Sometimes, people ask me, “How did you come to write that song?” Or “Where did you get the idea?” Sometimes, I am able to explain the inspiration. Sometimes, the inspiration comes because someone, in a way, pays you to be inspired. Of course, that’s impossible, but sometimes a commission focuses your work in a specific way, and the resulting mix of in- and per- spiration become the work of art. As Stephen Sondheim wrote in his musical Sunday in the Park with George, it’s all about “putting it together”:
Advancing art is easy.Seven or eight years ago, Tom Octave, a well-known Pittsburgh area musician, called me with a commission request. Tom was, at the time, the director of music at Blessed Sacrament cathedral in Greensburg, PA, and we have a number of common friends in the “biz” including the late Fr. John Gallen, S.J., and Mike Ross, the former music director at St. Ann’s in Pittsburgh. When Tom called me for this original commission, he was looking for a song that his choir could sing during Advent, but he also wanted it to be useful through to Epiphany, because his choir was doing a concert in Rome in early January.
Financing it is not!
A vision's just a vision if it's only in your head!
If no one gets to hear it, it's as good as dead!
It has to come to life!
Bit by bit, putting it together
Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art
Every moment makes a contribution
Every little detail plays a part
Having just a vision's no solution
Everything depends on execution
Putting it together, that's what counts!
I don’t mind telling you that writing this song was challenging on several levels - my natural “impostor’s syndrome” kicked in, because Tom is a well-rounded musician who has sung opera in Texas, New York, and Pennsylvania, and I didn’t think I could fake him out with my limited musical skills. (Why do I have these negative thoughts? I'm hopeless.) Secondly, think about it—what would you do if someone asked you to write a song that was seasonal for Advent and Christmas and Epiphany? What kind of lyric would you write? The language of Advent is of absence, hope, and promise; the language of Christmastime is the language of presence, joy, and fulfilment. I had already said “yes” before I realized how difficult the task might be.
Having taken it on, I approached it by reviewing the liturgical texts, and then just letting it all ruminate. Early in the process, I latched onto the use of Psalm 72 in the Advent liturgy as well as at Epiphany, but then let the idea go. Eventually, though, I came back to it, deciding not to approach the setting of it as a slavish setting of a normative psalm text, but rather letting the psalm text inspire a new lyric. How would a person in the twenty-first century pray this psalm that was probably sung thirty centuries before? How to sing the music of coronation in a democracy? How would we sing words so closely allied in the Christian consciousness to a specific kind of messianism, that is, a fulfilment messianism that is focused in a most singular way on Jesus, and try to expand its arena of meaning to be able to embrace a wider vision of the whole of Christ as messiah, that is, a messianic people, filled by the design of God with the same Spirit that made Jesus messiah in a unique and paradigmatic way?
I decided that the song should have a refrain that incorporated familiar Advent texts that refer to the process of divination in which we find ourselves, that is, that God continues to work in us to bring the work of Christ to completion. In kairos, this work is begun and complete in the creation and incarnation and kenosis of the Logos, but in chronos, or time as we experience it, it is unfolding gradually. As I have described, I used to go for walks in the area, put on my iPod earbuds without turning the player on (this both blocks out other sound and makes it look like I’m busy), and head off to think about all this. Eventually, the refrain took shape this way:
Bring to birth in us what you have begun, (Phl. 1:6)
This ancient longing for peace at last be still.
Come down like dew; the wilderness awaits you, (Is. 45:8)
Desire of the everlasting hills. (Gen. 49:26)
You’d have to look in an old Bible for that last one - the translation comes from the Douay-Rheims version. It is, of course, the title of the wonderful 1999 Thomas Cahill book about the world of Jesus.
Most of the rest of the text is inspired by Psalm 72, with a couple of more Isaiah references in the fifth verse. The rest of the text follows.
“The Wilderness Awaits You” is the second track on our CD Today, which was released, by happy coincidence, on my birthday in 2006. In the fairly taciturn world of liturgical music, there have been no reviews of the CD or of the individual sheet music pieces from it in the intervening (itchy) seven years. The good news, of course, is that there aren’t any bad reviews. Whatever the unwritten reviews might say, I think that “Wilderness” is one of the best pieces I’ve written. The text and melody seem to fit together really well, the choral parts are simple but effective, and the instrumental parts add color and sparkle to the other lines.
Here is the text, with a side-by-side version of the scriptural texts that inspired it, mostly from Psalm 72. “Wilderness” is on the left, the RNAB texts are indented, in italics.
O God, give our leadership your justice,
Bring your fairness to our rivalry and greed.
May we tend to the weak and poor with mercy,
Be rescue to all of those in need.
O God, with your judgment endow the king,We imagine a day when justice blossoms,
and with your justice, the king’s son;
he shall govern your people with justice
and your afflicted ones with judgment.
Peace in bloom, until the moon shall be no more,
When our race, fully human, leads by service,
From this nation to earth’s most distant shore.
Justice shall flower in his days,From all nations, the mighty flock in wonder
and profound peace, till the moon be no more.
May he rule from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Led by stars to what none has seen before:
That a god should abandon heaven’s glory,
A baby at home among the poor.
May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute,In your image shall we raise the broken-hearted,
the kings of Arabia and Seba offer gifts.
May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him.
Be the champions of those without a voice
‘Til the day when they call us to the banquet,
Where the hungry and homeless shall rejoice.
For he shall rescue the poor man when he cries out,A voice is crying out: “Your peace is coming.”
and the afflicted when he has no one to help him.
He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor;
the lives of the poor he shall save.
A voice is crying out, “Prepare the way.”
Come form our hearts to hold your justice:
You are the potter, we are the clay.
(Is. 40:3) A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!You have planted this vision in your people.
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
(Is 64:7) Yet, O LORD, you are our father;
we are the clay and you the potter:
we are all the work of your hands.
And as long as the sun shall burn above,
Blessed are you, and your Spirit sent among us,
Blessed be Christ, God-among-us, Word of love.
(Ps. 72) May his name be blessed forever;
as long as the sun his name shall remain.
In him shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed;
all the nations shall proclaim his happiness.
New American Bible Copyright © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.
"The Wilderness Awaits You," © 2006 GIA Publications, Inc.
The Wilderness Awaits You - Today (iTunes link)