Monday, November 26, 2007

Liturgical Music in Lock-Down
A brief discussion of my experiences in providing musical leadership in one of our state prisons.

I first need to thank God for being patient with me. Having done 37 years of RC worship and sacred music as director, performer and composer, I was embarrassed and humbled by the fact that it had taken me until age 56 to "visit Christ in prison."
I started volunteering in late summer this year at a regional state prison facility on Monday nights. The prison is a level three facility, so it's population intermingles convicts who aren't quite in the news as often as those of San Quentin, Folsom or Pelican Bay. But, it is an overcrowded, desolate and huge facility that looks like the "City on the Hill" at night as you approach from 15 miles away, and then rips off that bright facade when you're on it and crossing through its multiple razored fences that house the lethal electric fence that surrounds its six "yards."
90% of those inmates who attend chapel in the two yards I've visited are Hispanic. The catholics who attend chapel use the OCP bilingual hymnal and missal. There are the occasional Anglo lifers who evidence memories and desires for the musical aspects of the Mass they knew as young boys; but they are a very minute, and quiet few.
I'm typing this after a session where "chapel" was held in a yard's Visitor Center. Unlike regular meetings, this was heavily attended (by 3 times the normal number of inmate participants on normal nights.) This was due to an ongoing series of retreats that culminated in this one yard with a priest who was hearing confessions, one on one, in a small room within the larger visitor's center.
Basically, each weekly encounter is not scripted or outlined in advance. Tonight the prison chaplain and permanent deacon just basically said "Hit it" to me, and I became a heavy set human I Pod delivering and leading singing for the men, taking requests in rapid fire sequence.
It was an unusual opportunity to sing a random historical variety of musics that now are housed within our tents: Latino praise songs, bilingual scriptural allusions from Gabarain and Hurd, gospel and traditional spirituals, traditional hymns (Te Deum/Holy God), chants such as the Kyrie, Ave Maria, Veni creator, all co-mingled amongst these starving souls searching for God and a sense of beauty and peace which obviously hasn't been much of a factor in their previous life experiences, and which provide a respite from the din and relentless noise that is ever-present for them daily.
"Doing" music in prison is not an easy experience to characterize or typify. I do know two things about it that became maxims upon my first visits: 1. Don't come in with any agenda or pretense- these men are looking for Christ and the promise of redemption that we cannot possibly understand from the "outside"; 2. Do come in hoping to be ministered to by the prisoners' witness and spritual hunger and vitality that far exceeds whatever talent or charisms you have to impart to them.
I'll add onto these initial reflections later, when I can report more lucidly.
I do know this also: I need them in my life much more than they need me in theirs'.
And a last word before bed, the much-discussed ideal of achieving the "paradigm of beauty" in liturgy, has an incredible gravitational power among the imprisoned- they take nothing for granted as the fellows I've met acknowledge that they wouldn't be in prison save for their succumbing, often, to that which is evil and ugly, and that they now "get" that the holes in their hearts cannot be filled with the Enemy's empty promises and more noise, more crime, more hate. They sing with a freedom most of our parishoners eschew due to the paradox of acccessibility. They strive for true unity with Christ through unison in song.
Before I sign off for the night, if there was a "rapture" at the parousia as the millienialists and their populist sons of Hal Lindseys' tout, it wouldn't surprise me that there'd be more "missing persons" from the prison, per captita, than from those found on the rolls of the average RC parish.

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