Saturday, September 27, 2008

Just an afternoon.

I’ve written before that I’ve joined a group of parish volunteers who travel a great distance each Monday night to participate in chapel meetings for Roman Catholics in one of our many state prisons. After about a year’s absence from inmates in my first yard chapel, I returned to their chapel about two months ago.
I remember that the chaplain had cautioned me upon my first night in chapel with “the fellahs” that they were vocally and musically quite challenged. That, of course, is never the case with any “group” who labor to sing well as they pray; more often they just need a helping voice with strong leadership skills.
When I returned for my second stint with the fellahs in this particular yard, I was dumbstruck in all ways by their progress over the year. Some guys had composed (as in to completely and accurately notate) remarkably sophisticated songs with profound spirituality and theological content, and often set employing contrapuntal choral techniques which were rendered quite beautifully in actual services. It was the most pure and sublime evidence of God’s power and grace mirrored in a poetic text by Henry Vaughn (which I set in one of my own songs) “And here in the dust and dirt, oh here: the flowers of God’s love appear.Recently I received in my church mailbox an envelope and letter from one of the inmate composers on official envelope stationary and the letter and a song was xeroxed. Even if you’ve ever spent only one hour watching one of the ever-popular “Locked-Up” documentary shows, one would know that this exchange was of an important magnitude. Volunteers are generally discouraged from any actions that would disclose either their own personal information or solicit personal information from inmates. And there are clear, present and rigid policies in place to maintain those distances because there is much to be risked on both sides if one party is naïve and the other is unscrupulous. Breaches, even if well intentioned or unintentional, can affect whole programs and large numbers of people in “the system.” But, apparently the authorities at this institution recognized that the letter’s content, and the song, being addressed to a “titled” person at a specific church proved no threat, contained no hidden code or agenda, and merely was an honest expression of faith and mission on the part of the inmate composer.
I’m trying to discern if God is charging me to some sort of calling beyond my initial longing to renew my own heart by sharing my “expertise” in this very Matthew 25 manner. What do I do with what I have witnessed, shared and been graced with behind those prison chapel walls?
I’ve been critical of the over-exposure of pretty pictures of TLM’s all over the LitBlogs, as if their proliferation actually works against some catholic sensibilities by an implicit self-glorification of all of their nuance and minutiae. So, is there a real calling, reason and purpose that is telling me that someone has to share that there are still martyrs and miracles happening within these severely difficult environs? Should I formally ask the warden to record, even if only for posterity, these Christian men’s musical expressions of faith in Christ Jesus? Should some part of the Christian Body, no matter how small, be reminded and gifted with these worship “arts” that are the works of men who have likely committed heinous and grievous criminal acts and are living with the consequences of those acts and their attendant guilt, yet have sought the obvious and ultimate refuge and peace in their Christian faith? Is there something very Pauline that needs to spread in this era for its own sake, not just as a token antidote to the prurient interest in the prison and gang cultures so glorified on television and film theater screens?
As I said, all of this is being discerned through prayer, counsel and common sense. “When in a prison, you came and visited me.” But then what, Lord? Oh, yeah, your Grace is enough for me.
Just over a week ago, the Catholic Chaplain let me know that he had secured a priest for a scheduled Mass at which “some” inmates would be initiated into Communion with the Church. This Mass was likely going to begin on a day and time that I am free of my normal parish responsibilities; my own time such as it is in the evening that I spend each week in chapel with the fellahs.
So, after a very beautiful morning school Mass with our kids (who are singing their “amens” and collect responses wonderfully, as well as the Ordinary and songs, I headed cross-state and arrived at the prison with an hour and a half to chill; had a green tea, read a tad of Garry Will’s new book (my bad!) and signed into the prison an hour early. When I got into my yard’s chapel many of the guys were already assembled. Their ensemble consists of an organist on an old Thomas toaster replete with bells/whistles/cheese drums (which are never used!), another keyboard, three guitarists who all sing and a couple of “just singers.” The ethnic mix is generally 50/50 Anglo to Latino regularly, so we all collaborated towards making the repertoire as bilingual as possible. In my previous visits I had also floated the concept that a natural bridge of language has always been in place in God’s wisdom and Church- that being the use of Latin. It’s always enjoyable for me personally when using my pigeon-Spanish to say “LA-teen” to the Hispanic brothers. And they’ve done well with some brief chants and collects. But with short notice and really, more out of respect for each other than political correctness, songs and settings by Bob Hurd, John Schiavone and Jaime Cortez surfaced to consensus quickly. Schiavone’s “Amen: El Cuerpo de Cristo” and Cortez’s “Vayan al mundo” were heartily embraced and sung robustly both in Monday’s chapel and at Mass after only one exposure.
Back to the chronology….
After setting up my music, stand and instrument, greeting most of the regular chapel participants and a few new faces, I sat down to pray quietly. I was seated towards the rear of the small chapel while the keyboards and others were up closer to the altar area.
I had never met the celebrant before, an older Jesuit priest who is the diocesan Social Ministries director, and it occurred to me while praying and meditating I hadn’t gone to confession for over a month. I went out into the hall office area and there were a couple of inmates waiting outside of the office-cum-confessional. I asked if they’d mind if I joined them; no problem. The one thing that keeps this whole thing, for me, real is that I am experiencing very different facets of what “communion” means for catholics behind bars. After the gentleman before me came out of the office an older, “regular” chapel inmate had also sat down in his wheelchair to await confession. He’s been positive for nearly fifteen years and recently mentioned that he stopped taking his daily “cocktail” regimen for HIV/HepC about 10 months ago. He motioned for me to go ahead of him, and I assured him I wouldn’t take long, as confessions before prison Masses can go on for many hours. After reconciliation I noticed that Father and the chaplain had their clerks call certain inmates back into the office. For what reason, I couldn’t surmise; but this is serious business for these men. So serious that the Mass, itself, didn’t begin until nearly an hour and a half after its appointed time. And the chaplain then called me out into the hall; “uh oh, what’s this mean?” I’m thinking. It turned out that the inmates who were going to be fully initiated had already received valid baptism and confirmation sacraments, so would that alter any of our musical plans? “Nope, not at all. We go with the flow” was my unintentionally punned response. Then more and more minutes passed as some men came in and out upon requests and such.
Here’s where the small voice of the messengers spoke to me internally. Here, Charles, you are never watching the clock, never worried about the next task or event. Here, though you have been waiting for over three hours to assist these men with the musical aspects of their liturgy, you are truly at peace with “waiting.” And that realization at once seemed somewhat bittersweet. Was my inner-peacefulness rooted in an authentic identification with these men in koinonia, or was it tempered by some innate convention that knew I could leave those walls and gates at will, and that “waiting” and its eremitic-like peacefulness that washes over me each visit was, therefore, conditional?
The Mass itself….
Started rather abruptly and without a sort of normal “headsup” mentality due to Father’s inadvertent leaving and re-entering the chapel. The clerks had a large whiteboard with the order of music clearly noted, so when it was apparent that Father was now “officially” present we all began Hurd’s VEN AL BANQUETE/COME TO THE FEAST.
What I didn’t mention earlier is that in Monday’s meeting a number of liturgical and theological concerns were discussed in chapel. The most obvious issue of using bi-lingual music was NOT concerned with the ethnic or linguistic facets; this issue was part of a larger fabric of instilling a sense of the sacred dialogues that occur both in scripture and in our Masses. The sharing of each other’s “mother tongue,” in a sense, reaches across both human and divine boundries. I will make this clearer shortly.
After singing the song, Father began with the “In Nomine..” and some brief remarks afterwards after which he segued directly into a spoken “Kyrie/Lord have mercy.” The music leaders had an incredibly beautiful Greek/English setting prepared, so that became moot. However, after a glance toward the lead cantor, we launched into the bilingual Gloria.
The OT reading was proclaimed separately in both English and Spanish, respectively. And then we had chosen Hurd’s “ENVIA TU ESPIRITU” for the psalm (yes, I know it’s a paraphrase!) On Monday I talked to the guys about how and, more importantly, why we were going to structure the singing of this in a particular sequence. Our lead cantor would intone the refrain, as the Psalmist, and then we would respond to that call beyond the ages. The guys are used to singing ALL of every song generally heard in chapel meetings and Masses, so I explained to them that one cantor singing the verses reflects a dialogue with many symbols: God’s Chosen People to the People of the New Covenant, God’s inspiration revealed through the prophets and evangelists, and finally the dialogic communion between heaven and earth that is the whole Eucharistic Celebration. The inmates reached consensus and understanding with much more dispatch than your average RCIA class. And then we structured the other two verses of the Hurd setting so that the Spanish-speaking inmates would sing verse two to the English speakers, and the reverse during verse three.
After the double proclamation of the epistle, the inmates had chosen a Steven Angrisano setting of the Gospel Acclamation.
After Father’s homily, a seemless mixture of English and Spanish reiterations of his major points, he initiated general intercessions which were then opened up into extemporaneous intentions uttered by various inmates.
Then, for me, we entered into a very brief, yet intensely powerful musical moment, the singing of Arguello’s RESUCITO, which I found out very few of them had ever heard prior to the previous Monday. On Monday I taught them the very simple refrain and verses, but went a little further having the English choir singers singing the parallel third above the melody while the Spanish inmates sang the melody. Then I had a couple of other guys join me on singing the parallel on the tonic, creating this primitive but beautiful triadic chorus. When we repeated this at liturgy, the effect was incredible. For those of us who understand the sublime purity of enjoining in unison plainsong chant, I ask that we also consider that these men, who like monks are required to return to their cells on a daily schedule, however do not share the daily ability to meet and labor to unify their worship as do their religious brothers who pray the hours and Mass daily. So, though a three-part singing of a very formulaic song cannot measure up to the demands of effecting pristine chant, the mere joy that was present in their singing with great precision after such little preparation is some sort of revelation or breakthrough for me. What could they do if….? Would they “get it” if they could grow in their abilities with guidance….? But, on its own, RESUCITO, right then and there, was absolute praise to God and His Grace and Power.

Why, then, this wasn't just an afternoon nor an occasion of unstructured waiting...
During the reception of Holy Communion an absolutely beautiful, sacred and holy song was taken up by the inmate choir. This song was one of many written by an inmate, who I understood had no formal musical training prior to his incarceration. Immaculately notated, as he'd learned to take musical dictation from another inmate who was a prolific songwriter, it's components were sophisticated, including use of well crafted homophony AND polyphony, "correct" chordal assignments that were light years from I-vi-ii-V7-I, and inverted chordal assignments that showed an understanding of bass note movement. NONE of that describes the spiritual power and grace of the piece. And even that pales by the realization that this was the fervent result of one man's conversion and decision as to how he was going to "pray ceaselessly" during his time in the desert cells, literally.

In this age of denigration and degradation, it is all to easy to forget that it is not standard operating procedure for believers in Christ to be perpetual cynics, critics and, to some extent, dictators of orthodoxy. The liturgy and music wars that we, myself included, perpetuate upon each other lead to dead ends, spiritually. And it's taken this very brief snapshot from the perspective of felons on the mend to just say to myself: "Pray without ceasing" and to reach for joy in my work rather than other forms of feedback and reward.

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