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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Responsorial Psalm and Hearing the Word of God (C15O)

I've been writing weekly "liturgy updates" called Liturgy Corner for our parish bulletin, the Clarion, since Advent of 2015. For a while I was using and adapting parts of material from Modern Liturgy and what they called "Liturgical Bits and Bytes," a subscription service. Then RPI went off the scene, and Liturgical Press chose not to continue that resource. I continued to adapt material, but found that I needed to nuance it and adapt it for our community so much that I started writing my own columns, and that may be one of the reasons that I've fallen so far behind in writing this blog. Also, it's just a busy time of life for me. I haven't forgotten or given up—I just needed one more thing to feel guilty about, I guess.

Anyway, when I was looking over music for rehearsals and going back over notes for the last few weeks, I came to discover that I had overlooked a change from the 1970 lectionary to the 1998 lectionary. Maybe you don't look at what music you've done in previous years as you are choosing music for your current year, but I do, and one of my most frequent holdovers is the psalm setting. For this Sunday, the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, the 1970 lectionary had Psalm 69 as the psalm, and it is the only time in the 3 year Sunday cycle that that psalm is used, with the refrain "Turn to the Lord in your need, and you shall live." As I was looking over the USCCB website readings again for Sunday, I discovered that in the 1998 lectionary, a second option was provided, Psalm 19, with the refrain "Your words, O God, are spirit and life." This made me start to wonder why, and as I was writing my piece for the Clarion, the fourth of four pieces about the structure of the Sunday lectionary, I tried to tackle at least one possible solution to that question.

Benedictine Sister Irene Nowell wrote in the introduction to her unique book Sing to the Lord (Michael Glazier, 1993) that the responsorial psalm helps us both “understand and appropriate the readings.” By this she means that, first, being the linchpin between the first reading and the gospel, the psalm helps us to “unlock” the texts themselves and understand what God is trying to tell us is different in the reign of God from the “kingdom of this world,” or what I would call “business as usual.” Then, they help us “appropriate” the readings by allowing us to participate in proclaiming God’s word by our physical participation in the psalm event: we actually sing the psalm, hear the text, and are able to take it into ourselves along with any insight that might come from our liturgy. Sr. Irene quotes the late Notre Dame liturgist Ralph Kiefer in saying, “The responsorial psalm constitutes a summation of the liturgy of the word for that day. If there is a theme, it is in the antiphon of the responsorial psalm.” (The quote is from Kiefer’s book, To Hear and To Proclaim: Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass with Commentary for Musicians and Priests.)

Last Sunday, the 14th in Ordinary Time (Year C), in the first reading from Isaiah, we heard the word of the Lord promise comfort and prosperity to Jerusalem, and that “the Lord’s power” would be made known through this gift. In the gospel, Jesus gives the disciples power to cure the sick as they preach the gospel in the towns of Galilee and Judea, and to announce that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Psalm 66, the responsorial that day, is about the wondrous deeds of the Lord bringing salvation (by which the scripture always means salus or “healthy living” and freedom) by the events at the Red Sea and then in the life of the psalmist. We sang together, “Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.” The gospel has come to the whole whole world, which should “cry out to God with joy,” but not just any God, this God, the Father of Jesus, who brings peace and community through the Holy Spirit.

This Sunday, we have that interesting change in the lectionary from the 1970 version. Today’s first reading from Deuteronomy tells us that the word of God is close within us, easy to comprehend, in fact, already in our hearts and mouths. In the gospel story, Jesus and a lawyer discuss the law, "which is the greatest commandment?" When they agree on that, the lawyer pushes the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, and Jesus replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan with its famous “punchline,” “Go and do likewise.”

I mentioned that in the original (1970) lectionary, the responsorial psalm for today is from Psalm 69, “Turn to the Lord in your need, and you will live.” At first blush, this may seem strange, until we realize that there is an interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable, perhaps a dated one, that sees Jesus as the Good Samaritan who comes to the aid of mortally wounded humanity, left for dead by the roadside. In this scenario, “Turn to the Lord in your need and you will live” sounds like good advice! (Well, it is good advice, but…) But when we begin to see the parable in its context, as a midrash from the rabbi Jesus on the law to "love your neighbor as yourself," taken together with the first reading, the scripture is not so much about turning to the Lord as it is seeing that God’s word, God’s “law,” changes us, it gives us spirit and life, and acting upon it moves us from the “business as usual” of prejudice and suspicion and into a new world of community and interdependence, as shown in the parable. For this reason, I decided to go with Psalm 19 this year, rather than my usual choice, Psalm 69, because Psalm 19 opens up the scripture more fully in a way that is consistent with the way the homily generally goes.

It’s good for us to wrestle each week with the responsorial psalm. If Sr. Irene Nowell is right, and I think she is, it can lead us more deeply into the other scriptures, even finding resonance, Sr. Irene reminds us, with that “rogue” second reading once in a while!

Monday, April 18, 2016

More about iPad and church music—the basement tapes

Because I'm such a Chatty Cathy, the overworked editor at World Library Publications was forced to truncate my previously published article by a few dozen paragraphs to get within an order of magnitude of my required word count. These paragraphs are included below for your edification and amusement...

Tips for using forScore with Finale 

For your original music and arrangements of
public domain music, you don’t need to have a special file to create good-looking forScore documents. What will help is to do two tasks one time, and you will have access to them forever – first, create a tablet-sized page for the Finale “page set-up” task, and then create a tablet-sized paper size for printing, so that when you create your PDF it will be the perfect size for an iPad. For a Mac computer using Finale 2014.5, the steps are described here. Remember, you don’t need “margins” on your iPad – maximize screen real estate by printing almost to the edges of the document. These steps will help you do this.

  1. Navigate to the file “pagesizes.txt”. In Finale 2014.5, you will locate it here:
  2. HOME —> LIBRARY –>  APPLICATION SUPPORT —> MAKEMUSIC —>  FINALE 2014.5 —> CONFIGURATION FILES —> pagesizes.txt
  3. Open the file in TextEdit or another text editor.
  4. Type in the following information under the bottom line of the listed paper                            iPad = 5.8, 7.75; .1, .1, .2, .1, .5
  5. The first two numbers are width and height of the page, in this case, the iPad screen, the next four are the page margins. The last number is for left-margin instrument scores…probably you don’t need to know that. The top and right margins are assumed to be negative, no minus sign is required. 
  6. Next, in Page Setup (under the “File” menu), choose “Paper Sizes” and then “Manage Custom Sizes.” Click the “+” sign to add a custom size, name it “iPad”, and enter the iPad screen dimensions, 5.8 X 7.75, and either “0” or a small number like “.05” in the margin boxes. Your margins are already fixed in the Finale page size. Click OK. Now you’re ready to print to an iPad screen size. 
  7. As you finish a Finale file,
    you will choose “Print PDFSave as PDF…, and navigate to the folder where you want to save the document, either on your hard drive or on the cloud drive.
From inside Acrobat, File -> Properties will let you
store the name and composer as properties of
the PDF itself. These will be recognized by ForScore
so that you can readily add them to the app.

Tips for scanning music into forScore. 

Use the lowest-resolution scanning setting you are comfortable with (I use 200dpi), and black and white image source, scanning directly to PDF. When in "Preview" mode during your scan, crop the preview of the final document to as close to the edges of the music as you can. Remember that you don't need to see the title of the song when you're playing, because the file itself will be the title of the song. You want your scanned music to be as much music and as little extraneous information as possible. If your scanning software doesn't allow you to do this, you can also crop the music from within ForScore, maximizing the screen real estate for the music itself, which is what you want to see.

When saving the PDF to your cloud source (e.g. Dropbox), save the actual name of the song and the composer to the “title” and “author” information lines of the PDF. This way, the information will be available to forScore on import.

Handy functions in ForScore

ForScore has a lot of ways to conveniently store and manipulate your music. One handy feature is the "notes" feature, which I use to create notes for myself that "overlay" the songs in a set list that I might use at a concert. This helps me to store ideas for introducing songs and see them when I'm about to play them. Annotations, both written annotations attached to the score and simple color highlighting are available.

Adding scores to ForScore is as simple as drag-and-drop from within iTunes using your desktop, or can be done on the fly by storing your pdfs on the cloud in Dropbox or other online storage, like Google Drive. Just direct the "Cloud Services" icon to your storage location, and you can add pdfs to your setlist from anywhere.

For my money, the best feature in ForScore, aside from being able to crop your purchased or scanned music of its unnecessary margins, is the ability to create smart jumps, so that when you get to a repeat bar on page 5 of a score you don't need to page back 3 pages to page 2. The app allows you to set a jump point with a dime-sized colored circle on the page to another place in the score. You can do this more than once within the score, too, in case you need a coda jump as well.

What's changed since the article appeared?

The big thing, literally, is the release of the iPad pro, with a screen size roughly the equivalent of a sheet of letter-sized paper, minus the margins. Music on the Pro is so beautiful that Apple includes ForScore on the demo tablets in the Apple Store so musicians can stand in front of them and drool (that's what the buckets under the counter are for.) A Facebook friend in the city remarked that using a Pro in landscape view would allow for viewing two pages at a time, reducing the requirement to turn pages by a substantial margin with a minimum reduction in page size for those accustomed to the size of the current iPad. I still haven't made the jump, since my iPad Air still serves well, and it's a chunk of change to invest in one of those late-model behemoths (though the price came down a bit at the last Apple event.)

For more information on ForScore, see their website, or go to the forScore page at the iTunes App Store.

and PLEASE! Only make legal copies. 

If I’m making a PDF in order to avoid buying a piece of music, I’m making an illegal copy. Ask yourself this question – when this copy is being used, is there a physical copy on a shelf on the premises for every electronic copy? Every scanned file I have must have a physical copy not in use.

iPad® and iTunes® are registered trademark of Apple, Inc.
PowerPoint® is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.
YouTube™ and Android™ are registered trademarks of Google, Inc.

Bluetooth® is a registered trademark of Bluetooth SIG.

Friday, April 15, 2016

iSing, iPlay, iPray — using tablets in a parish music program

This material, written in late 2012, was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of AIM Liturgy Resources, copyright © 2013 World Library Publications, wlpmusic.com. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 
In a subsequent posting, I will include specific instructions on how to create the most useful PDF format from Finale for uploading (or directly loading) into ForScore. 
Specific questions? Add them to the "comments" area, and I'll try to answer those as well. If I can't, I bet another reader will.


ForScore app allows you to make fully
editable playlists: "Funeral" contains
80 songs I can reorder on the fly.
How we’re using tablets in our parish music program

What you’ll need: a tablet device (like an iPad); a desktop computer; a Dropbox or similar online storage account with sharing privileges (www.dropbox.com); a scanner; appropriate licensing or legal copies; “forScore” app (www.forscoreapp.com)

It didn’t take long from the day the iPad was released (April Fools day, 2010, for those keeping track of these things) before a lot of us realized the possibilities for adapting the use of these devices in music performance. Technological entrepreneurs began writing apps to showcase the versatility of Apple’s tablet, videos of performances by geek bands using only iPads for instruments began popping up on YouTube, and sound technicians wandered the stages of concert and theatrical venues, iPads in hand, adjusting sound with suddenly ultra-portable remote mixers.

It was about five minutes after I discovered that there was an app for importing, sorting, and storing musical scores that I dove into the tablet market myself. In the guise of a small and yet completely legitimate tax deduction, I bought a first generation iPad in July of 2010, and used it the following Sunday to play the charts for that day’s services. I’ve done so ever since, nearly every week, as well as used the iPad for workshops notes and presentations (Powerpoints, including movies), and as a replacement for notebooks of music when I occasionally do a concert in a parish. As those of you who have an iPad or a similar Android or other tablet know, this barely scratches the surface of what we use them for, but it’s the domain of this article, so here we go.

You can maintain multiple playlists, while
storing most of your catalog in a master
song list in your device and/or in cloud
storage like Dropbox.
Since my experience is with the iPad, I’m going to say “iPad” when I mean a tablet device, mostly because I’m not sure where they diverge from one another in their abilities and available apps.  ForScore is an app exclusively for iPad. MobileSheets is an analogous app for Android, but I have no firsthand knowledge of it. (Search for “mobilesheets” at play.google.com)

Right now we have about a dozen iPad users in the choir, to a greater or lesser extent. For some of us, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, but there are some drawbacks. Here’s a bit of values clarification, stacking up the positive against the negative:

POSITIVE
Portable – goes everywhere, becomes a customary companion because of other uses.
Versatile – “forgotten” or misplaced music recovered on the fly
Eco-friendly – in the long run, especially as it replaces paper from the source (publisher) rather than at the end user (the church or user through scanning), less paper being consumed
Great app – the forScore app allows for multiple setlists, resizing on the fly, rearranging pages, setting up smart repeats (from page 5 back to page 2, for instance), and annotation with a stylus or a finger in different colors, as well as highlighting and typed notes (say, different hymn numbers in different worship books, or workshop/concert commentaries).
AirTurn – for instrumentalists especially, this Bluetooth-enabled pedal enables handless pageturns. Sweet!


NEGATIVE
Front-end labor intensive.  The first time any song is put into the database, it has to be scanned and uploaded, or purchased and downloaded. Once it’s there, of course, it can be moved around and indexed in various ways.
Page-turn psychodrama. 95% of the time, no issues. But for the nervous cantor or music director, there will be the time that the page turn doesn’t go the way you planned (user error) and it will always be on the song you didn’t quite have as committed to memory as you wished you had. Since receiving an AirTurn device as a gift, the page-turning issue has receded. Controlling page turns via Bluetooth has been more reliable for me.

Cost. At this time, it is not cost-efficient to buy an iPad specifically for church use. But most users would find church use a small percentage of the actual amount of time we use the tablet for. It is difficult to overstate the utility of a tablet computer, which is capable of being a Skype phone, movie player, e-reader, word processor, presentation source (and even creator), social networking tool, email system, gaming device,…The list goes on. If a tablet already fits your lifestyle needs, it will be most helpful at the piano bench or in choir. 

iPad® is a registered trademark of Apple, Inc.
PowerPoint® is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.
YouTube™ and Android™ are registered trademarks of Google, Inc.
Bluetooth® is a registered trademark of Bluetooth SIG.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

SongStories 47: You (Stony Landscapes, 1994, GIA)

Psalm 65 just comes around once every three years on Sunday, on the day when the parable of the sower comes up as the gospel. I wanted to write a psalm setting that drew attention to the sower in the parable, hence, the simple title "You," and the repetition of the word throughout the paraphrase of the psalm. The antiphon given in the lectionary, "The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest," in my view hides the central truth of the parable, which is that the Sower is so abundant with the sowing. While the lectionary refrain seems to emphasize a moralistic interpretation of the parable, that somehow we're responsible for the kind of "ground" we are, the parable itself, allegorical interpretations aside, emphasizes the sower, who throws that seed everywhere! That the gospel writer goes on to give an allegorical interpretation to the parable is undeniable, but its quite likely that the interpretation is not the point that Jesus tried to make in the telling.



As I wrote in a blog post from July 2014, the last time this psalm and gospel were used, "the reign of God is God's work, and it is being sown everywhere. Also, and perhaps more importantly, failure, miracle, and normalcy' are all part of the way the kingdom operates. In the beautiful conclusion of Bernard Brandon Scott,
In failure and everydayness lies the miracle of God's activity. The accidents of failure are not exploited for their possible moral overtones, but are coordinated with the harvest. The hearer who navigates within this triangle can experience God's ruling activity under the most unfamiliar guises, even among prostitutes and tax collectors–in the everyday... Both the ordinary and the unclean belong to the miracle of the kingdom. The kingdom does not need the moral perfection of the Torah nor the apocalyptic solution of overwhelming harvest. (Hear Then the Parable, Bernard Brandon Scott, © 1989 Fortress Press)
"
Aside from its use again on Terry's 2003 album Family Resemblance, this was the only time we've used pedal steel guitar on one of our recordings.

The rhythm section included the awesome Beth Lederman on piano, Tim Downs on drums, and Jon Murray on bass, aided by Todd Chuba on percussion and Gary Daigle on guitars. This link will take you to the page on the GIA website where you'll find more information on the music and CD.


You (Psalm 65)  by Rory Cooney

You
You visit the earth
You make it fruitful
You make it bloom
You
Your rivers overflow
Spilling to earth in the rain
You call forth the grain.

To you belong the sowing and the harvest,
To you alone the rainfall and the sun
We will praise your name
You have staked your claim
On the fierce and stony landscape of the human heart.

You
You send us the rain
Water the furrows
Soften the land
You
You bless every seedling
You crown the year every spring
With the bounty of your hand. (ref.)

Wherever you walk
The earth begins to blossom
Even desert pastures
Are kissed by the dew
Flocks in the meadows
Wheat in the valleys
All sing their joy to you
To you.

To you belong the sowing and the harvest,
To you alone the rainfall and the sun
We will praise your name
You have staked your claim
On the fierce and stony landscape of the human heart
On the fierce and stony landscape of the heart.

("Psalm 65: You" by Rory Cooney © 1994 GIA Publications)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Triduum stories

I thought that, like I did with posts on the scrutinies, I'd gather the various posts on aspects of the Triduum (and Palm Sunday for good measure) on one page where they're easy to spot. Another way is to use the "Labels" to the right ---> and just click "Triduum," which makes them all pop up on one page. But for them as likes a list....







PALM SUNDAY

Who comes in the name of the Lord?
That whole "obedient unto death thing"

HOLY THURSDAY

Anniversary: My half-life as a music director
Real presence
"Gave himself as food and drink"

GOOD FRIDAY

It's not a funeral for Jesus
Nine months until Christmas (Annunciation)
Thy kingdom (not of this world) come
I AM (I am not)

HOLY SATURDAY/EASTER VIGIL

Toward a family-friendly Easter Vigil
Horse and chariot: where the rubber hits the Way
"My creations are drowning, and you are singing before me?"

GENERAL TRIDUUM

Triduum music for 2014
Word of the day: Triduum
Who's in charge here?

EASTER

Christos anesti

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Second thoughts: Is the Lord in our midst or not? (A3L)

A couple of weeks ago, Terry and I did an evening of reflection with Jennifer Budziak and the wonderful musicians of Old St. Patrick's church in the city as part of OSP's Lenten mission. I began by speaking about growing up in a desert climate not unlike parts of Israel. I was a boy in Arizona, and went to high school and novitiate in California, so even before the twenty years I spent there between 1973 and '93 I had a long experience of being a desert dweller. Like the people of the scriptures, I had an appreciation for rain, rivers, and that rare exotic glimpse of a lake or ocean. Before I was twenty, I had had two very good friends who died from exposure to the unforgiving heat of the Mojave desert.

So the song we began, after an opening prayer hymn called "Be Thou My Vision," with "Your Mercy Like Rain," my setting of Psalm 85, a ritual prayer for prayer for good rain to bring a good food crop, that associates God's mercy and justice coming to earth with the rain that falls from the sky. It is a prayer that God make present for us the love and safety that we remember was given to our ancestors. "Let us see your kindness; grant us your salvation." But as interested as I am and was in that aspect of the psalm, it is the reference to water in the desert as a sign of God's promises kept and ongoing favor that I wanted to latch onto. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, one of the most repeated signs of God's favor and the approach of God's reign is water in the desert: justice rolling like a river, and integrity like a flowing stream, the desert blooming like a garden, richly watered, a river flowing out from city of God, making all the surrounding countryside fertile.


We've picked that up in our Christian hymnody, as I'm sure you've already begun to recall. "Let Justice Roll like a River," we sing, "Down by the Riverside," "Shall We Gather at the River," "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy (like the wideness of the sea...)," "Come to the Water," "Lead Us to the Water," "Healing River." One of my songs from the late 1980s, "As We Remember," asks God to "show us your mercy, harsh and lovely as the sea."

All of that was fresh in my mind as I was hearing the readings Sunday, though I was admittedly distracted by a respiratory ailment I was fighting. In the first reading from Exodus, it is a lack of water that frustrates and panics the wandering Jews during their desert sojourn after the Exodus. Moses, also frustrated with them and understandably sympathetic a little irritated with the freedom they had received being so full of deprivation and scarcity, appeals to God for some help. The "something out of nothing" God, the God whose name turns out to mean something like, "none of your business", gives them a flowing stream of water out of rock. Health and safety (i.e., salvation) in the real world, just in the nick of time.

Flowing water is the subject of the gospel as well, although perhaps this water, quenching the thirst of the two involved in a cross-cultural courtship at a well already famous for its matchmaking, is more important for its meta meaning than its chemical nature or nutritional value. Here, water that quenches inner thirst is copious and flows from the heart of God; the sere and desiccated human desire to know and be known, to be released from all kinds of prejudicial judgment, is slaked from an ocean of living water that promises no thirst ever again. It is such a torrent of life that, in the case of this story at least, it is able to drown the enmity of rival cultures, that of Jew and Samaritan, in its sweet flood, and bring them together in a way never before imagined possible in the experience of the wide-open reign of God that was preached from the heart of this itinerant rabbi and his slow-to-learn Jewish disciples. So complete was this transformation that scholar John Dominic Crossan conjectures that it may even have been a Samaritan convert to Christ who was the author of the fourth gospel.

The key for me is that it is, in this story, not the Samaritan woman whose thirst opens up the conversation, but that of Jesus, the thirsty heart of God made flesh at the well in Samaria. It is God's thirst for us, God's mostly unrequited love for humanity, that opens up the conversation that reconciles the world of the Samaritan woman and her Jewish suitor, and previous rival. God's thirst for a people kept Israel safe through its desert sojourn. And St. Paul, in Romans 5, tells us in plain language what we need to know about that thirsty love: that it precedes our own, and makes our love and forgiveness possible.
And hope does not disappoint,
because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

For Christ, while we were still helpless,
died at the appointed time for the ungodly.
Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person,
though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die.
But God proves his love for us
in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
It was nothing that we did that merited God's love and forgiveness. Nothing that we did makes it possible for us to believe, have hope, and love. It is "the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit" that makes that possible.

My "so what?" Well, it's something to imagine that the risen Christ, the one who awaits humanity at the well, who awaits me with all my needs and thirsts and prejudices and rivalries, is the very one who summoned "something out of nothing." The one who looks at me across the empty bucket, me, who get a lot of what I feel about myself from what others feel, who sometimes feel only as alive and worth knowing as other people see me, that one knows everything I've ever done and loves me, likes me, anyway. What's more important, Christ feels that way about everyone at the same time. I'm not in rivalry with anyone for God's affection, nor is there any rivalry in God for mine. Love is patient.

What does it mean for us to be loved with the regard of one who is "something out of nothing," who does not know either death nor scarcity, but is the source of abundance and possibility, whose love precedes any desire or asking for it? Well, for one thing, it means that those who preach scarcity and need and division are not preaching the same God. It means that they are failing to understand the simple truth that the only way to have enough is to make enough available to everyone. It means that those who cling and pander to prejudice and fear against others who are in need and asking for assistance are not in touch with any actual Christian idea about who God is, what God wants, and what Christ came for. To me, it means that fear is useless and vain, and the best way to get whatever we need to assuage our thirst is to give a drink of water to that nagging voice that is asking us for a drink, no matter what language the words are being spoken in, or what side of our border the words are coming from. It may be the voice of the perceived rival, maybe even enemy, that will awaken in me my own thirst, and giving water to the thirsty other will finally make me alive with an unquenchable life.

“If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,' you would have asked him 
and he would have given you living water.”

This seems about as relevant to my life as anything in tomorrow's newspaper. Is the Lord in our midst, or not? It seems so. It just might be that God's voice sounds like that of someone we suspect is out to get us, wants our job or our best stuff, and is asking for something they really need. And the only way to get to God is to risk whatever bucket it might be we're grasping, risk alienation from our in-group, risk our identity as us-and-not-them, and give them what they're asking for. The conversation that starts when we're both sipping from the bucket we were hiding might turn us from burned-out phonies clutching the pursestrings of our ennui into surprise witnesses to something new happening: the appearance of "Something-out-of-nothing" right here among us, like a brook bubbling out of a rock.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Second Thoughts: Transfigured by prayer—C2L

St. Anne was privileged to have Bishop Joseph Tyson of the diocese of Yakima, Washington, present with us for the Second Sunday of Lent. Our parish's Lenten almsgiving targets a specific charity each year. We've recently partnered with a parish in the Congo, for instance, or with Nuestros Piqueños Hermanos, an organization that builds community-schools for orphans around the western hemisphere. This year, after a visit with Fr. Jack Wall to Yakima, our pastor chose the Catholic Extension Society as our communal almsgiving focus. Yakima is one of ninety-four dioceses in 37 states that benefits from CES.

Bishop Tyson preached at three of our five masses, so I was able to assimilate his message better than usual, even after having a particularly late dinner with him on Saturday evening and getting up to provide music for mass at the (literally) ungodly hour of 7:15 a.m. (God: "Enough with the racket. We're trying to sleep up here.") It was the way he articulated one aspect of the particularly Lucan transfiguration story that caught my ear and helped me to connect it with other ruminations through the week, particularly James Alison's about prayer, which was the focus of our Thursday evening gathering to hear and discuss Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice. Bishop Tyson reminded us that Luke's account was the only one in which Jesus goes to the mountain to pray.
Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white. (Lk. 9: 28b-29)
While "coming down from the mountaintop" has become almost synonymous with "getting back to work" after an elating time of respite, the bishop reminded us that Luke 9 begins with Jesus turning from his Galilean ministry and "resolutely setting his face toward Jerusalem," the verse that originally inspired my song, "Jerusalem, My Destiny."


If you read my "Second Thoughts" piece for Ash Wednesday (The Pantry), you remember that Alison was teaching that "going to your inner room" was a process of disconnecting from the "social other," the voices of family, friends, political parties, nations, advertisers, and the whole matrix of reality that shapes our identity from the outside to create us for its own good. Prayer, he says, is a kind of detox from all those voices that want to keep us from being what we really might be, that is, part of God's recreated world, part of God's project of universal reconciliation and unity, in which we reject every attempt to define ourselves over against the weak or create scapegoats for our problems. In that "inner room," the larder or pantry Jesus refers to in Mt. 6, we disconnect from those voices and allow God to speak through our own inner longings, as St. Paul puts it in Romans, the Spirit prays for us. Alison, in fact, uses the example of the desert sojourn of Jesus as a specific example of this kind of "detox." The risk Jesus runs by his use of his marvelous gifts and transparently attractive persona is that he will come to want what the crowd wants for him. He will come to be run by their desire, rather than the desire of the One who calls him "my beloved son, my chosen servant." The story of Jesus's encounter with Satan in the wilderness is exactly about this kind of inner struggle for the self-identity of the Messiah.

My thoughts, then, this Sunday went to how prayer enables transfiguration. If we imagine that, in prayer, by finally disconnecting all those other influences (over time, of course) that want to run our lives and keep us bound into the competitive, ever-escalating rivalry of human desire, we are actually able to be "possessed" by Another who is deathless, beyond all rivalry, who only wants what is the very best for us, who loves us in our arrogant, sloppy, disaster-prone humanity, and who, right in the face of our hoarding and insurance-buying desperation against imagined scarcity, declares (Alison again, invoking Genesis) "Something wonderful out of nothing! Something wonderful out of nothing!", what might become of our visage, our age, our place in time, even our geography? If we were to encounter and be possessed in prayer by the Holy One, might transfiguration not only be possible, but inevitable?

And more important, don't we already know this? Aren't our lives full of encounters with people whom we call "holy," who radiate an inner light, and whose presence evokes memories of heroes and prophets from other times and places? The last two novels I've read, which can in no way be thought of as "Christian" or even specifically religious, contain just such characters both monks, one in The Glass Bead Game, by Hesse, and the other in the more recent Ishiguro effort, The Buried Giant. I met a man like this on an airplane flight two years ago, and was so moved by the experience that I wept in the airport after he left, or, really, disappeared. I wrote about it in "God's 'Mystic' Assignment" here. We instinctively know when a person's true self is shaped not by the adulation or scorn of the crowd, but by the loving desire of the Holy One that always creates in its own image, creating desire for the good of the other in each one who opens self to that possibility.

Until Jesus, God had approached us obliquely, as the author of Hebrews put it at the beginning of that letter:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word...
For us who believe that the very human Jesus was somehow, mystically, the incarnation of this loving God, it is not hard to imagine that such a breakthrough in prayer, at this critical juncture of his life, after the baptism by John, after the voice from the clouds, after wonders of healing and exorcism, after fasting, after a turn toward Jerusalem and the opposition he fully expected to face from powers fully invested in another god named Tiberius and in the mechanism of temple sacrifice and accommodation to Rome, that such a breakthrough in prayer might cause a physical change, light, and the conjuring of ancient memories and cosmic allies. But even for Jesus, whatever happened on Mount Tabor, the experience was, however intense, momentary and relegated to the continuum of his days. The journey to Jerusalem continued for Jesus. For Peter, James, and John, as well as the other disciples, the journey to Jerusalem was not to be the end but another beginning. The encounter with Jesus, transformed by the prayer-encounter with the Holy One, while a future-shaping event that reordered their lives, did not cure them of doubt, nor did it give them clarity about the nature of this leader or the direction in which he was leading. They still saw him as Satan had desired, a charismatic wonderworker who might lead an overthrow of oppressive outsiders and clean up oppressive Jewish insiders. Like us, they too were plugged into the desire of the crowds, of their own families and their history. They too, though breaking bread with Jesus and sleeping around the same fire, needed to "detox" in the pantry, needed their own prayer and time away, in order for the Holy One to break through when they would, finally, open the door to a new story about themselves.

The same for the boy Saul, at the feet of the rabbi Gamaliel, burning with zeal for a shadow of the God he did not yet fully encountered. Paul, that missionary Jew who opened up the scriptural covenant of God's love to all nations along with the Jews, was ultimately able to write about faithfulness to another empire, about being a colony in Caesar's world of God's empire, awaiting change to its true self:
But our citizenship is in heaven,
and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
He will change our lowly body
to conform with his glorified body
by the power that enables him also
to bring all things into subjection to himself.
Those were my "second thoughts" on the transfiguration this Second Sunday of Lent. Encounter with a bishop can do that to you, especially one who does Sunday mass on Wednesday in the migrant camps with the obreros and their families, filling them with God's word, and being a sign of God's love through tacos and rice, and the sweet laughter of children crackling through the air like candy out of a piñata.
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I recorded Bishop Tyson's homily, which was very powerful, with his permission. There are two versions. The 9 a.m. version is about three minutes shorter, but the 11 a.m. version is a little more passionate. Both are excellent. Somehow my camera missed the last few seconds of the 11am homily, but you can hear he is winding down, saying some "thank yous" to the parish. Enjoy.

Bishop Joseph Tyson, 9 a.m. homily, 2/21/16 - Second Sunday of Lent
11 a.m. homily, same day.

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You may also find this passage from Jesus the Forgiving Victim helpful in understanding how our general understanding of prayer (i.e., I somehow tell God what I am and what I want) is different from what prayer actually is (i.e., God inviting us into a project bigger than ourselves, that is way better than what we actually think we want.) I will never stop encouraging you to try Alison's wonderful "Introduction to Christianity for Adults."

"I remember standing on a hill overlooking Lake Titicaca and watching the local Yatiris, shamans or priests, plying their wares. You could go to them, and for an appropriate offering, they would then light candles around little portable shrines, burn incense, and say the requisite prayers or incantations, which were in an amazing mixture of Latin, Quechua, Aymara and Spanish. The prayers or incantations were for a fairly repetitive list of things: protection from a neighbour’s evil eye, quick riches, death of a troublesome mother-in-law, to get an unwilling prospective love-match to fall for me, various forms of vengeance. 
The pattern seemed to be simple: God, or the gods, are a sort of celestial Las Vegas slot machine, full of amazing bounty, but inclined to be retentive. So prayer is the art of conjuring this capricious divinity, by exactly the right phrases, repeated exactly the right number of times, into parting with some of its treasure. As if the priest were a particularly expert puller of the slot-machine handle, one who could ensure that three lemons, or five bars, line up and so manipulate the divinity into disgorging its riches.
What this presupposes is a pattern of desire where we are subjects who are in control, and God is an object who must be manipulated: we are back to the blob and arrow picture of desire.  
What Jesus is teaching is exactly the reverse of this. In Jesus’ picture it is God who is the subject, who has a desire, an intention, a longing, and who knows who we are and what is good for us; and we who are capricious and somewhat inert slot machines who are always getting our handles pulled by the wrong players. In this picture it is precisely because our Father knows what we need before we ask him that we must learn to pray: our Father’s only access to us, the only way he can get to our slot-machine handle, is by our asking him into our pattern of desire."