Saturday, December 6, 2008

the time of the end is the time of no room

Let him quit his native land
and leave the region where he is well known.
He recalls his own bliss,
which is like the thrill of recovering a forgotten object.
Like a thief released from jail,
let him forsake sons, close relatives,
and his birthplace, and live far away.
Naradaparivrajaka Upanishad
So, I gotta tell you about this gig. I’m in South Bend Indiana, yes, the home of Notre Dame. As a matter of fact I am staying at Moreau Seminary of the Holy Cross congregation, a huge architecturally rather cold building built in the late 1950’s when it was thought there were going to be a gazillion seminarians forever. I seem to have been here (South Bend, Notre Dame) quite a few times the past few years. It feels pretty comfortable.

I am here due to Mike Baxter. He’s an old friend––we know each other from Phoenix in the ‘80’s. He came as a deacon of the Order of the Holy Cross to St. Louis the King Parish in Glendale, AZ when I had just returned from my year in San Francisco and Portland, and Dale Fushek had hired me again to play for a “teen Mass” there. I was in a kind of bardo, just about to transition out my rock ‘n roll phase into what the late ‘80’s would be for me (another story), but at the time I was still a rocker doing liturgical music. It was when I wrote “Rejoice” and “Eternal,” those forays in liturgical reggae, all leading up to recording “The Message Goes Forth,” and before I had my “conversion” away from all that style for liturgy, pre-Pennington days.

Baxter also was in town to found and run Andre House, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in downtown Phoenix. He is the real deal when it comes to all that, a pacifist, well-read, totally devoted to the poor, at the time more of a proponent of liberation theology which was pretty new to us all. I myself was heading into my what I call “neo-con” phase, getting adopted into a group of guys who were force feeding me G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, the Wanderer (an extreme right wing Catholic newspaper), of course the writings of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Hitchcocks of St. Louis, even the Cardinal Mendzety Foundation, an extreme right-wing anti-Commuist group headed up by one of the Schaffley sisters. (Remind me to tell you about going to one of their meetings sometime…) When I first met Baxter I hadn’t yet completely succumbed to the right wing influence and he represented for me a real burst of inspiration.

I had spent one of the most influential years of my life in Chicago the year after high school living with some radical Franciscans who were also associated with the Catholic Worker in Chicago. I often credit them with teaching me about the spiritual life and prayer and simplicity. Nothing else I experienced after that had ever moved me enough to really grab my allegiance until I found New Camaldoli, certainly not the seminary environment at St. Meinrad, nothing really about St. Jerome’s parish for whom I worked on and off for four years, or my work with Dale and the teens, nothing really about NALR, the liturgical music company I was beginning to record and publish with. I was willing enough to work for them all, do music for them mainly, but I was never on fire. Not only that, I was nowhere near having any kind of a spirituality of my own. But Baxter re-kindled a tiny fire in me.

My favorite image of us in those days was riding around downtown Phoenix in one of Andrè House’s beat up big old pick up trucks, Bruce Springsteen blaring on the cassette player (“Born in the USA” which was Baxter’s favorite at the time), picking up supplies for the kitchen, both of us smoking. (Somehow it didn’t seem incongruous to me at the time…) I didn’t hobnob with the community at the house much but I liked being in the background, washing dishes or peeling carrots, doing fund-raising concerts and hanging out with Baxter. And I liked serving on the soup line. One of my favorite memories of Holy Week is from there. Baxter was gone but Fitz, the other Holy Cross priest who was stationed there was celebrating Holy Saturday in the back yard of Andrè House. We used the food preparation table for an altar, and Fitz told this great story about when he was a young boy, an altar server. He had to carry the new Easter fire from the church over to the convent for the nuns across the parking lot on a windy night, and make sure it didn’t blow out. And that’s us, he said, “We’re the ones who have to carry the fire, across the windy parking lots.” Baxter also got me reading Merton for the first time; he gave me “Raids on the Unspeakable,” an essay from which––“The Time of the End is the Time of No Room”––gave me an idea for perhaps the best song lyric I’ve ever written, recorded with LUKE St., called “Room for Me.” The only time I sing it now is when I do something for him, as I will tonight.

That was also the era when I put together LUKE St., by the way, my non-Christian-rock Christian rock band. I talked through a lot of the lyrics with Baxter, Flannery O’Connor-Thomas Merton-C.S. Lewis inspired lyrics, wanting to do with rock ‘n roll what Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy did with short stories and novels. As a matter of fact the first name for the band was Wiseblood, after O’Connor’s short story of the same name, until we found out that someone already had taken that name for their band.

I also had some idea about moving in with them there at Andrè House, but I was already heading into my introverted hermit days, I guess, and all that hubbub around the place seemed like too much for me and my music and study (I was finishing by BA). I did coax my friend Gary to move in with them for a short time instead. Baxter and I had a kind of a minor falling out, mainly due to my new conservative friends. I think the friendship eventually really just slowly eroded. He and they at Andrè House were getting pretty far out there (at one point Baxter was touring Central America with Daniel Ortega!) and my friends did not approve. They had some kind of a big fight, and that was the last straw. As one priest said to me, a very conservative one, mind you, “So you stopped doing the corporal works of mercy due to an ideological disagreement?” Yes, and one I didn’t necessarily agree with on top of it.

Anyway, some years into my time at New Camaldoli we somehow got into contact again, and have remained so on and off ever since. He went on to do his doctorate under Stanley Hauerwas at Duke University (after the latter was driven out of Notre Dame by the “ruling liberal elite”…) and then came back to Notre Dame himself as a professor of ethics. His placement here was not without controversy. The same “ruling liberal elite” did not want Baxter part of the faculty because they deemed him too… hmm, I don’t know what to call it. Not exactly conservative though he is a real defender of orthodoxy. Their big issue, if I recall correctly, was that he was saying (after Hauerwas) that American religious liberalism had sold out to the left wing of the American political spectrum and had lost its prophetic edge. That didn’t go over well. When he was denied a faculty post, the president of Notre Dame, exercising his right as a Holy Cross overseer, appointed him anyway. That’s when the controversy broke. Richard McBrien, a well-known liberal writer who is on faculty here, was particularly incensed by the whole thing. It got national attention, etc. etc. It all died down some years ago, but it was right around then that Baxter and I got back in touch. He went on to become a very popular professor here, and to found a Catholic Worker house here as well.

About four years ago Baxter left Holy Cross, and has subsequently been laicized, but carries on as a professor and as head of a burgeoning Catholic Worker community, with three houses and a drop-in center, most of which are legally under his name. (It was quite an experience to go into a bank with him today.) He is a great embodiment of what I remember to be that Catholic Worker ethos, combining intellectualism with hands-on down and dirty life with the poorest of the poor. He keeps an office on campus but lives in one of the three houses. And that’s what brings me here, to do a fund-raiser for them, for him.

I have too admit (surprise, surprise) I don’t like most church environments, liberal or conservative––parish offices, religious education centers, retreat houses, liturgy or music conventions, monasteries, seminaries. I can’t really say why without being uncharitable and judgmental, and the problem is probably more mine than anyone else’s. But it’s undeniable; I don’t like hanging around church much, or at least what “church” has become in America. And yet, as I sat at the CW last night having dinner with the crowd––half community members and half guests (the latter meaning usually homeless folks who are being offered hospitality)––and as I hung out in the drop-in center this morning washing dishes and making coffee, I was perfectly at ease. That is really my kind of church like almost no other environment. How do I forget that? I was transported easily back thirty-two years ago to uptown Chicago to the Worker there and to our Wednesday night open house meals for which I used to cook stuffed cabbage and apple pie, or to the soup line downtown Phoenix twenty years ago on a rainy winter night watching the folks go by with Hefty trash bags wrapped around them to keep dry. I think that it is amazing that my own ethos is not that much different from what it was when I was 18 years old. I am still looking for the same thing in my life and my environment, simplicity, directness, a radical commitment to the Gospel, integrity, and a certain eschewing of middle class comfort, which can be stifling and sometimes mistaken and/or substituted for authentic spiritual values.

Anyway, all that to present this in context… This is the song, inspired by Baxter and the soup line that rainy night around Christmas of 1986, and that Merton essay from “Raids on the Unspeakable,” a song which I will per force sing tonight in our fund-raising concert with the Notre Dame Folk Choir right there at Our Lady of the Road Drop-in Center in South Bend.

From where I stand––my feet in mud
and my Hefty rain coat tied around me fast––
I can see a skyline stretching out
across the dusk
(the windows sparkle like stars!).
Now I don’t mean to sound bitter––
I’m just tired and confused––
but how come there’s always room for all these
buildings in the sky
and there is no room for me?

I seen the news the other night from a
sidewalk outside the pawn shop over on 3rd Street;
and I know this land is the best there is,
but there’s just one thing that keeps on bothering me:
I’m really not unpatriotic––
I’m just tired and confused––
but how come there’s always room to build more
factories for war
when there is no room for me?

I feel like that baby who,
asleep in his mother’s womb,
wandered the streets of Bethlehem
when there wasn’t any room.

Ev’ry night I lie awake
and I pray the Lord my soul to take,
but then I wake up with the dawn.
Since I do, I carry on and
wait for the day when the trumpet sounds that’s gonna
bring home all of the exiles,
‘cuz there’s a place that’s just for the poor folks
where the milk and the honey flow,
and when we get past these jaws of hell
I guess that’s where we’ll go,
and there will be room for me.

post-script: I am temporarily stuck in the South Bend airport. I (stupidly) missed my early bus to Chicago, hopefully to grab the next one, in the middle of a snowstorm. But it feels good to be with my backpack and guitar waiting for a bus right now. A fitting context for these days.

It was a great evening last night, Mass, dinner and concert at the drop in center. There was a wonderful mix of people (by the end about 200), a nice mix of sacred and secular, the ND Folk Choir were shining and the pieces we did together were quite fun and energetic, my own set went awfully well, a great blend of songs I really wanted to sing in a great setting. That combination has a subtle magic to it. I enjoyed especially the interaction with the young people whether from the choir or the community members of the Catholic Worker. They are many of them so eager to learn, hear stories and find alternative models upon which to base their spiritual searches.

One last thought: the Catholic Worker folks, not unlike "professional" religious, choose voluntary poverty, and often actually live it much more than most of us professed religious. Why would you choose to live something that other people are trying to escape, and live with the people who are trying to escape it? And, reading the Sannyasa Upanishads (one quoted above), it is that same strange symmetry, that the sannyasi has no place to call home. And so it is good to associate with the homeless, to remind us of these things. I hope Dorothy would have been pleased with us, and maybe Fr. Louie, too

"The time of the end is the time of no room."