a windy and cool day.

There to meet us were the amazing trio of people who’ve been with our plans from the start:  Dr. Clare Johnson, Professor of Liturgy at ACU and the newly appointed Director of Australia’s National Liturgy Centre; Carmel Taffa, Administrative assistant to the Vice President for Mission and Engagement, and Father Anthony Casamento, the VP for Mission and Engagement for Australian Catholic University.  What was tangible to all:  the joy and anticipation of sixteen months of teleconferences, discussions on workshops and itinerary suggestions.

Before our "forced march" for the day: ACU gifted each one of our ensemble with a new backpack, a hoodie sweatshirt, a diary, a baseball cap, a water bottle – all the essentials a student pilgrim could ask for while traipsing around a foreign country!

Then it was off to Melbourne, for an important “forced march” day of staying awake – critical to changing our clocks!

Melbourne is a delightful city: priorities correct, they are great lovers of coffee, people watching, beautiful parks, urban art.  Australian Catholic University has its southernmost campus in this city, which has a wonderful European feel about it.  

Then it was off to Melbourne for hours of walking, people watching, touring – mostly hours of just staying awake, as this will be critical to our jumping into a full day of liturgical work tomorrow.  

Australia awaits!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Six Hours on Our Hands

So, what do college students do when airline schedules force them to get up at the crack of dawn, scramble on to a bus, fly to one of the busiest and largest airports in the world… and then WAIT?

They do yoga.

And they find the closest In and Out Burger joint (a mere half mile away, more than reasonable by safari standards), they post pictures to all their friends, they take in the cultures and languages that are part of the daily fabric of the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX.

I write this now from Auckland – hours and hours of quiet flying over the long expanse of the Pacific Ocean.  After traveling around the cabin toward the end of the flight, it appears that just about everyone got a good chunk of sleep.

I'm really impressed with the stamina of our students!  They were upbeat and energetic as we landed in Auckland – maybe getting even more sleep than they did at Notre Dame (and that's saying a lot).

Just for the fun of it, here's a map of what happens as we make our way toward Melbourne in about 90 minutes....

Monday, May 18, 2015

And so it begins...

Even though the Seniors (aka alumni) got precious little – if any – overnight sleep (sleep? you can do that on a PLANE!), the University of Notre Dame Folk Choir started assembling at 6:15AM this morning outside of the Coleman Morse Center.  A very long day awaits us: four hours to LAX;  fourteen hours and some change to Auckland, New Zealand, later tonight;  then a few more to Melbourne, Australia – the southernmost point on our pilgrimage to Oz.

Even with a little internet research, estimates are that this journey will cover about 41,000 aeronautical miles – the equivalent of one and two-thirds laps around the planet.  This doesn’t include destinations back to our home towns from Los Angeles on the way back.  Nor does it take into account the bus transportation:  Melbourne to Sydney itself amounts to 550  highway miles.

But all distances aside:  why do we do this?  

We do this to touch hearts and souls, to spread holy song: to sing about the relentless Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost across the city of Melbourne.  To sing about the ineffable mystery of the Trinity in Sydney and North Sydney a week later.  We do this to encounter hundreds upon hundreds of high school students, using peer ministers to encourage, to give permission – that most essential of dignities – to give permission to all whom we encounter to find the freedom, the liberation, of being able to embrace holiness in the name of the living God.  

And we do this to forge relationships with musicians like us, people who still have hope in the message of the gospel, people who are looking for ways to illustrate the hope through song.

We arise today.  And though we travel not to Ireland (that takes place next year), the words of that most excellent blessing – the Deer’s Cry, the Lorica of St. Patrick – I inscribe these phrases now, as a prayer for the near-fifty of us making this pilgrimage:

I arise today 
through the strength of heaven.
Light of sun, radiance of moon, splendor of fire, speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind, depth of the sea, stability of earth, firmness of rock.

I arise today 
through God’s strength to pilot me.
God’s eye to look before me, God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me:
From all who will wish me ill, a-far and a-near,
Alone and in a multitude.
Against every cruel merciless power
That may oppose my body and soul.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I rise, Christ to shield me,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me.

I arise today.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Profound Blessing

Johnny Cash, I have heard, sang a concert at Folsom Prison.  He went there once, in 1968.  And, of course, he won a Grammy award for the song that bears the name of this strange destination.

Cash was an uncommon artist, and it is no small indication of the uniqueness of his talent that saw him actually recording a concert at a maximum security prison.

The Notre Dame Folk Choir has a lot in common with Johnny Cash.  Not that its director wears black (never; he prefers, I am told, a vest).  But we visit a prison, just like the Man in Black did.  And we've been doing so for some twenty years or so, not just once.

So it was that, two weeks ago, our ensemble went through four security checkpoints on Mother's Day, and eventually wound up deep within the confines of Indiana State Prison, ISP, Michigan City, for what has become an annual tradition.

It was, as always, a powerful, amazing day.  A day that really was an embodiment, a tangible touching of the face of Jesus, in being in the midst of and singing for the imprisoned.  Stories were told, hopes of release were shared, "God bless you!" was shouted to the ensemble, time and time again.

It takes an hour to get into this place – even with the able assistance of Frs. Dave Link and Tom McNally, c.s.c.  And after that, an hour to share song, talk with the men, remind them of their humanity, offer them some hope.  And then, just as quickly, it was time for us, to bid good-bye.  I have no pictures to share in this post – they're not allowed.  But you can imagine, with me, the searing intensity of such a pilgrimage.

As we were getting ready to exit the beat-up, bedraggled auditorium that had become our concert hall, one of my astute student officers whispered over to me.  "Steve," he said, "ask them for a blessing."  It was the perfect request.

And so I did –  I asked a blessing from the prisoners.

When I did this, hundreds of men stood up and raised their hands in an arc of protection over these young singers: their rough, tattooed, calloused hands, hovering in a gesture of gentility.  One of the men stepped forward, and prayed for our successful travels as we head to Australia (a trip we will embark upon this very week).  There were resounding, gruff, tearful "Amens!" to each of the invocations by the young, imprisoned man who led the benediction.  I don't remember a blessing ever feeling so powerful.

And tomorrow, we begin the first day of a forty-one thousand mile pilgrimage Down Under.  We will be all the more ready for this, because of what happened in a dilapidated assembly hall behind razor-wire and security towers: this most profound blessing, a blessing for our pilgrimage from men who helped us see the face of our Redeemer in their midst.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Into Great Silence

If you travel six hours straight south from the University of Notre Dame, you come into what is known as the Knob Country of Kentucky.  For quiet a few years, the Folk Choir has made an extraordinary trip into this neck of the woods, to continue a kinship that actually stretches back far into the past (well beyond the years of this group of singers).  It is a past that weds our University with another community, one that came into being at almost the same time as that of Notre Dame.

It was in the 1840's, and a lot of Catholic France was trying to figure out how to either adapt to or escape the fury of the French Revolution.  Two religious communities, the Cistercians (Trappists) and the Congregation of Holy Cross, decided that one of the ways to do this was to send a delegation of their men across the Atlantic, into the wilderness of a new country called the United States of America.  By that time, we were scarcely three generations old, and the frontier was everywhere.

Into that western frontier came the Holy Cross community, his band led by Fr. Edward Sorin, and the first Trappists, led by an equally audacious Frenchman, Dom Eutropius.  And early on, one of Notre Dame's famous first priests, Fr. Stephen Badin, had communication with this nascent community on the western edges of the American frontier.

Now, a hundred and seventy years later, Notre Dame's community visits the Trappists again.  We have done so every two years, for almost a generation.  And we do so for a very specific purpose.

It's getting harder and harder, with the passing of years, to actually find quiet.  Just like it's getting harder and harder to observe the stars in the expanse of the sky.  Our lights, our techie inventions, all these things block out the darkness, and block out silence, too.

The problem is – wonder is to be found in both.

So we travel to Gethsemani this weekend, in part, to rediscover the wonder of silence.

It is a movement into Great Silence, found in the low, rolling hills of Kentucky  (And to those who have never seen the movie about the Carthusians by the same name, it is a beautiful testament to both their life and to what the smallest of sounds can mean).

Perhaps it is a conundrum, but we travel to this quiet monastery to find out how to be better musicians, how to approach silence and sound in more profound ways.  Every time we make pilgrimage to this place, we come back, out of the silence, with a much deeper appreciation for the craft of music making.

And maybe – if we're lucky – we might just experience a little wonder at the stars in the heavens as well.