Thursday, November 25, 2010

ireland, part II: Askeaton and Glenstal

Human lives are essentially not to be summed up,
but to be known, as they are lived,
in many curious partial and inarticulate ways.
(Iris Murdoch)

I was free then until the concert on Monday evening and as planned I took a train down from Dublin to Limerick, to visit Glenstal Abbey, Noirin ni Rian and Brother Emmaus. It broke out into sunshine again as soon as I got on the train, so I was treated to two hours of the most gorgeous view of the Irish countryside heading south and east out of Dublin. Green, flat and more green, some little villages that looked as cookie cutter as Romeoville, Illinois where I grew up as a boy, and some obviously ancient with a crumbly church or cloister in the middle of it, flocks of sheep and flocks of freckly faced T-Bone, Mike and Kathy McGoverns on bicycles. (My good old friends in Phoenix whose father's passing we celebrated just before I left). Noirin had offered to meet me at Limerick Junction, which is by the way in the middle of nowhere in County Tipperary, and nowhere near Limerick.

I was under the impression that Noirin and I had met at one point, and I was a little embarrassed that I couldn't remember her. She is a very well known Irish singer (please see her website), some there say the most well-known singer of Irish music. She has recorded numerous albums, some of them with the monks of Glenstal Abbey (the ones I know the best), some with her two sons and several of course on her own. As it turns out we had never met. She had stayed for a short time with our brothers at Incarnation in Berkeley, and knew me and my music only through them. So we both knew each other only through mutual friends and CDs. But we still greeted each other like old friends, and indeed by now we have many common connections, including Liam Lawton with whom I worked last year and Paul Winter with whom she worked for some years in New York and John Pennington and I will be working with at the Animas Festival in the Spring, and almost everyone I had met at All Hallows and Milltown. She buzzed me right off the Glenstal Abbey, where she has been living for some years as a teacher and sort of artist-in-residence. There the former abbot Christopher, who is now the guest master, guided me off to Midday Prayer in abbey church, followed by another delicious but quick meal in the reception area. Then Noirin had a concert that afternoon in a nearby village and invited me to join her. It sounded like a great opportunity, especially to see her perform, so we were off pretty quickly.

What a great afternoon that was, something I would hazard to say not a lot of tourists might get to take part in. The county Arts Council has commissioned three woman performers, Noirin, an actress and a poet, to do a series of programs in various venues around the county. We were in a little town called Askeaton, in an ancient (and chilly) Church of Ireland, joined by the local woman’s choir, another Arts Council Funded project led by a young woman with a guitar and an African djembe strung around her neck. I just don’t think something like this would happen in rural America. They were all really good, including the women’s chorus, doing mostly African songs and spirituals. The actress was even a little bawdy for an event taking place in a church, but the audience seemed to take it in stride. Noirin also turned over one of her turns to me, as a “special guest from America.” I sang Awakening for them, to rave reviews, and then played guitar with the women’s chorus on their last piece as well.

As evidenced both by some of songs and comments at the event, and affirmed by my conversation with Noirin and others, the thing that is on everybody’s mind is the collapse of the Irish economy. (As a matter of fact, one of the headlines this moring on Yahoo news is, "Ireland on the Verge of Bankruptcy.") The IMF arrived the same day that I did, as at least one person noted, saying, “I hope you have brought us better news.” What may not be so evident to us outsiders is the fact that here, not 100 years after independence, someone else is coming in to make the rules for them and tell them how to handle their economy. Just at the same time that the church has lost its credibility, the politicians have shown themselves unworthy of trust as well. When Bernadette and Michael were showing me around Dublin they were so proud of all the things that the Celtic Tiger had produced in that fair city, the convention center, the beautiful Samuel Beckett Bridge shaped like an Irish harp, and then had to keep adding “before the whole economy collapsed,” with a genuine sadness. Americans were outraged; my impression the Irish were embarrassed, sad and feel betrayed––again.

The biggest beacon of hope though was Glenstal Abbey. They have a new abbot these past two years, Patrick Mark Hederman. Canon law requires that an abbot be an ordained priest as well as a monk in solemn vows (something that we’ve been fighting for years). Mark Patrick was not, and no one considered him even to be a candidate for abbot. But that is who the community chose, and so he was ordained and installed. He is a philosopher and an English professor by avocation, reportedly an enthralling speaker, and an author. Before I left I was given a book of his and I read half of it on the plane coming home––The Underground Cathedral. Because it was so unexpected, both he and others consider his election to be the work of the Holy Spirit, and he seems rather fearless because of that in pursuing a new vision of what a monastery can be. Indeed, more than one person told me that they thought that the solution for the church in Ireland was to come from the monasteries and monasticism, and particularly held up Glenstal as an example. Mark Patrick’s vision, as articulated in an earlier book called Walkabout, Life as Holy Spirit, is centered around the arts, in which he dreams that Glenstal could become

a place where the abbot and the community help the artist to anchor the altar. The monastery becomes a place where artists hope to tie whatever kite they happen to be flying to a firm and stable anchor. The monastery as a silent hub of that firework display which art and culture need to scatter with reckless flamboyancy into the night.

A medieval vision come true.

The thing that strikes me is that these folks, unlike many church leaders in America, do not seem to be afraid of the long arm of Rome and the conservative climate of theological debate in the church, which has been increasingly more the response and reaction of the American Catholic hierarchy. Maybe this fearlessness is not as wide spread in Ireland as it seemed to me, having only met a select group of people, or maybe the Irish just feel as if they have nothing left to lose––the churches are empty and the hierarchy has let them down––and they are quite willing to envision the whole thing in a new way.

I had a wonderful long visit with Brother Emmaus when I got back, who was a member of our community in Big Sur for some years before returning to Ireland and now re-doing his novitiate there at Glenstal. Besides being a wonderful and prolific artist, he is far more articulate, well read and insightful than many people would have known from his time with us, since he is also rather shy. He situates the problem with not being able to keep a foot firmly planted in a tradition that one loves and respects and doesn’t need to deconstruct or destroy, while reaching prophetically into the future. Case in point, the abuse crisis in Ireland, which comes up often in The Underground Cathedral. When Abbot Mark was interviewed on television, the interviewer immediately latched right on to his critiques of the former archbishop of Dublin (and “Ruler of Catholic Ireland,” as he is known), John McQuaid, and the part he played in covering up the abuses. But Abbot Mark wouldn’t take that bait and made the point firmly, as he does in the book, the Archbishop McQuaid too was not just a product but also a victim of the system, and that everyone was complicit in perpetuating the system. This includes the laity who turned a blind eye to the corruption of absolute power and were content with “the semblance of unity through the invention and imposition of an idea of unsullied Irishness” which the Irish author Peggy O’Brien says was really an “ersatz racial purity” through a particular brand of Catholicism that resulted in “cultural xenophobia.” Ouch. Obviously there is something to be said for conservatism and I have my own streaks of it, but that could describe conservatism at its worse in any country. I was thinking this is also the potential danger of something like the strikingly mostly-white Tea Party and its marriage to certain forms of evangelical Christianity and conservative Catholicism. We must be careful of cultural xenophobia and attempts to protect our own ersatz super race.

The next morning I got a wonderful tour of the abbey complex from a Brother Colmàn, who is a medievologist (isn’t that a word?). The abbey is built around a Victorian era mock castle that an wealthy Anglo-Irish family built in the 19th century, modeled after Windsor Castle. (Noirin told me as we pulled in, “They were hoping Queen Victoria would come to visit.”) There is a tragic story of why they abandoned the property. Their daughter was engaged to an English officer, and one day while they were driving back to the castle together in his car in his car, the daughter was wearing his captain’s hat, and an anti-British sniper shot her, mistaking her for him, and then shot him as well. The family left in grief and despair. The monks have been there since the early 20th century, and have turned the castle into a boarding school for boys worthy of comparisons with Hogwarts, and built the monastery around it. Someone also donated a large collection of valuable icons to the monastery for which they have built a crypt chapel that is kept locked and dimly lit. Everyone had told me to be sure to get a tour of it and Colmàn, who is an expert on the icons there, ushered me in and let me stay for a good long visit.

After that I did a presentation for the school. There is a pretty serious choir––meaning the director, Fr Columba, teaches them a classical sacred music repetoire––of about 40 members, but he set me loose with them for about 50 minutes. And I did what I do with my guitar on a chair in the middle of a great room––I told stories and sang songs, focusing almost entirely on songs that had participation. The boys sang along wonderfully and seemed to enjoy the program. Three monks and Noirin sat through it all as well. I was delightfully thinking of three levels of meaning to presentations such as that: hopefully I am giving them a little taste of some pretty good music, singing, guitar playing and songwriting; but I get to tell them about other religious traditions, and more and more I get to tell them about other parts of the world, India, Lebanon, France. I keep remembering that comment from the woman in Tetbury, “We are so parochial.” We all of us are. And I keep remembering Maalouf’s solution to the crisis of identity in our modern age, to encourage local culture through language, art and even cuisine on the one hand, but also to encourage a sense of belonging to the global village, even to be able to enjoy the technological highway that connects us and use it as a way of building this universal community. As I’ve been saying as an introduction to “The Ground We Share,” I want to help people realize that the ground we share is our basic humanity, the human condition.

Mass and another quick delicious lunch, and then I had another luxurious train ride back up north to Dublin. I had one final concert that night at the Milltown Institute. I was glad to see a lot of familiar faces from Saturday and I felt a sense of satisfaction and closure bringing an end to this five-week odyssey that arched from Lebanon to Ireland.

I was happy to see my cold cold little cabin for a night, but I came right down to be with the brothers at Big Sur for Thanksgiving, which seemed very appropriate to let some of this sink in. The jet lag isn’t too bad, and at least has made it possible for me to finish these blog entries and try to start to make it through a pile of e-mail. I’ll add a couple of more little tidbits perhaps if I get the chance. I’m still trying to process it all myself and see what sticks and what morphs and what will come out of it all. With thanks for all, wishing you and all our friends around the world well today and tomorrow and tomorrow.