I’ll sing on…about our awesome God

No doubt one of the benefits of media streaming proves to be the cornucopia of films warehoused in various vendors such as Netflix and Amazon. I’ve found a number of unheralded movies that I regard as top drawer efforts. Surprisingly we took a chance on a Christian-themed film based upon the life story of Rich Mullins, titled “Ragamuffin.” If you’ve said “That name rings a bell,” then you’re right. Mullins was the songwriter responsible for the contemporary Christian megahit “Awesome God.” This song, among others of his, has achieved anthem status over the last two decades. I never reckoned with it until a couple of years ago. I still found it wanting versus many of Mullins’ other tunes. One thing about such pop-style icon songs (think evangelical “On Eagles’ Wings) is that it is difficult to explain rationally why they achieve such status and regard. One of my parochial students, who went onto HS and major university studies in choral music, still swears that “Awesome God” is the most apt expression of Christian faith he’s ever experienced.  De gustibus and all that.
Back to “Ragamuffin.” It’s not a clever wordplay on Ravi Shankar’s East Indian legacy wed to the muffin craze. The title stems from an itinerant fallen Catholic priest’s reworking of systematic theology down to the most basic elements. And there are at least two dynamics from the film account of Mullins’ life that should be of interest to the differing factions of the worship wars, or at least the détente of same.

This uncharacteristic portrayal, according to standard “Christian Film” methodology, unflinchingly examines the psychological and emotional turmoil that was Rich Mullins’ cross to wrenchingly bear as a Christian person and son, deprived of all talent and paternal love save that of the innate musician. The tortured artist motif is long in the tooth for filmdom, but displaying that for a Christian mainstream audience is almost unheard of. Mullins’ unabashed belief in God, Christ and the church is constantly self-assaulted by the un-remediated failure of his father’s ability to nurture the lost son’s neurosis and bring him to the family fold. Of course this affects the adolescent and adult Mullins’ sensibilities as he wrestles with his relationship with daddy God, Abba. In a word, the gifted songwriter is a total wreck personally and simultaneously as his fame and artistic success blossoms.

The two lessons apparent to me, and sort of at odds with each other in our catholic ritual and liturgical sphere, are: that a cultic personality tends not to bind either community or fit worship of same in perpetuity; and that some folks who not only cling to rigorist notions of fit worship, but insist at all turns that orthodoxy and orthopraxis are not only demanded by the Church, but by God Himself, can achieve the same failure to evangelize “ragamuffin” Christians by their self-imposed stasis as purveyors of fine Christianity that can’t pass the smell test of Matthew 25.
Thankfully, our liturgical philosophy as Roman Catholics always efforts to shepherd us towards the East, towards the Crucifix and Tabernacle, sacrifice and feast of victory. There are numerous scenes in the film that depict Mullins as the seeker poet at the piano, extemporaneously sharing his revelations about life the universe and everything with pew people who likely came to their churches only to hear some really good Christian tunes. Again and again, as Mullins endures the curve of life’s peaks and valleys so as to reach new epiphanies, he’s shown sharing his personal theology in extremis with “ragamuffin” Christians who just show up, and it seems almost an incoherent assault upon the mannerism of conventional “church.” The safest environment for Mullins (and by implication all Contemporary Christian Artists of that early genre, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Phil Keaggy and others) is the arena concert, not the sanctuary. “You can take the Christian boy out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the Christian boy.” It seems untenable. And it is. Those who would assert their personal convictions unabated and uninformed upon congregant assemblies intent upon corporate worship do the church no favor.

On the other hand, when those who take the responsibilities of liturgical office arrive at some belief that the vagaries of propriety and canon mitigates and dismisses all other concerns that are part and parcel of ritual and worship by HUMAN BEINGS, then they risk not recognizing Christ at their own doors. They put on blinders to the reality that those whom they serve are not likely all at the same locus of faith. And “ragamuffin” theology demands that these folk not be discounted much less indemnified. In historical terms I suppose these people might be the anawim, the untouchables or the great unwashed plebes who don’t know a Proper from an Ordinary. They don’t necessarily need the gift of finest wheat before they need a hand up. If a rationale is at play that we’re providing an experience mirroring Christ’s mission statement “I came that you might have life in abundance” but skip all of the care and nurture by force-feeding them our personal pearls rather than a sustenance they won’t spit up at first blush, we’re not doing our office optimally, if not well at all.

All of these thoughts are not at all intended to denigrate any and all efforts to reform and improve the state of our liturgical practices. The film, which also concludes with the vinegar of Mullins’ untimely, inopportune death and the ambrosia of a heavenly reconciliation with his father, does illumine the need for us to be servants ultimately not of ourselves and our expectations, but of the Church Christ founded and trusted His disciples to guide. That remains a supremely human endeavor reaching for salvation here and in heaven. We may comingle and commune with the ephemeral Divine Mysteries, but until resurrection we often cannot bury the failings of our fallen nature. And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.

Don’t shoot the piano player, promote her!

Lately I’ve been dealing with some odd neurological issues. I’ve been experiencing strong enhancements of three of my senses, the first of which was my olfactory system, my sense of smell. I still can’t tell if what I perceive is a highly amplified sense, or an illusion. Then came my auditory sense: it seems my hearing capacity has multiplied by fifty percent. This is interesting as the schola now sounds like the Morman Tabernacle Choir, I can hear the homilies at volume 11, and confounding because the slightest imperfection in pitch accuracy annoyingly distracts me. (The third sense is taste, Cabernet Sauvignon of any quality ain’t workin’ no mo’. Loss of red hasn’t mitigated the other two sensory overloads!)

The intensity of my hearing caused me to change a rehearsal strategy last week. As a director, the last prior rehearsals were frustrating because I couldn’t have the usual holistic approach towards rehearsal goals while distracted with such vagaries as pitch and diction problems. So I tried a new strategy- I asked my organist/accompanist to run last week’s rehearsal. I was thus enabled the relief of just being a tenor, though I did help manage a few concerns as we went along. As we trekked through an hour and a half’s rehearsal it dawned on me for the thousandth time how important accompanists are to our success. If you’re an organist-cum-director, just imagine yourself as Jekyll and Hyde.

As a veteran of both church and school (elementary through collegiate) choral education, utilizing an accompanist as a rehearsal tool was a regular and di rigeur/SOP strategy, ala “You take the women while I’ll work the men.” When needing a sick day, if your accompanist was strong, you had no worries. If not, you worried a lot. But I’m sure we who are not gifted with accompaniment skills fully realize how much of our successful endeavors rely upon the charisms and talents of “the pianist.”

I won’t belabor this obvious reality in this short piece. But I strongly offer that a choirmaster (who’s not the organist) consider the schema of letting the other professional in the room regularly lead rehearsals. There are so many benefits to consider- being able to audit the various sections independent of having to martial the whole choir, the possibility that the accompanist will uncover weaknesses in the choir that weren’t evident to the director, the immediate modeling you can provide to sections that you sit and sing in during rehearsal, the relief from whatever your Modus Operandi routines have numbingly become habitual, and likely a hundred other plus factors each of us could cite.

I’ve been blessed in my career as a choral director. In over forty years I’ve only had one “less than” greatly talented accompanist, and at least that burden was relieved by the pianist’s unique personality. And currently I have an organist (with me 24 years) and two pianists, one with me for 43 years, ha ha! ,who are exemplary talents. So I’d be more of a fool if I didn’t take advantage of their vast treasuries of experience and artistic accomplishments. Here’s a great shout to our “piano players.”

What you sing in the dark….

I’m sure most dioceses celebrate the jubilee years of ordained and consecrated priests, sisters and brothers with a designated liturgy. Our diocese held such an observance (Vespers) this week, held at our mother parish. Our Office of Worship thankfully asks for simple ministry, aka “moi,” to lead the congregational singing. And a unique congregation it is, every year. I was likely the sole member of the laity present among 150 congregants.

I’ll recap what was prayed in song in this piece and offer some interesting (to me) reflections. This year I did not choose any of the repertoire.

After the invocation, the hymn of the evening was “For the fruits of this creation” (Ar hyd y nos.) The gathered priests, deacons, sisters and brothers took up the singing with full throat and full measure. It is always so edifying every time religious take up the role of the “assembled” so heartily.

The first two psalms were canted using Meinrad tones. This was my first encounter with these pervasively known settings. These were sung well, but as could be expected, psalm tone settings of any stripe aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, so as we sang in alternatim, the volume of singing was halved by comparison to the hymn. As a composer/arranger, my initial assessment of the two Meinrad tones that were sung was sort of “ho-hum.” I wouldn’t say via such limited exposure that they seem hackneyed, but like so much of what is employed in the last century, they don’t ascend much higher than the meanest of utilitarian purpose. For one thing, the settings I led were hopelessly diatonic, and didn’t seem to exhibit a schematic coherence evident in diatonic constructs as simple as “Heart and Soul.” I wouldn’t blanch calling them pastiche. That said, the pastor who did choose the settings mentioned that Meinrad tones were by far the most commonly employed in seminary formation over the last three decades. To me, there was a paucity of intuitive logic to these two tones by comparison to “Gregorian” tones that I’m more comfortable using. Perhaps that is because those tones are modal, and modes are, if nothing else, bound to tetrachord sensibilities. So, to sum up this aspect, it seems that the use of tones, whether Meinrad, Gelineau or Rossini’s et al, becomes an effort of selective and synthetic cultivation,  not necessarily tied to predecessor forms. To illustrate what I mean by that, if the only music one hears in a long-lived, developmental period of time is muzak as found in elevators, stores, waiting rooms and supermarkets, that person will have no other foundation to appreciate any other more worthy and significant types of music. (Suffice it to say, we owe a debt to folks like Adam Bartlett, Paul Ford and many other noted seminary professors who’ve taught the basics of “Gregoriana” to their charges.)

After the responsory my duties were over. After “Deo gratias” I more or less hi-jacked the dismissal by intoning the simple “Salve Regina.” Once again, the gathered took the roof of our large church off with their purposeful chanting.

I’ve thought of this paradox before, but it was never so apparent to me as this vespers: why is it that clergy and religious have the chutzpah to chant psalmody (even via less worthy means), hymnody and plainsong when they’re sequestered together, and then basically eschew those forms when they return to their parishes as pastors and vicars? We all know that strong leadership, whether amateur or professional, generally ensures solid performance practice among choirs/ensembles/scholas that “lead” and aid congregational singing in regular worship. But there seems an inordinate interest on the part of many pastors to mistake the accessibility of the modern song forms as being tantamount with their concept of full, active, conscious participation. Whether one has participated in a CMAA colloquium or intensive seminar or not, most folks know that the “actuosa” concept of FCAP is just as accessible to everyone through hymns, chants and psalmody as are sacropop and contemporary praise and worship styles, and likely more affective to the soul. So, again, why do I sense there’s sort of double-standard at play when clergy worships together with our native forms, but then these great forms are left orphaned when they return to their home parishes?

Backstory from one colloquium, an encounter with Christ

Between the myriad scandals in Ecclesia, the Regnum and in Terra, I need to purge myself of attraction to the electro-magnetism of hype, and focus upon something good and holy.

So,  in concordance with recognizing Saints thus canonized as perfected, I’d like to identify someone whom, to me, has presented as sainted to me. Simple story.

It’s no secret that I have an atypical association with CMAA. I am completely  enchanted and subscribed to my fellows’ mission and ambition. But I also have some divergent views and opinions as to the efficacy of any exclusionary prejudices that I often see as polemic, dismissive or conveniently ignorant of merit as to composers, repertoire and practice. Let’s not focus on that.

I would like to simply tell you why CMAA is valuable to me in (Name that tune) two notes. Those two notes are “Francisco Nahoe.”

Friar Francisco Nahoe first caught my awareness attention at the Indy Colloquium (2014? I’m old and infirm.) Initially that awareness was simply based upon a nebulous, ineffable (I love doing that!) presence that he manifested in our schola and choral rehearsals. Here was this rock-solid and edifying personage quietly participating in ensemble in the tenor section, apparently so self-effacing that I had not even noticed him in Salt Lake City 2012. What I did notice was his carry bag. It was obviously hand-made, had an indigenous look to it, it was somewhere between cobalt and royal blue, and it was so …. humble. I didn’t pay much further heed to it, or to the man.

The day of the Mass we were to serve at, we assembled for the last (dress) rehearsal under Horst, and we had all managed the multi-spiraled staircase to the organ gallery and squeezed into the choir stalls. The gentleman friar and I were next to each other at the Gospel end of the pews. Sometime amid the pre-Mass rehearsal I felt compelled to compliment him for the carry bag. I was in my usual state plus one: Horst had given me an intonation for one of the Ordinary or Propers, and I wasn’t tip top and a bit worried. I think the friar had a good bead on me. So when I commented casually to him about the bag, he immediately replied “It’s yours” as he emptied his stuff from it. It just so happened this was on my birthday. I cannot describe the feeling, and I love describing things, loquacious as I be.

I never caught his name. Mass was beautiful, I did well, the bag was awesome, it was a great birthday celebrated later that night at the great Italian restaurant with my Midwest friends. But I remember more than all of that the absolute embodiment of Christ this friar projected the whole week.

I came to know his identity because of his voice. Listening to Immaculate Heart Radio quite fully and daily, that voice print became apparent as the friar. This friar was one of the two priests who recorded the daily Gospel readings for IHR. I caught the phonetics of his voice after recognizing that, and googled the phonetics. And I was then graced to actually see his bio and his “images” come up on-screen.

I had occasion this week to think of him as someone eminently qualified (through following up on his google hits) as a parish missionary presenter for the upcoming Year of Mercy. And we made contact this week, though we couldn’t do “business” for this year.

There are likely for everyone people whom you’d ascribe to be personal saints. For me, there aren’t many of those folk in my acquaintance  who are also ordained. But first among those very few, is Friar Francsico Nahoe, OFM.

Another fable for these days, somewhat hackneyed

Sunday morning on vacation, a whirlwind road trip through the Deep South visiting relatives was their primary agenda. But it was Sunday, and Gary and DC gathered up little Oscar to make the earliest Mass time in a parish just outside of Irondale. They hadn’t been down south in a long while, and Gary noticed there were many more Catholic parishes than last he’d remembered. They were joking in the car, wondering if they could join any ersatz choir they’d encounter, and if a slow foot Mabel would be at the console. But Mabel was nowhere in the choir gallery, rather there was, of all things, a modest little schola of men, mostly GenXer’s like themselves, plus a few seniors and a bespectacled teen boy. The leader was more than happy to invite the guys to join, after they’d introduced themselves. Besides it was sort of providential in that both Gary and DC knew the Graduale and Missal very well. Mass began. The Introit Bell rang from the sacristy door and the chant was taken up. The celebrant seemed even younger than them, his cassock (under the vesture) and zuchetta fully visible to all. Occasionally during the ritual, Gary and DC stole a couple of quick glances and smiles at their good fortune, to find in of all places, Alabama, a reverent, humble and serene Mass, even if in the Novus Ordo.

At Communion, after the Communio began, Gary, DC and Oscar carefully stepped down the circular staircase and enjoined the procession. They had been noticed, during the homily (which was more a sermon) by the celebrant. He didn’t know those three new faces, but that recognition didn’t stay in his mind until he saw the trio presenting to receive the Blessed Sacrament. And amidst the rite and routine something washed over the young priest’s mind. “Who are these guys? Who’s the kid with them?”  The question disturbed the priest’s conscience, though that turmoil wasn’t evident to the communicants. Gary presented first, and the priest seemed to freeze, the momentum of the procession had a burp.   Eyes closed after bowing before the Host, Gary didn’t immediately realize that it had not been placed upon his tongue. He opened his eyes and they met those of the priest, which were fixed on Gary’s eyes as well. It seemed the celebrant was trying to communicate something to Gary, but he didn’t declare the words “The Body of Christ” nor anything else. DC and Oscar likewise bowed, not aware of the standstill. The four were somewhat bunched up (there was no Communion rail.) People started to be aware of the congestion. The three visitors stepped away from the priest, heads down and lips fixed they briskly walked down the right side aisle and straight out the narthex doors. The parish pastor happened to be enjoying a cup of coffee on the rectory balcony and noticed them getting in their car, which then lurched backward with a spray of gravel, and then sped out of the lot. The pastor thought, “Darn tourists, always leaving early when there’s a second collection.”

When the young associate returned to the kitchen after Mass the pastor noticed he seemed agitated. “Hey Damien,” he said, “something wrong?” Damien looked up, lips pursed and cheeks drawn in, and replied “No, not necessarily….there were these guys I didn’t know at Mass and….” “Oh yeah, I saw ‘em leaving Mass in a hurry.” “Well, Roger, those guys were singing with our choir, and I knew they weren’t from here, and they had this kid with them, and I dunno, I got all rankled up and thought I’d better not offer them Communion. Geez, what was I supposed to do? I don’t know who they are, but the three of them, it didn’t seem right, I dunno.” Roger sighed, saying “Don’t sweat it, you followed your conscience, Damien.”

When Gary and DC got back to the Howard Johnson’s, they got out of the car without a word, Gary and Oscar opened their room where Gary’s wife, Oscar’s mom Cecilia was still in deep slumber on the double bed. DC walked into his room as his wife was just sitting up and stretching out the kinks in bed. Only when the five of them sat down to breakfast in the spacious and empty restaurant did the two brothers in law share with their wives what the hell happened at Mass. Gary, the 8th grade teacher of St. Brigid’s School back home, and DC the choirmaster at that parish were still stunned in shocked silence. Nothing of the sort had ever happened to them at Mass like this before.

A fable for these, and all times…

Who Dared Challenge His Lord and Savior?

He was a member of the inner circle, chosen, he himself having chosen to discipline himself to his Master. Like his companions, he had been not much of anybody, outlander and radical and alienated. Like so many of these, his nature was susceptible, and he naturally gravitated to a strength, a power that was as pure as it was all-consuming. He fell in, and joined his fellows in the glorious pilgrimage.  What a journey, full of ups and downs, twists and turns, white hats versus black hats, old at odds with the new. But oh, the feasts, the gatherings, the healings and miracles, the fulfillment of the Baptist’s cries and the songs of David and Isaiah. Heady stuff, this.

Then one night at table, his place there unquestioned, he watched a woman kneel before his Master, wash His feet with her inexplicable tears, and honor with humble loving caresses and expensive, aromatic nards and aloes she’d risked all to obtain for the disciple’s Master. The follower thrust himself into the darkness of doubt and resentment, and then his outrage seethed hotter than the pot in the hearth. And he couldn’t contain himself. Could not contain himself. Him-Self.

“Why do You let this woman anoint Your feet? That money could have gone to the Rescue Mission! What is this silly ritual of foot-washing have to do with what WE’RE doing, what I’m trying to do?”

The outlander revealed himself, and thus was rebuked by his Savior, and still he could not see or hear that over the bleating of his rapacious heart. He likely thought his understanding of “Make straight a highway for our God” was truer than the Master’s, and he kept that understanding alive, on life-support. But he also failed to remember that exhortation was accompanied by “Repent, repent!”

Mercy comes at a harsh price, more than spices, much more than thirty pieces. He was to never find mercy again.

Redemptionis? Pronto, subito!

That last time I endured listening to a recording of Capella Sixtina I was in a choral seminar in grad school, in my advisor’s office (only five students IIRC.) I squirmed and shrank as he gleefully put on a CD that, at the time, was the last aural evidence of the death spiral Roman Catholic choral music had chosen after the “Golden Era, pre-Monteverdi,” with Vatican II as a chaser.

Downloaded and listening to CANTATE DOMINO, Capella Sistina, released September 25, 2015. I neither squirm nor shrink, but at first blush, I haven’t deciphered exactly what I’m listening to. It is truly “other” in so many realms. I intend to revisit it in depth many times via many different audio platforms, as that seems a necessity. But for us Catholic/Choralist/Musicians who concern themselves with such doings as what marks a bell-weather moment in our cultural history, I can readily attest this may be one of those. I will do a thorough review in the near future.

Random thoughts:

*Maestro Monsignor Palombella is to be reckoned with. Sonically, environmentally (spatially), his vision is laudable for its self-evidence. I’ve never been to Rome, remedied hopefully this January, but now I’ve a familiarity, once removed, of the ambient of the Papal Chapel. This collection has been recorded and mastered with intent and purpose, which many choral projects don’t receive if they’re studio efforts.

*Aesthetically and pedagogically I feel I’m wandering through a Venetian Masqued Carnivale of tonal complexity. The only remnant of the screamers are a couple of tenore primo’s who occasionally show up with a tempered down throaty vibrato in a mixed head-voice concoction. When that happens on the heels of the fully blended, floating tenor chanters, I wonder how many choral colors Maestro has up his sleeve.

*Which leads to the boys, the blessed boys. By Lord, they are set free. Maybe I doth project too much but I can see their little swarthy Mediterranean faces, eyes forward instead of up thankfully, sounding….well….Italian and pure! No Kings College, but no squawking hatchlings of old either. Now and then some pitch issues, but perfection I don’t think is Maestro’s goal, integrity and honor are I’d guess.

*There remains an equally swarthy manliness in the bass/baritones, but without the “watch me flex” muscularity that was so distracting under previous regimes. This is most evident in the “Adoramus te Christe,” where both the deep cardinal tones are refined with a measured but certainly present vibrato.

This is a collection of note and ought to be listened to repeatedly and discussed not only in Catholic music circuses, but also in the larger choral world. Could this be yet another renaissance, but in our lifetime?