An aspect of our communal faith-life that I’m lamenting the absence of is the ability to join-in the singing of a rousing hymn! Although admitting that the prospect of having to begin a hymn a cappella, in the absence of our gifted and faithful organists, causes butterflies to fly around my stomach, when others begin to join-in there is a spark igniting the great starting moment to our liturgies. Even better with the organ and other musical accompaniment! Congregational singing is great camouflage for the nervous singer, questioning their own ability to hold a note, and gives the more confident a theatre to blast out with gusto. Without a physical congregation, I am still inclined to begin Mass with a hymn, sometimes more tunefully than others as the willing spirit of adventure overtakes natures gift. The noisy result maybe more Margarita Pracatan than Placido Domingo! Thank goodness these unharmonious moments remain between the Lord and myself!
Hymns and music in general, often subtly colour significant moments on life’s journey, and many have the ability to transport us in an instant to special times, places and reunite us with loved ones, opening, key-like, a wealth of evocative memories. Whenever Tell out my soul is sung at Mass in Otley, Dad always relays the fact to me; reminding us both of the recessional music on the day of my Advent Ordination, when the Gospel was that of the Annunciation. The day Thou gavest is our family Funeral hymn, and as for the hymns chosen by couples for their wedding day there is an eclectic mix of words and music spanning a spectrum from hymns sung at school to more tried and tested compositions including classics like All things bright and beautiful. Sometimes too there is that lovely overlap between generations as a soon-to-be bride or groom asks for the inclusion of a hymn, solo item or piece of music, heard at their parents or even grandparents wedding.
My own musical tastes are, no pun intended, catholic! As a child I can recall my Mum singing as she did household jobs, the radio was a constant companion, and, of course, we sang at church and school. Music in one form or another was simply always there. It also became something that was portable, accompanying us as a family on journeys. Not just in the form of a transistor radio replete with large battery, tuning nobs and not insignificant aerial, but with the arrival of the Eight-Track Tape, which allowed us to choose our own music as we travelled in the car. Such ostentation! To prevent any younger readers of these lines from diverting their attentions away from the continuous flow of reading by delving into a nearby search-engine to discover what this incredible form of musical memorabilia actual was, I shall simply describe in lay-terms. It was a cassette cartridge the size of a videotape that had to be turned over halfway through its output so that side-two could be listened to. Despite their bulk and the fact that their usefulness was restricted to the player in the car, they provided endless hours of entertainment and pleasure on either long or short journeys.
A noticeable absentee and victim of restricted movement in the musical calendar this year has been the Eurovision Song Contest, which may well be Marmite-like subject matter for some. Either loved or hated with energetic passion! When it was a somewhat smaller event than it has evolved into over more recent years I enjoyed watching it. Now, with competition over taking participation, and blatant political voting replacing quirky award giving, I simply listen to the final stages of the event on the radio, knowing full well that the United Kingdom will struggle to get beyond single figures in the votes cast, and wondering if it is better to be given a handful of sympathy votes or being recalled as the country who never got off the starting block, receiving nil points.
This year, I am convinced that the whole Eurovision landscape would have been different for us, and not simply because of the B-word (that is Brexit, for those who have not heard it for a while!). The United Kingdom could have been basking in the credit given to Katrina and her Waves in 1997 when Love shine a light triumphed with a record-breaking lead over its nearest rival. What, you ask, could have prompted such a phoenix-like rise: a simple song, Look for the good in everything! I first heard it on Radio 2 (rumour has it that other stations are available, but not on my collection of radios!). It contains the traditional Eurovision elements of a catchy tune, repetitive chorus and above all, in these times, a positive and cheery message … and yes, it can be sung along to! Its lyrics include the following phrases: Look for people who will set your soul free it always seems impossible until it’s done … celebrate all our mistakes if there’s a silver lining … Everyone’s carrying around some kind of pain … Look out for all the heroes in your neighbourhood … Life sure would be sweeter of everybody would. Hopefully I will not be blamed if there is a surge on the National Grid, as the readers of these lines rush to find the song on-line, begin to download the words and sing along!
A Jesuit spiritual writer and broadcaster once reflected on his experience at the end of an intense weekend Retreat delivered to a large group. At its conclusion many people went up to him to thank him for the insights he had shared, allowing them to return home with new hope, opportunity and vision. He felt humbled by their praise, and relieved that his hard preparatory work had been appreciated. Despite the numbers of these grateful retreatants, he confessed that time had erased their names from his memory! One name that he did recall was that of the last person to approach him on the day of departure. This individual asked for a refund! The effort, time, prayer and energy that had gone into the weekend of reflection had done nothing for this person. Questions they hoped would be answered were packed away in the suitcase they’d arrived with. More than this they were leaving with an even bigger question: Why had they wasted their time and money on a Retreat which brought them no obvious benefit? There was no pacifying the individual, and with no one left in the queue there was no one to apply the salve of further praise and acclaim, which would have opened the door for the arrival of the erasive guests of distraction and forgetfulness.
The raw, blunt and direct manner in which criticism can be delivered makes it a powerful weapon in the armoury of our ability to communicate. As we all appreciate there are ways of delivering a different viewpoint without it being wounding, cutting or inhibiting. In school governing circles we use the phrase critical friendship about aspects of our role. Criticism and negativity walk hand-in-hand along may pathways through life, often bringing with them friends like hurt, pain, repression, which in turn can nurture a further generation of family members, often in the soul of the individual held bound and captive by the sharpness of another’s tongue: resentment, fear, under-achievement, self-doubt. To seek and Look for the good in everything, may be an antidote or remedy to this disease, which is society-wide, including at times, rather sadly, within church circles.
During Mass on Tuesday our Readings contained a story of the encounter of two unlikely characters, during a lengthy time of drought, the widow of Zarephath and the prophet Elijah. Sent by the Lord, His messenger, a travel-worn Elijah asks the widow for two unbelievably precious commodities for an agriculturally-dependent nation suffering the ravages of a lack of water: food and drink. Her reply is blunt vocabulary, grudging kindness, and meagre but dutiful hospitality. Despite her initial suspicion, real anxiety and understandable hesitancy, the divine response to her negativity is the fulfilment of the prophecy, Jar of meal shall not be spent, jug of oil shall not be emptied (1 Kings:17:14). Indeed, throughout the time Elijah lodged with the widow and her son they were never without sustenance. The story is an evolving one, including the death of the boy and his restoration to life through the intercession of Elijah, and the Martha-like statement of belief of the widow identifying and acknowledging Elijah’s prophetic role: Now I know that you are a man of God and that the Lord really speaks through you! (1 Kings 17:24). Her words also betray a seismic change of heart. The stranger has revealed to her the good which lay in his own soul removing the suspicion, anxiety and hesitancy which formed the welcoming committee of the widow’s initial greeting. It is a fine reminder that, at times, God uses the most unlikely of people of accomplish His purpose.
The finest craftsmen and women who shape and colour others into the people that they become are those who not only inspire because of their own enthusiasm and passion, but who can see potential in the raw material, who infuse with a gentle coaxing, and who know just how far to pull, stretch and tease that which is held in their caring and protective hands. Some we call parents, others bear familial titles, whilst educators and teachers, friends and even relatively fleeting acquaintances may also be those who bring to birth our true capabilities and potential. Their approach is positive. They see what others, including ourselves, may not. They build up confidence. Establish foundations on which a life will be lived. Good for them is ever-present and needs to be drawn out of the base constituents. Their vocation is spent doing just this. Already names, faces and voices are congregating in your thoughts … and mine too! These are the people who have sought out the best, finest and richest, and surprisingly they saw it in us. In the words of the song I mentioned earlier these are the people who will set your soul free encouraging you to reach out to what seems impossible and will be standing at your side when it’s done!
In the field of my own education, I immediately think of our Dean of Studies during my seminary days in Dublin. Academic life prior to Diaconal Ordination was divided into three elements – a foundation year of Theology, two years of Philosophy, and a further two years of Theology. At the end of my first year of Philosophy the Dean approached me and asked if I would like to be considered for degree-level education when I moved into Theology. It was a big ask as the only other students considered for this were those who had previously had some third-level education, one of whom was a graduate. It came with a price-tag. I would need to complete a further A-Level within a year through distance learning with my former Junior Seminary. Extra work, sacrifices, and a good number of packages containing scripts, past exam papers, and words from a teacher to a pupil crossed the Irish Sea at regular intervals, not to mention having to sit exams when I should have been on holiday! To this day, I am not sure why I was invited to undertake this challenge except to say that clearly someone saw something in me that I was blind to. Confidence-building, encouragement and support of students may have been a part of Fr. Bob Noonan’s job-description, but until they become a currency spendable in the marketplace of lived experience they are little more than aspirational. At times it would have been easy to bow out of that particular year of hard academic graft and shy away from another’s perspective of my budding potential. What made the difference was the fact that the journey was not being made alone. Companionship with broader vision than mine was all-important. The conversations had, the gentle nudges given and the safe hands in which I was being invited to stretch and grow were vital.
When I eventually graduated from Maynooth, to whom our college was affiliated, on a fog-bound November day, a white-haired man wearing Doctoral robes over his Capuchin garb, quietly approached me, and made a simple statement in my ear: I knew you could do it! Disappearing amongst the throng of assembled academic and clerical glitterati he still had one more surprise up his sleeve. Along with the other two degree students (who individually typified the best and most annoying of students: the very diligent post-graduate who was building on his earlier achievement in a different field through consistent study, and the former Polytechnic student who could leave all his work to the last minute, and did, but always emerged with enviable grades!) I was accorded the distinction of Commendation. This was the scent nearest to the heady perfume of an Honours Degree that we were allowed to savour. Maynooth at the time stipulated that eligibility for Honours was dependent on where exams were sat; their own college soil. Practically for us this was impossible. Therefore we were deemed unworthy!
Whatever is on the play-list of your life journey, I hope that it contains songs and music as up-lifting as I’m currently finding Jason Mraz’s Look for the good in everything. St. Augustine said, Those who sing, pray twice! Let us not just sing along with the words, but actually live their uplifting message. Perhaps on reflection we can think about all the heroes in your neighbourhood. Those to whom we had never spoken or bothered to find out their names but, who living nearby, were the first to put a note through the letterbox offering willing hands should they be needed for things large or small when Lockdown began. The people we observe on a daily basis, driving away from home as they have for as long as we’ve witnessed their routine of life, to ensure that some semblance of stability and normality has continued to exist for others through their key-work. These are some of the heroes who deserve a place on the page of history that we are currently penning.
We have to look to see, and by seeking the good in everything … life would be sweeter. Happy listening, singing, and humming along to the music of your life, above all don’t allow the words of a long dead music teacher who told you to mime rather than sing, hold you back … I’m sure that the Good Lord has an abundant supply of ear-plugs if necessary!
Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,