Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Titanic Night in Belfast

Never doubt the networking power of the Internet – or its ability to change around an itinerary!

About a year ago, I got a random email from a church musician in Holy Family Parish, North Belfast.  He had subscribed to the Folk Choir’s You Tube channel, and had been absorbed in many of the posts we had put up over the past year, mostly based on our offerings from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. 

“I heard you might be headed to Ireland – any chance you might stop by our church in Belfast?” 

We’d never sung in the city that created the Titanic – and it was a rare opportunity.  Over the years, Armagh and Derry and Coleraine had been a part of our travels.  But our prospective host, Mark Mooney, was a veritable fountain of enthusiasm.  So, after carefully considering our itinerary, we embraced the idea!

Little did we guess the immensity of the welcome – and the participative, enthusiastic embrace of our repertoire – that we were about to receive.  It started six months previous, when my wife Michele and I, over American Thanksgiving weekend, made our way across the Atlantic to visit the communities of both Belfast and Rostrevor, in preparation for our upcoming visit.  Both places were so sensitive to our holiday that we were the recipients of Thanksgiving dinners – in each city!

But now the day had arrived – we journeyed by ferry across the Irish Sea to Larne, soaked in the history of the Titanic Museum, and then headed to our generous hosts in the north of Belfast.

How can I describe what took place that evening?  Hundreds and hundreds of people showed up – some driving as far as an hour and a half to attend our Vespers and Concert program.  But what was clearly the most extraordinary aspect of the night was the stance of the assembly: they were singing their hearts out!  Music that they had never known before – psalms and evening canticles and refrains and hymns – all joined in with reverence and unadulterated joy.  I was both humbled and in awe of such participation, led by an American choir, strangers in their midst.

When all was done, it was all I could do to just sit down, contemplate the sanctuary, and bask in the memory of that sacred space reverberating with holy joy.  It was a night of full-blown singing.  Titanic, by any standards. 

To our friends in Belfast, I offer a huge word of thanks from all of us in the Folk Choir.  To be in your midst, surrounded by your voices, was nothing short of a miracle of song and participative joy.

Monday, May 30, 2016

For the Good Are Always the Merry

When we come at the end of time
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love to fiddle,
And the merry love to dance;

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With 'Here is the fiddler of Dooney!'
And dance like a wave of the sea.
                  –  William Butler Yeats

It was our last day in Edinburgh, and we passed it in fine style – the Sunday morning liturgy for the Feast of the Holy Trinity saw the Folk Choir dispersed throughout the congregation, and when the songs began, the immense sound filled all the corners of that house of prayer.  There were thanks bestowed on all, the St. Monica's Guild of Ladies to shake hands with (that small team of women camped out at church all week, brewing gallons of tea and keeping everyone happy with biscuits).

Finally, our hosts had found a generous benefactor, and that evening, all the main movers of our event:  the host families, the parish council, the ecumenical council – in short the whole shebang of planners – headed out to the Corn Exchange for a ceilidh.

A ceilidh, if you can find a dictionary worth looking it up in, is a night of song and dance and merriment.  And after all labors in this fine old city, it was only appropriate to dance and sing.  So the fiddler lined up the choir, called out the steps, named the tunes, and in no time flat the hall was swirling with Americans and Scots, moving to the songs of the Isles.

The good are, always, the merry.  And while we have worked very hard these days in Scotland, in the end we could do nothing but look back, breathless, as the dance steps carried us forward.  Amidst the shouts and back slaps and hand clasps, merriment – the pure joy of life – was the final word among these wonderful parishioners.

Haste ye back.  And we shall.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Lessons Learned in the Highlands

Saturday and Sunday, May 21 and 22, 2016

One thing that's become very evident to me over the years is that, while there are cultural nuances from nation to nation – and these are critical to understand – people are still fundamentally the same. We all love to sing, we all need to pray, we all grieve, we all want to share our stories.

Nowhere is this more evident to me than when we conduct a workshop.  On Saturday, May 21, our marvelous hosts had gotten out the word to musicians in all corners of the Archdiocese of Edinburgh, and we had close to a hundred of them gathered in St. Joseph's Broomhouse parish church for our afternoon workshop.

I know that much was learned on the part of our guests – we brought a rich repertoire, the Folk Choir sat in and amongst our attendees, and many, many issues were discussed.

But I couldn't help thinking that we, too, learned a lot from our Highland friends.  Their questions were spot on: fundamental questions about participation, collaboration with presbyters and the dynamic of working with limited resources.  These are all issues that face most American churches as well.

Being in the midst of our Scottish counterparts made me realize what a common bond we have on our spiritual journey.  On more than one occasion this week, the quote from St. Augustine has been raised: "Our hearts are restless, O God, until they come to rest in you."

That restlessness knows no nationality – it is part of our common, spiritual DNA.  And it unites us, across languages, oceans and customs.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Rolling Up our Sleeves in Edinburgh

For a few days, we've sung in the evening at special liturgical events – Greyfriars Kirk and, gratefully, St. Catherine's Convent – where we were hosted by these wonderful communities.
But on Saturday last, we had the chance to spend hours with musicians from around the entire countryside, bringing our repertoire to many, many people.

A working afternoon with this ensemble is something wonderful to behold.  It gives us a long amount of time to crack open issues, step off the track, talk about both the joys and the challenges of the work of liturgical music.  And for churches in Scotland and Ireland, it also gives us the opportunity to share repertoire.

As they did all week, St. Joseph's in Broomhouse, Edinburgh, hosted our labors.  The ladies of the parish, whom I swear have done nothing but camp out at church all week long, were there to feed the masses and keep the tea brewing.

The Choir fanned out and sat next to their Scottish attendees.  We created an assembly of about 200 people, and then the work began – psalm repertoire, settings of the Mass, music for eucharistic celebrations.  Hands would fly up left and right, remarks made, questions discussed, some answered.  And by the end of the day, many people went home with a sense of new perspectives – and perhaps some renewed vigor as well.

We have much to be grateful for, working with all of these folk assembled by the liturgical offices and volunteers in Edinburgh.

Only one day left now, in this very old city.  It will be a day of Eucharist and a day of ecumenical celebration, joining hands with friends from the Presbyterian church.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

When the Song is Hospitality

Friday, May 20th, 2016

A great friend of mine – and someone well connected to the work of the Folk Choir – is Dr. Jerry Galipeau at World Library Publications.  A few weeks ago, for the Emerald Anniversary of the Choir, Jerry made some comments at our opening banquet. 

And what he said really, really resonated with me. 

“The music we sing,” he said, “is an act of hospitality.” 

Over the course of this very special week in Edinburgh, one cannot help but be amazed, over and over again, at the acts of welcome that have been shown us.  These acts have been large and small – the soliciting of snacks for the choristers to eat while they’re venturing around the city; the opening up of rooms for students to live in (no small feat when it’s a five-night stay); the endless cups of tea and digestive biscuits; the cheery “you’re very welcome” that comes out of the parish kitchen, morning after morning and after every mass and workshop gathering.

I think, though, that the hospitality has worked both ways: that while parishioners have been opening up their homes to us, we too have been unlocking doors into hearts by offering up our sacred song.

I’ve been formed by Holy Cross spirituality for 35 years.  It is a unique blend of many elements: devoted to a life of service, understanding sacrifice, not being afraid of evangelical opportunities.  But a great hunk of their spirituality stresses the gift of welcome.  It was epitomized by their first saint, AndrĂ© Bessette.  And it continues on in the writings and actions of the community to this day.

Hospitality works both ways – the open doors of these beautiful parishioners in Scotland is one facet of the mystery.  And for us in the Folk Choir, the other is illustrated by how we can open doors, open hearts, and unlock voices through our song.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Off the Grid

Thursday, May 19, 2016

There’s no doubt about it: touring is grueling. 

When we were preparing for this journey, I cautioned the Folk Choir that, at best, they would be doing four things in simultaneous fashion:  1) being choristers, 2) being guests in the homes of host families, 3) being ambassadors for the University of Notre Dame (and, consequently, of the Catholic faith), and 4) being tourists.  Each of them places demands on people’s time, energy, presence, and general disposition. 

And it should not be lost on anyone that some personality types thrive on a cramped bus, while others (notably introverts like myself) find parts of their soul screaming for help by day four.

So, when we were designing this pilgrimage, we received wise counsel from our collaborators in Edinburgh to get off the grid soon into our trip. 

It’s not hard to achieve this kind of social- and Internet-disappearing act when you’re in Scotland.  Just head north from Edinburgh, and after not too many kilometers you’re in the Argyll Highlands. 

That’s where we were on Thursday – deep in the heart of the highlands, only a half hour away from Loch Ness and Loch Lomond, surrounded by far more sheep than human beings, in a perfectly cozy and spectacular Catholic retreat house named Craig Lodge. 

Craig Lodge is operated by an intentional community of lay people who live together, keep this facility humming, and provide a spiritual oasis in the midst of a very busy and increasingly secular society.  Even after just a few days, we were exhausted after the crossing of the Atlantic and the plunging into the parochial landscape of Scotland.

It was a much-needed break.  The choir had ample time to sleep, to walk, to read, to pray.  We celebrated Mass together, filling the church with song, and sharing our sacred song with the dedicated staff of the retreat house. 

The grid will be waiting for us when we return (hence the tardiness of this post).  But for now, the serenity and calm of this place is a welcome sabbatical. 

Tomorrow, we head back to Edinburgh.

Friday, May 20, 2016

1620: The Binding Together of Histories

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Earlier this week, I spoke of how Edinburgh had the unique ability to have a foot in two arenas: the very ancient (as is illustrated by the Royal Mile) and the very modern (a stone’s throw away, on Princess Street, with the light rail system and the vast array of stores). 

But here’s a fun fact that really throws a different light on my perception of American history. 

Last night, we sang at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh.  I’ve dreamed of having the Folk Choir sing here since the day I crossed that threshold, in 2008.  Its sense of mission, outreach to the poor, its celebration of the arts while simultaneously encouraging the corporal works of mercy – all these things made me hopeful that we might be able to grace the edifice with our own sacred song.  Through the efforts of one of our Scottish friends, we were able to do just that.

As we came into the kirk, we were greeted by their gracious staff:  Martin Ritchie and their pastor, Rev. Richard Frazer.  And as any good hosts would do, they showed us around, commenting on architectural and historical and ecclesial matters of interest.

But here’s what really took me for a loop:  the cornerstone of Greyfriars was laid down on December 25, 1620.  And that year should be one that is known to a few Americans.  It was the year the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, in what was to eventually become the state of Massachusetts.

Sometimes we visit places like Jamestown or Plymouth Plantation or Williamsburg and think of how ancient and enduring the United States is.  But we are mere young-uns!  Edinburgh was building cathedrals when a beachhead was being established in the New World.  And that is a humbling thing to reflect upon.

The Greyfriars experience was eye-opening:  presiders from the Presbyterian, Catholic, and Methodist traditions (including a woman presider!), an acoustic space to die for, a musically eager community that had a strong sense of service to the city of Edinburgh, a tangible sense of warmth and hospitality.

For me, hiding behind my guitar as we sang psalms and hymns and inspired songs, Greyfriars Kirk afforded a glimpse of a different kind of church: one that spanned denominations and genders, built upon commonalities, celebrated the arts and protected the vulnerable.  

In that respect it was ageless – a vision that might just be embraced, whether the year was 1620 or 2016.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Gauntlet of Joy

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

Early in the morning, the choir gathers in the vestibule of St. Joseph's RC Church, under the banner that proclaims "You're a stranger here but once."  And then we are off – we have a huge day ahead of us.

We start at Holy Cross Elementary School.  And from the start, we're not prepared for what these youngsters have in store for us.  As the choir approaches the school grounds, the grade school children line the entrance, waving the blue flag of the Cross of Saint Andrew and the red and yellow ancient flag of Scotland, the Lion Rampant.  Their enthusiasm is overwhelming!  We spend the morning singing, sharing repertoire, answering questions from these young children.

But more important than the songs was the witness.  To have a huge crowd of college students, standing up and talking about their faith, gladly sharing the joy of their community and their reasons for being in the ensemble – these were priceless moments.

As in Ireland, there are strict controls on working with children – we are not allowed to take pictures of the kids and their gathering with us.  But their love of song, their inquisitive minds, and their unabashed joy at our visit – these leave a tangible mark on all the choir.

And it's only the beginning of the day!

After the school visit, we have time to head into the heart of Edinburgh – and perfectly timed, the sun breaks out as the ensemble hits the beautiful park that surrounds the monument to Walter Scott.  What a perfect midday break to explore a bit of the city!

Next stop:  the Gilles Center – home of the Catholic Archdiocesan Offices for all of Scotland.  We've been requested to provide a short concert for the Archbishop – His Grace Leo Cushley – in the beautiful chapel on the grounds.  It's a superb place to sing, a place to refine our a cappella works in practice before the Archbishop arrives.  And then we launch into song:  "Rosa Mystica," "The Lord's Prayer," "Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life;" even "Perfect Praise."  In the span of about thirty minutes, we give the archbishop a huge glimpse into our repertoire and the focus on ministry that is at the heart of our ensemble.

Then, after the requisite cuppa of tea and cakes, we're off to yet another venue – this time, the prestigious and beautiful Greyfriars Kirk.

Ever since visiting Edinburgh in 2008, I've wanted the Folk Choir to sing and pray in this venue.  And the event is perfect – an evening prayer service for the conclusion of the academic year for the University of Edinburgh.  We get a chance to meet all the chaplains in the area – Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian – and join with them in a Vespers service.

Where better to sing "Day is Done" than the city where its author, James Quinn, S.J., was from?  We fill the Kirk with four part harmony, and at the end, Karen Kirner gives a stunning performance of Thaxted – the rafters sing with the text (and the Folk Choir descant) of "O God Beyond All Praising."

It was a gauntlet of a day – schoolchildren in the morning, sunshine and parks midday, a meeting with the archbishop, and a beautiful campus-centered ecumenical service – all packed into about ten hours.

And it's only day two!  Tomorrow, we head up into the Scottish Highlands for a well-deserved break and retreat.