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.