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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Albums (9) - Praise the Maker's Love (1993, GIA)

The beautiful cover art for PTML was designed
by noted Gonzales, LA artist Douglas Bourgeois
After working on trio albums in one form or another for eight years, Gary Daigle decided he wanted to
have a recording under his own name. Lucky for me, he didn't go out looking for some other chowderhead to write lyrics for him, he was satisfied enough with the chowderhead with whom he was already collaborating. But what was so special about this ICEL guy? Why wouldn't he use his whole name? And who is this Brian Wren fellow, anyway? What do they have that I don't have? I was miffed, still am, but keep hoping he doesn't answer that last question.

So in 1993 he gathered his colleagues from the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, along with some of our studio regulars, and made Praise the Maker's Love. Tom Kendzia was also there, co-producing the recording. Gary was, with John Gallen, really committed to exploring ritual music, especially by employing music as a unifying factor in the entrance and communion rites. To be sure, other artists were doing the same, including Paul Inwood and Marty Haugen, but Gary's work at the FRC and our work with Gallen in workshops at conferences around the country was a model for a lot of folks in using music creatively to create unified-sounding rites within the eucharistic celebration. In fact, we wrote a book for Resource Publications in 1991 (John, at some point during this time, was also working for that publisher) called Promising Presence, Meaning and Music in the Gathering Rites or something like that. Frankly, I don't have a copy, and neither does any US publisher of used books. It is listed, however, in Amazon Canada, Germany, UK, and Zambia, if you're interested.


1. Advent Gathering. Gary's album starts off with this haunting litany-with-refrain in 7/8 time, carried off with bare-bones instrumentation of bass, percussion, and flute. He had given me the tune on a cassette, and asked for a lyric, so I sketched out a four-stanza text around the central Advent theme of incompleteness, darkness awaiting dawn. "We seek a sign that you are among us," the song prays, "Show us your face, O promise of dawn!"
Where is the peace you promised the widow?
Show us your face, O promise of dawn!
Where is the home you promised the orphan?
Show us your face! O Lord Jesus, come!
Come, O hope of your people,
Come among us and stay.
Lead us in mercy up from the shadows.
Shine in our darkness, be here today.
Gary fashioned an entire Advent gathering rite around this song, from the opening music to the collect. Haunting tune. The rhythm probably looks a little daunting on the page, but with steady percussion (claves) and choir support the hymn was not difficult for an assembly to sing. And its real strength is the wedding of tune to text, the stark, winter beauty of it, and its honest assessment of the reality of the world situation, calling for an advent of repentance and reform. This song appeared in the first edition of Gather Comprehensive, but was not in subsequent editions. It does appear in RitualSong.

2. Covenant Hymn
This choral arrangement of the song that first appeared on our album Vision moved the song out of the simpler folk arrangement for guitar, oboe, and cello, and into the world of SATB choir, with string quartet and oboe. Gary changed the harmony, and made a beautiful choral piece from our song. I already wrote about this song in one of my "SongStories" posts, and if you didn't see it and would like to read more about its composition, click here.

3. God Is One, Unique and Holy. (text by Brian Wren) Brian Wren is a British-born hymn writer, a text-writer's text-writer. He has several books of hymntexts, and is well-represented in every major U.S. hymnal. Gary's setting of his "God Is One" text was written for Trinity Sunday, its gentle, uncomplicated melody giving plenty of room for Wren's evocative text to blossom, while providing some accompaniment for that "endless dance of life and love" to which God is compared.

4. Penitential Litany (Hold Us in Your Mercy). In the late 1980s, Gary brought me into the work of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate's "Remembering Church" institutes. These workshops were designed to explore the dynamics of the Rite of Penance, and offer a way to renew that sacrament by extending it over time, applying the model of the RCIA to its celebration, and recovering its origins in the Order of Penitents. These practices took root in a few places in the country, but without the approbation of the Bishops' Conference and retrenchment around canonical auricular confession, the practice has all but died out. 

Still, in the day, it sparked a lot of creativity in some dioceses and parishes. At one institute, Gary and I were trying to choreograph a procession for which we wanted an a capella litany that would be immediately singable by the participants. In the service, we were already using Tom Conry's bold anthem "Hold Us in Your Mercy," the refrain of which is itself based on the ancient chant melody "Parce Domine." So we decided to take that line, "Hold us in your mercy," which has exactly the same musical syllables as "Parce", and use it as the response to a litany, sung a cappela. Later, when adapting it for use at the FRC in Scottsdale, Gary and his band added the syncopated accompaniment that appears on the recording, along with the choral harmonies that sparkle so achingly over and between the cantor's invocations. 

This song is also one of the anthologized pieces from Gary's album, along with "Advent Gathering," "Covenant Hymn," and "May We Be One." Four out of eight is a really good track record!

5. Introductory Rite: Glory to God from the Roman Missal. I told Gary when he wrote this that the world didn't need another Glory to God in 6/8 time. But I was wrong. Artfully crafted in C major but borrowing throughout from the relative minor, this setting is musically satisfying and a joy to sing from beginning to end. In addition, Gary provided a litanic center to be used with a sprinkling rite, based on the option in other sacramentaries that the Glory to God might be used for the Entrance Song at some times. In this case, the opening two stanzas and refrains were sung as the entrance song, and then the litany, with the refrain "Blessed be God, O blessed be God" was sung while the water was blessed and the assembly sprinkled with holy water, interspersed with other invocations to Christ ("You are the light of the world," "You are the shepherd of hearts.")

I think Gary has rewritten the Gloria for the new translation, but hasn't field tested it enough for publication. 

6. Gospel Acclamation (Alleluia) Based on genetic material from the Glory to God (which  is also used in the Lamb of God included with #7 below).

7. Communion Rite: May We Be One. The communion rite included a harmonization of the Lord's Prayer chant with its embolism, a Fraction Rite with multiple verses, and a communion hymn. With "Covenant Hymn," the Lamb of God and May We Be One are the most enduring of the songs we wrote for Praise the Maker's Love. The product of one of our escapes to the Prescott forest in the early 1990s, "May We Be One" uses a call-and-response form for the verses, with a refrain. The text of the chorus is a trope on one of the memorial acclamations, explicitly tying the act of communion (becoming one-with God and others) to the paschal mystery (dying to self in love). Musical material used in the Glory to God and Lamb is wedded to the response "Amen, amen," making the response both memorable and resonant with the action of communion, and the familiarity of the text (1 Cor. 10 and the Roman Missal) made the congregation's part a quick learn. There are thirteen verses for the cantor(s), too, making May We Be One a good choice for even the longest communion processions. The verses use images about bread, wine, and common life to give variety to the performance of the song.
This is the bread of Israel's wandering. (Amen, amen.)
The bread that strengthened Elijah. (Amen, amen.)
Take and eat, this bread is the life of God.
This is the cup of Cana's amazement. (Amen, amen.)
The cup that would not pass from you. (Amen, amen.)
Take and drink, this cup is the life of God.
This is a people homeless and wandering. (Amen, amen.)
A people at home with each other. (Amen, amen.)
Drink warmth and hope from this winecup. (Amen, amen.)
May all creation meet at this table. (Amen, amen.)
And deep within all people the breath of God.
We dedicated "May We Be One" to Rev. Richard Fragomeni, a wonderful liturgist and long-time friend whose dedication to the Eucharist has inspired us for over two decades. It was a homily, or a talk, or a story about a homily or a talk of his, that was the inspiration for this song so many years ago. Thank you, Richard, for your friendship and your great work over the years.

8. Hymn of Thanksgiving (Praise the Maker's Love)
People who don't write songs (or for that matter, make their living by writing) might not believe this, but though I wrote the text for this song, I didn't remember a line of it until I picked up the booklet from the CD today. I think that because Gary scored this as a hymn, with organ, trumpet, flute, and SATB choir, I never really had an opportunity to use it in a parish where I was working. It's a good strong melody, too, but not that adaptable (by me) to a smaller choir and my meager keyboard skills. As usual for me, I just don't know when enough is enough, and there are five stanzas. Since you probably won't ever hear it otherwise, here is the text. Only the a capella choral verse is on the GIA website as a preview, and it doesn't really give a good feel for the whole song, so I've included a SoundCloud version. It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

Hymn of Thanksgiving (Praise the Maker's Love) 

music by Gary Daigle, text by Rory Cooney © 1993 GIA Publications.
A banquet for the powerless is spread from shore to plain,
A feast of peace and mercy we make from grape and grain,
That caste and class be leveled and despots put to flight,
No human power rules here. God's word alone our light.
A banquet for the searching soul is sown in ancient fields
And grows with fertile mystery to teeming golden yields.
As God sends rain and sunlight with unrestricted grace,
This banquet feeds the hungers of every time and place.
O taste and see the goodness of bounty without price,
Where no one is a stranger, and life is pledged to life.
Come singing to this table, let no one go unfed,
For hope flows from this winecup and God is shared like bread.
This cup of sweet forgiveness, the loaf of work and home,
Are sign to every human heart that none should be alone.
Let no one fear surrender to Christ, whose love would heal
The righteous and the sinner by sharing in a meal.
O wondrous gift! No word of ours would ever be enough.
O stand together, friends in Christ, to praise the Maker's love,
Praise Christ who walked among us, who died and lives again,
And in their Holy Spirit may all be one. Amen.
Regrettably, this particular CD was never released digitally on iTunes. MP3s of the songs are available from the GIA website, however, along with most of the music. The Glory to God/Sprinkling Rite, lovely and useful as it is, has not as of this writing been updated for the 2010 transliteration of the mass texts. If you'd like to hear brief cuts from the songs, or download individual tracks from GIA, click here.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

I Say a Little Prayer for You (C17O)

For everyone who asks, receives;

and the one who seeks, finds;

and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 

How was your Sunday this week? Hear any good homilies? 

A few years ago, on this Sunday, I heard a homilist say that, in the first reading, Abraham was a bad example of an intercessor because he gave up at 10 (good people) in his bargaining that God forego the destruction of the inhospitable and oppressive cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because there were indeed four. He explicitly said that if he had kept going “Sodom and Gomorrah would still be there today.” I don’t even know on which level to begin to rebut that. Maybe he was kidding, but he gave no indication of irony.

It seems like a really good question, on the other hand, to ask this: if everyone who asks, receives; if the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door is opened,” then how does one account for the fact that the fervent, good-hearted prayers of Christians are not answered? Forget about all the petty and selfish prayers there might be, and just concentrate on the parents praying for a child dying painfully of cancer; the head of household begging for a job to feed her family; the prayer of churches throughout the Mideast that the violence be ended; the prayer of the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church, Sunday after Sunday, for peace and justice in the world. If “everyone who asks, receives,” then what gives?

I sure as heck don’t know the answer, but it’s not as glib as “we don’t know what to ask for.” I’d be happy if Jesus had just said, “Sometimes God answers your prayers. Sometimes you ask for the wrong things. Sometimes your prayers go unanswered. Sometimes if you ask, you receive. Sometimes when you knock, the door will open.” But what the gospel says is, “Everyone who asks, receives.” Do you think maybe the action of God in those verbs of receiving, finding, and having the door opened all refer forward to the giving of the Holy Spirit? I’m perfectly willing not to be God, but that seems like a bait-and-switch advertiser - “believe in me, ask for whatever you want, and I’ll give you whatever I want.” I’d also be willing to listen to a homilist say, “You know what? I think Jesus was just wrong, and the Rolling Stones were right, ‘You can’t always get what you want,’ even if you want something good, right, and noble.” Is praying like roulette? Do you sometimes hit the jackpot with your prayer, but most of the time you crap out? That sounds flip, but it seems to be the empirical truth.

We say all kinds of junk in God’s name when prayer fails and people suffer. Horrible stuff that’s meant to help, like, “there’s another angel in heaven; God wanted her more than you did.” “God always hurts those he loves.” “(Insert horrible event here) was God’s will; we don’t know everything.” I’m pretty sure I don’t know everything, but I do know that I don’t want to believe in a God who wills horrible things to happen just to “test” us. I am willing to believe in the consequences of human acts of evil and selfishness building up until we’re sort of corporate victims of our own inertia, blindness, and laziness, and I believe that there are strategies of grace that can and will counteract those consequences if we have solidarity and courage.

But it really bothers me, the assertion that “everyone who asks receives,” unless we add the word “something” onto the end, and the something can be anything, including all the things you didn’t ask for, which renders the original statement at least meaningless.

The rest of yesterday’s gospel makes sense to me: I can believe, want to believe more strongly, in a God who loves me more than the loving fathers and mothers that I have known in my life, because I’ve known some really heroic ones. I can pray the Lord’s prayer with hope. I need to be forgiven, so I struggle to forgive, releasing those debts, real and imagined, that other people owe me. That part, it seems to me, is learning how to “love my neighbor as myself,” without all the prejudices and other judgments I make about the motivations of others, cutting everyone the same slack I cut myself (this is a massive amount of slack, which may explain the trouble I have cutting it.) But I’d like to know why Jesus said what he said, and made such an offer that is so clearly not part of our observable reality. I’m not saying we should stop praying, for all the obvious reasons. Praying changes us, if only by slowing us down a little in our need for acquisition or gratification of need. Did Jesus ever experience a prayer not being answered? He said (in John) as he was about to raise a dead man to life, “Thank you, Father, for hearing me, I know that you always hear me.” Did he just know when to ask, and when not to ask? That seems cruel, too, and forces on us a God whose will is that some be cured and some suffer and die. If the reign of God is for this world, then why isn’t it the same for all? If it’s not for this world, then why do we bother? Let the bad guys win, let’s all go to heaven and let God sort it out. That seems like a major cop-out to me, too.

If you have a clue, let me know. Share the wisdom. I’ll say a little prayer that the liturgy afford us some insight, in case it might save the next Sodom and Gomorrah.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Grokking the "our" in "Our Father" C17O

If you’re under 40, you’re probably wondering what “grokking” means - for the answer to that, you’ll have to go back into my formative years and get a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein’s classic from the day when hippies were hip.

For the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear a rich combination of readings, particularly the first reading and gospel combination. Jesus’s teaching on prayer really strikes me, mostly because since we last heard these readings I've had the opportunity to read Dom Crossan's little book The Greatest Prayer, about the Our Father. For me, the meaning of Jesus’s teaching us to pray with the words “thy kingdom come” took on a new force, and that his prayer included petitions that echoed a peasant’s two greatest concerns, bread and debt, was particularly striking. Here are my little thoughts on the prayer itself:

Our Father...both the “our” and the “Father” are revelatory. The whole prayer is voiced as though prayed by a community, so that even when an individual is praying it, s/he is praying as part of the family. (In Luke’s text, there is no “our” before “father,” but the rest of the prayer is still first person plural.) That, it seems to me, is the first sign both of its genius and its truth. And the second is like it: Jesus’s use of “Father,” abba, while not unique in first-century Judaism, was not common, either. It seems to be a deliberate choice by Jesus, to choose “father” as the image for God among his disciples, rather than emperor, king, or judge This ought to be a tremendous relief for the believer. A father is bound by honor to look after the family, and the implied relationship of love is even better. Crossan goes to great lengths to assure us that the essence of meaning in the term is not so much a male figure as the head of a household, one which some women held, even in Judea.

Hallowed be your name. I hear this as a relational statement. God is God alone, and only God is holy. The statement is an act of reverence for the name of God which is paradoxical: God cannot be named, yet gives a name, like the bush that is both burning and unconsumed. Crossan takes us back to the Exodus and to Leviticus 19 to try to determine what the content is of "holy" or "hallowed" in relationship to God. "You must be holy as I am holy," says the Lord to Moses, and then he goes on to talk about justice to the poor, hospitality to aliens, and care for the blind and weak. 

Your kingdom come. This seems so “Jesus” to me! The reign of God is, in the words of Crossan and Borg, the passion of Christ, the thing for which he was willing to sacrifice his life. It is a statement of fidelity and allegiance: there can be only one king. It must be God, and other fidelities and other kings must give way. In a world where other powers appear to hold sway, we continue to pray “thy kingdom come.” "Your will be done on earth as in heaven" is the meaning of "your kingdom come."

Give us today our daily bread. This is the first of the two requests in the language of Jewish peasants. In the occupation economy of the Roman vassal state, eking out enough sustenance for the day’s bread for the family was a constant source of labor and worry. The prayer makes of God’s bounty our justice. It is also a prayer of peasant hope, "give us today the bread we need for tomorrow." Since the earth and all that is in it belongs to God, there is enough for everyone every day. The prayer of Jesus is that, in the "kingdom come" of God, where God's will is done on earth, that bread which is already available is available to everyone every day.

...and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us. Now the matter of debt surfaces; and the prayer is meant to catch in the voice and take away our breath. In the economy of the reign of God, debts are freely forgiven by all, starting with God. We are called to live in that economy of love, participating in divine eradication of debt. The kingdom of God, which we just prayed will come soon, is characterized by the forgiveness of debt, as is symbolized in the sabbath year and jubilee traditions (Leviticus 25).

..and do not subject us to the final test. In the context of what I’ve been reading, it seems to me that this petition is about coming face-to-face with the threat of the empire as it reacts to the perceived threat of the Jesus movement, whether that empire is Rome, Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, or any other power that rules by violence and economic tribute systems. As so many have discovered, empires do not tolerate even non-violent revolutions, and the “final test” is the moment when the believer is staring down the barrel of a gun, being blindfolded by a death squad, or threatened with loss of work, home, or family because of one’s faith. Many were subjected to the final test in the years following the death and resurrection of Jesus, and many thousands or even millions more since then. Another way of seeing the "final test" is the test of self-defense by violence, to which many Christians, including the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane, were put in the decades following the death of Jesus. The gospel vision is love of enemies, "put away your sword," and the admonition to "flee to the mountains" rather than fight to defend the city against Rome were all part of this gospel trajectory.

For me, the comfort and strength of this prayer is the expressed solidarity of “our.” Is the “our” and “us” the community of believers? The baptized? People of good will? Everybody? I believe it’s all of us, by virtue of creation, but even more so by the proclaimed advent of the reign of God made present in Christ. We aren’t aware, all of us, that we are an “us.” That is the meaning of evangelization. A world in which all of  us realize we are an “us” and act like it, act like we are brothers and sisters, children of one hallowed Father, is a reality worth praying for. Sifting out the implications of this prayer, and living by them, is a Christian's life work in community with everyone who is part of the household of God.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Liturgy and the mess of incarnation - guest blogger response

I'm happy to introduce to any who might not know him Father James Hurlbert, former associate pastor
at St. Anne in Barrington, former pastor of St. Alphonsus in Chicago, and now chaplain at the Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos orphanage in Guatemala. Information on his work and efforts to build a chapel there during his 30-month sojourn can be found here. Happy feast day, Father Jim, and thanks for your candid, nuanced, and touchingly thoughtful remarks.

Hi Rory,

Thanks for your blog post this morning. As you probably remember from our time together at St Anne, I sometimes felt a tension between the desire for reverence/transcendence at Mass and a powerful sense of community connection and participation that unfortunately also sometimes seemed to take away from the transcendent. The horizontal/vertical contrast was something of which I felt keenly aware, and with which I continue to wrestle. I don’t want to put too much energy into drawing up a contrast that doesn’t serve, but to put your reflection about the Incarnation into relief, I wonder if one might propose that if the Incarnation is powerfully reflected in the “messiness” of liturgy, perhaps the resurrection finds its most powerful expression in a more traditional/solemn Mass celebration? O don’t want to argue the point too much… but it is just an idea that I stumbled upon after reading your post.

A few other thoughts:

One way of processing things that came to me: I experienced some of the most powerful/most meaningful experiences of worship when I was at St Anne; I experienced some of the most powerful/most meaningful experiences of liturgy at St Alphonsus. Is this a fair distinction? Perhaps it is worth exploring the difference between “liturgy” and “worship?” As creatures, we are called to worship / as Catholics we are commanded to celebrate liturgy? Sunday Mass is our poor attempt at uniting these??

I think that the messiness of the incarnation can be evident in the Extraordinary Form as well as in the Novus Ordo. In Rome last fall on sabbatical I decided to go to the parish that is the center for the Extraordinary Form there for Mass on All Souls Day, figuring it would be nice and solemn. And it was. But it was also messy. In fact, older priests have told me that was a real problem with the old Mass: it was very difficult to celebrate well. It is complicated and requires a kind of precision choreography that is difficult to achieve. Even with a cardinal as celebrant, a deacon and sub-deacon, a Gregorian schola and loads of servers (all seminarians), there were plenty of glitches.

I have tried to enter into the Extraordinary Rite, but with little success.  My first time it actually bugged me; I felt offended by it. But I have pushed myself some, mostly because I hope to understand why it is so meaningful for others. With time I have developed a respect for it, and for the people to whom it best speaks. I think I once wrote a piece comparing appreciation of liturgy to appreciation of opera (an appreciation for which I have not yet managed to develop).  The idea being that opera is usually boring to the uninitiated, but for those who can enter into its language, its music, its meaning, it is sublime. Aesthetic experience can transform those engaged by its complexity, its richness, its transcendence even. Cultural effetes dismiss those who do not like it as simply ignorant, and maybe this is the case with opera. With the Extraordinary Rite, I think we can just leave the issue open and allow it to speak to those to whom it speaks. 

Right now I am living (in what some liturgists might think of as) the dregs of liturgy: 300 kids who appear bored, along with their adult leaders- many of whom are not Catholic and would rather be anyplace but at a Catholic Mass; lectors who read poorly, made worse by poor sound equipment; song led by a single guitar played by someone who is "rhythmically challenged"; the same songs every week; preaching (my own) handicapped by language and accent deficiencies; a cavernous mess hall converted for an hour into our “chapel.” We have well-trained altar servers, and a sense of reverence, though. The kids have responded well to me as a person, and as bored as they seem at Mass, they are constantly asking when the next Mass will be. Since the music is so bad, I wanted to avoid having an ugly experience of the Holy, Holy and the Lamb of God- so I taught them the Latin “Sanctus” and “Agnus Dei,” along with the chant tones which we can sing a capella. They sing these better and louder than anything else in the Mass, often singing and humming the tunes outside of Mass as well (even the 3 and 4 year olds!)

Evangelical churches have made great headway here in Guatemala- mainly due to the funding send from the US and former governments here to lure people away from the Catholic Church (the government didn’t like the Catholics siding with the poor, and wanted to dilute Catholics’ influence by attracting its members into other churches that focused more on personal spiritual experience). From what I have read about the Church in Brazil, it seems that they have had some success holding onto members by switching to a more theatrical style of liturgy, drawing out emotions with a particular style of music and preaching. It will be interesting to see if this does the trick.

Surprisingly (to me at least), the parish in town where I help out on Sundays has liturgies every bit as reverent and traditional as what we had at St Alphonsus. The music is different, though, and I hate it. (Synthesizer and drum machine, uneven vocals, deafening volume). But the people pack the place, and display a reverence and intensity that is inspiring. Maybe this is an example of the “happy medium” that so many speak of with regards to a Novus Ordo Mass that incorporates some of the best of the old with the best (?) of the new (hard to imagine this music as being the “best,” though).

If the earthly liturgy is intended to reflect the idea of an eternal “celestial liturgy” (perhaps an arguable presumption), I can see  how giving us a hint of “what is to come” by dressing it up, formalizing its actions, reaching for the transcendent, etc can make sense. Who knows- from this perspective, maybe differences of opinions about what makes for meaningful liturgy really reflect differences of opinions about what we hope to experience in heaven!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Liturgy and the mess of incarnation

Think of the incarnation, and we tend to think of the world as summoned by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet of the 19th century whose immortal paean to divine presence reads like a Chardinian sequel to the “original” Psalm 8:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;        
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
 And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
   Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
  And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;        
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

For a few years, I've kept the following, which a friend wrote on an internet mailing list to which I belong. It so struck me that I asked him if I could reproduce it in part with a few comments of my own, and he graciously permitted me to do so. The words, as I quote them, are his; any conclusions I draw from them are my own, so please don’t blame him for my oblique thinking. 

In some ways, I see this attraction to the Tridentine (rite) as a rejection of the messiness of incarnation. The idea that we're celebrating the Mass that Jesus said, untouched by 2000 years of history. The idea that "the Mass is the same, no matter where you go" avoids dealing with the particular culture and history and quirkiness of whatever physical place one happens to be. We all face God together, so that we can turn our backs on the world, forgetting that we are at Mass precisely so that we can go out and proclaim the Kingdom to that very specific, messy, incarnate world. This longing for "the Transcendent" is for me a rejection of the fact that when God desired to have his people experience his love in the most powerful way possible, he sent a particular (God)man, to be born in a particular place, of a specific woman, at a particular time, who spoke a particular language, all of which had all the messiness of particularity that goes with history and culture. Human beings simply do not exist apart from that history and culture, and it is a delusion that we can escape that worldly groundedness in our prayer. As long as I can fix my gaze on the wonder of the Transcendent God, I don't have to pay attention to the person sitting in the pew next to me, in whom Christ dwells, and whom Christ calls me to love.
The fact of the Incarnation means that when we go to Mass, we do have to deal with this particular presider (bad preaching and all), this particular lector, that cantor who drives me crazy, the six kids in the pew in front of me, the obnoxious usher, etc. etc., and try to encounter Christ in and through them. And if I can't (or won't) do that at Mass, how in God's name will I be able to do it out in the (all too messy, incarnate) world?

As you can tell from the context, the catalyst for this self-proclaimed “rant” was the expansion of permission for use of the Tridentine mass in Catholic churches. For some of us, this brings up the whole argument about whether the vernacular liturgy of Vatican II allows for enough of a sense of “mystery” and “transcendence,” or if it’s just a way of entertaining ourselves, and at best experiencing God in some immediate and personal way. As I’ve said before, the argument is a red herring—the incarnation, if we take it seriously, has erased the difference between the “vertical” (transcendent) and the “horizontal” (immanent) in the universe for the Christian. God decided, not we, that we should dwell together in the plane of immanence, and the transcendent is to be experienced there, in this world, as it is and as it might be. It’s that immanence and transcendence are aspects of a single reality, and transcendence is experienced not as escape or flight but as depth.

But what caught me about his words was the emphasis on particularity, and how he generously and empathetically articulates the earthiness, the nuts-and-bolts, the “mess” of the incarnational reality. It is in this world, where change takes time and people generally learn slowly and sometimes apparently not at all, that God has taken flesh. In the somewhat overused Scriptural example, it is the divine Peter  Principle in action—of all the possible leaders in human history to lead the enterprise of churchbuilding in the first century, Jesus seems to have picked the most unqualified and clueless, cowardly, ambitious and fickle one in Simon Peter. And Peter was really just one in a long line of last-borns and losers who are part of the string of human collaborators in the story of God.

And if that wasn’t enough, my friend insists that God continues to become flesh in losers and lowlifes to the present day, presumably including even me and my exaggerated opinion of myself, along with all the folks whose insouciance I lament and who drive me nuts Sunday after Sunday. It is in this world, in these people, the God is become flesh. That just about ought to stop me in my tracks, and make me think a little bit, right?

But doesn’t that bring up the other perennial question among us liturgy junkies and artists—if the world of the incarnation is such a mess and populated with such common folks anyway, then what’s the use of doing things beautifully? Why work so hard if it’s for a God who would become flesh in that guy, who’s such an omadhaun he won’t even notice? I think there are two answers to those questions—one is about the music, and one is about what “beautiful” means. I do my best with the music and the liturgy not for God’s sake, but for people’s sake. It would be rude to do otherwise. Doing liturgy well is an awesome responsibility, because the gospel itself is wrapped up in there, and the presence of Jesus, and it’s passed on from person to person so that the world can be changed. It’s doing that, changing the world, that is true worship. By doing my best with music to express the depths of the mystery that we make up together, not by our own choice but because we have been chosen, I can help people with less of a facility for music experience the mystery and express their own faith. In the matter of what is beautiful, once I’m rid of the Sisyphan task of rolling art up the hill from humanity to divinity, of trying to do something “worthy” of God, as though God had not poured self out completely into humanity, then I can see that transcendent beauty is horizontal, that it is for humanity. Beauty is the paschal mystery in sound and color and movement—life poured out that others might have it in greater abundance. It's no longer about building a graven sonic image or a Tower of Babel-ing choral works to please heaven, but of discovering the voice of God right here in the room with us, urging us to break out, to love our enemies, and to stop imagining we can hoard the life we are given for so short a time.

So, my wise internet friend, thank you for reminding me of all that stuff again with your stunning “rant.” Mind you, it doesn’t make it one bit easier to be a part of liturgy with others who seem to have no desire to be faithful or truthful with it, but it might help me work my way through the waves of resentment and depression that inevitably follow those experiences. I have a feeling your parishioners are in good hands, and you in theirs.

One more poem might help us come full circle in this little reflection on incarnation and worship, this lovely poem which might be familiar to you already, by W. S. Merwin. It resounds with me with some of the same overtones as Hopkins and Keith’s “rant.” As we say “thank you” in the Eucharist and in all our prayer and worship, we don’t leave this plane of existence, but dive into its murky beauty to discover the One who binds it together string by string, quark by quark, chromosome by chromosome, closer than our breathing, deeper than our heartbeat.

by W. S. Merwin

with the night falling we are saying thank you 
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings 
we are running out of the glass rooms 
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky 
and say thank you 
we are standing by the water thanking it 
smiling by the windows looking out 
in our directions 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging 
after funerals we are saying thank you 
after the news of the dead 
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you 

over telephones we are saying thank you 
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators 
remembering wars and the police at the door 
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you 
in the banks we are saying thank you 
in the faces of the officials and the rich 
and of all who will never change we go on saying thank you thank you 

with the animals dying around us 
our lost feelings we are saying thank you 
with the forests falling faster than the minutes 
of our lives we are saying thank you 
with the words going out like cells of a brain 
with the cities growing over us 
we are saying thank you faster and faster 
with nobody listening we are saying thank you 
we are saying thank you and waving 
dark though it is

Friday, July 19, 2013

The two faces of ministry (C16O)

Martha and Mary, by He Qi, 1969
As I was reflecting on the readings for this Sunday, two things were ping-ponging around in my head. One was the word “serving” in the verse, “Mary, burdened much with the serving...” Immediately I thought of the verse in Acts (6:2), Luke’s “other book,” in which we are told that the apostles complained that “it is not right for us to neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” I wondered whether these two events were related in Luke’s mind as he compiled the stories of Jesus that became his gospel. The Greek verb here for “serve” and “wait on tables” is diakonein, from which we get our word “deacon.” There must be some kind of flag here we’re supposed to get, that both Mary and Martha are engaged in apostolic activity as friends of the Lord, “serving,” and listening to the word of God. The author of Luke and Acts chooses words carefully, and many events in the gospel are mirrored in Acts precisely because the new Church spreading outward from Jerusalem is the risen presence of Christ in its gospel life.

Then there is “the better part,” of which much has been made, with the busy Martha set against the contemplative Mary, as though one were to be imitated and the other rebuked. But how is that view helpful? Both Martha and Mary are offering to their friend Jesus the hospitality of their home. We are not meant to miss this, because we hear in the first reading the story of Abraham and the strangers at the terebinth of Mamre, where Abraham entertains angels unawares, and is rewarded with a son in his old age. That this hospitality is the point of the story is further elucidated by the following story about the savage lack of hospitality in Sodom and Gomorrah, about which I wrote just a week ago. For their lack of hospitality, and their disregard and impious treatment of the strangers, that city is destroyed. (That is the un-narrated outcome of next week’s pericope from Gen. 18, the famous tale of Abraham bargaining with God to spare the city.) 

So both women are offering to Jesus hospitality. They have different expectations of each other in this. They are both acting as deacons; one is engaged in the ministry of charity, the other is engaged in the ministry of the word and prayer, attending to the words of the Rabbi. Luke’s Jesus significantly praises Mary, the minister of the word. I have a feeling, and it’s just that, a feeling — I’m not a scripture scholar — that we’re meant to hear it as a validation of apostolic ministry for women in the Christian community. That is, the purpose of women in the Church is not merely to serve the food and make the men comfortable so they can pray and teach; the role of women and men is the same. The new creation that we are in Christ means there is no woman or man, slave or free, all are one in Christ. While it’s all right to hear “the better part” as meaning that there has to be a grounding in the word before action has meaning, it is more significant that Mary is affirmed in it, and not told by Jesus to go help with the food! 

This gospel passage resounded in me with the one in which someone in the crowd calls out to Jesus when he’s preaching at home, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that fed you.” “Rather,” Jesus replies, “blessed is she who heard the word of God, and acted on it.” Even the Mother of Jesus was not blessed because of what she did so much as because of her faith, that is, her attending to the word of God, and then doing God’s will. Faith precedes work, even good work, and makes it possible. It has to be this way if there is a God. Our good words are a response to God’s kindness to us; our faith is a response to God’s faith in us.

Action, apostolic activity, whether it is charitable work, teaching, social gathering, or even liturgical prayer, is the genius of Catholicism. While a clear understanding of the Reformation and counter-Reformation thought on faith and good works reveals that in our hearts we understand the relationship between faith and works in much the same way as our Protestant neighbors, it remains the case that we’re an active bunch, and we retain the letter of James for much this very reason. We are saved by faith, there is no question about that, because God is faith’s initiator and its object, and without God there is nothing. But activity that is a person’s response to faith is the sacrament, the outward sign, of that invisible reality of salvation. How do we know this? Because God is love, and love is other-oriented. Without movement toward the other, there is no love. Furthermore, our faith tells us that, in God, being (faith) and doing (works) are one and the same. Thus, the Christian, reborn in the Spirit as the living Christ, also becomes a new creation that is a sacrament of the invisible, no longer I, but Christ in me.

Marthas and Marys in the apostolic community of the first century or the twenty-first century are both equally members of that great body of Christ in which we’re all gifted in different ways for the good of the whole. Just because I’m not an eye, says St. Paul, doesn’t mean I’m not part of the body. If everyone were an eye, where would the hearing be? If everyone were a mouth, how could we see? Marys need to work a little. Marthas need to listen some. But our gifts are such that we “make up what is lacking” in others, as St. Paul speaks of his own suffering in the reading from Colossians today. Our action needs to be grounded in the word of God, in contemplation on God’s action in our common life. Our contemplation of God’s goodness and living word needs to move us to some kind of action: even contemplative monastics let their work take some form of charity for others.

Hospitality gives us the opportunity to be like Christ in that unique way; both to attend to the heart of the person with a listening ear, and offer refreshment for the journey. I have an idea - let’s have a party this week, and do a little bit of both. Welcoming other persons into our home, or wherever we are, is a way of opening ourselves to the surprise of God’s presence. As the story of Abraham, Sarah, and the three strangers teaches us, in doing so, some have welcomed visitors from heaven. The more I think about it, the more I think that happens pretty much all the time.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

McCartney in Milwaukee

After fifty years of singing, listening to, loving Beatles music but thinking of them as an iconic abstraction of nearly unapproachable magnitude, I finally got to see a Beatle in real life. Paul McCartney at 71, with his gifted band of four musicians, played at Miller Park Tuesday night. Terry and my kids bought two tickets to the show, and so we went. Fifty years after watching them on our black-and-white TV on the Ed Sullivan show that Sunday night, I saw Sir Paul with my own eyes and heard him with my own ears. Gee, we've both really changed.

But gee, he looks fantastic.

The evening began inauspiciously. We arrived around 5 p.m. at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers. We refer to Miller Park as "Wrigley North," since so many Chicagoans commute to Cubs-Brewers games there, it being more accessible to many of us than Wrigley, and though less charming and historic, it is all-weather dependable, with a retractable dome. Terry and I casually walked and joined into one of the lines forming to enter the arena. Of course, it was on the opposite side from our seats, but no whup. McCartney and the band were doing their soundcheck, and the production company was testing the sound for the pre-concert videos, so it was festive enough, and HOT. Nearly 90 and humid. The gates were supposed to open at 6, the concert to start at 8. The gates finally did open around 7, and the concert began more like 8:45. I'm not an avid concert-goer, and this did not make me want to become one. Nor did the time it took to exit the parking lot and the city, getting us home after 2 a.m.

But holy Moses, what happened between 8:45 and 11:30 or so was pure magic. I still haven't stopped smiling.

With youthful energy and virtuosic musicianship, the band of five played for over two and a half hours, including six or seven encores. Paul opened the show with a sparkling version of "Eight Days a Week," and things just rolled on from there, including tributes to George and John, really new songs (like his "Valentine" song from 2011) and songs from early Beatles albums, like "Yesterday" (one of the encores) and "I've Just Seen a Face." He started off a tribute to George by singing "Something" with just a ukelele George had given him, but by the time the guitar solo kicked it, it was full band playing a soaring homage in one of the greatest pop songs ever written. The band launched early into an instrument tribute to Jimi Hendrix, too, playing a long improv on "Foxy Lady." Paul indicated that four songs in the set list were new to this tour. Two of them were "All Together Now" from Yellow Submarine and "Lovely Rita" from Sergeant Pepper. There was a great performance of another Sgt Pepper cut, "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," which McCartney said that, until this tour, they had never played since they recorded it in the studio almost 50 years ago. 

A number of great Wings hits were in the playlist too, and in addition to the Valentine tribute to his current wife, Paul sang a great version of "Maybe I'm Amazed" in memory of Linda. "Band on the Run" was a highlight of the show, and the White Album cut "Helter Skelter" blew the house away as an encore with an incredible performance and an eye-popping red, white, and black color schemed animation. The band managed to pull off all three of those great McCartney ballads without sounding repetitive: "The Long and Winding Road," "Let It Be," and of course "Hey Jude." He played at least a dozen guitars, at least one of which was his studio guitar for Rubber Soul in the 60s. "Eleanor Rigby" was very satisfying to me, with his excellent keyboardist somehow managing all the lines of the great George Martin string arrangement the only accompaniment to McCartney's acoustic guitar. 

Two more things from the set list I have to mention: the pyrotechnics and performance of "Live and Let Die" were a huge surprise to me! 12-foot jets of flame and sparklers leaping out of the stage, and fireworks shooting out of the top of the Miller Dome on cue, it was just spectacular, the pop equivalent, maybe, of Music for the Royal Fireworks or 1812 Overture. Just thrilling! And then, in what must be a fairly common occurrence for his shows, he ended the evening with the end of Abbey Road, with complete and soul-stirring performance of "Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight/The End" that just seemed the perfect way to close the concert, with what amounts to the Beatles' anthemic summary of the 60s, "In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." They could have done a lot worse.

For me, I was just trying to take it all in, trying to connect with all the music in that baseball arena, people of all ages, many older than I, but lots and lots of teens and young adults, and people who brought their young children. I couldn't get over the amount of memory connected to all those songs, life and death, the history of three generations, the joy, the dancing, the weddings, everything for which the Beatles provided a soundtrack since the 1960s. How the John Birch Society said that Communists had written the songs for them to undermine order in the United States. How they became the subject of excellence in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and the subject of new art in Cirque de Soleil's Love and the movie Across the Universe (among others.) As a church musician, someone who has tried to connect people's public singing voice with their heart of faith, I was taken by the spontaneity with which thousands of people just sang these great little songs without having to be asked, without needing permission or a reason. They sang, in the words of Music in Catholic Worship, because they had something to sing about—life, joy, hope, love, summer, memory, children. Yes, not all the dots are are connected, but it is what I strive for, and wish I had just a sliver of the success that McCartney has had in achieving that connection with people.

Finally, in the only somewhat negative feeling I had, I thought as I looked around Miller Park that the Beatles may have indeed caused a revolution in the world, or at least been a significant part of the catalytic formula that caused it, but it was a revolution in this country anyway of the white middle class. We were on the floor of the arena, and there were thousands of people who were too far away to see, but my overwhelming sense was that this was a really white assembly, not the cosmopolitan mix you might expect to see at any venue so heavily populated by Milwaukee and Chicago people. People of color and even Hispanic people were not visible (to me) in any great numbers, and I was looking for them. What I saw means nothing; I could even be completely wrong, but it did occur to me that the revolution might have ended up being a turn of 360°, which is both too far, and back to the beginning. I hope not. And no matter where we are, those songs are a legacy of wonder, teeming with vitality and joy. Looking at Sir Paul Tuesday night, it's not just nostalgia in that music. It apparently really does keep a person young.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

SongStories 12: Christ the Icon (WLP, 2005)

When I heard the second reading from Colossians Sunday, I remembered that I had seen it when I was preparing the music for the day, and consciously decided not to use my song lest it distract from the power of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

What was I thinking?

There is a line of exegesis about this parable that gives it a Christological interpretation, that is, that the "Samaritan" who stops to help the injured Jew is Christ, the God from whom humanity is alienated and enemy. I don't have any right to say this, but the interpretation is sort of a theological jump, right, from the invitation of the gospel to act in this world as though we've misjudged our enemy from the beginning, and learn that to be a neighbor is to act with mercy toward anyone in need, regardless of personal feelings? But that theological jump is exactly why it might have been appropriate in the light of the parable, and because of the parable, to have sung "Christ the Icon." Why? The answer, like all good theological answers, is "the paschal mystery."

The song "Christ the Icon" developed in my imagination as I reflected on that first verse of the Colossians hymn and what it means in the context of the paschal mystery.
He is the image of the invisible God.
That word "image" translates the Greek word eikon, which comes into our language as the word "icon." An icon is really not just an image in the way we usually think of an image. An icon carries with it the reality that it suggests. It is a portal between worlds, a visual metaphor that invites the beholder into the reality it portrays. Something of the active nature of icons can be seen, surprisingly, in the way we use the word "icon" to describe a part of the user experience of a computer, the GUI. Our desktops are full of icons. They're little pictures that represent thousands, even millions, of lines of binary code. On that level, they are like words or signs, they simply represent an image, sound, or program. But once we click on the icon, information begins to load into active memory and, if we're lucky, we can start playing. Or working. The icon represents and enables a whole series of events, some of which are undetermined, that we can unleash by interacting with the image. The computer icon metaphor is just offers a fragment of the rich biblical and cultural connotation attached to the word eikon, translated as "image" in the text above.

More to the point is Schillebeeckx's indispensable christological insight into the word "sacrament" in his groundbreaking Christ: The Sacrament of the Encounter with God as I write these words. In that book, the Belgian theologian set up the marvelous equation that can be expressed something like this: Christ is the visible sign of God's action in the world; the Church is the visible sign of Christ in the world; the sacraments are the visible sign of the Church's action in the world. Each part of the equation, the encounter with Christ, Church, and sacrament, is an event in itself, but it points to a reality beyond itself as well, ultimately to the reign of the God of healing, reconciliation, and kenotic love. In the sense that Schillebeeckx uses the word, a sacrament is an eikon, visible manifestation of an invisible reality.

"Christ the Icon," seeks to explore the first element of this equation, that is, that Christ is the sacrament (eikon) of the invisible God. Somehow, to know Christ is to know who God really is, stripped of the idols of human fantasy and skewed desire. When our concept of God gets too far astray from the revelation of Christ in himself, it ventures into territory fraught with danger. Because God is an absolute to us, the corruption of our idea of God can create absolute evil; hence the warning against graven images which create God in our image and likeness (eikon!) So the refrain of my song wants to hold the center of the paschal mystery, which is to say, Christ crucified and risen, as the point of departure.

Christ is the image of the unseen God,
Our life, our peace, and our lasting.
Praise and thanksgiving to the crucified,
Who endures while the mighty are passing.

Then, the verses simply form a litany of the scriptural witness about Christ from the gospels, sung by a cantor, with the choir and assembly singing the response "eleison, the image of the unseen God." For example:

"Who did not grasp equality with God,
But who emptied himself, became a servant,
Who became like us, and made his home among us.
ALL: The image of the unseen God.
Who became the son of poor working people,
Who was born into a dominated nation,
Who was born far from home in a stable,
ALL: The image of the unseen God." Refrain...

My thought was to sing the story of Jesus and just have time to reflect on Christ as the image of the unseen God. In some ways, that seems so obvious, but some images of God have stayed with us, or crept into our thinking, from the influence of empire, unnuanced by the gospel imperatives to service, universality, and kenosis. God, for many of us, looks more like Charlemagne than a foot washer. This song, like a lot of my music and, I hope, like parables and the example of Christ, is trying to illuminate an alternative vision.

The music for "Christ the Icon" is scored for piano, flute, SAB choir, cantor, and assembly, with optional parts for string quartet. It is available as a collection of octavos and on CD from WLP in Chicago. The entire recording is also available on iTunes (link below).

Monday, July 15, 2013

Albums (8) - Vision (1992)

Song Listing

1. I Am for You
2. One Is
3. Psalm 1: Roots in the Earth
4. If/Si
5. Psalm 85: Your Mercy Like Rain
6. Psalm 25: Remember
7. Be Thou My Vision
8. Now
9. Psalm 51: Create Me Again
10. All Things New
11. Covenant Hymn
12. Mission Song (La Misión)
13. Spirits Seeking Light and Beauty
Trio in 1992, St. Louis. Photo by Gary Bohn.

Funny how, as I move closer to present in remembering these albums, the less detail I remember. That could be a function of rapid deterioration of memory (since it's only 5 months since I started the blog) or possibly that by 1992 recording was getting to be less extraordinary to me. Let's go with that. In addition to my own recordings, I was privileged to direct choirs on other recordings as well, several by Fr. Lucien Deiss, for example, as well as for Tom Kendzia's projects, his own music and recordings which he produced for others. Many of the choir members and musicians were recidivists; we couldn't get rid of them. (KIDDING!) So I suppose that it's a bit like the hundreds of photographs you have of your first child, with diminishing numbers as the headcount of offspring waxes. Consider yourself lucky, maybe. 

A couple of trips in early 1992 to the north woods of Arizona near Prescott helped me flesh out some song ideas that I wasn't having time or space to write in my "real" life. One trip I took by myself, one with Gary Daigle. On the first one, several songs that appeared on Vision took shape, including I Am for You, One Is, All Things New, and the three psalms. Covenant Hymn came on the second one, along with Gary's May We Be One, which appeared on his album Praise the Maker's Love a couple of years later.

Looking over the acknowledgment pages of the CD booklet that still ships with the recording, I'm amazed by some of the cryptic things I wrote in there. The dedication makes zero sense to me any more! Of course the address and phone number are over twenty years old now. I thanked people whom I still remember as generous friends for something(s) about which I have no recollection. I was already using the "misconducted by" joke about my abilities way back then. Maybe I invented it, who knows?

Rather than keep going on about things I don't remember, let me just launch into the song-by-song reflections. Thanks for your patience so far.

1. I Am for You. I had finished writing this song, commissioned for the Big Island Liturgical Arts Conference to be held in October-November 1992, on the Prescott week. I've already written about this at length in one of my "SongStories" posts, so I'll just link back to that here. This is still one of my favorite songs to sing in concert or in worship, though I must confess its length militates against most liturgical use in my current parish.

2. One Is (the Body). "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 (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.

3. Psalm 1: Roots in the Earth. I don't remember the specific occasion for which I wrote this song, or why I dedicated it to Ginny, though I suspect dance was involved. This psalm comes up three times, I believe, during the Lenten weekday readings. It may have been written for a winter conference at which we were both involved in the music. I still like the feel of this setting very much, though the use of the djembe on the downbeats of the refrain, with its deep bah-OOM sound, makes it sound on the recording like we're singing "boots in the earth" to the irreverent ear. 

4. If/Si. This one has a definite "Santana" feel to it, so it seemed appropriate to ask Jaime Cortez to do a Spanish translation, of which he did a terrific job. "Mmmmm...¡Sabor!"

5. Psalm 85: Your Mercy Like Rain. For this recording, I wanted to do new versions of the two common Advent psalms, Psalm 25 and Psalm 85. Both are beautiful songs about remembering and waiting for rescue. Psalm 85 is characterized as a national lament, that is, it is born from the matrix of some calamity or dire situation in which Israel finds itself, but moves toward hope because Israel remembers God's loving-kindness in the past, and God's faithfulness to the covenant. The verses chosen for the Advent lectionary are the second half of the psalm, so they leave out the exposition of Israel's situation, and begin with the verse that is the antiphon, "Lord, let us see your kindness and grant us your salvation."

Hearing this verse, I thought that the Advent message for us ought to put the "accent" on "us": Let us see your kindness. Grant us your salvation. You brought kindness and salvation to people in the past. What about now? So my refrain became, 
"Let me taste your mercy like rain on my face, 
Here in my life, show me your peace. 
Let us see with our own eyes your day breaking bright. 
Come, O Morning. Come, O Light."
Being a desert person myself, I know the delight that rain brings to people who live in the desert. (Well, not so much flash floods, but there's too much of a good thing...) Since the psalm uses the metaphor of agricultural abundance to describe God's mercy, it seemed cohesive and organic to us the metaphor of rain in the refrain. The music, influenced by Stephen Sondheim's lush harmonies as much as anything, tries to convey the spirit of divine abundance while evoking our longing for it as well. It should also still be in Gather, but isn't. 

6. Psalm 25: Remember. The other Advent common psalm, Psalm 25 hinges on that haunting prayer that encloses the text from verse 5 and verse 21, "I wait for you," when we pray it in the Advent spirit. It's been said by many that "Remember" is one of the most beautiful sounding words in our language, and its resonance in verses 6 and 7 inspired the litany of verse 3, in which the choir sings "Remember!" and the cantor asks God to remember, and therefore act, with covenant mercy on behalf of Israel. The language of "Remember" is personal, but the psalm itself is cultic, it is "we" who are "I", Israel, the church, in the "I" that sings. I really love this setting: in the "hits" and "misses" department, it's a miss, probably because it's too long and possibly because the overlay between the verse and refrain makes the choir a necessary component of the performance. Nevertheless, I think that its inclusion made Vision a more intense listening experience for those who use these recordings for prayer.

7. Be Thou My Vision. This song and the final song on the recording are songs I have loved from my childhood, with little twists that bring them, for me, into my present. "Be Thou" I had learned in a simple pentatonic chant, probably from the St. Gregory Hymnal or one of the other Catholic songbooks that arose in the late 50s and early 60s. I am guessing that the tune "Slane" was not used because it came from the "wrong part" of Ireland, but that's just a guess. Van Morrison's crazy version in Hymns to the Silence also seemed like a homage to a youthful memory, because it seemed that the lyric was wildly pasted together, almost improvised, from his recollection. I updated the text a little bit, regretfully setting aside the evocative "High King of heaven" title, which is about an Irish a name for God as one can find, and excising a few other gender-specific terms. But this song is such a part of my personal spirituality and its lyric so wonderfully focused that I was driven to arrange it and include it here. I hope that the more upbeat treatment of "Slane" and the energy of the arrangement have added something to this hymn's usefulness. For me, it's a perennial choice for both the 2nd Sunday of Lent, with its gospel of transfiguration, and the 4th Sunday of Lent, with its gospel of the Man Born Blind.

8. Now. I wrote this for a night prayer at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in 1992, which the preparers wanted to do in the dark, without a worship aid. LAREC typically occurs during Lent, so I took the familiar text from 2nd Corinthians 6 which quotes Isaiah 49, and made it the refrain sung a cappella of the song. The choir adds a simple pop harmony, and a soloist sings verses that try to confess faith in salvation now, in this world, and not just a better world after everyone's dead.

9. Psalm 51: Create Me Again. I had written a complete setting of Psalm 51 in college, the Jerusalem Bible version with nearly all the lectionary refrains, but wanted to try it again in this period of my life, and a footnote I read in a bible gave me an entree to the text in a new way. The footnote said that the verb "create" as in, "Create a clean heart within me" is never used in (ancient) Hebrew unless the subject is God. This made me hear that verse in a more radical way. It's not just a "clean" heart the psalmist wants (on behalf of Israel), but something completely new. We're damaged goods, and the problem is unfixable. We ask God to create a new heart in us. The heart is a metaphor for whole self, the center that makes us who we are, so it is a simple step from "Create a clean heart in me" to "Create me again." So here's the refrain for my setting of Psalm 51:
You fashioned the heavens, You gathered the sea.
Can you create a new heart in me?
God of compassion, your servant has sinned.
Breathe out your spirit. Create me again.
The verses paraphrase the commonly used verses for Psalm 51 in the lectionary. Or translate, as long as you know I mean dynamic equivalence. :-) Also a "miss" in the long run, I suppose, because it's not a strict translation, it's kind of long, and requires two cantors in spots to perform it without rearranging the music. Sigh.

10. All Things New. I should pay more attention to this, but I know that I wrote this song because I thought there were an awful lot of Christmas songs available, but not so many good choices for Easter, and I wanted to make a conscious attempt to write something new for the season. I tried in the lyric to use images of spring, new beginning, memory, justice, equality, and Spirit with music that suggests the joy and exhilaration of resurrection life. Happily (to me), this song has endured to the latest incarnation of the Gather hymnal, for which I am most grateful.

11. Covenant Hymn. Like track 1, this song has its own SongStories post, linked here.

12. Mission Song (La Misión). My high school and college formation with with the Vincentian community in the US (the Congregation of the Mission.) We've enjoyed a good relationship through the years, and I'm grateful for the many priests and laypeople who have supported my music. One bastion of Vincentian spirituality and mission is St. Vincent de Paul Parish in St. Louis, Missouri, which has had a succession of pastors focused on the Vincentian vision of service to the poor while maintaining a dynamic liturgical tradition under the longtime pastoral leadership of Dennis Wells for many years. St. Vincent's commissioned this work from me. I tried in the lyric to suggest the Vincentian motto (Evangelizare pauperibus misit me, from Isaiah 61, "He has sent me to bring the gospel to the poor), and the context of that motto, that the mission derives from the sending of the Spirit of God. Other writings of St. Vincent influenced the text too, including a conference Vincent gave to priests:
"Our vocation is to go and enflame the heart of men, to do what the Son of God did, He who brought fire into the world to set it alight with His love. What else can we wish for, than for it to burn and consume all things?" 
Thus it is true that I have been sent not only to love God, but also to make men (sic) love Him.
It is not enough to love God if my neighbour does not love Him. 
This became, in my lyric:
May your people live your promise
To fulfill what the prophets spoke.
Not enough to know their comfort
If a neighbor has no hope.
Til the world shall be your body,
May no song of praise be enough.
Not enough that we should love you
If our neighbor needs out love.
There is nothing else that we long for.
There is nothing else that we seek.
But as you are the rock of your people,
Make your people the rock of the weak.
Frank Dominguez, a friend from Phoenix who was also part of the Corpus Christi Center for Advanced Liturgical Studies classes I was in, did the beautiful Spanish translation.

St. Vincent de Paul is still doing great work in St. Louis. If you're in the neighborhood, stop in some Sunday and lend your voice, and a hand.

13. Spirits Seeking Light and Beauty. The last cut on this album is another song that I brought from the childhood, another Irish tune whose text I altered a bit. We have a mini-tradition on some of our recordings that the last cut is a little off-beat in some way. We added children's voices on a playground to Psalm 118 at the end of "You Alone," used windchimes and Japanese flute on "NightPrayer" at the end of Do Not Fear to Hope. There's an Easter egg at the end of "Psalm 90: You Have Been Our Home," which is the last cut on Terry's Family Resemblance. This song starts off like an Enya song, with sustained synth pads while Terry sings the tune over the top, and then goes into time and the choir sings the whole tune again. It's nothing fancy, but the tune is haunting, and the original lyric, in the singular (Spirit Seeking Light and Beauty) had been with me since I was a choirboy in the 5th grade at St Vincent de Paul school in Phoenix. All I tried to do, with my lyric changes, was to make it a more communal message, and avoid the Pelagian-sounding, very Irish idea that striving can win heaven. The lyric never says that, but it's a short leap from longing to striving. And there's the whole dualist thing, too, between "this land of shadows" and blessed eternity. Not that I blame the Irish for thinking the world is a shite place, with all they'd gone through with the Brits and famine and the troubles and all.

That's Vision, which is still one of our finest listening collections, and has some really strong material on it for liturgical use as well. 

Here is the album on iTunes with its infamous misentered title, which no one at GIA or iTunes, I assume, has been able to fix for ten years. And they say that technology is so elastic. I have not been able to figure out what "well ky" means or how it became the title. Luckily, the title "Vision" was derived from one of the song titles, so if someone is looking for "vision cooney" with both words in an iTunes search, it pops up. Sigh.