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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

SongStories 2 - Jerusalem, My Destiny (1989)

Just yesterday, again, someone told me something very moving about what a song I wrote meant to them. The story is personal, and enough of my friends know enough details of this person's life that I can't really go into it, but this kind of thing happens in out-of-the-blue ways often enough that it shakes one to the core. A song is like a virus, or a child, or a piece of gossip. You let it out in the wild, or it escapes you; you don't have any more control over the outcome or meaning of it than the man in the moon. You don't know whose hand will take it up, whose voice will sing it, what circumstances of elation or tragedy or just rite will precipitate its singing. You just write a song because you have to, and wait and see what happens. It's a mystery, and a privilege to be a part of it.

One of my best-selling octavos (choir music) at GIA has been “Jerusalem, My Destiny.” I wrote this piece for Lent in 1989, a "C" lectionary year, eight trips through the book ago. For about the first 15 years of its publication, it sold nearly twice as many copies as the runner-up, which is “Canticle of the Turning,” released the same year, though I think that might have evened out a bit in the intervening years. I don’t have records going back as far as the release of “Bread of Life” or “Change Our Hearts,” but they might be close.

I had wanted to write a song that would tie the weeks of Lent together. That year my son Joel was 10. His mother, Therese Marie, and I had delayed the kids’ baptism until they would be old enough to remember it. We weren’t so concerned about them accepting it or ratifying it, because baptism at any age is really about God’s universal call more than human response. The Catholic Church has infant baptism because it believes that babies “respond” the way they do to any kind of love and nourishment; they respond as babies, and their response and responsibility changes as they age. Complicating the whole thing was my increasing involvement with the catechumenate, and seeing how the order of initiation sacraments was so hopelessly messed up in parts of the church that we use confirmation like a carrot to keep kids in religious education “or else.” So rather than be a part of the problem, we just thought we take a step to be part of the solution. 
So we decided to have Joel involved in a catechumenate at the parish. There was another kid his age going through it, maybe two, and he was in St. Jerome’s school, so he had a natural peer group of children with whom he went on learning his faith. “Jerusalem, My Destiny” is dedicated to Joel and the other catechumens who were in their “baptismal retreat” in the Lent of 1989.

"Jerusalem, My Destiny" was inspired by the confluence of several things that roiled around in my imagination. First, there is the centrality of Jerusalem in the imagination of the author of Luke, how the narrative of his gospel builds toward Jerusalem, site of the passion narrative, the resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit, all of which take place in the city. From there, the narrative of Acts explodes out of the city of Jerusalem and goes out across the whole Mediterranean world. Second, there is the beautiful line that follows the transfiguration story in the gospel of St. Luke. As you might recall, perhaps from a previous blog entry, the transfiguration story is an “inclusio” narrative, sandwiched between two predictions by Jesus of his suffering and death. It happens in Luke 9. There is a first prediction of the passion in the story of Peter’s confession (18-22), then the transfiguration story (28-36), and another prediction of his betrayal at verse 44. Shortly afterwards, there is this verse at 51:
When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem...
The NRSV says Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem; “The Message” version says he “steeled himself.” This is the part that caught me, that after the transfiguration, he knew that he could not wander in Galilee any more, but had to go to Jerusalem, the city of his destiny. This is not to say that I think that Jesus had any clear idea that his death was immanent; I simply feel that he knew that he had to confront the people and structures who were at the source of interpretation of the law and prophets and put his reading of the scriptures in competition with theirs. It didn't take a prophet to know that the journey and confrontation might be dangerous. 
This is how the refrain came out:
I have fixed my eyes on your hills,
Jerusalem, my destiny!
Though I cannot see the end for me,
I cannot turn away.
We have set our hearts for the way,
This journey is our destiny.
Let no one walk alone:
 the journey makes us one.

The verses correspond to the gospels of Lent, with verses 3, 4, and 5 jumping to the “A” cycle of gospels used in the Order of Initiation for the three scrutinies. There is also a bridge, a fifth verse leading to a final refrain in a new key and sung more broadly, that we only use on Passion Sunday. (Actually there is another text so that the bridge can be used more often, such as at celebrations of Confirmation or other times.)
O city of hosannas! O city of the cross!
The hour is upon us: I have come within your walls.
I have fixed my eyes on your hills...

I think of Jerusalem as the city, yes, and so many people have told me that they sang my song when they went on tours to the Holy Land as they approached Jerusalem! How cool is that? I’ve never been there myself, but the thought of that fills me with joy and gratitude. I also think of Jerusalem as the “new Jerusalem,” God’s city that is beyond our imagining but nevertheless our destiny. Just as importantly in my view, though, Jerusalem is us, Jerusalem the “city of peace,” is the Church, is Christ, the community of Pentecost. We cannot see our destiny, but we cannot turn away. For apprentice Christians and us “old timers” alike, the journey to Christ is the destiny, because Christ is here among us, revealing self to us in our daily lives, in strangers, in the poor, in sacraments, in nature everywhere we look. So we sing “let no one walk alone,” because becoming part of the Jerusalem community is becoming one’s truest self, is becoming conscious of the Spirit that lives in everyone because of creation, and made visible and conscious in our baptism.

Thanks to everyone who ever sang this song, in Jerusalem of the Holy Land or in the Jerusalem of your parish community.

Click here for an "iTunes" link to Jerusalem, My Destiny - Safety Harbor


  1. Rory-

    One of my favorites since Rob Strusinski introduced to the choir at the Univ of St Thomas when I was there in 1992-1996. I have used it at the various parishes I have been at since and the congregation sings it with "gusto"...a gem!!!!

    ~Eric Dahlberg

    1. Thanks, Eric. Long time since I've seen Rob. I hope he's doing well. Still at St. Thomas?

    2. No...Rob actually RETIRED a few years ago now...not sure what he is doing specifically. I believe he is still in the Twin Cities.

  2. This is the hymn a friend of mine wants at her funeral. I've always loved it. Thanks for another great blog Post Rory!

  3. One of my faves as well! Safety Harbor came out just before the Plainfield Tornado of 1990! My house landed150 feet SW of its foundation, my husband & 3 boys were in the house at that time. All are alive & well today. That Safety Harbor album got me through a lot of rough days, indeed! Thanks for sharing the inspiration behind the scenes!