Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Mystery of Faith, Unleashed in Song

I don't get a chance to see my friend, David Haas, all that often.  Sometimes it's at a National Pastoral Musicians' convention, and I'm running in one direction, and he's running in another.  Sometimes it's at the North American Composer Forum in St. Louis – but there too, we're working on new compositions or are committed to a schedule, and rarely have time to kick back.

But one thing David shared with me, years ago, has left an imprint on my heart.  "The sound of the assembly, singing in full voice," he said, "is the most beautiful sound in the world."

I agree with that statement.  And I'll go David one better: there is the "sound of the assembly," and then there are other versions, or strengths, of assembly sounds.  What I mean is this:  over the past few weeks, I've experienced an intentionality, a dedication, an all-or-nothing seriousness on the part of an assembled group of people.  This sound goes beyond mere acoustics, mere singing.  It is the acoustical embodiment of faith, an audible explosion of commitment.

I've been spoiled with Notre Dame congregations over the years.  Most of them come to the 11:45AM Sunday liturgy ready to sing, and they make themselves known pretty quickly – a wonderful thing to hear and behold.

But then there are the Holy Week, Easter, and Ordination assemblies.  From my own vantage point – especially right now while we're down on the floor of the Basilica – these communal sounds of faith-filled song have been nothing short of spine-tingling.  Even when I'm standing in front of the 60+ men and women of the Folk Choir, the sheer volume of the assemblies defies attempts that might be verbalized.  I hear vestiges of it when we get to the end of pieces – a volley of the "Amen" at the end of the Glory to God; the Alleluia that seemed to shoot skyward like an acoustic arrow; even the Lord's Prayer, with its quieter assertions.  There is a robustness, something coming from the marrow of everyone's lived faith life, that does, indeed, make this the most beautiful sound in the world.

And make no mistake about it: this act of singing comes from nowhere naive.  If the prayers of the Folk Choir, quietly spoken in darkness at the end of Thursday nights are any indication, there are scores of sorrows and anxieties occupying the human heart: cancers and divorces, unemployment and heartbreak, discernment and letting go.  Easter singing embraces every bit of the pain.  But it ratifies the fact that pain will not win the day.

Some of these liturgies, gratefully, are now back on iTunesU.  You can go to to listen at your leisure.  For as much as a small screen and speakers can capture what happens when hundreds and hundreds of people are singing about the deepest truths of human existence, this is a rather profound glimpse of life and liturgy, what I hope is a foretaste of a far greater assembly yet to come.

Friday, April 1, 2016

A Most Indefensible Position

Anyone who thinks the Notre Dame Folk Choir is out of the woods come Easter Monday doesn't know our schedule – because as of tomorrow, we will celebrate one of the longest and most demanding liturgies of the year.

But it is also the most inspiring: the Ordination Liturgy for the Priests of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

Overwhelming moments abound at this liturgy: the long, plaintive measures of Ennio Morricone's Gabriel's Oboe and Jacques Berthier's Veni, Sancte Spiritus (sung in five languages) as the cohort of presbyters lay their hands upon the newly ordained; the spine-tingling sounds of hundreds of people and priests singing Easter hymns at the top of their lungs; the joyful (and often humorous) introductions of those to be ordained by those who have worked with these young men, side by side; the faces of the parents as they watch their sons answer "Present!" when their names are called.  This year, the Choir will enjoy a vantage point they've never had before, because with our being in "diaspora" down on the floor, we'll be closer to the sanctuary than ever before.

In the midst of all these moments, there is one action that stands out more than any other – and it has nothing to do with standing.  It has to do with the most indefensible position a human being can take: that of lying, face down, arms outstretched.

Tomorrow, two of my friends will adopt this position from the place where this picture was taken today.  While they are lying face down, they will hear an ancient roll call of men and women who have walked and labored and lived and died before them – people who have done exactly as they are doing, prostrate before those whom they will serve, having placed everything they hold sacred into the arms of the Source of Everything Sacred.

The most indefensible position a person can take.  Helpless before the Word and the People, and yet living in the Power of humility that only the Creator can bestow.  Leaving everything behind... and being given the opportunity to embrace Love in the most miraculous of ways.

I never cease looking at this scene with breathless wonder.  There are people in this world who still have the courage to walk this most compelling road not taken.  It is not for everyone.  But it serves all.