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St Ignatius offers a dead stick-Cross to St Hildegard, and the Holy Child Jesus to be blessed and “greened”
(detail from the bottom panel of “Viriditas: Finding God In All Things”)
“To sing is to pray twice.”
Attributed to St Ambrose or to St Augustine
“We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home... A musical performance softens hard hearts, leads in the humor of reconciliation, and summons the Holy Spirit.”
St Hildegard of Bingen
“He was greatly devoted to the Most Holy Trinity, and everyday he prayed to each of the Three Persons ... One day, as he was saying the Hours of Our Lady on the monastery steps, his understanding was raised on high, so as to see the Most Holy Trinity under the aspect of three musical keys on a musical instrument, and as a result he shed many tears and sobbed so strongly that he could not control himself.”
The Autobiography of St Ignatius (#28)
Everyone knows that the utter beauty of Ignatian Spirituality includes the challenge of “finding God In all things.” I say challenge because his spirituality in not a “leave the world or the world is evil,” spirituality but you are sent out as disciples to find God In All people, in all of creation. Even if you live in downtown Boston, Manhattan or get the miraculous opportunity to live in the spirit-haunted and devastatingly beautiful Taos.
Music. Music. I’ve wanted to write a bit about how much music affects me and I presume most of humankind. I could live without television, but not without music. That seems odd for an obviously visual person, but I’ve always had an allergy to tv, I feel like the Native people who used to say a photo steals their soul. I’ve felt that way about tv since childhood. It doesn’t mean I don’t watch It, but if I watch too much I feel like I’ve eaten a massive amount of not very good food. But I don’t want to get too snobby about tv because I have a friend who is chronically ill and tv helps him; it distracts him from the pain. And my housemate watches a dabl channel of British house sales in the most beautiful countrysides.
My Mother always had 78’s playing (before we moved when I was five) as she did her house chores, she loved Perry Como, Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney, and at Christmas time, Mario Lanza. I have a vivid memory of us picking up my brother Steve at Regis High and hearing Perry Como sing the magical “Catch A Falling Star.” My brother Steve had a swing band, full orchestra and a jazz combo when I was growing up, he played the piano and my brother Bob played trumpet. I’d sit on the basement steps and listen to them play Dave Brubeck, or Duke Ellington and other 30’s and 40’s hits like “Blue Moon” ,”Young At Heart,” or “If They Asked Me I could Write A Book.” These songs “led me right to my record player” a Christmas gift I got when I was 11. All alone I thought, (my sisters tell me they know the words to every song I played) I’d listen to the Ray Conniff Singers, Johnny Mathis, Nancy Wilson, the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary , and the incomparable Joan Baez. When I was a freshman in high school, my friend Stephanie called me and said turn on the radio right now ! It was Barbra Streisand singing “People.” That year also the British Invasion occurred and on the way home from school I made my brother Bob stop at a record store so I could get “Meet the Beatles.” I often say Barbra got me through high school as she emoted for me, sang my sorrow, on “Ma Premiere Chanson,” and let out my anger for me on “Where Am I Going ?” She was fiercely determined and early on faced a lot of negativity for her looks. I remember people saying she’s great if you don’t have to look at her, and then she turned around everyone’s concept of beauty. I’d sing with her at the top of my voice when I thought nobody was home. One day I was harmonizing with her on “Just In Time,” and when I finished, I heard clapping downstairs. Cringing and red faced I saw one of Steve’s friends standing at the foot of the stairs grinning and clapping. I don’t think any straight boys were singing with Barbra, so the cat was out of the bag, though later all my friends told me “We always knew.”
The Beatles seemed to change all the bullying high school boys just a little by singing constantly about love, and their looks softened the hard masculinity expected in the 50’s. In senior year they put out “Revolver” and there I was, driving around Denver listening to George Harrison play the sitar. I knew these Indian melodies were spiritual, and by osmosis, I learned of other authentic religions far from Colorado. At 19 in the Jesuit Novitiate in Florissant, Missouri (right near Ferguson where we’d go to sing at St Martin de Porres Church) we would sing every day for Mass and one of the Jesuit Brothers, Br.Johnny Horvath, came up to me after Mass and said “I love your voice! You could really sing country if you wanted to !” I was mortified that my Denver-twang was slipping out everywhere. Today I’m flattered! I sang at Florissant, St Louis and then in Boston where a young Jesuit friend, a young girl and I, formed a trio and would sing at Jesuit celebrations, funerals, weddings and Masses all over town. I really wanted to be a singer but since I didn’t have the powerful voice of Stevie Wonder or Cilla Black, I decided to stick to art. I’d also sing when I taught high school at Regis for graduations and other occasions. I remember singing Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” at one graduation, and Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle.”
When I lived in Daniel Berrigan’s community on 98th and Broadway in Manhattan, during the Hospice Years of the 80’s, my deceased friend, Fr Eddie Oakes, SJ was writing his book on Hans Urs von Balthasar and would fly to Basel to meet with his mentor. He brought me back a cassette tape of the music of St Hildegard. Hildegard wrote 77 known songs and the first opera Ordo Virtutum, in 1151. I’m still listening to her. I take a little pride for introducing my friend, Case Scaglione, a world famous conductor, to Hildegard. I’ll never forget as he was listening with head phones to a contemporary version called “Vision : the Music of Hildegard von Bingen” he shouted out happily, “Wow, this is 500 years before Bach!”
“If They Asked Me I Could Write A Book” - seriously about my life with music. Ultimately I’ll say that all of this, as Joni Mitchell says - “you keep peeling back the onion to get to the bottom of your feelings” - is about longing for God. Touching into God whether it’s Ambrosia singing “You’re the Biggest Part Of Me” or “Longer” by Dan Fogelberg or Hildegard, for me it always leads to God.
During the two years of this current pandemic I’ve developed a terrible habit of staying up Way Way too late and listening to all the music from my past, and letting the tears flow freely. I never really grieved all the deaths of people with AIDS and many other losses, like leaving the Jesuits, leaving Taos, etc. I don’t know why but Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” always makes me sob.
There’s the deep longing performed in an “achingly/controlled” way by Glenn Campbell.
One night I found a very young genius Maja Babyszka playing “Rhapsody in Blue,” and listened to it over and over and then another night I discovered “Heart “paying tribute to Led Zeppelin singing with a full choir, the gorgeous, mysterious “Stairway to Heaven.” In 2019, 2020, and 2021, I listened to all of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and now I’m working on Brahms, I love his second symphony.
I’ve only touched on several people who bring my ears and soul much joy and anyone who knows me knows I could write a whole blog on the composer, musician and painter, Joni Mitchell, or the late Laura Nyro, or Stevie Wonder.
“As a prayer practice, the music of Hildegard of Bingen draws from within me a peace that already exists and needs only to be accessed... I listen to her paean and hear the soaring emotion of encountering a maternal, earthly love for all creation, and the Love which unites all living things and flows intimately through them.”
from “The Music of Hildegard of Bingen as an Act of Prayer by Nikki Diefenbach
Fr William Hart McNichols 🎶 February 2022
(My favorite Bach :
Komm, Jesu, komm... BMW229)