Sunday, October 10, 2010

He Who Sings Prays Twice; But Pray for the Dead and the Dead Will Pray For You

Every once in a while, my dear wife lampoons me modestly with a truthful barb. She sometimes refers to me as a 'bardic whore.' And I have to agree. Sometimes I have had the urge to print 'Have Voice, Will Travel' on business cards I keep handy to pass out when it looks like I could become a potential soloist, especially for liturgical functions. I blend in well with the surroundings, and I am not the main guest of honor. After years of doing so, the job or ministry (take your pick) suits me.

The line "he who sings, prays twice" is attributed to (Saint) Augustine of Hippo, one of the ancient Church fathers. He was the living example of Luke's 'prodigal' or wayward son, but ultimately had a conversion experience and became the writer of his time. Augie was apparently used to the idea of music in liturgy, even if it moved in and out of favor over the course of Church history.

But I digress. Over the years, thanks to the friendship and collaboration with other good church musicians, I have roots, as it were, in several places. Perhaps the single person most responsible for spreading the seed that established those roots is my friend Mike.

I have not given Mike enough credit; neither for the extent of his musical accomplishments, nor the pain and endurance that comes with the territory. To that I will write here that in my mind he is one of the top five greatest people I will probably know and work with in my lifetime. Because of that, I would do just about anything for him. He's been very considerate of my own situation and doesn't ask as much as he might have otherwise.

Mike and I share one ideal. As Christians, and especially as Christian musicians, we are all brothers and sisters in Jesus. Denominational boundaries are occasionally discussed, and we recognize that there are differences, but we accept them rather than tear down each other in futile quests to determine whose spiritual path is better.

As a musician, Mike has given several recitals over the years to showcase his own talents. Still, he recognizes that there is more than that to showcase. For the last year or so he attempted to put together a choral festival of sorts, featuring choirs from three churches. It looked like it was going to happen. At the end of this past  summer a date had finally been set, actual pieces of music were being discussed, the location of the concert had been agreed to and consent given, and I looked forward to it. The event was supposed to have taken place this afternoon.

Unfortunately, the plans were scrubbed about three weeks ago. See, this is Columbus Day weekend, a 'holiday' for students and bankers, and about the same time the peak of fall color is in our area. It was the director of music at the church which was to host the event who pulled out, claiming too many people were going to be out of town this particular weekend. I'm of Italian descent and the only reason I have a holiday is because I arranged to use 2 days' vacation time to shove around priorities so I could be free to attend the dress rehearsal and the concert itself.

Now ordinarily if someone canceled plans I would go back and resume my normal weekend routine. But as I had scheduled time off, and (miracle of miracles!) the weather was cooperating, my dear wife and I agreed that this would be a good time for another mini-break.

Our last, the first week in July in the Smokies, did not turn out as recharging as hoped for. I describe some of the experience in a previous post here. But what I didn't say then (because it was unknown at the time) that has been bothering me since was something else I brought home as a souvenir. Chiggers.

In consideration for the comfort of my family, while parked at the old Methodist Church in Cades Cove, a few of the nasty insects decided to make the floor of my new car their new home. From the time we returned until now, I have been affected by chigger bites, and I've suffered worse than average allergic reactions to them. It took this long to understand the source of the trouble because we weren't completely certain it was a cause to consider.

But again I digress. There were some things we wanted to do over this time as well, things we do this time of year, things that have affected who I am and what I do.

As a church musician, and one who has flexible hours to boot, I often sing at funeral services. This has had some very interesting side effects, stuff I won't go into great detail. But as a result I have become a fan, as it were, of another of the ancient Church leaders: Saint Benedict.

What I originally knew of Benedict, a 6th Century priest, was that he was the founder of the monastic movement. What I didn't know until recently is that Benedict is the patron saint of a peaceful or 'happy' death. My wife recommended that I wear a St. Benedict medal when visiting my mom at the nursing home or when attending a wake or funeral, so one of the planned stops was at a Catholic shrine and gift shop to stock up.

Also this weekend was a visit to the gravesites of our family ancestors. This ritual began for me not long after I met my wife, nearly 30 years ago. Every spring we would take her grandmother out to weed and decorate the family graves. It was an elaborate ritual that included going to a nearby nursery to load the car with geraniums - so many of a specific color which had significance. When her grandmother died 23 years ago, my wife and I more or less inherited the role of gravekeepers. And it's not such a bad thing. Despite what Hollywood and the thriller writers hit you with, cemeteries are generally very peaceful places. There is energy there, reminders of the lives of those whose remains are buried or remembered there; but it's not there to scare you (unless, of course, you want to be scared).

On occasion I would drive through the cemetery - at those times I was in my dress clothes for Sunday Mass and I didn't have time to do much other than acknowledge that without their lives, I would not have mine. Today, though, was the opportunity to linger in the spirit of the coming All Saints Day - also known as All Hallows; and its vigil, All Hallows' Eve, known more colloquially as Halloween.

I had forgotten what happens in modern cemeteries, with flat headstones designed so that groundskeepers can mow grass more efficiently. The headstones get covered up; some of them sink ever so slightly. I had trouble finding the graves of my wife's grandparents; they had become victims of nature and the lawn mowing. My wife can't move as well as she used to, and we weren't necessarily prepared for what we encountered; so I got down on my hands and knees and began to rip clumps of grass and dirt from the earth, and dug with a dinner spoon in an attempt to clear away the headstones to the best of my ability. It was mine to do, and will be mine as long as I am able - after all, this is a prerequisite. One must join in the dance of the dead in order to effectively console the survivors among the living. As macabre as that might sound, it is really not so at all. It is extending a bond that you began when both were living, and I see it as an investment toward my own afterlife.
Catholics believe in the intercession of the community of saints, those who have gone before us. And I have recently been reminded in other ways just how much God can multiply the smallest of efforts. It has been routine, especially since my father-in-law and my grandmother died in recent years, to remember them in my prayer time.

So I beg forgiveness among the living who today were expecting to hear my singing voice. I was really needed elsewhere. Everything is fine, and will be fine.

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