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Saturday, May 25, 2013

How a songwriter thinks about God - Trinity Sunday

What is God like? I don't know. Ask a theologian.

I was just reading about Pope Francis speaking on this very issue, and the difference between the way normal people think about God, and how professionals do. I probably fit somewhere in the middle of all that, so I'd need to ask him for some clarification. But yesterday (actually, today, Saturday 5/25/13, in Rome) he made this observation, according to Whispers in the Loggia:
"The faith of the People of God...is a simple faith, a faith that is perhaps without much theology, but it has an inward theology that is not wrong, because the Spirit is behind it."
The Pope mentions Vatican I and Vatican II, where it is said that "the holy people of God ... cannot err in matters of belief" (Lumen Gentium). And to explain this theological formulation he adds: "If you want to know who Mary is go to the theologian and he will tell you exactly who Mary is. But if you want to know how to love Mary go to the People of God who teach it better. " 
He goes on to talk about the way people who want to draw nearer to the Lord through the sacraments are received in our parishes and by clergy. I hope his legislative acumen matches his pastoral kerygma, because as it is one has to be prepared to trample a lot of church laws in order to give the kind of pastoral care he wants. To be true to his own proclamation, I think the pope needs to liberate the local church within the law, so that pastoral response to need doesn't have to jump through a lot of ecclesiastical hoops. It's disingenuous to say "love, invite, receive" when the law says "check the documents, know the words, follow the rubric." But the proclamation itself is a breath of fresh air, and a liberating public espousal of the gospel.

So when it comes to asking what God is like, and singing about that like we might on Trinity Sunday, and writing songs that might contribute to the repertoire of the people of God to sing about God, I think
the same rubric has to apply. Unless we are going to depend on theologians also to be musicians and poets, which for a few is possible (Fr. Jan Michael Joncas, for one obvious example) but which finds most of us on a sliding scale of expertise in one or more areas, or leads us to collaborate with others who are stronger in a one of the fields in which we are weaker. But even though the music is public and intended for as wide an audience as we can find, the work of writing songs is intensely personal, and it's not always easy or even possible to share that creative process with another.

In the parish, I tend to try to sing a range of approaches to the love of God on Trinity Sunday. We are as likely to sing "How Great Thou Art" or "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name" as we are something like Brian Wren's "God Is One, Unique and Holy" with Gary Daigle's melody, or Bernadette Farrell's "God Beyond All Names." The way people express divine love within them is all over the place musically and theologically, just like love outside the church walls is. It is as varied as eros, philia, storge, and agape, with a good side serving of mania as well. But since divine love is the origin and destiny of all of it, we have to at least attempt to give it a voice if we can manage it. Ironically, I suppose, I have the hardest time with the more affective side of divine love. I'd almost rather sing a chant in Latin than attempt a praise chorus. There's more irony in that, now that I think about it, than I can even begin to express. Next thought...


"You Alone," which I wrote in the early 1980s, is a solidly unitarian love song that praises the loving-kindness of God with words of scripture and St. Augustine. It makes no mention of God as trinity, but that is not its intention, and it has no theological pretense about it. It's more "I love you because you're beautiful" than it is "A you're adorable, B you're so beautiful" catalog of divine attributes.

"You Are a Sacrifice" was written several years later, with more parish life and certainly more theological reflection than I'd had in previous years, due to my interaction with John Gallen and other colleagues in liturgy and music (Gary Daigle, Ginny McKinley-Temple, Suzanne DiGiovanni, Mark Mellis, and others) at the Corpus Christi Center in Phoenix. In early summer in the mid-1980s, passing through St. Louis for some reason or another, possibly even for Trinity Sunday, I remember sitting on a porch at Terry's house, or Fr. Ed Murphy's, somewhere, and writing a song called "You Are a Sacrifice," and singing it at mass the next day, or soon afterwards. This song was consciously trinitarian, but coming at it from the angle of agape in the language of "sacrifice," that is, holiness as complete self-gift. This sacrifice is the nature of divine being, is the core of revelation as incarnate in Jesus, and is the only sure sign of the presence of God in anything that anyone does, or any Church does.


"Father, all we have is from you.
Universes you have made
For the joy of giving to Christ, who gives them back to you.
And at the finish, you are undiminished,
You are a sacrifice of love.
Accept our fading light that Christ more brightly blaze.
With Jesus,
Receive us, a living sacrifice of praise.
And Christ did not imagine
Glory was a thing to grasp,
Rather, in the image of you,
He emptied himself.
And at the finish he is undiminished,
He is a sacrifice of love.
Accept...
Your Spirit lives in us to show
That life is to be shared,
And the finest love is life that's given away.
And at the finish, we are undiminished.
We are yours, a living sacrifice of love.
Accept our fading light that Christ more brightly blaze.
With Jesus,
Receive us, a living sacrifice of praise.
© 1987 NALR, assigned to Rory Cooney
More recently, I wrote a song (not recorded yet) called "O Agape", originally entitled, "Credo," but that seemed too personal and therefore probably confusing. It is a longer text, but I just thought, to give you an example of where my writing about God has moved more recently, I would share part of that lyric and another one here, since there are a just a few of us who are here, and we're all people of good will. "O Agape" starts out by crying out to God, "O Mystery beyond my grasping, beyond the breadth and height and depth," and then trying to identify and reject the counterfeits of God that vie for our allegiance. In its final stanza, the hymn comes to a creed that climaxes in the refrain we have already sung three times:
I know you in your sacred word,
In shepherd, gate, and mustard seed,
In Good Samaritan, lost coins, and sheep, and sons,
In lily, sparrow, wheat, and weeds.
In healing hands, in those who labor
In field and mill, 'til all be fed,
We keep your memory
In solidarity
By sharing cup and breaking bread.
O agape! Love freely poured!
O Abba, mirrored in the Son!
Sophia, flowing through the world!
Be known in me. Be known in us.
© 2008 Rory Cooney. All rights reserved.
Finally, my choir commissioned a song from me, for them, for my sixtieth birthday a year ago. Again, this unrecorded song is an attempt to express my heart about who God is for us in a way that reverences the experience I have had of God in my parish and particularly my friends in the choir over the nineteen years it has been my privilege to serve them. The song is entitled, "To You Who Bow," and comes full circle I suppose by expressing what appears to be the unifying attribute of the communal God, that is, self-abandoning, creative, non-violent service. None of us can circumscribe or ever define it, but singing gives us a way of reaching together. With these most recent of my songs, along with those reaching backwards forty years, I hope that they help people "grasp the breadth, the length, the height and the depth until knowing the love of Christ, you are filled with the utter fullness of God. Glory be to him in whose power we have infinitely more than we can grasp or imagine!" (Eph. 3:18-19) (music excerpt at GIA by clicking on title)

1. To you who bow
To you who bend
To you who do not cling to heaven
But unto us descend,
You who summon us as servants,
And call your servants friends:
To you we lift our song, 
Love ever new,
O God who bows, we sing our song to you.

2. To you who teach,
To you who heal,
To you, the leper's restoration,
The victim's last appeal,
You whose life is sown and gathered
And offered as a meal:
To you we lift our song, 
Love ever new,
O God who bows, we sing our song to you.

3. To you who weep,
To you who bleed,
Who dreamed the bound'ries of Orion
But will not break the reed,
You who sow the end of empire
With tiny, peaceful seed:
To you we lift our song, 
Love ever new,
O God who bows, we sing our song to you.

4. To you who starve,
To you who thirst,
To you condemned to death by malice,
Abandoned and accursed,
You who promised to the wretched
The last will be made first,
To you we lift our song, 
Love ever new,
O God who bows, we sing our song to you.

5. To you, who rise,
To you, our peace,
To you who lead the way before us,
Whose spirit binds and frees,
At once the alpha and omega,
Whose love shall never cease,
To you we lift our song, 
Love ever new,
O God who bows, we sing our song to you. 

Copyright © 2012, Rory Cooney, all rights reserved.