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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

"Simplify" - not as easy as I thought (revisiting We Will Serve the Lord, 1986)

 I started writing music in high school, but really practiced more and did better work when I was in college, of course. As a young man, even before high school, I had learned guitar next door at my grandfather's house. Grandpa Russ was a trumpet player in his youth, but as far as I know, hadn't taken his horn out of the closet since the time of the czars. But he was always a musical wannabe, and had an electronic chord organ in one corner of his living room, probably purchased from my grandmother's employer, Montgomery Ward & Company, and an inexpensive guitar that he tried to play as well. Probably the Beatles and the Beachboys got me interested, so I used to ask him to borrow his guitar and sat there trying to learn chords from charts. I had singing down well enough that I got the idea about what was supposed to happen with the guitar, but it took me some time, and the first song I learned to play was "Red River Valley," and I never looked back. I had all the chords I would need to play Kumbaya, Sons of God, and all the other church songs that got popular.

I would also play the old piano that my parents had bought so that my sister Cathy could take piano lessons. When Cathy wasn't practicing, which was most of the time, the books were still there, all those books that everyone learned to play from in the 60s (was it Schirmer?) and since I was beginning to understand the relationship between the dots on the paper and the scale notes and piano keys (I had already absorbed the basics of this on guitar as well), I started trying to play piano too. As you can guess from my playing today, I never practiced as much as I should have, but I didn't have a teacher or parent threatening me with extinction (or worse) if I didn't practice. So I kept loving music as a mystery instead of as a pile of rocks I had to carry up a mountain.

As I got into high school and then college (between 1965 and 1973) I was blessed, really blessed, to live in a time where music was everywhere, in the folk movement, the birth of rock and roll, the British invasion, the singer-songwriter era, and certainly in the renewed interest in liturgical music that the Second Vatican Council precipitated. Most of the time through those years I played guitar, but kept going back to the piano because I felt more at home trying to figure out songs I was hearing by using piano notes. I even remember the feeling one morning when I woke up in college—not the day, or time of year, but the feeling upon awakening—that I understood music in a way I had never understood before, that music moved horizontally rather than vertically. I guess I mean that I understood about how chords change and music is made by the forward movement of melodies rather than the vertical imposition of chords. It came to me in sleep, as the psalm says God's gifts often come. I'll never forget that "awakening."

Anyway, as I started writing more and more, especially the end of college and then into my new "real" life back home, I was trying to write like my colleagues and mentors and music heroes, Robert I. Blanchard, David Windsor C.M., Richard Proulx, and friends at school. To me, it seemed like "more complicated is better," so I worked hard on writing some not-very-good organ and keyboard pieces like "Kenosis Hymn" and other songs, and even my more "pop" style writing was more musically complex than many church musicians wanted to bother with. By the time my first album, You Alone, had been produced, I felt that maybe I was getting too far away from my guitar roots, where songs like "Psalm 40: Here I Am" and other pieces I'd written in school had touched hearts and become part of my friends' prayer life. So I decided to write something just for guitar, not needing anything more than a handful of chords, that was more like the folk style I'd grown up with, singing Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary songs in school.

What happened was "We Will Serve the Lord." (Link is to original SongStories post) I know it's not the first song ever to pick up on Joshua 24:15, but I am surprised it hasn't been done more. And the Joshua passage is read as the first reading on the fifth of the Bread of Life Sundays in Year B (August 26 in 2018). Having a Sunday with an anchor text like that doesn't hurt the shelf-life of a song, of course. Musically, my need to write a song in my older, folkier, "simpler" style was probably also influenced by the 1979 Dylan song "Serve Somebody" from Slow Train Coming. Either that, or Gary's imitation of Dylan singing it at every concert we've done for the last thirty years has made me paranoid. The song begins with a three-chord riff that, on the original album Do Not Fear to Hope, was played on a keyboard using an electric guitar patch. The same instrument played the solo in the middle of the song, played by producer Tom Kendzia's college friend Stacy Widelitz, who, as you may remember from my post on "Song of the Chosen," co-wrote the song "She's Like the Wind" from the multi-platinum Dirty Dancing soundtrack.

I remember, when writing the text, thinking about something I'd read in our Corpus Christi Center classes in Phoenix from a book called Money, Sex, and Power: The Challenge of a Disciplined Life, a 1985 publication by theologian Richard J. Foster. The one thing I can recall about the book now is that the title places the names of the challenges to a disciplined life that are meant to be tamed by the ascetic virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Somehow in my reflection on all that, I wrote the song as an anthem about the values conflict between American life and Christian life, phrased in language that suggests a sharp and clear black-and-white bipolarity rather than the rather more nuanced moral choices people are called to make, often without the compassionate evangelical guidance they ought to be able to expect.


The language of the lyric is more polemic and divisive than I would write today, and I wish I had the phrase "pagan horde" back. But two things about it: I was a lot younger then, more than half my lifetime ago, and knew even less than I know now. But also, I'm not so sure that with better evangelical guidance the song might not help people of a certain age and spiritual maturity voice some confidence and mutual affirmation in faith without necessarily setting group against group or feeling that one particular path of faith puts us "above the pagan horde" or any other horde. I'm for telling the truth these days, I guess, which is what I was for back then too. I just am not for defining ourselves in faith over and against others, because that kind of rivalry just makes everything worse, and breaks faith at the very place that faith tries to unite and reconcile.

I guess maybe you could say that I tried to simplify my style a bit thirty years ago, which was good, and then over the last thirty years I got more complicated, which might also be good. I know this: in the music department, since my soul-searching that led up to writing on guitar again with "We Will Serve the Lord," I've tried not to write "over my head," in the sense that I would be imitating some musical style that a thousand other songwriters can do better. I write what I write, and hope that it connects with both pastoral musicians and the people they serve. There are a lot of songs out there: maybe too many. People who don't like what I write have a lot of other options!

We've recorded the song twice, first in 1986 on Do Not Fear to Hope, and then in 2000 on our Change Our Hearts collection with OCP, that re-recorded the songs from our NALR albums that had been anthologized. My friend Tom Booth, an amazing performer, speaker, and songwriter himself, also recorded the song on his self-titled 1996 recording, his second record. You can hear a clip of his version here at OCP, by clicking on "view songs" and then the arrow next to "(We Will) Serve the Lord."

Somebody, I think it was Fr. Virgil Funk, probably distilled in the vocabulary of John Gallen, SJ, said that liturgical music needed to be artistically and expertly crafted so that sublime music about the deepest truths of the universe could be performed and sung by non-professional church musicians and parishioners. There is no particular matrix or sound or instrument that have a monopoly on that craft. It is ultimately driven by the word of God, but it is not an end in itself so much as a means to the end of changing the world. It's simplicity is to let the word shine through, and make it possible for everyone, and everyone's children, and everyone's grandparents, to participate as thoroughly as possible. Liturgical song does not aspire to be great art in the aesthetic sense. It aspires to make expression of the mysteries of grace, community, forgiveness, and sacrifice part of the emotional and spiritual vocabulary of the whole Church. So I think "simplifying," avoiding or cutting away everything that doesn't contribute to the success of any local congregation find its voice, is a good instinct for us songwriters. As Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz taught us in their performance piece, Mass, "Sing God a simple song, for God is the simplest of all."


Thursday, August 2, 2018

SongStories 58: One Is the Body (GIA, Vision, 1992)

"One is the breath of the star and the rose."

It is from this line of the lyric that the cover art was imagined by my brother-in-law, Gary Palmatier. Having worked in "Re-membering Church" institutes for so many years with lights like Jim LoPresti and Joe Favazza and others, the confluence of scriptural and ecclesial images of reconciliation took shape in this communion song. Yes, it has a long refrain (this has been its most persistent criticism), but I think that the short lines and rhyme scheme mitigate that issue, and make the refrain memorable. It's scriptural, trinitarian, and takes a fresh look (I think) at all of that in the light of the eucharist. And it should still be in Gather.

Of course, every songwriter thinks this about every song. But I just got my royalty report for 2017-18 from GIA and OneLicense. And you know what? Among my Catholic song reprints, "One Is the Body" is the third-highest in reporting, and it hasn't been in a hymnal since the 1989 edition of Gather Comprehensive. Speaking of comprehensive, it's beyond comprehension to me why it hasn't appeared in any subsequent edition.

The so-called priestly prayer of Jesus ("priestly" because it parallels the high priest's prayer of second-Temple Judaism at the Feast of Atonement, and "so-called" because it appears in the gospel of John as the words of Jesus, but not a record of his exact words that night) leads up to one great prayer to Abba: "that they may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, that they also may be one in us." It is a prayer for unity and intimacy. The text of "One Is" starts with the eucharistic language about body, blood, bread, and cup, but it soon expands to "the living and dead," stars and flowers as symbols of all creation, with the unity of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. The song's three verses suggest that in gathering and forgiveness, in stewardship of the earth, in reflection on our place in world charged with God's presence, and in our care for the afflicted and needy, we are sure to encounter God among us, and, as the psalmist describes, actually "taste and see" the goodness of the Lord in our experience of life. Having sung about some of the many aspects of unity invoked by the celebration of the Eucharist, the refrain ends with the words, "To this I will say, 'Amen,'" referring to the word being spoken throughout the assembly at that very moment, ratifying again the new covenant in Christ's merciful love.



Things we love often develop a veneer of familiarity that obstructs our devotion from time to time. "One Is" tries, as we always do, I guess, to find a small way into a great mystery, a cluster of images and metaphors that might help us see old things newly again, maybe to transform the familiar into something fresher for the imagination. Here, scriptural images side-by-side with fragments from the Gospel of Thomas, Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the kind of language employed by mystics like Fr. Anthony diMello SJ, try to crack open that veneer for us so that we can see into the mystery a little more clearly for a few minutes. 

As a listening experience for the heart and soul, Vision remains for me our best album from top to bottom until To You Who Bow, released 25 years later. I think it has aged really well, and it is really ingratiating to discover that, after that much time, so many parish music directors feel something of the same, and continue to program it in spite of its absence from hymnals for so long. Thanks to all of you.
One Is (the Body)  by Rory Cooney 
One is the body, one is the bread,
One are the living, the unborn, the dead.
One is the cup, one blood in us flows,
One is the breath of the star and the rose.
One are the Spirit, Creator, and Son,
Just as the source and the river are one.
One are the stranger, my foe and my friend.
To this I will say: “Amen.” 
Gather, disciples, your Master to meet;
Learn to forgive from the bread that you eat.
Treasure the earth in the wine that is poured:
Taste and see the goodness, the love of the Lord. 
Now split the timber, now turn the stone,
Look where you will: you are never alone.
High in the heavens, deep in the flood,
All things are charged with the presence of God. 
I am the hungry, you are the poor,
God is the stranger who waits at the door.
Where any suffers, no one is free;
Whatever you do, then, you do it to me. 
Copyright © 1993 GIA Publications, Inc.

Monday, July 30, 2018

SongStories 57: May We Be One (Communion Rite) [Praise the Maker's Love, GIA, 1993]

Writing a communion song ranks for me among the most difficult tasks liturgical composers have, especially if we hope to say anything original. The inaestimabile donum that is the Eucharist may be a mystery inexhaustible in its riches, but there's pretty little doubt that we keep saying the same things over and over again, and often without music musical innovation to balance off the overused texts.

It's not because we're not trying! I can't tell you how many times I start off thinking I'm writing something that genuinely feels new to me, but by the time I commit a text to paper and start singing it, all I hear are the similarities between what I've written and everything that has gone before. "Sing a new song," we're told, ostensibly because there's new stuff too be grateful for, for which to praise God. But the song doesn't sound new most of the time. Because it isn't. I hate when that happens!

"May We Be One" was the fruit of one of Gary's and my trips together to Prescott in the early 90s. Many of my songs from the Vision collection came from there. I remember writing "Covenant Hymn" with Gary there, and calling Terry to sing it to her over the phone; we were psyched. Gary had this idea for a communion song based on one of the old (1972) mass "memorial acclamations," now called the "mystery of faith." He had set the first half of a communion refrain to the text of the acclamation,
When we eat this bread and drink this cup,
We proclaim your death, Lord Jesus Christ...
...but I convinced him that even though his version followed the Huijbers-Oosterhuis guideline of "one syllable to a note," the refrain text would be stronger with two notes on the "Je-" syllable of Jesus, and letting the short U sound rhyme with the same sound in "cup" on the previous line. Then I went about writing the last two lines of the refrain:
So as we share this feast, may we become
Healing and light and peace. May we be one.
The text of the chorus is a trope on the acclamation, explicitly tying the act of communion (becoming one—with God and others) to the paschal mystery (dying to self in love). The entire communion rite that appeared in the collection included a harmonization of the Lord's Prayer chant with its embolism, a Fraction Rite with multiple verses, and a communion hymn. Musical material that Gary employed in the setting of the Glory to God and Fraction Rite is wedded to the response "Amen, amen," making the response both memorable and resonant with the action of communion, and the familiarity of the text (1 Cor. 10 and the Roman Missal) made the congregation's part a quick learn.



"May We Be One" uses a call-and-response form for the verses, with a refrain.  There are thirteen verses for the cantor(s), too, making May We Be One a good choice for even the longest communion processions. The verses use images about bread, wine, and common life to give variety to the performance of the song.
This is the bread of Israel's wandering. (Amen, amen.)
The bread that strengthened Elijah. (Amen, amen.)...
Take and eat, this bread is the life of God.
This is the cup of Cana's amazement. (Amen, amen.)
The cup that would not pass from you. (Amen, amen.)
Take and drink, this cup is the life of God....
This is a people homeless and wandering. (Amen, amen.)
A people at home with each other. (Amen, amen.)
Drink warmth and hope from this winecup. (Amen, amen.)
May all creation meet at this table. (Amen, amen.)
And deep within all people the breath of God.
Maybe my way of trying to do something new with a communion song was to embrace the cascade of images, biblical, natural, and experiential, that is behind the liturgical action of taking up, blessing, dividing, and sharing bread and wine. The gift of the Eucharist is the work of God in the universe, always giving all of the divine creative energy to create strength for the weak, freedom for the unfree, unity where there is division, beautiful diversity amid chaos. Thirteen stanzas doesn't cover it all by any means, but at least it's an indication of the impossibility of the task!

And a word about the music: Gary did a really lovely job on this piece, especially when seen in the context of the other parts of the eucharistic suite he included on his recording. The refrain is in the key of F, and moves toward resolving at its conclusion to Dm, but Gary substituted the G major chord there for the relative minor, and so the verses were able to swing into Cm. This is the key and melodic material that the Lamb of God was built from, creating a lovely match between these related ritual pieces, and as I mentioned earlier, the descending melody of the response line of these call-and-response verses is based on the melody of the Glory to God, also used in the Alleluia. Gary handles all this in a way that is imitative but not slavishly so, and so each piece of the suite becomes a mnemonic for other parts without making us get sick of singing it before we've learned them all. (Go ye and do likewise!)

We dedicated "May We Be One" to Rev. Richard Fragomeni, a wonderful liturgist, mentor, and long-time friend whose dedication to the Eucharist has inspired us for over two decades. It was a homily, or a talk, or a story about a homily or a talk of his, that was the inspiration for this song so many years ago. Thank to Richard for his friendship and ministry over the years.

With "Covenant Hymn," the Lamb of God and May We Be One are the most enduring of the songs we wrote for Praise the Maker's Love. They have appeared in all the iterations of Gather so far through the Third Edition, as well as in RitualSong

Friday, June 29, 2018

Repenting our inner heretic: modernist and Pelagian edition

So I was reading a talk given by one of my favorite Scripture scholars, Walter Brueggeman, who specializes in Old Testament prophets and their role in preaching the word of God to the kings and priests and people. In a video talk to the Sojourners “Summit for Change” last month, he spoke about church and state and what terrible bedfellows they are, and he started all the way back with Solomon and the narrative created by the kings of Israel, and how the prophetic tradition peppers the “official” narrative with a counter narrative. The whole thing is wonderful, and can be found by clicking here.

But there was one paragraph that really struck me, one that I think has some validity in our church and in our time, and with all the rancor and arguing in the public square about whether this is a “Christian” country, and who gets to use the name “Christian,” I thought that his insight was worth spreading around a little bit for consideration. Brueggeman says:
If you take the phrase “prophetic imagination,” the imagination part of that is that the prophets are able to imagine the world other than the way that is in front of them. The word prophetic alludes to the reality of God. And what the prophets believe deeply is that God is a lively character, and a real agent who acts in the world, who causes endings and who causes new beginnings. And that's worth thinking about, because that is not ordinary thinking among us — that God is a lively agent and a real character. 
If you consider most conservative evangelicals, they do not believe that God is a lively character and a real agent, because they've got God all packaged up into sustained systematic explanations. And if you consider most theological progressives they don't believe that God is a real character and a lively agent, either, because they really believe that God has no hands but our hands.
When I read that the first time, I thought to myself, “ouch,” because I recognize the truth of what he’s saying. Obviously, his use of "most" is up for interpretation, and maybe you don't consider yourself part of that group, but I definitely think that I do, in some sense. Modern faith is not immune to scientific inquiry. We know, or assume we know, the difference between faith and magic. We know that the sun doesn’t rise and doesn’t set, but that we’re on a ball that spins every twenty-four hours and sometimes it faces the sun and sometimes it doesn’t. We’ve gotten comfortable with science, at least most of us in mainline churches have. We believe that the truth of faith and the facts of science are compatible, that truth, at its core, is one, and that answers that elude us are not God playing a game with us, but that we’re evolving, learning as we go. And faith is not only concerned with things unseen. It’s that we take for granted that not everything that is is part of the quantifiable universe. There are realities that are unverifiable by science. But verifiable and unverifiable realities are aspects of Truth (with a capital T), and there is more to reality and truth than facts and what can be proven.

So when it comes to faith, the temptation might be for us, following Brueggeman's groupings, either to leave God out of the equation because we believe that money, conflict, and power move history forward, generally through institutions of church and state (or both), or we believe that what is possible for good is entirely up to us, doing what we can in a community working to build a more just world. In neither case do we make a big enough place for God, who, in fact, is the prime mover, is the Reality underneath all reality, the “lively agent” in Brueggeman’s phrase, who has a distinctly different purpose in mind for the world than any of us do, a purpose that Jesus calls “the kingdom,” or the “reign of God.”

So all I want to say here is that among the many places we hope to assert divine activity in this world in our liturgy, one that stands out every week is the penitential litany that we call the Kyrie Eleison (or Lord, have mercy.) Of course, the entire liturgy asserts God’s primacy, but as a primacy not of force but one that empties itself into world through Jesus and then through the Holy Spirit. From creation to the end, God is where the loving, creative, exuberant action is, and it keeps manifesting itself in the unfolding cosmos. But we find ourselves in this world in a tough place: things are bad, and don’t seem to be getting better. Right at the beginning of the liturgy, we acknowledge that. We say we’ve made a mess of things, and frankly, we haven’t got a clue about how to fix it, except to keep coming back here on Sunday, doing what we’ve been told to do in memory of Jesus, and then trying to live it out day by day in the streets. At the beginning of Mass, we just say it: Lord, this is your world. You, not the president, not the bank, not the arms salesmen, not the UN, not the church, You are the Lord. We need you to be that for us. That’s what “have mercy” means: you have it, we don’t have it. Please, give it to us.

James Alison tries to get us inside of God's agency, which, if anything, he finds even more radically luminous and active than Brueggeman does, emphasizing that in fact we perceive everything wrongly until we surrender to God's invitation to relax into be loved by the Forgiving Victim, Jesus. He uses the image of a planet that is, unknown to its happy and complacent inhabitants, tipping toward the maw of a black hole. They notice in the distance of space at first a small star, but one which is growing larger and larger in their sky. At first, their ordered existence is thrown into chaos as they fear the approach of this rapidly moving star. But gradually they begin to notice that it is they, their planet, that is moving toward the new star, drawn there by a new gravity, and thus away from the black hole which they had not noticed was pulling them toward destruction. Alison summarizes his metaphor a few paragraphs later:
When we talk about what Jesus came to do, did and is doing in our midst, we are talking about what comes upon us as an alteration of the axis of Creation rather than as a resolution of a moral problem. Our being brought close into the life of God by Jesus living out being a forgiving victim in our midst has this as its effect: that we perceive simultaneously where we used to be heading, into an ever-shrinking world run by revenge, envy and death; and where we are instead finding ourselves drawn: into being forgiven, forgiving, and thus being opened up into true, insider knowledge of creation as it unfolds dynamically....
So, in fact, in our case, being forgiven is prior to being created.
Alison, James. Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice - An Introduction to Christianity for Adults (p. 493-4). DOERS Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition. 
So in addition to being a prayer of praise (“You are mighty God and prince of peace”), the Kyrie is an act of faith and surrender. We keep choosing false gods. We keep choosing pretender-lords. Or worse, we think somehow we have replaced God as the movers of history. Jesus thinks of it as a partnership. God won’t do it without us, we can’t do it without God. When we sing “Lord, have mercy” or “Kyrie eleison,” let’s try to hold that thought in our hearts, and make an act of faith with it, something like, “I’m listening, Lord; I’m trying to live up to the example of Christ in my world. But it's overwhelming sometimes. Everything seems to be moving the wrong way. But you’re the vine, I’m just a branch. Give me, give all of us, what we need to be able to live and bear fruit to bring a harvest of nourishment, justice, and peace to the world.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

"What will this child be?" [Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24)]

I confess that I don't know whether I can separate my head* and heart enough to write a coherent post, one that does what I insist we have to do, which is evaluate what we hear in the scriptures on a weekend and act on it. I'm really tired. The weight of the terrible news, the story of what citizens and leaders of this country are actually doing in the name of national security in a nation founded on the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. We have families being split up at our borders, children separated from parents and placed in pens; we have removed ourselves from international agreements on human rights, after already denying climate change; we have congressional representatives moving to take away safety net programs and social security to pay for border walls and space warriors; we have leaders turning away from longtime allies and cozying up to tyrants with their own bloody histories of human rights violations. To top it all off, we have a government official quoting the bible to say that disagreeing with them or disobeying their orders goes against God's will, because God ordains the government.

In my own church, not a homiletic word about any of this. Not one. It's as though parish life is unaffected by the world we live in. The priests of the archdiocese are in a weeklong retreat together with Cardinal Cupich, a man whom I greatly admire. I wonder whether, John-like, they'll come roaring out of their desert "retreat experience" with something new to say. If not, I think retreats have lost their purpose and meaning.

As for me, like Paul Simon in his "American Tune" that pulled together his experience of political life and the aspirations of many of us in the 1960s and early 70s,
And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it's all right, it's all right
We've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we're traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I was briefly disappointed that we would not be celebrating the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time, with its gospel about Christ calming the sea. It seemed to me that we need to be reminded that even though the waves are crashing over the side of the boat, and we're sinking, Christ is in the boat too. Even if it sinks, I guess, though sometimes he calms the seas. Then I remember that I'm supposed to be Christ in that story. I'm the person who's supposed to say to you, "Don't be afraid," and then to the sea, "STFU so we can get some sleep." I'm supposed to believe I can do that, and do it. But we don't get those readings this year.

Instead, we get to celebrate the birthday of John the Baptist. In the summertime. This is all pretty much because of some early (to us, late, to church historians) documents that  posited the annunciation to Zechariah to have taken place while he was serving in the Temple during the festivals of Tishri, at the autumnal equinox, the same documents (De solstitiis et aequinoxiis, the argument summarized in Origins of the Liturgical Year, by Thomas Talley, pp. 93-99) that go on to surmise based on the scriptural witness that the annunciation to Mary happened when Elizabeth (John's mother... are you getting this?) was in her sixth month. I could go on, but you're getting the picture. The birth of the Messiah and his herald thus fit with cosmic precision into the scriptural witness that John said, "He must increase, and I must decrease," with even their birthdays cooperating as the (northern hemisphere) days increase in length after the winter solstice, and decrease after the summer solstice.

And it dawned on me that John the Baptist, the baby whose birthday we celebrate, is a good place look for light today. "What will this child be?" was the question the people of the hill country started asking when the boy's mother and deaf-mute father somehow decided in the same instant that his name should be John. What will this child be in our occupied nation of pop-up messiahs and bloody suppression with ruthless capital punishment by crucifixion? What will this child be in our nation where our occupiers insist that there is no separation of religion and government, where the emperor is god, and there are real limits to the worship we can offer to our own God?  What will this child be as he grows in a world where violence is all around him, and the mighty lord it over the weak, and yet  his father serves, quietly, faithfully, a God with an unfinished story of deliverance and liberation?

John's baptism announced the arrival of the reign of God. It was a call to metanoia, a change of life that amounted to a turning around from one field of vision to another, from a worldview that put the pretenders to God's place (I'm using "pretenders" rather than "enemies of God," because to be consistent, I have to believe that God has no enemies) behind the believer, and field of vision of God's reign, a world of liberation, opportunity, and enough for everyone, in the foreground. He invited people to the Jordan to come through and be washed of the old way of being and, by symbolically passing through the border river of the Promised Land, passing into the new world, which was, in fact, where they belonged. Away from the legions and spies and intrigues at the political centers of Judea, John's preaching and cleansing ritual offered people the chance to express what they all knew to be true, that something serious was wrong with the world, that power was turned upside down, that justice had disappeared from their experience, and it was time to reject, at least in a symbolic way that could offer an inner hope and memory, the status quo offered by the empire and its Herodian and temple collaborators.

Anybody seeing any parallels here?

John's demise came about when he spoke the truth to religious and civil power. Herod Antipas, the Jewish puppet king, had divorced his wife in order to marry his brother Philip's wife. Being a Jew, Herod was breaking the Torah. As king, he was occupying a place in the social order in which he stood as a localization of God's presence, much like the high priest did, though with more power due to his relationship with the Romans. For John, then, this was an abomination, a blasphemy, not just a little domestic drama. When Herod had enough of John's diatribes, he took him out. Maybe he got wasted first, maybe besotted with lust. Or maybe he just had had enough of the outsider, and separated his mouth (and the rest of his head) from his neck, where it belonged.

John's driving energy seemed to come from his conviction that God was about to show up and set things right in the world, and that it was going to happen with violence and retribution. "You poisonous snakes! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Show me evidence of your changed hearts, and don't tell me about how you're the chosen people. God can turn these stones into Jews. (my paraphrase, Lk 3:7-8)" He goes on to warn that the ax of God is already in the orchard, and if there's no proof of change (fruit on the tree), the ax will fall, and there's going to be a burning. The "one who is coming" will bring this about, and soon: "He's going to sweep the threshing floor, and the broom is already in his hands. He'll gather up the wheat, and the rest he'll throw into the fire. (3:17)"


But the thing is, John got it wrong. John's vision was obscured by a malformed sense of justice, one that depended on force and violence to punish, destroy, and impose its will. The one-who-is-coming, the Messiah, surprised everyone, including John, by not being that kind of God. He was "like no God we had imagined," and even imposed upon John to baptize him, not taking the spotlight, but joining up with the rest of us. Redactors may have later attributed to Jesus rhetoric that was insulting and derisive in response to events in their lifetimes, but the teacher of the Sermon on the Mount already had made non-abusive speech a sign of the fulfillment of Torah. The one who was silent in his trial and died with words of comfort, compassion, and forgiveness on his lips would not, I think, have been one to demonize his enemies. For Jesus, God's arrival would be made visible by the overflow of life, the bounty and abundance of the world when people turn toward one another in love, and begin to live by the simple discipline of doing unto others only what we would want others to do to us. This loving of neighbor as self is a visible sign of loving God. In fact, loving neighbor seems to be identity with loving God.

So I came to see, despite my wish for Christ in the boat and the boat in the storm, that John the Baptist, the baby, the promise, the world within, the child with a future, the baby born into a temple family in the regional capital who came to live in the wilderness and who came to rage against the machinations of the temple and the palace, is a good fit for the problems I'm having with the world I live in, with my perceived powerlessness, with my barely-cloaked desire for a political fix by someone with whom I agree on more issues, with my shameful demonization of my "enemies." I'm (badly) acting like John, and John was wrong. But he kept pointing to the Messiah he did not yet know: "I am not (the one). Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten his sandals." Later, from prison, he sent a message to his cousin to ask him: Are you the one? And Jesus told them to report what they saw and heard, he told them to report on the "fruit": the healings, the new vision, the word of liberation to the poor. John, so close to the reign of God that he couldn't bear the trappings of the pretenders, surely got the news and knew the answer.

Question of the weekend:
What will this child be?
I'm going to try to find my inner "baby John," the one I didn't have any part in creating, the one of whom Psalm 139 says, "Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb." In my infantile Christianity, still immature and afraid after six and half decades of life, I want to wonder, "What will this child be?" Find something to do, and do it, without being an asshole and tearing down my perceived enemies and making all kinds of people I don't know even more upset and afraid and stressed out than they already are.

This fellow who takes up so much room with his needs and words and music, What will this child be?

Music for this weekend at St. Anne:

Entrance: For All the Saints Who've Shown Your Love (John Bell, THE WATER IS WIDE)
Kyrie: Kendzia (Lead Us to the Water)
Glory to God: Mass of St. Ann
Psalm 139: "O God, You Search Me" (Farrell, sung responsorially with cantor)
Alleluia and Intercessions: Mass of St. Aidan
Preparation of Gifts: Blessed Be the Lord (Canticle of Zachary) (Darryl Ducote & Gary Daigle)
Mass of Joy and Peace (Alonso)
Communion: Christ Be Our Light (Bernadette Farrell)
Sending Forth: Canticle of the Turning 

* no pun intended. really.

Monday, June 11, 2018

SongStories 56: Psalm 1—Roots in the Earth (Vision, 1992, GIA)

For desert folks, a permanent, flowing stream is a great symbol of divine love and protection, and if there’s a tree growing beside it, or an entire oasis, even more so. The image appears in a couple of psalms and in the book of Jeremiah. Today’s responsorial psalm, Psalm 1, is from the wisdom psalms, songs that describe the way that life should be lived by the people of God in an idealized way. When the psalm, describing the “just man (sic)” gets to verse 3, the psalmist declares:

He is like a tree
planted near streams of water,
that yields its fruit in season;
Its leaves never wither;
whatever he does prospers.
I wrote my musical version of Psalm 1 in my occasional sojourns to northern Arizona, sometimes with Gary, sometimes alone, in 1990-91. The music we wrote together in those trips were recorded on our third trio album, Vision, and some were on Gary’s 1993 recording, Praise the Maker’s Love. I honestly can’t remember why I decided to set Psalm 1, though I associate it with using on the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, year C (1992), and that my friends at the Franciscan Renewal Center (where Gary worked) wanted to do sacred dance with it. This is probably why it's dedicated to Ginny McKinley, who was part of that ministry. Using the psalm this week, I substituted it for another psalm, because I think it fits the imagery in the first reading and gospel, which is all very agricultural. The cut-time feel and modal music lends themselves to dance, and the short musical interludes also give opportunities for expression. The song ends with a round on the refrain, so that there is a sense of a vocal dance in the whole assembly, with people and choir singing the chorus, “Roots in the earth…” in three or four parts at the interval of one measure. The air itself can seem to dance when the mood is right!



In adapting the song, I wanted to stretch the language toward more a inclusive reading, so the refrain uses the plural pronoun “they” to reflect all of God’s children, and the verses alternate between “he” and “she” for the same reason. The words of the refrain take up the “wisdom” theme echoing that third verse of the psalm, summarizing the psalm in four lines.

Roots in the Earth (Psalm 1)  by Rory Cooney

REFRAIN: Roots in the earth,
Branches stretched to the skies,
Those who hope in God
Are happy and wise.

Happy is he who rejects bad advice,
Who knows that integrity and justice have no price.
Happy is she who in good finds delight,
The law her companion through the day and through the night.

Just like a tree near a stream given root,
Season to season richly yielding its fruit.
See how they soar, how their leaves never fade!
Broad are their branches, and abundant is their shade.

Not so for those who rejoice in their sin:
Like chaff on the floor they shall be driven by the wind.
God guards the road for the just night and day,
But death lays an ambush for the wicked on their way.

Copyright © 1992, GIA Publications. All rights reserved.

Psalm 1 (New American Bible, Revised Edition [NABRE]) vv 1a, 2-4, 6.

Blessed is the man who does not walk
in the counsel of the wicked…
Rather, the law of the LORD is his joy;
and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
planted near streams of water,
that yields its fruit in season;
Its leaves never wither;
whatever he does prospers.

But not so are the wicked, not so!
They are like chaff driven by the wind….
Because the LORD knows the way of the just,
but the way of the wicked leads to ruin.

Here you can get an idea of how I might approach the adaptation of a scriptural text. In the days of Comme le prevoit (1969), the philosophy of translation that Pope Paul VI promulgated after the Second Vatican Council and that was in effect until 2001, the rule was called “dynamic equivalence,” based loosely on the work of linguists like Noam Chomsky and stating that translations should “take into account not only the message to be conveyed, but also the speaker, the audience, and the style. (6)” For Comme le prevoit, the essential act is communication. But late in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, it was superseded by the philosophy of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) and others. The 2001 instruction Liturgiam Authenticam took the position that it is the words themselves, not their meaning, that “express truths that transcend the limits of time and space.” Thus, the Latin (Vulgate) bible and other sacred texts needed to be translated not only by precise translations of the words, but the word order, syntax, also had to be “translated” into modern languages. In other words, the words themselves, not their meaning, is what needed to be translated. Homilists and catechists were charged with explaining the liturgy, so that people weren’t confused, for instance, by new translations that the covenant in Jesus’s blood, expressed in the consecration of the mass, was for all, and not for the many, though the priest has to say “for the many” because that’s what the exact words say.

To a songwriter and I think to many, many liturgists and scholars, both things are necessary. But psalms are songs, for one thing, and ought to convey not just words but emotions, and carry the weight of the human experience of God over the millennia. Precision is important, as is study, but when the bible is used in liturgical assembly, along with liturgical prayers, we think that intelligibility matters, and that we shouldn’t say “many” when we mean “all,” because one is exclusive and another inclusive.

So in rendering Psalm 1 in this way, even though the NABRE translation says “Blessed is the man,” we know that even though the Latin uses the word vir it doesn’t mean simply “man” in the gender sense. Its deeper meaning is that everyone who stays away from evil people is blessed.

Production notes: The percussionist on this track was Dom Moio, if I recall correctly. He employed multiple percussion toys in his arsenal, and I'm not sure what the overdub drum was, maybe a talking drum or djembe, but Gary wanted a really low "boom" on the downbeat of the chorus, and the sound of that drum was so elastic and deep that when we were mixing I kept saying that it sounded like the choir was singing "boots in the earth." Not helpful. Also, about doing the canon (round) at the end of the song with the choir: this was very near the time when I swore off being anywhere near the studio for making records. I think of a round as about the simplest kind of counterpoint one can write or sing, but the studio makes even that into an endurance test, as all kinds of extra dynamics are required for the round not to sound like everyonetalkingatthesametime at a cocktail party in a very resonant cave. I don't have the patience for that kind of thing: thank God Gary does, and Terry does. Me, I'm good for going out to Starbucks or a liquor store, depending on the time of day.

Creating singable psalm texts was a huge part of my ministry when I started out as long ago as the early 1970s. Before I had been published or recorded, my friend Bill Foster recorded at least of my psalms in the late '70s to early 80s: Psalm 40 (Here I Am, Lord), Psalm 139 (Wings of Dawn), Psalm 137 (If I Forget You), all of which appeared in (wait for it....!) Folk Mass and Modern Liturgy magazine, published in San Jose, CA, back in the William Burns days, before the name change and before John Gallen was part of the operation.  Our current album, To You Who Bow, includes several psalm settings like Psalm 104 ("Send Out, Send Out Your Spirit"), and in 1992’s Vision album, there were settings of Psalm 51 (“Create Me Again”) and Psalm 85 (“Your Mercy Like Rain”), along with “Roots in the Earth.” All of these songs tried to do the same thing: offer a modern take on the ancient texts we call psalms, and give us another reason to sing them again, and give us a window of emotion and rhetoric to connect us with the human experience of God, and what that has meant for our interactions with each other, for three thousand years.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Binding the Strong Man (B10O)

I think most of us who are in the church music biz keep records going back several lectionary cycles so that, for instance, each time the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year A, comes up, we can see what music we've done in the past to get our creative juices flowing and to cut down on "reinventing the wheel." For me at least, liturgical music is kind of a "if it ain't broke don't fix it" thing. You've worked hard over many years to choose the best songs in the repertoire for your community for this particular Sunday, so if there's not some better ones (or a better one) that have come along since last time, I at least tend to go with some of those songs I used last time, or use the best of what I've done for over the last nine years, with an addition or two of something maybe new, or an older song I've discovered, that might fit the Sunday better than things I've used before.

I bring this up today because, as you'll notice from my doing a new "Sundays" post for the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, that I realized a few weeks ago that I don't have any records of music or liturgy texts that I've used before for this Sunday. That's because we haven't had a 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, in this century! The last one was in 1997, before our church was built. The year I started keeping all my files on my computer for each year was, you guessed it, 1998. Ergo, all the usual prayers and notes I keep for the parish will have to be written anew from scratch this weekend. This is why many people are atheists.

What I do have from The Last Year B archive is an article I wrote from a series of articles I was writing at that time for Today's Parish magazine, which I think was published by Twenty-third Publications. (If so, it goes into a long line of institutions for which association with me has brought ignominy and/or extinction. That list includes the high school seminary, novitiate, and college which I attended, the original Composers Forum for Catholic Worship, the Corpus Christi Center for Advanced Liturgical Study, Modern Liturgy magazine, the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, and possibly the United States of America, though the jury is still out on that one. And that list is by no means exhaustive.) This little article had a one paragraph reflection on the day, my usual dose, with a few music selections, but it pointed me again to Ched Meyers’ tome Binding the Strong Man, reminding me of how influential that book has been on my thinking about the first gospel. For Meyers, the passage we hear this Sunday is a central text for the whole gospel, hence his title. In it, he says, Jesus “declares ideological war” on the temple establishment, and I made the point in my notes that in the Genesis reading, God declares ideological war on Satan. Of course, it turns out to be the same war, but we need to be careful about underestimating and localizing “Satan,” lest we think this cosmic battle has little to do with us. More below on this.

For Girardian exegetes, the "Satan versus Satan" narrative is a core scripture. Satan in the earliest narratives is the Accuser, and only later becomes the Evil One. As Satan assumes both roles in the mythology, we begin to see how the Accuser is the one who accuses the Evil One, creating the Satan versus Satan scenario. This is a central theme of Rene Girard's The Scapegoat and certainly of his work, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. As one author puts it, "when Jesus asks, seemingly rhetorically, 'How can Satan cast out Satan?', Girard essentially answers, 'It happens all the time. In fact, that’s what human culture is founded on. Our anthropology can be summarized by the phrase Satan casting out Satan.'" The murderous blood sacrifice of the scapegoat is used to appease the desire of the murderous crowd. The only way out of this spiral of temporarily sating violence is the act of Christ, the Forgiving Victim, innocent, who comes back from death to rewrite the myth from the perspective of the victim. When God finally speaks definitively about sacrifice, the answer is, "Are you kidding? No thank you. Let's get on with building life."

It's good to get back to St. Mark's gospel, and dig into the great story that the author says is just "the beginning of the evangelion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." We're getting more accustomed to the vocabulary of Roman civil religion being used in the story of Jesus, starting with that word evangelion which has a specific meaning related to news of an imperial victory. We hear the stories of  the entry into Jerusalem in that light, the name "Legion" given to the demons that are cast out and into a herd of swine that jump off a cliff into the sea, we might even hear an echo of a Roman imperial procession in the language of the story of Bartimaeus, and his "eleison" shouted from the roadside to the approaching king, here, however, a "son of David." And just this past Sunday, in the narrative of the Last Supper, we get reminders of the subterfuge and hints about the extent to which Jesus and the disciples have to go to keep under the radar, resorting to passwords and secret arrangements for the last supper. Sometimes, to be subversive and stay alive, you need to go underground. Or at least under whatever passed for the radar in the first century CE.

The message of Jesus has enemies in the imperial cult, but it also is at odds with the temple cult, both because of his message itself and because both depend on the maintenance of a status quo to keep the peace among the people. Have-nots mustn't try to become haves, people outside of the power circle mustn't try to usurp the power structure, and generally speaking, outsiders shouldn't try to become insiders. The story in Sunday's gospel is sandwiched between two mentions of one kind of insider-outsider groups: Jesus's family, who are outside his house and think he's crazy and want to stop him, and Jesus's discipleship group, his family of choice, who are "outside" the status quo group in his society of actual family, but are nevertheless inside his house, and are the ones to whom he offers his attention and allegiance. Between these two slices of narrative "bread," a meaty battle of wits goes on between Jesus and the scribes. While the inside-outside dialectic plays out in the "family-house" event, a more cosmic one is being addressed between Jesus and the scribes, and at stake is the honor of Jesus, the source of his authority and power, and the balance of authority between the status quo symbolized by the scribes and temple cult and the subversion of that status quo by the preaching and ministry of Jesus. Placed between the two pieces of the "in-out-family" narrative, the battle with the scribes become the core of the lesson, an inclusio, so we need to pay attention.

This is just chapter three of Mark. We've just heard of Jesus forming a band of disciples, a resistance group against the prevailing theologies of temple and state. The scribes in this story, agents of the temple rulers, do what ruling hegemonies always do to those who challenge their authority: they demonize him. Here, they do so literally, saying "it is by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that he casts out demons." He is possessed, they allege. Jesus's response will echo his (and even more certainly Mark's) audience's experience in watching the collapse of Herod's kingdom, first that of Herod the Great's being divided into a tetrarchy, then the complete collapse in the 60s with the war against Herod Antipas when he divorced the daughter of Nabatean king Aretas, who then defeated Antipas in war. "A house divided against itself will not stand." (3:25)

Jesus's parable about the strongman is another tactic of subversion, hiding truths in plain sight so that his followers might understand, but not the attackers. The "master of the house," the strong man, is Satan. In fact, the Aramaic name Beelzebul means "master of the house." Jesus has come, he says, to "bind the strong man," and take back what belongs to the reign of God, that is, the human race, starting with the Jewish race. His discipleship community, ministry of healing and exorcism, parables, and teaching are all oriented toward that: releasing those bound by the power of fear and murder, and sapping the strength of the myths that keep them bound. By myths here, I mean the structures of behavior and ways of thinking that keep oppressed people oppressed, the shrinking options that seem to be available to those under domination by others. Jesus is pretty clear in Mark that what he is about to do is "plunder the strong man's house," put an end to the rule of Satan by unleashing the reign of God upon the world. The scribes cannot see it, and yet they are God's agents, the ones whose role is supposed to be keeping the Torah alive in the community. As Ched Meyers puts it in Binding the Strong Man (page 167):
Imperial hermeneutics, ever on the side of law and order, will of course find this interpretation (i.e., the liberation and rescue of the captives of tyrants) strained, offensive, shocking. Yet Mark drew the image of breaking and entering from the most enduring of the primitive Christian eschatological traditions: the Lord's advent as a thief in the night.
Then Jesus announces that all kinds of sin will be forgiven except that of the ones who accused him of being empowered by Satan: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that is to say, calling the actual work of liberation and wakening the children of God to who they are "demonic possession." If you can't see the work of God right before your eyes, he is saying, you've missed the bus to the reign of God. You're going nowhere, and you're already in hell.

Which leaves us with the inside family and the outside family in the gospel. We should be grateful that the lectionary compilers left this whole pericope intact when including it in the reading for Sunday, so that we get everything that's going on here. All the labels: family, believer, baptized, circumcised, Jew, white, straight, American, Christian—all the labels have to go. Being "inside" the reign of God isn't a matter of claiming to be there by some birthright or self-oriented entitlement. Being inside the reign of God is participating in Jesus's project of liberation with him, doing what he does, giving everything for the sake of others. The goal of the insider is to tell the outsiders that everyone is actually inside already, and there aren't any outsiders, unless one chooses to be out there.

Gee. Are you having as hard a time as I am trying to figure out what this has to do with us?

Maybe it's the damage we do by identifying law with actual morality, by not repenting nationalist euphemisms like "manifest destiny" and working to first acknowledge and then undo the horrific legacy of the Indian wars and treaties. Or maybe repenting the sin of slavery and its enabling mother-sin of racism, and working together to undo the systems of injustice and prejudice that flourish in our time, not to mention the enabling of racist and white supremacist rhetoric under the guise of "freedom of speech."

It's important to keep remembering that the tactics and strategy of the reign of God are peaceful and non-violent, but they are urgent. They require non-cooperation with evil, putting all of the danger and risk on us who believe with Jesus that death is meaningless to God, but that we are God's children, and he counts each of us, and all of us together, with unimaginable love that risks everything even before we do. We, disciples, are part of the confederacy of subversives for the new order, the reign of God. Let's be careful not to let ourselves be aligned with or sucked into the strategies of the status quo, blaming the victims of injustice rather than calling out the perpetrators. As in Mark's day, as in Jesus's day, there are two religions with competing altar calls. One is the voice of imperial religion, promising peace through force, naming insiders and outsiders, saying that it's always expedient that a few (or a lot of) others die so that we can keep things the way we want. The other is the voice of the reign of God, promising peace through justice, naming everyone as inside the circle of divine love, with a strategy of healing, equal protection, and table fellowship. The altars are on different horizons. To choose one, we need to turn our backs on the other.

What we're singing Sunday at St. Anne's:

Entrance: In Christ There Is No East or West (John Oxenham)
Kyrie: Kendzia ("Lead Us to the Water")
Psalm 130: With the Lord there is Mercy (Modlin)
Presentation of Gifts: Turn Around (GIA, Cooney) I chose this song because of one of the later stanzas, stanza 6, which uses the "break-in" imagery of the gospel:
Good news for he comes like a thief in the night
To take back his own from the enemy's might.
And like a small seed, or the yeast in the dough,
God's justice in silence will grow.
Eucharistic Acclamations: Mass of Joy and Peace (Alonso) I'm trying this again after introducing it in winter OT. I'm trying it in the key of C for a while. When I switched it at daily mass, the singing improved by (literally) 100%. I think the tesitura is a little high on the "Hosanna" passage and the "Amen," and this seems to fix the issue. It's not that the mass isn't singable. And one size doesn't fit all. Just giving it a shot.
Communion: Faithful Family (Cooney) (link is to yesterday's blog post on this song)
Sending Forth: Lover of Us All (Schutte)