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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The words 2.0: Tell me again that you love me

God, left, singing lullaby to humanity, right.
"First tell them what you’re going to tell them; then tell them; and then tell them that you’ve told them." (Rhetorical principle attributed variously to Aristotle, Henry van Dyke, Bennett Cerf, Dale Carnegie, etal.)

If you have the stomach for it, one can occasionally find threads on certain social media outlets in which wags with big mouths and small hearts try to outdo each other in putting down their least favorite liturgical songs. I regret to say that a good number of these are proponents of chant and/or organ music with no tolerance for anything not written on either four ledger lines or three staves, but there's no monopoly on cretinism in the style wars. Some of the favorite targets will be songs like S. Suzanne Toolan's "I Am the Bread of Life," or J. M. Joncas's "On Eagle's Wings" or Bob Dufford's "Be Not Afraid." It's kind of sickening to see this happen, when over a period of forty years or so (fifty, in the case of Toolan's song) one has intense, repeated personal experience of the joy and comfort experienced by people who have sung these songs in liturgical moments. But this, of course, is just empirical data, easily dismissed as anecdotal. The music is terrible, the lyrics are maudlin, and the songs should not, according to these experts, be used in Catholic worship.

I have the idea that when God wants us to get an idea, God keeps repeating it in a language we will understand, language we can experience. That what God does and who God is: God is self-gift, and God makes that goodness and comfort known to us over and over again in various ways so we don't miss it. Now of course this is all culturally dependent, language dependent, all kinds of variables are there. But the gospel is full of Jesus's admonition to his disciples and others, "Do not be afraid." The Christian scriptures overflow with a message of hope that can be summed up as in John 6, where we hear three times: "I will raise (you) up on the last day." (Note: see John 6:20 also!) The message of "On Eagle's Wings," a setting of Psalm 90, is also a message of both being "raised up" by God and "held in the palm of (God's) hand." The overwhelming message of the Christian scriptures is one of hope and divine love for everyone. Now, clearly, this has to be teased out for meaning, and we certainly can't stop there, imagining that God just wants us all to know that we are loved and relax for the rest of our lives. It's also clear that this message is meant for every person on the planet, every one, even those we consider enemies, strangers, outsiders, untouchables or undesirables. And it is part of everyone's job to see that every one can "be not afraid," and that the message of God's love goes out to everyone.

All anyone who hates "Be Not Afraid" has to do to get people to forget it is write something better. Write something as compassionate, as accessible to both musicians and assemblies, something that crosses the boundaries of the covenants and holds together hearts that are broken by sorrow or battered by life, and you'll never have to hear "Be Not Afraid" again. But you won't get there by putting down the song, or appealing to taste or musical rules or anything else from your personal ethic. Write something that can be played by anyone who can play a Beatles song like "Here, There, and Everywhere" on the guitar, and by sung by anyone who sing all the notes in "Happy Birthday," with words taken from and inspired by scripture and woven into a lyric that is completely memorable but doesn't rhyme. Add your own faith, and the faith of everyone who knows you. Maybe you can do it. It won't be easy. And supposing you do it in a way you think is perfect, remember that that perfection has to be received by the church for it to be effective. In short, it's out of your hands, I'm afraid.

But that's not what I want to talk about, really. I just want to say that if we look across the board at what are really the most popular songs we play and hear people singing, the message must be something of what God wants us to hear: Be not afraid; I will raise you up; All are welcome; How great thou art; the Lord is my shepherd; Here I am, Lord; and of course dozens and dozens, probably hundreds, of others that our assemblies can sings at least part of from memory. He walks with me, and he talks with me; Come to the water, Somos el cuerpo de Cristo, We are called to act with justice; Blessed are you, rejoice and be glad, yours is the kingdom of God; I say yes, my Lord; Stand by me; junto a ti buscaré otro mar; I'll cherish the old rugged cross; Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. Our words are the gospel, are all of scripture,  interpreted and distilled and crafted in song, and sometimes, they're just right so that, well, "how can I keep from singing?"

I confess that I write around the margins. I'm not as comfortable with the "affective" side of spirituality, which may be one of many reasons my songs don't resonate with great numbers of people like the above do. I feel that I'm called to write other parts of the gospel message, notably, around the call to conversion, to change, to move out of myself and do for others. This makes it possible, at least, for me to write authentically for me to worship! Turn around! Change our hearts! Serve the Lord! Be perfect! Come to us! Cripes, it's no wonder no one sings my songs, they're so bossy! Even my comfort song, "Do not fear to hope," is a little commandment.

That doesn't stop me from repeating myself. I am so grateful for all the fine women and men who are able to write the songs and lyrics that grab peoples' hearts and remind them of the gospel. I feel my little contribution may be to keep calling attention to the "rest of the story," the cross, call to change, the fact that God's love is universal and so ours needs to be, that "love your neighbor" means "feed your neighbor" and "don't drop bombs on your neighbor" and "don't put your desperate immigrant neighbor in jail and separate her from her children," and that God means all of that in the same way God means "be not afraid." In fact, it's the same word. "Be not afraid" by loving each other. I'm trying to help us put the "our" back in "our Father," and spell out the implications of the Sermon on the Mount and the cross in our worship music. I'm not the only one. We're all doing it. It's just that I'm not likely to write the next "Be Not Afraid," I'm afraid. (Wait...I may have just created a rhetorical Bermuda Triangle of prayer.)

Recently I've tried something in a couple of songs that I haven't tried before: I've pared down the text and music of one song and part of another to a musical mantra called an ostinato. Of course, in church music, I'm the last one on my block to try this. I am not a big proponent of the music of Taizé, another unique quality of my obnoxious personality, but not for musical reasons so much as architectural ones. I've never really worked in a church where that kind of music "works," that is, resonant stone spaces where lots of natural reverberation add a layer of nostalgic beauty to these versatile little choral pieces. I am FOR all kinds of music that work, and I know that Taizé music works wonderfully in a lot of places, even in our little stone daily mass chapel, where a "Kyrie" or "Jesus, Remember Me" has a little breathing room and can expand fill the space like incense.

But the reason I bring this up here is on the same thread of thought as the rest of this post: the thing about an ostinato, the musical equivalent of a mantra, is that it's meant to be repeated over and over again. This means that the text has to be able to bear the weight of repetition, and the music has to be substantial enough to be sung repeatedly without driving everyone nuts. I suspect that the tolerance for this kind of music varies, but the success that Taizé has had with it, with an international clientele, shows that it can be done successfully.

The first idea I had about this was the text that might be called the sh'ma of Jesus, because it is the sh'ma except with a wee addendum and the actual command sh'ma (Hear) is excluded from the text. It is the rabbi Jesus's interpretation of the law, to which we need to give ear. It must be what comes to us in what we call "the greatest commandment" and its yoked equal, to be found in the gospel this November 4, from Mark 12: 29-31.
"Which is the first of all the commandments?"
Jesus replied, "The first is this:
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God is Lord alone!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
The second is this:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

There is no other commandment greater than these." 
I first had the idea about setting this text about a year or so ago, and talked to a couple of other composers about it who chose not to work with it, so I figured I'd try it myself. I adapted the text a little bit, so that it would have a simple (soft) rhyme for mnemonics' sake, and a word substitution I'll explain in a second:
With your whole heart,
With your whole soul,
With your mind, your time, and your wealth,
Love the Lord your God who first loved you,
Love your neighbor as yourself.
The word in Dt. 6:5 and in Mk. 12:30 that is translated as "strength" translates an Aramaic word that means "wealth." The Greek word that usually translates it means "very"—it's an adverb. The sense of it seems to be "whatever is the source of one's influence," one's "very-ness" overflows into the world. Clearly the sense of the saying "with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength" is just to say "completely, inside and out." But I think concretizing "strength" as "wealth" may help expand the semantic field here, and begin to open up the implications of loving God, much as the Rabbi Hillel did on the parallel text when saying, "Whatever you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbor."

When I think of a musical mantra, my mind immediately goes to the St. Crispian's Day scene after the Battle of Agincourt in the movie Henry V, the Branagh adaptation of the Shakespeare play. You might recall that after winning the battle in which they were on foreign soil and terribly outnumbered, the English soldiers and their king discover that their pages had been murdered behind the lines by the French. In that gut-wrenching scene, the bloodied Branagh and his bone-weary knights carry their pages across the battlefield to a small nearby church and graveyard. While this dolorous procession takes place in the shadow of the victory, the music being played is a choral ostinato for mens' voices with the text "Non nobis, Domine" from the first verse of Psalm 115, "Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory."

So when I went about to set this text to music, this was my model. I wanted it to be self teaching, have a choral element, and instrumental descants. So it begins instrumentally, has a cantor intone the tune, then some unison singing, terracing choral parts, a three-bar bridge, and a final stanza with trumpet in a new key. It's not as simple and tractable as "Jesus, Remember Me," but I think it carries the simple beauty of the text and allows our hearts to drink it in.

Some of my beta-testers suggested a deceptive cadence, but I couldn't figure out how to get both parts, "love God, love your neighbor as yourself" into a coda after the cadence, without turning into another verse that would, of course, be new musical material thus eliminating the assembly right at the best part. So I opted just to end it at the end of the phrase.  (Write me for a copy of Greatest Commandment)

The other text was the second part (I see it as processional music) of the song I wrote for the Vincentians that I've bored you with before. (Writing about music that you can't really hear yet is so boring, so I'm trying to keep it trimmed to the essentials.) After four stanzas of a chant-like melody that praises God for being an exile and captive God-with-us, going into Babylon with the Israelites and into death with Jesus, and praising God as well for continuing to be present with hungry, thirsty, and naked of the world in a nod toward Matthew 25: 31-46, the ostinato begins, and we sing over and over again, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Again, here, the context of the ostinato in the whole text, its context in Matthew 25, its context in the liturgical procession, will I hope encourage us to consider that the stranger ("me") might be God, might be the person standing next to you, might be, finally, "me." Similarly, "you" could be any of those entities. The relationship between "I" and "others," "I" and "thou" or "Thou," is at the heart of that text, and making it into an ostinato helps give us the time to let that sink in, I hope. It certainly seemed to happen in St. Louis among the Vincentians, who have had that experience of God and neighbor on every continent (well, maybe excepting Antarctica.) (Write me for a copy of I Was a Stranger)

Well, to summarize, I suppose that my faith leads me to trust that God is in charge of God's own liturgy somehow. We gravitate to these comforting scriptural phrases and allusions in our music because mercy is the center of the gravity in the universe. Now, part of the truth of that is the implication that that mercy falls upon all equally somehow, and that for those who recognize God as its source, we have an obligation to live justly, to be the incarnation of that mercy as much as we possibly can. There is a lot of crushing pain in the world, so it seems to me that God's answer to that is a chorus of "Do not be afraid," "I will raise you up," "how great thou art," and "All are welcome." Singing those songs is part of our rehearsal for living. Where our words go, where our music and our hearts go, may our bodies follow. The presence of those songs, and the popularity of some over others, is the word of God alive in our worship today. I have to believe that.

Following the rhetorical lesson I quoted at the top of this article, the ostinato is a way of letting the message of scripture sink into our being as surrender to the text, God's word, telling us what it's going to tell us, telling us, and then telling us what it told us. God doesn't want us to miss the message, so there's a hunger in our hearts to know that we're loved, to know that there's shelter from the storm, to know there's a way out of hell, and it's all in singing together, especially as a first step toward actual solidarity among us.

As for me, my inability to communicate in the affective language of love, I nevertheless continue to try to sing and invite you to sing along some of the edges of the gospel that are open to the implications of love that mean changing ourselves, our structures, and our world, relying on other songs to help me remember to "be not afraid," that God will "stand by me," and that "all the love you've poured on us can hardly be believed." We need each other for that. Love is of a piece; we just need to be courageous enough to act on the implications of all that outpouring of divine devotion. So I think we need the songs that help us remember texts like "love your enemies" and how there's no road to resurrection that doesn't take the Cross-town bus.

As for popularity, well, "success is not the prize." And you never know. The world could be about to turn.

Friday, October 12, 2018

The words

I generally prepare the music for our Sunday worship 4-6 weeks in advance, not being like my show-off colleagues who have spread-sheeted their entire 2019 music lists and organized their choir rehearsals through the end of next November. Suum cuique, I reckon, but I don't do anything that far in advance. Last Sunday was the 27th Sunday Ordinary Time, year B, and the liturgy of the word brought us to the gospel about divorce and children that makes (and ought to make) homilists sweat their preparation and squirm their delivery. For the closing song (it could have been the opening song, but we went with something else) I chose to use Lori True's setting of Shirley Erena Murray's cogent hymn text, "A Place at the Table." I had chosen it for its first three stanzas in particular, the first of which announces a hope "for everyone born" there is a place with "clean water and bread,/ A shelter, a space, a safe place for growing," and stanzas two and three speak directly to the "place at the table" for women and men and then children and older people. See for yourself:
For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star overhead,
                and God will delight when we are creators
                of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
                yes, God will delight when we are creators
                of justice, justice and joy!
For woman and man, a place at the table,
revising the roles, deciding the share,
with wisdom and grace, dividing the power,
for woman and man, a system that's fair,
                and God will delight ...
For young and for old, a place at the table,
a voice to be heard, a part in the song,
the hands of a child in hands that are wrinkled,
for young and for old, the right to belong,
                and God will delight ...
© 1998, Hope Publishing Co.

That, all by itself, was wonderful. We don't make a big deal of people staying for the final song. I can't bring myself to ask people to do something that's not part of the rite if they don't want to, but I also don't see any harm in going out singing for those who want to do that. We rarely sing all the verses of the closing song, because even our most avidly musical presiders only stay for a stanza or two, and their departure is a signal to everyone that breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) is just a few minutes away if we can just get to the parking lot and out of here before a stupid Canadian train blocks all the egresses.

But Sunday was also the day after the U.S. Senate voted to affirm the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice to the horror of many and certainly to everyone a source of immense unease after the televised hearings regarding his suitability. Everyone in that church was, in one way or another, impacted spiritually by what happened, and almost nothing was said about it. But what if we had sung verse four of "A Place at the Table," as it occurred to me Sunday morning?
For just and unjust, a place at the table,
abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
in anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy,
for just and unjust, a new way to live,
                and God will delight when we are creators
                of justice and joy, compassion and peace...
Bob Batastini, one of the founding fathers of GIA, has often reminded us that the Roman liturgy is not really hymn-friendly. The liturgy has its own rhythm, perhaps can be envisioned as a series of processions, each of which (excepting the final one) is accompanied by a prescribed text from scripture, or lends itself to responsorial singing with flexible length to accommodate the vagaries of real life. Other music of the Mass is set to specific liturgical texts as well. We might almost say that, most of the time, the only accommodation the Mass makes to hymn singing might be at the entrance chant (i.e., song), and a closing song, if we choose to add one, or instead use a hymn of thanksgiving at the end of communion. Even in those cases, we music directors (and, let's face it, composers of hymn texts and hymns) find ourselves in, let's call it, "creative tension" with both presiders and our assemblies, some of whom, let's face it, are more concerned with the clock than with the logical flow of the hymn text, which may take all five or six verses to unfold. Or eight, say, in the case of "For All the Saints," or ten, in the case of "Hail Thee, Festival Day." I mean, even music-lover Pope Benedict XVI interceded for those who are unmoved spiritually by our musical virtuosity, no matter how moved we ourselves might be moved by it!

It can be hard to make cuts to hymn verses once a person has experienced the joy of the flow of the text composer's idea. But we learn to do it (or inure ourselves to doing it) as we do our job. As a songwriter myself, I have spent years not singing my song "I Am for You" at Mass because I just don't like singing it when it's not possible to sing all five verses. But more recently I've decided, "Well, maybe it's just me; and for crying out loud, I even cut out verses of 'It Came Upon the Midnight Clear' when I have to."

It comes down to one of the adages which I have discerned later in life and which I have come to live by: nothing we do has to be perfect in order to be good. (The other is: don't think that just because it's the best I can do that it's good—or even that it isn't bad.) St. Augustine said something like this: "Don't let perfectionism get in the way of doing good." When we look at the bigger picture, we're not really capable of having a "perfect liturgy" anyway, and not least because not a soul in the worship space is perfect in any way. Our outside life isn't perfect. Our unchurched selves aren't full gospel lives. I guess it's good for us to want to do the best we can, and not cut corners for our own convenience, but hospitality and love actually should preclude us from forcing everyone to endure our own tolerance (or delight, or passion) for long hymns. Over time we can get all those verses in. We can keep encouraging people to read the whole text sometime, even pointing it out in the worship aid, but we don't really need to do all the verses all the time.

The example of last Sunday shows how this can happen. Even though the first three stanzas of "A Place at the Table" jump out at one in the light of the Gospel that was read, the fourth stanza, one that I didn't plan, jumps out at us in the light of what we might call the "word-made-flesh" in the happenings of our country during the preceding weeks. In this case, I decided not to follow my instinct. We didn't sing verse four. First of all, not many folks stay for even three verses at most masses, and second of all, I wasn't sure that anyone besides me would make the connection. So, my bad. If I were in a Presbyterian or Methodist church, I wouldn't have had to make any decision. We just sing all the verses, and nobody goes anywhere. We make choices, right?

I don't know the secret of writing a text that grips peoples' imagination with its ability to point us toward our out-of-church experience and gather it all in with our Sunday experience. I try. I've come at the liturgical music writing career through my love of words and theology. I only write a song when I think I have something to say that hasn't been said, or hasn't been said in a way that I think is important, or maybe hasn't been expressed musically in a certain way. Really, it's the words for me. Almost everyone I know can write musical circles around me. But then I get to the end of writing a song that I think I've done a really good job on, and release it into the world full of hope and good will. I come back to the same song a few years later, and I think, "Good heavens. It sounds just the same as every other religious song. I thought it was unique, but it's barely discernible from anything else out there." I'm not sure exactly how that happens, but happen it does.

Most recently, I wrote a song for the Vincentian (Congregation of the Mission) double centenary, sung at a Mass held at the Old Cathedral near the arch in St. Louis, with a lot of Vincentians from around the country, and some, like the current Superior General, from outside of the country. I had written the song for the entrance, which of course was sort of risky, since you really do want to start a liturgy with something that everyone can sink their teeth into. At the same time, I wanted to make it unique and fitting for the event itself (click back a couple of blog posts to see more on this in my post "The Vincentians and I" from about 9/13/18, or just click here.) As I mentioned there, the Vincentians I know and the Daughters of Charity are some really enthusiastic people, and they have been formed to love good liturgy and music, and they know their musical role. In this case, they were led by a wonderful blended choir from the two Vincentian parishes in the area, St. Vincent de Paul downtown, and St. Catherine Labouré, in Sappington (south county).

What happened was lovely. I had crafted the song so that there were four stanzas in a kind of hymn form that we just started singing, and people joined in as they got the tune. Again, with so homogeneous a congregation, this worked great and folks were really singing by the third or fourth stanza. But I had a failsafe: an eight bar ostinato that we saved for the procession itself. In order to prepare participation on this, I included the ostinato melody in an interlude between the hymn stanzas. By the time the cantor and choir intoned the ostinato, everyone knew exactly what was going on, and we were able to terrace in harmony, instruments, and descants until the gathering ended with an a cappella rendering of the ostinato: I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I hoped, the one who wrote the text, that by this time people would understand that "I" and "you" in the text was anybody, was Christ, was the God of the Jewish bible, was every one of us. We are all both "I" and "you" because we were created that way.

But it's just a song. I'm not even sure if anyone "got" what I was trying to do, or if the text just maybe rang true because it was full of scriptural and Vincentian references. Or not at all! But in the moment of the liturgy, it seemed to ring true. More importantly, the truth of it sprang from the lived experience of the people in that room. My Vincentian friends know that we go to the poor to find God. And when you start from the experience and then go to the song (rather than trying to craft a song or a liturgy to substitute for the experience), that's what happens. Whether the song survives the liturgical experience is pretty irrelevant, as terrible as that is to have to admit. What matters is that  people are living I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

There's no question that a song is a thing of power. It can shape faith or shake faith. The words we use and the music we use have power in them, and what we have to keep remembering is that power in the community of Christ is something different from power as we're used to understanding it. Power in the Christian enclave is service. The strongest power is agape, complete self-gift. I have enough self-knowledge to know that I am not capable of that, and as far as I can tell, won't ever be. So I launch a song and hope that another wind, another breath, will carry it where it needs to go. I hope that ecclesia supplet, that Christ will take my weakness and make some strength out of it. Most of all, I hope that "the words" keep becoming flesh, and that my own flesh and breath will fashion worthy (and not just wordy) words! I want to cling to the conviction that, yes, liturgy, and liturgical music, are important. But the other 167 hours of the week are important too, and for liturgy to be a genuine sign of our lives it has to reflect the change we make in the world, in ourselves, for that outside-the-walls time. Life is important, sharing that life in love is most important of all.

I'm certainly grateful for all my colleagues who do this work, and also for all those who have gone before us and taught us how to write songs and lyrics by leaving some amazing work behind them through the centuries. Millennia, really. In the words of Sunday's responsorial psalm (Psalm 90):

"May the favor of the Lord our God be ours.
Prosper the work of our hands!
Prosper the work of our hands!"


Friday, October 5, 2018

Taking steps to relieve world hunger

Groovy choir members in CropWalk uniform bling.
When I came to St. Anne in 1994, it didn't take me long to appreciate the far-reaching ministries of social justice that have been part of this parish since at least the 1980s. Sister Lorraine Menheer, SSSF, the staff member spearheading what she called Hope Ministries, had begun a number of local efforts, including an inhouse food pantry, another one in the city of Chicago at St. Columbanus parish, and later in the 1990s began another in cooperation with the Northern Illinois Food Bank and Harvest Bible Chapel in Carpentersville. In the intervening years after Sr. Lorraine's death, the ministry has further expanded with a much-enlarged food pantry on the parish property. Sister Lorraine started an annual mega-bazaar called "Annie's Attic" at which people brought used clothing, furniture, toys, bikes, lawnmowers, computers etc. to the parish over a period of a couple of weeks, all of which was organized and sold in every room and open space on campus over the period of a long weekend, often having been refurbished by dozens of volunteers. The profit on this effort often came into the six-figure territory, all of which was earmarked for helping the poor. The parish supported a year-round resale shop in Barrington that a few years ago expanded and moved into Lake Zurich, continuing to generate through the efforts of dozens and dozens of volunteers over a million dollars year, funds which are earmarked for charitable work and grants to local organizations that directly impact those in financial distress.

Click to see CROPWALK 2018 DONATION PAGE

2015 walk, out near
It's really a privilege to work among so many people so committed to helping ease the crush of poverty in the Chicago area and even across the world. Projects in India, Mexico, and the Congo have also been part of the parish's ministry, along with Catholic Extension projects in south Texas and among migrant workers in Washington state.

It was not only Sister Lorraine who got me interested in the Carpentersville food pantry so many years ago (I think I started going before Des was in middle school, so sometime in the mid-2000s) but it was her energy and drive that got the parish and, finally, me interested and involved in the ecumenical project under the aegis of Church World Service called Crop Hunger Walk. A dozen or so of the churches in Barrington (I guess all of them, but I'm not sure exactly how many there are!) take part on the third Sunday in October. Walkers choose between the "Golden Mile," for those who need a shorter route, and a 10K walk through the streets of Barrington, raising money from friends and family to be part of this national effort to end hunger. According to 2017 CWS statistics, CropWalk raised $9,000,000 through over 100,000 participants in 900 walks around the nation.

Photo actually taken on CropWalk stroll thru Barrington
So our parish supports a few dozen walkers. Each year the choir and I get involved and try to support each other by raising awareness in our circles and asking for donations to the effort. This year, like every year, everyone is stretched thin by real ad hoc emergencies: Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, Typhoon Mangkhut in southeast Asia, the fires in the western US and Canada, and now the earthquake and tsunami in Sulawesi and the surrounding area. But hunger is a systemic problem, and while some work politically to change the system, in the meantime, charities like Church World Service and others try to address the immediate needs of families and individuals in need.

So here is a link to my "Cropwalk" page for 2018. I hope you'll consider supporting the Barrington Crop Hunger Walk, just one in a growing number of communities doing something to relieve hunger. Thanks, as always, for reading.



My 2015 finish line video...


 

My 2017 starting line video...

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Vincentians and I

Faculty residence, St. Mary's in Perryville.
Photo by Mark Scott Abeln, 2007.
Many of my readers know that as high school and college student between 1965 and 1973 I was among the members of the Congregation of the Mission, commonly called the Vincentians. During that time, I went to high school in Montebello, California, novitiate in Santa Barbara in 1969-70, and then in college at Perryville, Missouri, until 1973. None of those institutions are still in existence as institutions of learning, so let that be a lesson to you. I also spent college summers in the weird and wonderful environs of a place called Camp St. Vincent near Cape Girardeau, which I only recall now as a cross between a M*A*S*H set and Meatballs (the Bill Murray movie), located in a Deliverance look-alike area on the St. Francis river in southeast Missouri. Fortunately, cutting into possible extended time in the Swamp, we also attended summer school at Southeast Missouri State (at that time) College, and then DePaul University in Chicago, where I first learned to desire life in the second city. For the seminary faculty, it was a dangerous gamble (gambol?), those six weeks of co-ed bliss among the belles of the Ozarks and the head shops of pre-yuppie Lincoln Park, and they hastily scrambled to explain to us again what "celibacy" was, but we had already stuffed our ears Zigzag paper and missed the warnings.

I had come to know the Vincentians early in life. When Mom and Dad moved to Arizona in 1958-9, there was no Catholic church per se in our area of Phoenix near 51st Ave and Osborn, but there was a quonset-style building used by the Byzantine Rite Catholics which they let us use on Sunday until the RCs could organize a building drive. The parish was given to the Vincentians, and was called St. Vincent de Paul Parish, occupying about 1/8 square mile of the area along 51st Avenue southwest of Osborn Road. The parish, unlike most institutions with which I've been affiliated, is still there, and now it's within easy walking distance of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball park, used for Spring Training. The ghosts of Montgomery Ward and Co., S. S. Kresge, and other retailers that once existed at the intersection of 51st and Indian School wonder, with me, what took baseball so long to get to Maryvale, and why it wasn't the Cubs instead of the cheating Brewers. My brothers and sisters and I attended the school at SVdP, where I was a choirboy, altar boy, sacristan, and ne'er-do-well, but I got straight As and my teachers loved me. And by "my teachers" I mean the Daughters of Charity, who, in those days, still wore the amazing white winged-hats they were famous for. And I still see, occasionally, two of my teachers from those years when I get to St. Louis where they live, and occasionally hear from another who is in Bloomfield MI. And yes, they really do love me.

All kidding aside, I owe the Vincentians so much for the quality of the education I received in Montebello, Santa Barbara, and Perryville, but also the spiritual formation in the theology of the Second Vatican Council, and the modicum of liberty we were given in which to make its word become flesh. It's also true that I have been shaped, from a very young age, to some degree, by the Vincentian charism of love for the poor, and have tried in my life to take seriously the call to receive the good news and share it. Without claiming anything like an exemplary life, I have tried to be generous with what I have been given and advocate for and work in different ways to promote a more just world and a more equal sharing of the goods of the earth. In addition to all the gifts I received as part of the community, even after leaving college early after three years and two summers, St. Mary's of the Barrens Seminary conferred on me a college degree about a dozen years after I left there. The story of that is further down in this article.

I wanted to give a brief survey of the explicit musical inspiration that has come from my relationship with the Vincentians, because this year is a double centenary for them. In the global community, from last year, the Vincentian Family is celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the Vincentian Charism. This commemorates both St. Vincent’s preaching of the “first mission” on January 25, 1617 on the Di Gondi estate in Folleville, France; as well as the founding of the first Confraternities of Charity in Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne, France during the summer of 1617. The Congregation of the Mission is also celebrating 200 years in the United States, recognizing the journey of the first 13 Vincentians from Italy to France to Baltimore to Bardstown, KY to St. Louis & Perryville, MO over a two year period from 1816 to 1818.



Of course, my earliest compositions were done while I was with them in Perryville, MO. Early psalm settings like "Psalm 40: Here I Am" and "Psalm 72: Justice Shall Flourish" were written there; I wrote my versions of Psalm 89 ("Forever I Will Sing") and Psalm 126 ("I Had a Dream") at DePaul in the summer of 1972, all of which were published about 20 years later in the two Cries of the Spirit recordings I did with OCP, produced by Tom Kendzia. For the baccalaureate mass when my class graduated (without me, of course) in 1974, I wrote, in collaboration with my former English professor at St. Mary's, Sr. Josephine Burns, D.C., a song called "Kenosis Hymn" that appeared ten years later on my first NALR album, You Alone, both times with the great Bill Fraher (a year behind us in college) playing organ. Sr. Josephine paraphrased the kenosis hymn  of Philippians using iambic hexameter, a form of heroic meter. I set it as a kind of musical gradient, beginning with unaccompanied pseudo-chant, adding a simple accompaniment, then moving into a strophic hymn section, and finally into a four-part canon with organ and timpani. I had only ever heard the piece in my head before the graduation mass, and i completely broke down during the singing of it and could barely compose myself by the Gloria. I'm sure there was more than just the joy of recognition going on there, but it has not been often I've been so out of control as (kind of) an adult.
Not my mss...too neat. Back in the day,
I was inspired by the fine organists we had.

While a student at St. Mary's of the Barrens, probably in 1971-2, I had also written a song based on some of the liturgical texts used for the feast of St. Vincent. More or less by default, it became the go-to song for Vincentian feast days. Cleverly and memorably called "Song of St. Vincent," it took for its refrain the verses from Isaiah 61 that include the Vincentian motto, "Evangelizare pauperibus misit me":
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me,
He has sent me to bring tidings of joy to the poor,
To forgive all the contrite of heart.
Verses were taken from the mass of the day, both the psalm and the communion antiphon (Psalm 107: 8-9 and Psalm 112, 1, 8-9).

In 1985, at the suggestion of John Gallen, S.J., in conversations about my participation in the Corpus Christi Center for Advanced Liturgical Studies that he was working on opening in Phoenix, I wrote to Perryville about possibly getting my BA awarded with some possible "life credit" for the hours I had not finished, I guess for good behavior or time served. So I wrote about my work in Phoenix and my budding career as a songwriter for liturgy (at the time, we were working on our second album, Do Not Fear to Hope), knowing that there was some urgency because the seminary itself was closing its doors and all the students were being moved to a house of studies at DePaul University that fall. The Dean wrote back to me and said that the college would be delighted to do so, and, as part of my credit, would like me to write a song for the closing of the seminary.

The closing mass was going to be held in the Easter season, and so I had a quandary about how to write a song appropriate for the closing of such an important institution for the Vincentian community, a pantheon of mixed emotions, during the joyful Easter season. What I hit upon was the song "You in Our Day," which later appeared on our third album, Mystery. I give the long version of the story of its creation on my SongStories post that can be found here.



One other song that we have published that is directly a result of my Vincentian contacts is the "Mission Song," which can be heard on our Vision CD from 1992. My friends at the Vincentian parish in St. Louis, choir director and pastoral associate Dennis Wells and associate pastor (now pastor) and seminary chum Fr. Ed Murphy (classmate of Bill Fraher, seminary organist and one of the music directors for many years at Old St. Patrick's in Chicago) asked me if I'd write something for the  150th anniversary of their parish which was to take place in 1994. I looked up some of the writings of St. Vincent, again drawing on the spirit of Isaiah 61 as well with its words that became the motto of the Congregation of the Mission (evangelizare pauperibus misit me.) I don't think I could reconstruct all of the exact quotes from Vincent, but one that stuck with me was his saying that "It is not enough for me to love God if my neighbor does not love Him," and he goes on to say that the way the neighbor learns to love God is when we love our neighbor properly, i.e., as we love ourselves, as we would want to be loved ourselves. This helped to shape the lyric of the song, which was translated into Spanish by Frank Dominguez, a classmate at the Corpus Christi Center.


All of this brings us to the final song that I want to feature, which has yet to be performed. The Midwest Province Vincentians invited me to write something for the double centenary mentioned above, to be sung at a liturgy on the Feast of St. Vincent de Paul, September 27, at the old cathedral in St. Louis, which was built by Vincentians from whom came the first bishop of St. Louis, Italian-born Joseph Rosati, C.M. (Fun fact: Bishop Rosati also founded, presumably to the never-ending consternation of  the Jesuits, St. Louis University. Second fun fact: the feast of St Vincent is also Terry Donohoo's birthday. Who says heaven isn't paying attention?)

The new piece is entitled "I Was a Stranger," which is the theme of the international Vincentian celebration. The American theme is "Walking with the Poor." Once again, I approached the text with more words of St. Vincent in my mind, particularly his famous dictum, "Go to the poor and you will find God." As I reflected on the background material I had been sent, thought about the journey that had brought the first Vincentians to the US, first to Bardstown, KY, then on to St. Louis, I remembered them as missionaries but as immigrants as well. I drew on insights I'd gotten from reading a Jewish author writing about Yiddish in the diaspora, and how exile, or more precisely, being "away from home," from the Holy Land and Jerusalem, was at the heart of Jewish spirituality. It led me to think about how God "left heaven," if you will, and emigrated to creation, at least in our imagination, to be among "the family," to be with us in the flesh.

In form, I think of the song as a processional in two parts: first, a hymn that could be sung as a prelude by choir and assembly, and then an extended ostinato on the text, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." I hope that, as we sing the refrain over and over with various vocal and instrumental parts terracing in and out, we will come to experience somehow that in that gospel text, part of Matthew 25 in which Jesus identifies with outsiders and the poor, we are all the "I" and "me" in that sentence, and so is God. The song begins with two soloists singing, "Go to the poor and you will find God," and ends with those words being sung as a descant over the ostinato.

I'll let you know how it goes in St. Louis on the 27th, at least, if it goes well! One does what one can. To close this long blog post, I'm posting the text of "I Was a Stranger." To all my friends in the Daughters of Charity and in the Congregation of the Mission (C.M.s), I wish you a happy anniversary, with deep gratitude for your service everywhere in the world, especially in the little corners I've occupied for the last 66 years. Too many blessings to list, but greatest of them all are the friendships.

I Was a Stranger by Rory Cooney 

You
Leaving unimagined realms
Like no other god before you,
Wandered with us in the Sinai,
Walked to Babylon in chains,
You,
Planted in us like a memory
Of a place still uncreated,
Walk among us unashamed
A god among the poor.

You
God’s most clearly spoken word,
Learned your mother’s song of freedom,
Learned to walk among the conquered,
With no place to lay your head.
You
With your parables of mercy
Touch of healing and forgiveness,
You, the glance and grasp of God,
A god among the poor.

You 
From the cross’s cruel embrace
Breathe a final breath to hover
Over oceans of our sorrow
And create another world
You
As you vanish from our presence
Leave the ember of a vision
Of a people bound to you,
A god among the poor

You
In the hunger of the starved,
In craving of the thirsty,
In the loneliness of prisoners 
In the fear of those in pain
You
In the powerless and naked
In the outcast and the beggar,
Still rejecting every throne,
A god among the poor.

I was a stranger and you welcomed me
I was a stranger and you welcomed me
I was a stranger and you welcomed me
I was a stranger and you welcomed me

Copyright © 2018 Rory Cooney. All rights reserved.



Sunday, September 9, 2018

Just past the silence (Second Thoughts on "Ephphatha" - B23O)

Open up.
Break out.
Snap out of it.
Fly.
We’re here to help:
Ephphatha.

Say something.
Don't just sit there.
No one's stopping you now.
Take a stand, say it.
I'm listening. We're listening.
Don't be afraid.

Listen to me.
Listen to the earth.
Listen for the birdsong, the breeze.
Hear the beggar’s plea,
The baby’s cry,
The choir, the traffic.
Let it all in.
Don't cover your ears,
Snap out of it.
We’re with you.
Listen.

Unfold. Bend. Reach up.
Open up.
Break out.
Open a window, open a door.
Scale a wall,
Break down a wall.
Prophesy to the wall.
Connect.
Touch me, take the outstretched hands,
Hold on.

Ephphatha.
Stretch. Walk. Run. Reach.
Listen to the word,
then speak it.
We’re with you. Be the echo.

Don't be afraid.
Ephphatha.
Hear me. Say after me,
Open up.
Break out.
Come along, call the rest.
It's gonna be OK.
We're going somewhere new
Just

past

the silence. Let's go. Open up,
Listen. Say it.
Ephphatha. 

(Allelu

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.