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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Meet J. Michael Thompson, musician, teacher, colleague, and friend

Things My Friends Are Doing - Entry #1

The world of music and worship has opened so many doors to me, doors behind which there are cookies, lunches and dinners, bottles of wine, and lots of great conversation, laughter and insight, that I realized it might be good to share on occasion as events demand the work some of my friends are doing, especially as it relates to music and publishing.

One such friend is a longtime colleague in the Pittsburgh area, James Michael Thompson, whom I call Michael, or JMT. Originally from the St. Louis area, Michael is a liturgist, musician, theologian and teacher to whom many have looked for kind advice and from whom many, myself not the least of whom, has received equally kindly fraternal correction when being wrong (which is understandable) or uncharitable (which, in our line of work, really isn't.) He's the genuine article. JMT has been a pastoral musician since 1967, as well as a teacher (grade school, college, seminary), author, composer, and workshop leader, with many years' experience as a "bridge-builder" between the western and eastern Churches.

For many years, Michael lived in Chicago and directed the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter's in the Loop, a Franciscan institution whose liturgical ministry to Chicago's working Catholics is largely year-round and round-the-clock. The Schola Cantorum has made a couple of trips to St. Anne's to help us celebrate our parish feast day with solemn vespers through the years.

Michael has written a book recently of which he is justifiably proud. He called me to tell me that that he was thrilled that an Amazon reviewer had written parenthetically that he intended "to use copies of both works in RCIA classes as supplemental material for catechumens/candidates!" The book is entitled Lights from the East: Pray for Us, and it is a wonderful spiritual introduction for many of us whose knowledge of and appreciation for the Eastern life of Christianity is a serious gap in our grasp of the tradition.

By way of introduction, I asked Michael to write a few words of his own to invite you to read his book. He has obliged us thus:

January 19 is the memorial of St. Macarius the Great, one of the "desert fathers" famous for his ascetic life and for his ardent defense of the orthodox faith against the Arian heresy which denied the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. You might not be aware of that, because St. Macarius is not on the "General Roman Calendar."  He is, however, one of the saints listed on that date in the "Roman Martyrology," a catalogue of the saints and blesseds recognized by the Catholic Church.  Each day has multiple listings: St. Macarius the Great is #4 out of the twelve saints listed for January 19. Why do I mention this? 
My book, Lights of the East, Pray for Us! has been recently published by Liguori Publications.  It is an attempt to open up for readers (both Western and Eastern Christians) the immense and marvelous riches that the saints of the Eastern Churches can provide.  The fifteen saints span in time from the time of the Babylonian Captivity through the middle 20th century.  Yes, you read that correctly---one of the things that the book points out is the liturgical observance of the holy ones who antedate the coming of the Messiah.  Twelve of these fifteen are on the calendars of both the Eastern Orthodox and the Eastern Catholic Churches; the last three in the book are members of Eastern Catholic Churches who were martyred by the Soviets in Central and Eastern Europe after the Second World War.

The book is more than a collection of hagiographies.  Each chapter contains a brief biography with some historical detail, a scripture reading from the feast day of the saint; a liturgical text from the Byzantine books for that saint; a reflection whose intention is to connect the saint's life with the reader's life; and, in conclusion, a hymn text written by me, using the folk melodies of the Galician and Carpatho-Rusyn people of southwestern Ukraine. (The music is there, too.)
There is an excellent introduction to the Eastern Christian concept of personal holiness, written by the Rev. Dr. Peter Galadza. Fr. Peter teaches liturgy at the Metropolitan Andriy Sheptitsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario.  The introduction is worth the price of the book ($14.95), but the rest of it won't hurt you, either!

Here's what I can say: I've learned a lot about Christianity from Michael over the years, but more importantly, I've learned how to live as a better Christian from his example and guidance. His love shines out in the music he prepares, writes, and conducts, and shines out when he writes about Jesus Christ and his church, East and West. Take a look at his book and his music—of which this is only a small selection on iTunes.