Saturday, December 23, 2017

An Invasion, Made of Straw

Last week my wife and I headed down to Nassau Street in Dublin – a formidable journey given that Grafton Street, the main artery by which one makes this trip, is the human equivalent of an L.A. freeway.  

We were meeting a friend at K. C. Peaches, a lovely establishment for breakfast or a little noshing.  And no, it's not Bob Evans, but it'll do....

Anyway, here we were munching on coffee cake and sipping our café Americano.  And as any musician would do, I had one ear turned to the music that was playing in the background.  Here's a partial list of what I overheard:

"It's the Holiday Season"  –  Andy Williams
"O Come, All Ye Faithful"  –  Bing Crosby
"Hallelujah Chorus" –  Neville Marriner, St. Martin in the Fields
"O Tannenbaum"  –  Vince Guaraldi 
"Santa Baby"  –  probably Madonna, but by then I stopped listening

I found myself fascinated by this soundtrack, accompanying our caffeine and cake.  

For at what other time of the year does sacred music invade the marketplace in such a manner?  When, lunching with a friend, a triumphant song about Jesus blasts from the Muzak speakers above your head?  And does so, unabashedly, without apology?  As if this is the most normal thing in all the universe.

It is an invasion, that's what it is – manufactured of straw and circumstance, manure and makeshift plans.  The most vulnerable of stories, born of poverty.  And yet it has permeated every corner of our secular world, in ways that no ad campaign, no sum of money, could ever concoct.  And this story continues, and will, far beyond this day.

We would do well, in this age of fake news, arms and aggression, to consider the stories that have prevailed, to acknowledge where true might resides, to put no trust in the princes of this earth (as is recommended by the psalmist).  We would do well to consider that two thousand years later, this implausible story of poverty and God-becoming-man still holds us to its challenges.  

Nollaig shona duit – a happy Christmas to all our friends, to those who have kept us in prayer far across the waters, to all who have been an encouragement in this grand venture of following the Voice far beyond what is known and comfortable.  

Thursday, December 7, 2017

"Lady Bird" and the hermit

From here in Dublin, it appears that a joyous kerfuffle is brewing across the Atlantic – a particular anthem from Songs of the Notre Dame Folk Choir has made its presence known in the new movie Lady Bird, with Saoirse Ronan in the title role.

For the record, I haven't seen this movie yet. So this post is generated based on rumours, always a somewhat cautious task. But this is what I've heard: that the NY Times is howling Oscar choruses for Ronan; that the Catholic Church, finally, is shown in a rather kindly fashion; that this coming-of-age chronicle nails it, in all its messy, vulnerable, grace-filled humanity.

On Thursday morning, November 23rd, I got a crazy e-mail from my dear friend and former president of the Folk Choir, Colleen Moore.  Have you heard?, she said, "Rosa Mystica" has made it into the movies! I just about jumped out of my chair. Steve, it's OUR version!

Hit pause.  Rewind to 1982.

That year, a bunch of us took a field trip six hours south, to the Abbey of Gethsemani, nestled in the knobs of Kentucky.  It was on that trip that I met a man who would become one of my closest friends, a mentor, a partner in the crafting of sacred music. It was the most unlikely of collaborations: he, a hermit and a Trappist monk, trained as an organist, composer and Cistercian scholar; me, a liturgist and guitarist, working almost exclusively with college students. For some inexplicable reason, we hit it off from the start.

Over the years, I grew to love and admire this man all the more. We'd talk often (How he was able to use the phone so frequently?).  At the outset, I'd always ask "how are you?"  "Miserable!" he would chortle.  And I knew all was well (as a matter of fact, it was only when he stopped this exclamation that I knew things were not).

His voice resembled that of a baritone, oversized Yoda; when traveling to Europe, somehow he managed to get a night in NYC, finagling standing tickets at the Metropolitan Opera; he found innumerable, creative ways to hide soda cans (and probably other stuff) in his monastic garb; one year, while at Notre Dame to participate in a recording session, he stumbled onto "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" on TV – and stayed up all night watching reruns.

And despite, or maybe because of, his extensive training in music, he had an ardent love for the length and breadth of sacred music styles, choosing no priggish attitude toward a particular genre, but unequivocally embracing all that was good and glorious – what Keith Kalemba would later, poignantly describe as "honest liturgical music."  It was, perhaps, one of the reasons why he dearly loved the diversity of the Folk Choir.

A joyous custom soon began, of sharing liturgical compositions.  We'd seal off the chapter room at Gethsemani and throw scores at each other. One fine spring day, he pulled out an old, weather-beaten manuscript. "I wrote this just before taking my vows," he said. The piece was called Rosa Mystica. He played the whole thing through, and I simply sat there at the end of it. I remember two things: the sound of a robin outside the chapter room window (joyous in ovation); and himself, staring down at the keyboard, almost embarrassed by what he had just shared. I was blinking back tears.

Years later, heading into Thanksgiving week, I got a rare phone call from Gethsemani. It was not from Chrysogonus; it was one of the brethren, Thaddeus, telling me that my friend had suffered a major stroke. "Steve," he said, "he hasn't much longer."

In desperation I called my publisher, Mary Prete, in Chicago. Her counsel: "Steve, you must write to him. Write to him now." And so I did. I called the Abbey, and asked if I could fax my letter, to which they immediately acquiesced. Closing my office door, I spent the next few hours crafting one of the most important epistles of my life.

I went to Gethsemani a few days later, arriving just hours after he had passed. Chrysogonus was laid out in choir, and as is the custom with the Trappists, all one hundred and fifty psalms were being proclaimed over his body, a monk seated on either side of him.

But there was a third chair, empty, placed there by the brethren. That chair was for me.

The blur of emotions, the requiem mass, the slow procession to the graveside, the empty hole, the slow lowering of his body into the earth (Trappists use no coffins) – all of it washed over me with deep and enduring power.

As we were walking away, Thaddeus came up to me quietly, and whispered in my ear.  "Steve," he said, "that letter you wrote to Chrysogonus....he couldn't talk after the stroke, but for those three days before he died, he used sign language to tell us that he wanted it read to him. Every day."

Fast forward to now. I weep – albeit with joy – as I recall the fullness of my days with this amazing friend. It is the most ironic thing that a movie depicting all the struggles and moral choices of a young woman (at least, so I'm told), has as its epilogue an anthem to the Blessed Virgin Mary, written by a Trappist hermit cloistered in the foothills of Kentucky. He would've laughed out loud (as he often did with me) over such a happening.

Oh, and there's one other thing.  Colleen notified me of Rosa Mystica's place in the movie on November 23rd.

That date was the anniversary of his passing into eternal life.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

And about that guy from Assisi....

If you're familiar with the words (few) and actions (many) of the saint whom we just honoured a few days ago – Francis of Assisi – you are well aware of the polarities between which he dwelled.  A lover of beauty, yet committed to a life of chastity; born of nobility, yet abandoned it for poverty; extolling the radiance of sun and moon, yet content to live in the cell of a monk.

And you're probably aware of that crazy moment – one of many – when his world, upside-down as it was already, was turned around again, when he heard the Voice from without and within say to him: "Rebuild my church."

Francis would've done well to run from that voice, just like others had done their best to do – Jonah, for instance (jumped into the sea – look where that got him).  Or Moses (couldn't handle public speaking, so a PR agent was provided).  But thankfully, Francis did not run from that Voice.  He threw himself into it.  So much so that, in the end, he earned the burnéd marks of his Redeemer.

We, over here in Ireland, we are no Francis.  But I can honestly say that the admonition to "rebuild the church" is at the heart of everything we're doing.

No doubt, you've all seen movies where, over the span of about three or four minutes (because that's about as much as our attention spans can take), a Whole Lot Is Accomplished.  Cinema teachers no doubt have a phrase for such a segment of screenplay: you know, when the Bridge over the River Kwai gets constructed in about the time it takes cross a sidewalk – or when half a season of baseball gets constrained into the time it takes to eat a hot dog.

But reality teaches us that rebuilding takes time.  Years.

At University Church, there are two parallel tracks taking place as we embrace this task of rebuilding.  The first is straightforward: working with contractors, planning replacement ceilings, keeping the church as clean as possible while we attempt to have weddings and masses and funerals and baptisms in the midst of never-ending plaster implosions.

But the second track is far harder, more nuanced, and definitely more trying: the long, slow slog to bring people back into the pews.  It is this reconstruction that is the most important, if one believes the encouragements found in the First Letter of Peter: the Church is built of living stones.  The brick and mortar are nice, but the voices and vitality of the faithful are the foundation upon which all must be built.  This is the most precious kind of reconstruction there is to find, and it is the reconstruction that moves the slowest. 

I always love those movies when the screenplay moves into fast forward – and the ensuing montage shows a great enterprise reduced to the blink of an eye.  There's something childishly satisfying in it, like ordering fast food and knowing it'll be sitting in front of you in sixty seconds.  But truthfully, it's the arduous efforts that yield the real satisfaction ... and rarely do you see that portrayed in that cultural storyteller called movie making. 

I look down every week from the choir gallery from which this last shot was taken.  And while I'm not into spiritual bean counting, it is rewarding when you can see a tangible change in the singing decibels, the number of heads, the warm and lingering remarks at the end of a morning of prayer.  It is all wrapped up in the mystery of rebuilding, that most patient and delicate of enterprises, the craft at which Francis was a master.

Monday, September 25, 2017

An Open Letter to the ND Folk Choir

Dearest Folk Choir, past and present,

A year ago, on this day, my wife and I had our final days on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.  I chose to get up very early, walking around the place that had been both home and vineyard for the past 35 years.  And I contemplated it all – the dorms (some newly built), the spire of the Basilica, the statue of the Sacred Heart.  As do many pilgrims, I made my way down to the Grotto, praying to the one who so many years before had said her own "Yes" to the unknown.

A year now.

This morning, I took another walk, but instead of a pristine, sleepy campus, my journey took me to Grafton Street and its environs in city centre Dublin.  Little did Michele and I know what our yes would entail: a choir gallery littered with broken timbers, chicken wire, and years of dirt; a congregation that barely counted four dozen; an organ with acute bronchitis; a Lady Chapel that was, literally, filled with mould and on the verge of collapse. But it is like so many things we say "yes" to – and the reason why marriage is a sacramental Yes.  It was the launching into the Unknown.  And it is wise to approach both the launch and the journey with reverence.

There have been victories, both large and small.  As with anything holy, it is the small ones that are seared into your soul. Here's one: every morning, I open up the doors of Newman's University Church at 7:30am.  It is not the grand, dramatic parting of the portals that announce Bishop Barron's Catholicism production; it's a simple gesture of service.  But time and time again, as I open those doors, I notice all kinds of people – business suits, city street cleaners, garbage collectors.  And quietly, almost imperceptibly, some of them make a sign of the Cross as they pass our entrance.

The large victories are the stuff of common knowledge now: two broadcasts on RTÉ in six months (one, a first, on television; the other a radio broadcast two weeks ago); the creation of a choir of young professionals where once there was nothing; the growth of the Sunday congregations, both morning and evening.

But I keep going back to that quiet signing of the Cross: it never ceases to capture my imagination. Generations ago, the Irish were persecuted if they dared do such a thing. Nowadays, the persecution endures – but not because of an Anglo invasion.  This time, it is a far more subtle and dread foe: secularisation.  It is a menacing adversary, one that says you're a fool to believe, and an even crazier fool to talk or (God forbid) sing about it.

Yet quietly, almost secretly, a good many of the Irish still cling to their faith.

I had a moment today – an almost Merton-like moment, when that ridiculously talented Trappist monk stood at the corners of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky, and was caught up in a profound love of the people he saw passing by.  As I walked around Dublin, taking in the blue sky, looking at the hands of the clock near Pete's Pub and Snug, watching the merchants opening their own doors, I realised that I had, in fact, embraced this city and her people in ways far deeper than I had ever imagined. To be sure, sometimes only three-quarters of the work is accomplished, the newspapers never arrive as promised, and bills take months to sort out.  But they love song, and story, and their faith is in their bones.  They only need permission to own it once again.

You who gather twice a week on the third floor of the Coleman-Morse Ministry Center, you who diligently practice and so often bring joy and inspiration to countless worshipers: I know you, and I know the question you are always carrying around in your back pockets: What am I to do?  It is the great question of anyone who attends a place of higher learning.  It is also the great question of the family of mankind.

And I can tell you this: there are not many things that can compare with the joy of unlocking the power of the human voice.  That, essentially, is what we are doing here.  Giving permission to people to sing once more.

From my office window, I can see where John Cardinal Newman started his Catholic University.  I can see the window of the room where Gerard Manley Hopkins passed away.  Above my computer screen is a picture of the ND Folk Choir, and it has a place of pride. I look at it often: not in a spirit of melancholy ("I'll never know that again!"), but rather as an icon of hopefulness – what was created there can, in its own unique way, be created here.  We often sing "We are fed by the hand of the Lord; every need is answered by our God."  If we believe the psalmist's words to be true, then the same will happen here in Dublin.

And so, as you make your way through the year, I predict that sly question will continue to pursue you like the hound of heaven: "What am I to do?" Consider answering it wisely. Remember that your own voice is the embodiment of the Holy.  Use it well.  Sing well.  Never keep from singing, from letting your voice be heard, from unlocking the voices of those with whom you journey.

With my undying admiration,


Saturday, August 19, 2017

When It's Not Just a Shout Out...

It was an evening long-awaited, and in some ways, fraught with a tinge of anxiety.

Even as long as eighteen months ago, Fr. Gerry Kane, Parish Priest at Our Lady of the Rosary (otherwise known as Harold's Cross Church), was objective – almost brusque – about the fact that he was to be assigned to a new parish in the summer of 2017.  A tireless administrator and utterly superb pastor, he threw himself into Harold's Cross and made it a beehive, building a parish centre, reinvigorating the liturgy, and, in the last two years, making his community a home for Teach Bhríde, the House of Brigid, when it made its first foray into the city of Dublin.

But this night, this evening, was his last at Harold's Cross, and the parish did what only they could do: allow him to preside over the liturgy one last time, and then have a colossal tea party in the parish centre next door.

My wife and I had been asked, early on, if we could partake in these festivities, and join the choir for the Mass.  And so, my trusty backpack encasing my guitar, we set off on the Dublin 16/Ballinteer bus for church.  John Egan was at the helm of the choir – and all I had to do was sit in the tiny gallery and play the accompaniment for The Mass for Our Lady – and a few other things I might just know.

What impressed me, though, was the fact that, in the midst of all the acknowledgements of gratitude to Fr. Gerry, three names came up: Geoff Burdell, Emma Fleming, and Biz Honeywell.  These three were the members of the House of Brigid this year, and they were mentioned by name as the closing accolades were festooned over Fr. Gerry.

It's one thing to come into a parish and make an American splash – or even, in my case, to come in as a celebrated composer and hear your music being sung.  It's quite another when you hear the description of a decade of devoted parochial service, and in that roll call are these words: "the joyful welcome of our Notre Dame students into the parish."  And then came their names: Geoff, Emma and Biz.

(Yes, Biz, I know you are a Terp.  But I hope you will forgive Harold's Cross this one instance of grouping you with your effervescent leprechaun colleagues).

Clearly, this was not just a shout-out.  These three, and the two previous years of Dublin House of Brigid members who came before them, held such an emotional bond with these parishioners that they made the honour roll of memories for this beloved pastor.

There are now watchwords in the Holy Cross lexicon, and they have become part of the verbal DNA of that religious community: "known, loved, and served."  To Geoff, Emma and Biz: clearly, you were and are known to this parish.  Clearly, they loved you, and you loved them.  And clearly, none of this would have taken place had you not served them with selfless devotion.

I stand in awe of my colleagues in the House of Brigid this night.  What began as a tiny dream almost a decade ago is touching the lives and changing the hearts of whole parishes.  It is nothing short of a grace to behold such a thing.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Naming of a Choir

It has been a long, long time since I named a choir.  Thirty-seven years, to be precise.

Back in 1980, when a certain choral ensemble I know was in an embryonic state, we were searching for a name.  There were eight of us and no choral library (except a very large pile of illegally photocopied music of the St. Louis Jesuits). The keyboard used was an eighty-eight key Fender-Rhodes, a beast that had to be lugged up the icy stairs from the basement of then-Sacred-Heart-Church in the winter.

It was dangerous stuff, hauling all that gear in the frozen February waste of Northern Indiana.

It was also dangerous to name an ensemble. Seriously, the Notre Dame Folk Choir?  

Critics are found everywhere, and many years down the road I still hear from people who objected to that four letter word, "folk." They thought I was creating an homage to a genre, or to one of my favourite trinities. Was it Peter, Paul and Mary? Crosby, Stills and Nash? Larry, Curly and Moe?

I'll never tell!

But in truth, back then that four letter word was actually a reflection on the powerful import of the Second Vatican Council: music needed to belong to the people.  "Full, conscious, active," was something I embraced from the documents of the Council from the start, and I still do.  So this choir was to be a reflection of those encouragements.  The repertoire had to belong to the people, to the folk.  Liturgy was not to be a concert – at every possible turn, we would do our best to involve the assembly in everything we did.

And it paid off – in vocations, in volunteer service, in a repertoire that spread in many directions.

Now, in the year two thousand and seventeen, I have the opportunity to name a choir once again.  It is a process I take seriously, something that I've given careful thought to over the past months of making Dublin and St. Stephen's Green my home.  And like the choir that was named before this one, you only get to do it once, just as you can't change the name of a child a few years down the road. ("Well, I thought we were going to name him Henry, but now, two years later, I've changed my mind....").

Nope.  You get one chance.

So where has my thought led me? I've walked this land for nearly a year, and visited it for almost two generations.  I find our American past and Irish histories to be both unique and similar: we both fought the British Empire and eventually won.  We both were taxed and silenced to the point of humiliation.  And we both cherished the notion that we needed our voices – that government meant nothing if we had no voice.  The Americans coined a phrase: no taxation without representation. The Irish couldn't even coin a phrase: they had been stripped of their language.

I believe the same principles are at work in religious expression. Our lives aren't worth much if we have no voice. And we've proven, generation after generation, that we'd rather go to our graves than remain silent.  As with government, so with spirituality: it all hinges on whether we have a voice or not.  Does our ecclesial institution simply ask us to "pray, pay and obey?"  Or are we called to something more sublime?

All of this leads to the naming of a choir.

At University Church, on St. Stephen's Green, we've created a new musical community of young professionals.  Some are career organists and singers.  Some are already in other choirs.  Some are mathematicians, some are architects.  But all of them have been breathtakingly committed to creating an intentional gathering, choristers one and all.  We started with three singers, and now are past one dozen, four months in. It will continue to grow.

They have been named the Newman Vocare Ensemble.  "Vocare" is the operative word, for it is caught up in a calling, a receptive response to another's voice.  It is the root word for vocation.  And as such, it clearly marks a compass point as to what we are attempting to do with this tiny, city-centre assembly, week after week:

Cultivate the call.  Nurture the voice.  Acclaim and praise.  Foster that attitude in those who gather with us.  And always, always, help unleash the power that arises when human beings own the joy of life in the Spirit.

No pictures for this chapter.  If you want to hear what we are doing, click here.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Behold the Wood, chapter the last

For about two months, quietly, and mostly in the evening hours, a young artist from Romania has been working on a new Taizé cross for University Church here in Dublin. Watching her work is a bit like my own work in music composition – working on layer after layer, reworkings, refigurings, entering deeply into the art, stepping away. It has been a fascinating journey, watching this process evolve.

First, there were scores of discussions: what would the face of Christ look like?  What disposition?  Anguish?  Pleading? Resignation? Pain? Detachment?  And what saints were to be included on either side of the corpus? Traditionally, this would always be depicted with Saint John and Mary flanking either side.  But this was to be an Irish cross...

And what other symbols might be involved?  These discussions were largely about hagiography – how saints' images are depicted, what symbols are used and how.  Every detail was important.

The decision was made to use Irish saints on both sides of the crucifix, a reflection of the country and tradition where the cross was to be housed.  Patrick on Christ's right hand, Brigid on the left.  Both had their own symbols of association: for Patrick, the shamrock as a sign of his teaching of the Trinity, and the snake at his feet, illustrating the story of his expulsion of the reptile from this island nation.  Brigid is most often depicted with two symbols: the crozier (pay attention to this, men!), and her cradling the Church in her hands.  Combined with that is her own symbol of the oak leaf, which hearkens back to Cill Dara – Kildare, the church of the oak.

Our artist, Mona Damian, deftly wove these signs around the two saints – both appearing in their shepherd staffs.

Then there was the face of Christ.  Here, the face has the look of quiet resignation – not anger, or desperation, or even remorse.  The love is still in the eyes, not extinguished in the face of torture, pain and betrayal.  The ability to capture this expression is one of the many compelling parts of this portrayal of the Crucifixion.

Mona also seized upon one of the hidden artistic components of University Church.  Woven subtly throughout the lunettes of the saints in the nave are small pieces of glass – now so old and aged that they look more like stones than pieces of glass.  The decision was made to incorporate these shards of glass into all the haloes of the cross: the Saviour, both of the saints, and even high above the cross itself, as a representation of the wingéd hope of the Advocate.

Week by week Mona worked, moving from the blank white palette which she sketched out on day one.  Layer after layer, the corpus emerged, as if being released from a tomb. The Cross began to find small tendrils emerging from it – signs of growth emanating from the Tree of Life.  Then came the saints, gazing up directly into the face of the Saviour.  Finally, the symbol of the Trinity: the hands of the Father, the heart of the Son, and the wings of the Spirit, all looking down on the Sacrifice of Calvary.

Now it is all done, curing, hardening in the gallery of University Church: all the layers of paint and lacquer and glass.  Ageing, as all art does, becoming darker and more compelling as the days and weeks and months slip by.  By September, it will be brought down into the heart of Newman's Church, at the end of the nave, surrounded by candlelight, held in place by the granite communion rail that marks off the altar where the Sacrifice is repeated, day after day.  As we enter into the autumn days, we will be ready to have this new work of art become the focal point of our Taizé prayer, a new project stewarded by our incoming members of Dublin's House of Brigid, Teach Bhríde.

Behold the wood. The wood of the Cross. Behold our salvation, which even in the darkest hour, holds the promise of grace and beauty and deliverance from all that would cause us to lose hope.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Whispered Voices at Kafka's

It was an ending to a great saga – and a beginning, too.

My good friend and ministerial colleague, Geoff Burdell, was on the threshold of leaving Dublin, after serving here for two years as first a member, and then House Director, of Teach Bhríde here in the city.  Geoff's parents and his parish priest invited us to dinner, down the road in Rathmines, at a restaurant called Kafka's.

It was a great night of catching up, enjoying one another's company, listening to stories of the last two years, talking about golf (the men played 18 holes that day), and answering the myriad questions from the Burdells about life in Dublin's fair city.

Throughout all this merriment, about halfway through our Guinness, a young couple came in and sat at the table next to us.  I didn't notice them much, save for the fact that the woman seemed to be from South America (at least, that's what I guessed from the accent).

Just as the food arrived, we did a simple thing, instinctive to us who labour in the vineyard.  Someone suggested grace, we clasped hands quickly, bowed our heads, and entered into a bit of gratitude: not only for the great food, but for the precious gathering of friends, the completion of much good work.  We didn't think a moment about it – just doing what we normally do.

As we were preparing to leave, at the end of the evening, the South American lady (I was right; turns out she was from Brazil) leaned over and said a few words to Geoff's mom, Jeanette.  It went something like this: "I was so inspired that all of you said grace tonight.  I've wanted to do this here in this city, but never thought I could.  Seeing you do this – now I am going to say grace at restaurants as well."

Jeanette shared this with me as we left Kafka's.  The significance of it was not lost on me – what a moment of quiet, seemingly insignificant witness can do to shape a landscape of prayer.

Two days ago, Geoff concluded his time in Dublin, boarding an airplane, heading back to weddings in the Midwest, and soon after that to seminary studies with the Congregation of Holy Cross.  I shall miss him greatly.  And I'm sure he could speak of the many theophanies that took place over the past two years.  But I'm also dead certain that the most important ones are the smallest – the searing, naive inquisitions by his school kids, the conversations after mass, the unheralded moments when divinity broke through in unexpected ways.

A lot like Kafka's, where whispered voices announced gratitude and grace.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Behold the Wood, Part 2

At least when you're watching an artist, you can see something tangible, something discernible, taking shape every day.  I wonder about that when it comes to the craft of music composition, pushing notes and lyrics around on a page.  Only those literate in this language can comprehend a piece of music in their heads.

But the visual arts are different: the work is there to behold, to take in, to affect the senses.  So it was that even on day two of Mona's work on the Taize cross, already there were things to behold, directions I could tell she was headed, ideas that would eventually come to the fore.

You can see a "rough" of what will take shape under her hand.  On either side of Jesus are the images of Patrick (on the left, treading on a snake) and Brigid (on the opposite side, holding her traditional symbol, a bishop's staff).  Above, looking down on the Cross, is a heart shaped image, around which will appear the words "Cor ad cor loquitor" – "heart touches the heart," the motto of Blessed John Cardinal Newman.

There are weeks left on this project, but the changes between days one and two are dramatic.  

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ecce Lignum Crucis: Behold the Wood

We come here, we observe, we see where the young hearts are, what they are listening to, what helps them to pray.  And after we survey this landscape, we try as best we can to add to it.

That's what is at the heart of our advocacy of Taizé prayer here at Newman Church.  I hesitate to say that this French community is a "trend" or the "latest thing," for the brethren themselves would reject such a notion.  It's too calming to be trendy.  And it's not new – Taizé came to birth as a sanctuary for people fleeing the perils of the Second World War, and have now become quite a different sort of sanctuary, especially for young people seeking out spiritual truths in an age sucked dry by secularism.

Frére Roger, Taizé's founder, was a man of the Spirit, and as such simply allowed the winds of spirituality to bring their craft where it would – which, in this case, would be the entire world... including Ireland.

There is a Taizé Dublin Facebook site, and they promote gatherings around the Archdiocese (as they did for us, graciously, on Tuesday of Holy Week this year).  Those who love this spirituality know no age bracket.  But a good many are from the ranks of young professionals here in Dublin – a demographic we really hope to engage here at Newman's University Church.

The focal point for Taizé prayer is a large wooden cross, most often Byzantine in shape, style and theme.  Early this year, my colleague, Fr. Bill Dailey, c.s.c., and I decided that it would be well worth it to commission a cross for Newman's University Church.  And we knew of such an artist: a young Romanian woman who had created a similar Taizé cross just down the road, in Dolphin's Barn.

Our artist, Mona Maria Damian, started work on the project as soon as the plywood template was finished.  And like any good artist, her work needed to begin with a blank canvas; the cross was first covered with a white primer as she commenced her work.

Most Byzantine representations have, on both sides of the corpus of Jesus, images of Mary and St. John standing on either side.  But to accentuate the placement of this cross, ours will instead display the figures of Bridget and Patrick.  You can see these, roughly sketched, in the accompanying photo.

Over the next several days, I'll be posting Mona's progress as she creates a new spiritual centrepiece for our gatherings.  And starting in the autumn, this will serve as a weekly focal point for our singing and praying in the style of our brethren from France.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Sodbusting, Volume 2

In front of the double presbytery that adjoins Newman University Church lies a courtyard.  When we first arrived here, our Irish colleagues brought us out to the area, and with a somber demeanour, announced that the place has devolved  (insert brogue here) "into rack and ruin."

They were right.  Snuggled in the midst of Newman House and Iveagh Gardens (where Blessed Cardinal John Henry began his Catholic University of Dublin), it is a precious little oasis, a sonic and visual retreat sealed off from the noise of the city.  But it had become a pseudo-parking lot, overgrown with moss and weeds, filled with root-bound potted plants and broken crockery.

I saw it not as a parking lot – but as a gem of a place where friends and parishioners could eventually gather in the evenings.  The locust tree in the centre of the lot could serve a double purpose, both for summer shade, and as a maypole for strings of lights, creating a festive canopy over our congregants after Mass. Few places in downtown Dublin could boast such a gathering place, and here was one, smack dab on our front doorstep.

So week by week, we began the slow and careful task of attacking each square foot of crushed gravel, eliminating the moss and weeds by hand, using wire brushes on the pavement stones, repotting the root-bound geraniums and fuschias, and making a couple of treks out to the garden centre for ideas on native Irish plants.

In this picture, you can see how moss had invaded everything; the only really effective way to get rid of it was to do the job by hand, then maintain it.  Spraying nasty chemicals would kill a lot of things (including birds), but wouldn't necessarily clean things up.

It was a companion job to the choir gallery.  Inch by inch, week by week, as the sun started getting stronger and the days grew longer, we conquered the parking lot, with an eye to making it into a city garden.  If you're wondering size, think about an area that could hold maybe five or six compact cars.  It has been a long, slow haul.

We found surprises:  a whole exterior lighting system that had fallen into disuse.  Careful rewiring (by an electrical contractor) brought evening lustre to the walls surrounding the courtyard.  But not before the contractor found a crypt-like dungeon underneath our residence – which likewise held all the wiring connections for the garden lights, all of which needed to be replaced. But tons of money was saved by repurposing the lighting that was already there. And with a little bit of geometry, we were able to calculate how many strings of lights we would need to create the lighted canopy over the entire area; true to our hopes, a few weeks later our faithful electrician got up on a ladder and transformed the yard into an umbrella of light.

So here we are, on the doorstep of June, and we can look at this effort and be grateful.  We've already had several gatherings outside – once, for our entire "parish community" at the end of the Easter octave, and a second last weekend for the Irish Alliance for Catholic Education community.  It has been time well spent, as we see these gatherings as a place to build what we hope will be the foundations for a new Christian community here in Dublin city centre.

By the middle of June, we hope to have much more frequent gatherings – board members, choir evenings, teaching colleagues, Notre Dame supporters, journalists and parish folk.  Here, in this little oasis in the heart of Dublin, wedged in between St. Stephen's Green and the walled Iveagh Gardens, we will rebuild our community. Sodbusting.  It is what makes things grow.  

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Sodbusting, Volume 1

It has been almost four months since I've posted on the Guitar Pilgrim.  And while I enjoy writing and reflecting on what's going on here on St. Stephen's Green, blogging is a luxury – especially when you have many liturgies to do with precious few resources.

About the same time I wrote my post during the Octave for Christian Unity, Newman Church was approached about an extraordinary opportunity – televising St. Patrick's Day Mass from our humble sanctuary.  More on that two-month project later, but back to the matter at hand.

Looking back on eight months since landing here in Ireland, one of the best descriptions I can use is "sodbusting."  And yes, we're working in the Auld Sod – so maybe the pun is intentional.

Twenty years ago, when Michele and I moved into our home in Granger, Indiana, we decided to create a series of raised beds for gardening in our backyard. The task was backbreaking – shovel and spade, digging deep into the hard earth and turning it over, leaving the turf upside-down, buried under the soil so that it eventually fertilised what was about to be sown – this took weeks to do.  But eventually, the task was done, and the earth began to yield her fruit.

Sodbusting: it is the task of turning over impacted ground, breaking it open, and releasing the hidden gifts so that they may grow.  And it's the best descriptive analogy to what this first year has been like here in Dublin.

When we first arrived here, our choir loft ("gallery," in Irish-speak) was a junkyard of broken pews, splintered wood, chicken wire, dust and mould.  It took months to clear away the dirt, remove and repurpose the old timbers, treat the area for infestation, even remove walls and partitions so that the choir could have an active hand in the liturgy.

Once that that was done, the earth could begin to yield its fruit again.  We purchased a set of five new cabinets, and ordered sheet music from all over the world: chorales from Taizé, some of the best-sellers from the Folk Choir's octavo series, anthems from Ireland, England and America. Psalms were added from the precious repertoire of Fintan O'Carroll, masses from both Ireland and America.  New Irish composers' works began finding a place in our filing system.  All of them were carefully sowed in alphabetical and thematic order, ready to use and to be organised into what the choir(s) had never had before: choral folders, with legitimate, written sheet music contained therein. Harmonies that could be given to the sopranos and altos, tenors and basses.  And instrumental scores for the eventual arrival of flute, violins, viola and cello.

The pictures above and next to these words show the transformation of one small corner of Newman University Church.  Portion by portion, section by section, we've been hard at work revitalising this old gem, this beloved sacred space, visioned by a priest and poet and philosopher a century and a half ago.

And now, all we need to do is continue to sow the seeds.  The earth is ready, painstakingly tilled and prepared.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Quiet Voice of One

This past week the Church celebrated its annual call to unity.  And for me, it provided a unique opportunity to visit a place that I’d never set foot inside of, for all my years moving about Dublin: the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, otherwise known as Christ Church Cathedral. 

Maybe it’s appropriate that my visit coincided with this time of the church year, if only for this fact:  officially – that is, through the lens of traditional assertion – both the Church of Ireland (Anglican) and the Roman Catholic Church claim Christ Church as the seat of their faith, their cathedral church. 

There was no spirit of territorialism, though, the evening I visited... only the language of welcome, of hospitality, of common prayer.  And significantly, what all these families of faith chose to unite their voices together was the song of Taizé. 
Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

The changing face of the church wasn’t lost upon me, not by a long shot: here was the Anglican Church, reaching out to all denominations (including many Catholics), at least five different language groups represented (I recognised Irish, English, Spanish, German, and one – I think – from eastern Europe).  But the words that brought them all together were the words of ancient Rome, newly woven together in the simple four-part refrains of the ecumenical community of Taizé, an ecumenical community found in the Burgundy region of France.  The celebration was unabashedly global, both by way of its participants, and by its language.

There is a place in the last book of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, that finds an assembly of operatives confounded by their own speech – the “curse of Babel”, as it were.  In the midst of their meeting, the participants found their language could no longer be understood by others: the resulting scenario was nothing but chaos, discord, violence and misunderstanding.

When I take in the news lately, it seems that this very same curse has taken over a spirit of meaningful dialog in the world.  Yet here I sat, in an ancient stone cathedral, in a city that, 100 years ago, witnessed revolt, assassination, and overwhelming destruction.  Here I sat, surrounded by people seemingly divided by the very words they spoke, yet united by simple songs.  It was Babel redeemed, the sound of humanity brought together in a new way by an ancient language.  And everyone understood what was being said.

Perhaps it was a bit like what the earliest of apostles experienced two thousand years ago, when those once-timid men stepped forward, finding that their words were understood by all: a miracle of the Spirit moving in their midst.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Nativity: Retrospect

The crazy thing about the gallery (loft) of Newman’s University Church is how it managed to function for so many years given the sheer restrictions by way of space.  The organ console was surrounded by a six-foot wooden wall; it almost completely blocked off musicians from the assembly.  The confined area held about eight singers; but if you brought in an additional instrument (or set of instruments), one would have to choose between singers and instruments.  The wooden box cut the choir off from the liturgy; even for me, closest to the sanctuary, I could never see what was going on in the assembly.  We were, almost literally, in another county.

Through some superb collaboration with the Archdiocese, and very hard work by skilled contractors, by mid-December we had carefully modified this precious area, opening it up so that the choir could grow and participate in the liturgy.  And musicians could be added without having to move choristers to remote areas. 

The first real test of this new gallery was about to take place, on none other than Christmas Eve.  We had hired a string quartet made up of members of the RTE Orchestra and the Irish National Symphony.  A special service booklet had been created, so that everyone could sing the carols, psalms and acclamations.  A new setting of the Roman Martyrology was composed, sung as the very last piece before the opening hymn, O Come All Ye Faithful.  It was a fitting conclusion to the whispered waitings of Advent. 

By the end, we all stepped back, taking in what had been accomplished – not just by way of the Christmas Eve and Morn liturgies – but all the efforts of the past three months.  My dedicated little choir had learned not one, but two new mass settings.  We added a fabulous violinist to our ranks on a weekly basis.  New folders, octavos, and printed SATB choral music were now in their hands: the floodgates had opened, and they reached their fruitful culmination with the blessed feast of the Nativity.

“Set every peak and valley humming.”  So goes the text from Eleanor Farjeon’s beloved hymn, People Look East.  I hope the Wicklow Mountains were listening closely:  the Lord, indeed, is coming.  Love is a Song, and it is on the way.