31 August, 2019
The fact of praising a human and religious tradition does not mean despising the others. The synthesis between all of them can seem improbable and sometimes even impossible, but that which is urgent and important is not the unity between the religions, but their harmony. (R. Pannikar)
Oh my goodness. I almost don’t know where to begin. It was a wild and wonderful time in Sicily, not without its challenges, but still…
It started out with an overnight train trip to Palermo from Rome. I had made this train trip before, 20 years ago, but during the day, and I remember it being one of my favorite trips ever, seeing the northern coast of Sicily at dawn; crossing the Straits of Messina in a huge ferry boat––the entire train entering in; hugging the Mediterranean coastline; getting accosted by vendors in Napoli; finally my young (at the time) confrere Natale hanging off a column waiting for me and waving when I arrived for the first time at Roma Termini that night. This time, not much excitement: an overnight trip in a little cucetta with three berths shared with one guy who had no desire to talk and then a long bus ride in the dark from Messina to Palermo. It was again exciting to cross the straits and I was impressed even more this time at how close the mainland and the island are to each other. We had arrived at the crossing point around 4:30 AM, so by the time we got the train loaded on the traghetto and started across, the first hints of dawn were slipping in.
I was greeting at the train station in Palermo by Fr. Eraldo Cacchione, S.J., who had been my main contact for this conference. We had met once, he reminded me, 10 years ago at New Camaldoli, but I had no recollection of that. The only other meeting of sorts was over WhatsApp from Florence and scores of emails. He and another Jesuit, who I had met several times including once in India, Fr. Fausto Gianfreda, S.J. are the organizers of this now-annual conference called “Zipoli: Corso di Formazione alla Spiritualità nell Musicà,” a course of formation in spirituality in music. They had invited me to come already for the first and second editions of this conference (this was the third) in 2017, but it was impossible for me to get away at the time. When I was plotting this sabbatical, the first thing I thought of was being able to participate in this edition of it, and I let them know right away. However, in addition to offering a conference myself (more on that in a minute), Eraldo then asked me to organize all the liturgies for the week too. That was quite a job, first of all in Italian and secondly doing it long distance, flying blind. In the end Eraldo and his team put together a beautiful Vademecum booklet with the music tha I had put together for the four Lauds’ and three Vespers’ services, in addition to some music for Eucharist.
I really didn’t get the full scope of this event, nor my part in it, until I got here. The participants were college-aged young people (18 to 25, a great age to work with as far as I am concerned), and a relatively small group of them––this year we started out with 15 and in the end there were only 10! They (we) lived together for the week in a state sponsored dorm that was right next to the Jesuit church and residence in a noisy little neighborhood known as Ballarò. It has been a Muslim area for well over a thousand years and still boasts of a rambling open air market––Eraldo referred to it as a souk, in fact. When I was in Palermo with Mom and Dad in 1999, one of the memories I have is of a friend of our cousins driving me to various spots in his Fiat 500, stopping the car and then telling me, ‘Vai, fai in giro––Go walk around,” while he sat in the car smoking. I didn’t speak much Italian at the time and had no idea what I was looking for or looking at. And at one point he brought me to an open market that was actually kind of startling to me in all its foreign chaos. And I have a feeling that this was the same market.
My first hours with Eraldo were spent going over the week and the music for the liturgies, and then getting a quick tour of the most important venues. They had chosen several different sites throughout the city, all within walking distance, for the various presentations, plus we were going to have our regular liturgies of the hours in a little chapel a half a block away, called the Capella delle Dame–the chapel of the Ladies. It’s a fusty little place that is the home of a congregation of noble woman who minister to girls and young women who get brought over to Sicily under nefarious pretenses and often wind up in prostitution or other forms of human trafficking. The chapel and its antechambers, which are filled with Baroque accoutrements, is usually closed up and rarely used, so someone from the congregation had to come and open for us at the arranged times. They were very sweet and welcoming. The space worked well enough for us though it was very hot and airless inside, and I, wearing my choir robe for the liturgies, was usually drenched in sweat by the end. We then went to the site for my own presentation, which was to be the first of the week the next morning. That was my first gasp.
I have read quite a bit about the confluence of cultures in Sicily around the dawn of the first millennium and was very anxious to see some of the spots I had read about. To summarize a very complicated history: in the 9th century, the Byzantine Greeks on the island were feuding with their counterparts back in Constantinople over some political issues (power and money) and so they asked for some help from the Berber, Arab, Persian, and Iberian Muslims from Carthage, what we know as Tunisia in northern Africa, with whom they had already had a trading relationship for some time. (Side note: I was corrected by someone the other day who said that it was a misnomer to refer to it as simply Arab influence, when there was this mixture of tribes, though most books do refer to it as such. This gentleman said it was much more accurate to refer to it as Muslim or Islamic.) That “help” from the north African Muslims turned into a Muslim-Arabic takeover of much of the island in the 9th and 10th centuries. In records from that time Palermo itself (then known as Bal’harm) was often referred to as the medina, “the city” and was one of the largest and wealthiest Arab cities along with Baghdad and Cordoba. A number of churches were converted to mosques, but in keeping with the teaching of the Qur’an a great degree of religious tolerance prevailed. There was also a significant Jewish presence on the island and large Jewish quarters in both Palermo and Siracusa. The Arabs brought with them a high degree of learning, erudition and innovation, which melded into the literacy and education of the Byzantines and Jews. Not unlike pre-15th century Spain, it seems to have been a golden era.
That era was followed by the Norman conquest in the 12th century. The Normans were an amalgamation of Vikings, Franks, Romans, and Celts who spoke an ancient dialect of French. They had already made their presence felt throughout northern Europe and England. This was also the time of William the Conqueror, and just after the great schism in Christianity that separated East from West, so-called Greek Orthodox from Roman Catholic. It must be said that the remaining Byzantines in Sicily were happier under Islamic rule that they were about the prospect of submitting to Rome and losing their rituals and beliefs. Strange bedfellows, but at this point at least, just as under Islamic rule, there was still religious and cultural tolerance. And this is the period I was so fascinated with, many traces of which remain. As a placard that I saw at several points around the city describes it, Arab-Norman Palermo is “an outstanding example of a socio-cultural syncretism between Western, Byzantine and Islamic culture,” an “interchange which gave rise to an architectural and artistic expression based on new concepts of space, structure and decoration that spread widely throughout the Mediterranean region.” Nine religious and civic buildings from this era in Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù are considered UNESCO sites.
All that to say Eraldo then took me to the site where I was to present/perform the next day. And to my delight and astonishment, it was one of the places I had wanted to see, Santa Cristina. Built in 1174, it’s one of the oldest churches in Palermo. Its architecture is very sober and austere, and it has almost no interior decorations. That’s what marks what is known as the Arab-Norman style. It was known as a place that welcomed pilgrims, Sicily being a stopping point on the way to the Holy Land. As a matter of fact the street it is on is still known as the Cortile dei Pellegrini. In addition this church was for a time the abbey church of a group of Cistercian monks. Needless to say, I was delighted that this was going to be my venue. The typical Sicilian style that I was to see over and over again is pretty overwrought high Baroque style with every inch of wall space covered with something, and lots of anguished holy faces. This chaste Romanesque style, always my favorite ever since I studied art history, was like a drink of cool water after a salty meal, and I was glad to be able to experience it several times during my days here.
I had that evening before the conference started to myself, walking up and down the centro storico, many of whose main streets are blocked off from traffic so as to accommodate the throngs of tourists. My host later at the B&B in Bisacquino, who is a Palermitano himself, told me that it is only in recent years that Palermo has cleaned up this area so as to cater to tourism. When he was a boy––less than twenty years ago––it was not so. I heard every version of opinion about this development. One man told me that the Sicilians don’t do enough to promote tourism when there is such a cultural treasure there. Another said that the Sicilians are glad to have all this tourism as a boost to the economy. On the other hand I saw a poster around the corner from the dorm complaining about the raised prices, lack of affordable housing, and abundance of franchises over local businesses.
The next morning I had to jump right in, head first. We had morning prayer at 8 AM at the Capella delle Dame. I had not yet met the kids but I had to lead them in a brief rehearsal of the music, sight unseen, in Italian. I had spent a good part of the early morning rehearsing how to say things like “Now you try” and “Listen and then repeat” and “A little louder” and “Turn to page 3” in second person plural. Like my stilted conversation about guitars a week before, it’s amazing what vocabulary you take for granted. It went fine. I had decided to try to bring in all kinds of “chant” for these liturgies, mirroring our theme of multiculturalism, and this first day, besides a couple of easy chanting tones, I had opted to begin and end morning and evening prayer with the nama japas from Shantivanam and the collection “Hare Yeshu.” They picked them up easily, thanks be to God, though they were looking at me a little mystified.
We then went right over to Santa Cristina where I was to offer my presentation, which as I said, was the first of the week. By now it was clear to me what the concept was, but of course I had not idea what was going to follow. Each presentation was to follow the format of an hour and a half of presenting the material, a brief pause, followed by a period of questions and/or a summary, ideally lasting two and a half hours. (Two and a half hours!)
I realize that we Americans really are quite literalists, and I had laid my presentation out exactly––and I mean exactly––as they had asked me to: to speak on music in Benedictine formation; the sound of the Spirit in my spiritual and vocal chords; inter-religious dialogue; music and California; and the various genres from folk to Gregorian chant; and to make it autobiographical as well and to perform for and with the students. The title of my presentation was “From Liturgy to the Religions of the World.” Needless to say I was over-prepared as usual; I had twelve pages of notes typed up. To sum up I spoke on how the music I listened to outside of church influenced the music that I wrote for the liturgy, as part of the wave of music that came out post-conciliar in the attempt to find a musical vernacular to go with our vernacular language, and my specific voice in all that. And then how my background in liturgy and liturgical spirituality (this is something our beloved Bruno used to tell me about myself) helped me in my approach to interreligious dialogue.
I am happy to report it went extraordinarily well. Eraldo and Fausto had done a pretty long introduction since this was the first presentation, so I was actually cheated out of a half an hour and I had to cut two songs and some spoken material, otherwise I think I had exactly the right amount. Every now and then I would stop and ask, ‘Si capisce il mio italiano? Do you understand my Italian?” And they kept saying enthusiastically, ‘Si, si!’, me all the while being rather surprised. The questions were very penetrating and right to the point. Looking back I think there were two things that were especially good about it. First, out of all the presentations, not only did I have the most musical examples mixed into the speaking, but I was certainly the only one that had participation. (It was the best performance of “The Drink Sent Down” ever, with the students singing the alhamdullilah ostinato throughout.) Secondly, again looking back, I really did inadvertently set the tone for what was to come afterward and would be reaffirmed by the final presenter on Sunday morning, Raffaele Pozzi, who spoke on “Music and Spirituality in the Global World.”
One of the things that keep coming to my mind is that I do very few gigs anymore but the ones I do usually take a lot of preparation. I don’t mind this a bit––it’s like going deep rather than wide. The two that I accepted for this sabbatical time, for instance: the opening event for the International Thomas Merton Society took me many hours of reflecting, research, writing, and rehearsing over the course of several months; and this one, even more, with the addition of preparing and sometimes re-scoring and/or translating and adapting all the music for the liturgies besides writing the talk, took even more. And what a sense of satisfaction when they are done. I hope that both of them will have a permanent format at some point: we’ve talked about filming a version of the ITMS presentation and Eraldo said that they want to gather the talks from Zipoli in some kind of a publication. (Italians love to publish things!) But even more, I hope I get to repeat these performances in an appropriate venue.
I’ll write more about the rest of the conference and the time in Sicily later, but before I forget: I just heard that two new “products” (such a crass word) are at the printers/duplicators even as I write and will be available hopefully by the time I get home. First, the film of the concert that we did at Holy Cross in Santa Cruz last year, thanks to the amazing work of Devin Kumar (Bhattacharya); second, the book Hermit, Preacher, Wanderer: Songs and Stories from the Road, which I am so excited about, from OCP. That contains not only the sheet music for twenty of the songs from the Santa Cruz-wandering era, but also prose explanations of the songs and the traditions that they come from, plus photos and excerpts from my travelogues. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. So please watch for them both.
I'm taking the guys out for pizza again tonight as a thank you, and then leaving from Rome tomorrow morning for the long journey home. I will try to write more along the way.