Thursday, September 29, 2016

Go Irish: From Home at ND to Home in Dublin

At long last, the surreal waiting has come to an end.  Tuesday afternoon, Michele and I boarded Aer Lingus Flight #122 from ORD to DUB, along with five insanely packed suitcases and a Martin guitar.

And we lifted off for Ireland.

These past few months have been such a roller coaster: convinced of a new direction, understanding in your heart what's meant to take place.  And yet the mind still hasn't quite caught up with all the realities yet.

We bid good-bye to Notre Dame over a beautiful fall weekend, surrounded by friends.  Reality set in when we watched the Irish crumble to Duke, but this was a small pittance by way of what we carried in our emotional backpacks. We attended the 11:45 Mass, heard the Folk Choir singing one last time from the pews, and broke bread with supportive friends.

Now, at 550mph, we were being transported to a new culture, a new home, new pastoral realities, new music.

We had incredible tail winds, which put us into Dublin an hour earlier than our expected 5:15AM arrival. Deep in the night, the jet banked over Dublin harbour, bringing the lights of the city into view.  Down, down, into the dark – and then we landed.

Home.  A new home.

At 6:45AM, true to his word and in the emerging dawn, Pat O'Kelly met us in front of our new home, the "mews" of University Church. He gave us the keys, brought us into the kitchen, showed us the basket of provisions he'd brought in for us. ("It would be a sin if you came to us and found an empty fridge," said he.)

Up all night, the new home still filled with contractors and construction folk, Michele and I took to the streets of Dublin to purchase things for our new digs.  We walked through St. Stephen's Green, the stunning city park that is now our front yard.  We discovered new stores, bought plates and cutlery, and got back in time for the 1:05 daily mass at University Church.

There is a large black wooden gate that faces St. Stephen's Green, and when doors are opened up, it brings you to our courtyard.  That gate has a small silver plaque on it that says:


To my knowledge, we're the first lay people to ever live in this Presbytery.  For that matter, I wonder if we're the first lay people to ever live in a Catholic Presbytery in Ireland.

Those tail winds that brought us to Ireland are the winds of change.  Some things are now beginning to change for the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Here is a picture that I took this morning of the nave of Newman's University Church, 87 Saint Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland.  Having left our home at Notre Dame, my place of work for the last 35 years, this is now my new home, my new place of prayer, and my new vineyard.  This week I'll be meeting with parish musicians, choristers, and sacristans.  The labours will soon begin.

"Go Irish!"  The phrase means something else to me now – something far more serious than a rallying cry at a football game.  This is no game.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

Isaiah 64 – And a Daughter's Hands

These days leading up to our departure from the States have been a real blessing.  And one of the greatest of these gifts: the chance to have intentional time with family and friends.  Each day is precious, and has lent itself to a great set of memories.

Here's what took place a few evenings ago:  My daughter Jessica took me to a local pottery studio where she's set up shop.  Jess has devoted herself, over the past several years, to becoming a skilled potter.  Her house is filled with vases, cups, dishes and bowls, all made by her own hand.

So after dinner the other night, she dropped a great question: "Dad, wanna throw some clay?"  Vaguely understanding the invitation, I went ahead and said yes.

I'd never been at a potter's wheel before.  I've frequented craft fairs and admired the artisans who've shown off their finished products, but the opportunity to get down and dirty (literally) with a lump of clay is an experience that's never been afforded me.

The first thing to note about manipulating a hunk of clay is just how intensive and complex a labor it is.  As I smashed down my clay on the potter's wheel, Jessica urged me on:  "Dad, the clay is your domain.  You own that domain.  Don't let the stuff push you around.  Use your palms, your fingers, and insist on centering it and fashioning it the way you want, not the way the clay wants to go."

Simple, right?  But hardly.  I found working with this stubborn earth to be a delicate dance of upper body strength, focus, balance, and artful movement of palms, fingers, and wrists.  It was not an easy task in the least.

As I was working with my daughter's encouragement and practical guidance, I found myself going back to a Scripture passage that I've heard through the years – the quote from Isaiah 64:
  "Yet you, Lord, are our father.
  We are the clay and you our potter;
  We are all the work of your hand."  Is. 64: 7

There is nothing like entering fully into an analogy to find all the nuances of its meaning.  I'll never be a potter, at least one to match my daughter's skill.  But I'll also never forget what it means, how it feels, or what it takes out of you to craft a lump of earth into a bowl for my porridge.

This brief human experience makes me marvel all the more at how the potter's image works for God the Creator – how much it takes to craft a human being, to be fashioned according to the Creator's image, to be the result of God's hands and palms and wrists.  Am I receptive to the divine movement of focus and balance, the strength to keep things in alignment so that an inimitable work of life might be achieved?  I contemplated how often we resist the touch of the Potter's hand – just like that stubborn lump of clay – content to be spinning around, off-centre. And just like the clay, we are not complete until we subject ourselves to the creative and parental set of divine hands.

And in equal measure, when I'm with my grandchildren, it makes me appreciate all the more what it takes out of parents to mould their children as well.  Days spent raising children, while not a potter's wheel per se, bears a striking analogy to what takes place with lumps of clay.  And come sundown, the exhaustion that follows their efforts to is very plain to see.  Parents, like the Creator, spend a lot of time at that would-be potter's wheel, creating what is to come.

Finally, a shameless plug:  Looking for some great pottery?  Think of my daughter, and check out her work by clicking here!

Monday, September 12, 2016

What You Can Learn from a Key Chain

So, this is limbo.

Eagerly awaiting the new assignment, feeling a bit like a horse in the gates before a race, pawing at the ground.

And while this span of time is a bit confusticating (Tolkien's word, not mine), there are lessons to be learned in this quiet, liminal landscape.  One of them, curiously, came from an ordinary key chain.

Before I had completely shut down my office in Coleman Morse on ND's campus, I went through a series of purges.  These had nothing to do with the obvious ones – goods, or cars, or clothes, or any other belongs: the "stuff" of this world, if you will.  It had to do, rather, with keys – the real badge of engagement at an institution.

Over the span of a couple of weeks, one by one, I gave all these material means of access away – the key to the choir loft, the storage room in the sacristy, the door to the Log Chapel, CoMo's basement, the choir rehearsal rooms, car keys, my own office key.  (And hey, I even gave back my access card to all the ND security gates!  How noble!)  As each one was handed to the appropriate steward, the action carried with it a sense of liberation... and more than a little vulnerability.

It's interesting how we hold on to certain things to provide some definition of our lives.  Most of these things have to do with the "stuff" – credit cards, favourite restaurants or watering holes, familiar routines, work spaces, environments.  But take a leap off the cliff, and all these compass points disappear pretty quickly.

Watching the ND football game last weekend, I was inundated with a commercial message:  "What's in YOUR wallet?"  I could accurately say, "Not much!"  And I now have a key chain with only two things on it: the first is a tiny fob with a caricature of Saint Brigid.  The second is a key that, quite honestly, I'm clueless as to what it unlocks.  I'm keeping it there, though. It's a telling reminder of the fact that, in many ways, I'm uncertain of what will be opened in the months and years to come.  But I'm fairly confident that letting go of all these props has something to do with a journey of grace, and that the lessons learned from this time should be kept close to the heart.

Jesus urged his band of disciples to head out without a whole lot in their backpacks.  And probably, by 21st century standards, my wife and I are moving in the right direction.  I'm a long way from just a walking stick and a pair of sandals.  But a lot has been let go of in the past three months.  And there's much to be learned in this journey of abandonment – starting with a simple key chain.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Summer of the Long Good-Bye

The ND Guitar Pilgrim blog has been silent since the twentieth of June.  It was at that time that I announced to readers and friends that, after thirty-five years at the helm of the Notre Dame Folk Choir, a new opportunity had made itself known on my ministerial horizon.

It is an opportunity fraught with opportunity and challenge, in a land and with a people that, throughout the touring history of the Choir, I have come to love and cherish.  And so I said yes – yes to the chance to work in downtown Dublin, Ireland, in an historic church whose founder I have admired for most of my ministerial career.  I've studied his words, even put his poetry to music.  It took very little convincing to sign me up, that I might walk and work in the church built on the legacy of John Cardinal Newman.

My silence on the blog was rooted in the simple fact that, for the past two and a half months, we have been packing, allocating, choosing what to keep, what to send, and what to let go of.  A pod of precious books and resources is on its way, by boat, to Dublin – even as I write this.  Some of our furnishings went to family members.  Some things on the walls of office and home went to longtime friends.  And a good many things were simply given away or sold in a weekend-long estate sale.  But all the time, for the past ten weeks, we have been letting go, letting go, sorting through what was deemed essential and what was not.

All of this is, of course, took place within the practical vision of moving a household from Granger, Indiana, to Dublin, Ireland.  But there was another lens that made itself equally manifest over these warm summer days… the lens of friends needing to say good-bye.

Throughout the weeks of June, July and August, my wife and I were humbled to have countless doors open to us – friends who had regularly gone to the 11:45 Sunday liturgies during the academic year or the 9:00PM Summer Folk Choir celebrations.  Each time we entered a household, we were greeted with warm embraces, not a few tears, eager questions, reflections on the ministry and song of an ensemble that had become so very close to their hearts.

It has been the Summer of the Long Good-Bye.  And I doubt that, even after sixty-two years of living on this earth, something like this could ever be experienced again.  Every day was a holy experience, walking with friends who had been touched by the song of these exceptional singers and musicians.

I suppose, when you name an ensemble after the assembly (for that is what the tag "Folk" has always pointed to in the choir's title), that very assembly will make its voice heard – especially about its Director and the direction he is taking with his life.  Throughout these weeks, I've been surrounded by a familiar theme:  "Notre Dame's loss will be Ireland's gain!"  "I am overjoyed for you – and heartbroken for us!"  These were the thumbnails.  But woven into these themes were personal stories: memories of a particular song, moments of grieving or gladness that had somehow been better illustrated by the repertoire and witness of the Folk Choir.  All these stories needed to be shared.  And Michele and I became the recipients, the place where all those stories were collected.

As of Tuesday after Labor Day, everything was disposed of – home, cars, property, kayaks, excess clothes, furniture, even a precious collection of compact discs.  We will soon be on our way across the Atlantic, and only the necessary things will do.

But we carry other things with us – far more powerful things.  And these things weigh nothing.  They are the stories, the sacred memories, the legacy of almost two generations of singers and the witness they created.  We carry these with us, these precious chapters that will need no suitcase.

And as we make our way toward the shores of the Emerald Isle, we can hear the song of these past few months – the song of a Summer of the Long Good-Bye.  Please God this song will be an encouragement when we arrive at Saint Stephen's Green at the end of September.