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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

SongStories 3: Precious Blood (1995)

Part of my task as liturgist and musician is to connect the stories of Christians today to the story of the paschal mystery of God as it is made visible in the passion, death, resurrection, ascension, of Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit into the Church. This is not always an easy task. We tend to want to romanticize and therefore isolate the death of Jesus in a way that is dangerous for us. If Jesus is safely dead and risen at a particular historical time, we can mourn him on Good Friday and sing “alleluia” on Easter and it never has to have anything to do with us. Something tells me that “Were You There” was some folk artist’s attempt to connect all those loose ends in a metaphor of presence that is transcendent and ahistorical, but instead, I think Christians sing it as a nostalgia piece, “feeling sorry for Jesus,” as it were, and not connecting with the kenosis of the Church in, for instance, our century.

This specific kind of timelessness is seen in the singing of the Reproaches in the Good Friday liturgy. At this point in my life, I believe that I can make an argument for using them. But for many, many years I refused to do so, on two grounds. First, their apparent anti-Semitism. 
"My people (assumed implication: the Jews), what have I done unto you, or in what have I offended you? Answer me! I brought you out of Egypt, and you have handed me over to be killed (&c)"
Second, there is what I would call the historicization of the crucifixion that places it only in a certain time and place, and therefore is an object, something to be rued and keened for, and then left as a catharsis. But I don't see that as the point at all now. I still think it's a dangerous text, and should be homiletically explored along with the passion as the concretization in a specific time and place of an event that has happened throughout time, into the present, and always will happen until we keep our baptismal promises. This is not completely germane to what I want to write about today, but it's worth considering. The music and liturgy of Good Friday aren't for feeling sorry for Jesus, but are meant to put right in front of us what happens when we persist in prejudice, racial profiling, shunning and excommunication, pursuit of power, and the use of violence and threats of violence to perpetuate a kind of "civilization." God shows us in Jesus, the innocent victim of human violence, the damage we do every minute of every day in every year on every continent. And God raises Jesus from death to prove that the way of Jesus is the way of life. More specifically about this on another day, but it does lead us to a song I wanted to tell you about.

This song of mine was written in the early 1990s after some catalyzing events in Africa and Central America. I was connected to these events only by baptism, in the solidarity of faith, which to some might seem a minimal connection, but to me, they were profound events. They roiled in my Christian subconscious, a dozen modern martyrdoms in two separate events, and eventually they rose to the surface as a song called “Precious Blood.” This song was first recorded by the amazing chanteuse Pamela Warrick-Smith on a GIA CD called One Heart, that featured the musical talents of herself, Donna Peña, and my wife Terry Donohoo, in 1995. Later, we re-recorded it on a CD of music primarily for Holy Week and Easter called This Very Morning in 1998.

These were the events: in November of 1989, at the Central American University in El Salvador, a Jesuit institution, Salvadoran death squads backed  by the U. S. government and trained at the School of the Americas in Georgia kidnapped and murdered Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, the rector of the Jesuit house and university president, along with five Jesuit colleagues, their housekeeper, and her daughter. The whole story can be read here. More here. Ellacuría was a prominent teacher of liberation philosophy, and was also known for his writing in support of liberation theology. It struck me in my sorrow that “El Salvador” is a nation named after “the savior,” and its capital, San Salvador, is as well. This eventually figured into the lyrics of the song:

My brother’s gone to be with the Savior
And the Lord shall walk on his lake of tears.
My brother’s gone to be with the Savior,
And his blood shall sing for a thousand years.

Three years later, in October of 1992, five sisters of a small Illinois congregation, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, were working in Gardnersville, Liberia, among the poor. Though the nation had been teetering on the brink of civil war and full of unrest, the sisters had gone back there to continue their witness to Christ among the poor, seeing to their health care and education. Sometime in the middle of that month, the five women disappeared.

The weekend of All Saints Day, Terry, Gary and I happened to be in Springfield, Illinois, providing music for a diocesan conference there before a busy week that would take us to Hawaii and Rhode Island. The Saturday of that conference, as I recall it, was All Saints Day, and it was on that day it was announced that the bodies of the five sisters had been discovered, and that in fact they had been murdered while on their mission. Gary and I had worked several times with a sister who was a prominent member of that little community which has its motherhouse in Red Bud, Illinois, right in the diocese of Springfield. Many people at the conference had known one or another of the women, and there was shock and sorrow at the news. But that evening, at the convention Eucharist, the celebration rose to a special intensity as the awareness dawned on all that five new martyrs, chosen from among their friends, were part of the chorus of heavenly witnesses taking part in the banquet of the Messiah with us. 
“Liberia,” the country in which they gave their lives, is a Latin word that means “land of freedom.” Yet another amazing irony in the story, and it might have actually been the thread that wove the two stories together for me. When I came to write the lyric, I used the name of the country in translation as part of the text, with an image of creation about to occur over the chaos of grief:
My sister’s gone to the land of freedom,
And the spirit hovers above her tears.
My sister’s gone to the land of freedom,
And her blood shall sing for a thousand years.
Precious blood of the martyrs!
We praise the precious blood.
One fine morning the poor will find freedom in that flood.
Every wound be a mouth
To sing the great refrain:
“There shall be no chain upon the children of God!”

I took the “every wound be a mouth” idea from St. Romanus, an early martyr from Palestine,  who, according to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs,
...When condemned, he was scourged, put to the rack, and his body torn with hooks. While thus cruelly mangled, he turned to the governor and thanked him for having opened for him so many mouths with which to preach Christianity; "for," he said, "every wound, is a mouth to sing the praises of the Lord." He was soon after slain by being strangled.

Sometime after that conference, I began to realize that these two incidents were calling me to remember them in a song. I knew it was risky business trying to bring such fresh and raw woundedness to a song, or to imagine that any words or music could put a dent in the horror or injustice that was suffered by any of these twelve people. Furthermore, they were, in a way, just sacraments of the thousands who had died under repressive right-wing regimes in Central and South America and Africa while Reagan and Bush 1 were running foreign policy. The song that came out of my reflection is called “Precious Blood,” and I am proud and humbled that it has been sung by the Adorers and by Jesuit houses in celebrating the memory of their slain brothers and sisters.
As for the rest of the desaparecidos and us Christians whose governments are partly responsible for their death, I wrote verses for them and us as well. Our newly elected Pope Francis is undergoing some scrutiny because of political events in his homeland, Argentina, in the years of the junta that overthrew Juan Perón in the early 1970s. While these charges may be mistaken or slanderous, these were complicated, dangerous times, and we Christians were both the murderers and the murdered, priests and lay people together, as we are today when our nations take part in wars, legal or shadow. I shall leave you with the last two verses of “Precious Blood,” and recommend the souls of the martyrs to your prayers.
O you who dreamed of a world of plenty,
Though from earth’s bright roads you may disappear,
Your dream lives on, O, the land remembers,
And your blood shall sing for a thousand years.

And you who dine at the Savior’s table,
Keep in mind the lash, the cross and spear,
For Christ was killed ‘cause he ate in freedom,
But his blood shall sing for a thousand years.

Precious blood of the martyrs!
We praise the precious blood.
One fine morning the poor will find freedom in that flood.
Every wound be a mouth
To sing the great refrain:
“There shall be no chain upon the children of God!”

The Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador and their housekeepers:
Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J.
Julia Elba
Celina Elba
Rev. Amando López, SJ
Rev. Segundo Montes, SJ
Rev. Joaquín López y López, SJ
Rev. Ignacio “Nacho” Martín-Baró, SJ

The Adorers of the Blood of Christ, killed in Liberia:
Sr. Barbara Ann Muttra, ASC
Sr. Shirley Kolmer, ASC
Sr. Joel Kolmer, ASC
Sr. Agnes Mueller, ASC
Sr. Kathleen McGuire, ASC

Download Precious Blood - This Very Morning on iTunes.


  1. I'm sitting here weeping- filled with gratitude for your post and for your music, but sad about so much death and destruction. Thank you, Rory.

    1. <3 Thank you for reading, Fran. And for your ministry.