Friday, May 12, 2006

God's Call, Conclusion

The five years that immediately preceded my entrance into the monastery were quite so full of the quiet nudges of Providence that it is with difficulty that I settle on the three or four most significant events or trends of the time. I ended three previous posts with an intellectual conversion as well as an 'aesthetic' conversion. The moral conversion, perhaps the hardest, took some time.

The band project, which we called OM under the sponsorship of Knuffle Records, began in earnest in January of 1994, with Jon returning from Drummer's Collective in NYC. We drafted Aaron Kohen, with whom I had already recorded a jazz demo, to play bass and Susie Greenebaum to play the violin. Later, in order to live up to the billing that we played rock music, we added Dan Robinson on guitar. The main lessons from the band:

1) What I was looking for in 'moral' rock music was something 'participatory', in other words music that avoided any demagoguery in the performers, music that created community, etc. I would now say that I was looking for liturgy. However, given what I knew of liturgy at the time I never would have guessed it.

2) The venues where rock and jazz are played are not conducive to the goals that we had for the band. On the other hand, I found that our acoustic, smaller ensemble work came quite close. This was especially the case with the improvisations that we did together. These exercises were about listening, persuading, enjoying the conversation with one another and not pressing one's own point. This brings me to number 3:

3) Aaron and Jon and I lived together for nearly three years. During this time, we led a quasi-monastic existence. We would rise early (6:00 a.m.--incredible for gigging musicians!) and practice our instruments for an hour. I would read Psalms while doing scales. Afterward, one of us would prepare breakfast while we would listen to an album selected by one of the three of us. Over breakfast, we would discuss the music. These albums ranged from Frank Zappa to Bach to Miles Davis and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Later in the morning, we would gather to work on the rhythm section and sometimes vocal harmonies. I learned a lot about living in community. Fr. Brendan calls this my 'pre-novitiate'. One of the key lessons I learned from working with these two fine men and fine musicians is that my own perceptions of things are often in need of someone else's perspective: to put it in the words of Solomon, "Iron sharpens iron and man sharpens man." Testing your friends and letting them test you builds community and brings about a kind of wisdom.

In all of this, I came to find that performing was less and less satisfactory. I also found myself more drawn to prayer and the classics of the spiritual life. I was hired to cantor at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in April of 1994. This marked the beginning of my regular reception of the sacraments. I attended confession for the first time in eight years ("its easier if you come more frequently!" said Fr. Seitz, bless his soul!)

It is important to note that Jon and I always understood the band to be something God intended for us. I still think that this is true. We managed to make some headway, playing relatively important venues in Chicago, including a final performance at the Taste of Chicago in July of 1997, after we had already agreed to disband so that Jon could get married and I could enter the monastery.

When I first was introduced to the Monastery of the Holy Cross, I had an inkling that this is what I was looking for. The whole of the liturgy is sung--by everyone. It was just the sort of participatory environment I had hoped for in another setting. As for the 'morality' of the setting, it was clear that we had something here that brought people to God--what can top that?

I also found that what I had thought was good music, in that it was intellectually challenging and raised issues of community and politics, etc, was not in fact the sort of music I wanted to do. I have a fondness for intricate and emotionally powerful music in the Romantic vein. For many people, this sort of music is unsettling or even frightening. At one performace at the Morseland, I could tell by the reaction to a new song that I had written that it had an extremely powerful impact on the emotions of those listening. To put it less flatteringly, it was manipulative (note: Jon is working at putting recordings of our work online--I hope that for now you will trust my descriptions). This realization worried me. As I backed off from this approach, I came more and more to be attracted to Renaissance polyphony again, as well as chant. These are forms with a good deal of intellectual interest, but they are not emotionally manipulative. In fact, many people find them sterile and boring. I believe they misunderstand the purpose of this music which is meant not to stand on its own, but to complement liturgical action. I would also submit that this is why there is often a preference in liturgy for manipulative types of music, even if they are definitely not intricate or intellectually sophisticated in any way, e.g. "On Eagles' Wings" "Here I Am, Lord" and so on.

Once Jon and I decided to end the band project, I made arrangements to visit the monastery and ended up living in the guest house for about six months. During this time, I visited home and had lunch on consecutive days with Norbertine priests who had taught me in high school. I asked each of them how they decided on the Norbertines. Without hesitation, they both reponded, "it was the community I knew." I didn't feel that I had much of a choice after hearing this testimony. Shortly after, I asked to be considered for the novitiate here, ultimately entering on January 25, 1998, five months after singing my last song on the stage of the Taste of Chicago.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your posts on "God's Call"! Well worth the wait! Re your comments on "emotionally manipulative" music: I've played music along the lines of Vineyard, Hosanna/Integrity for a number of years now, and have suspected that there might be some of that element in this kind of music as well. I used to think that "as long as it's about God, it's OK", but am discerning that this might not be the best standard to judge by. With regard to my own musical experience, one of the attractive aspects was that of power. Not just in terms of sound, but also in terms of the likelihood of arousing any kind of strong response in the listener. Strong medicine indeed, and not something with which I would trust myself alone ;-)


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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