Where my thinking is worked out, often in real time…
Same Pot, Different Glazing
My professor of chemistry at Loyola College in Montreal pegged me as a late bloomer back in 1965. Yep. He got that right. I am rather slow to catch on to some things. For instance, the following question avoided my awareness for years:
How can a religion whose most dedicated souls strap 8-year-olds for not doing their homework be taken seriously as a sign of God’s grace?
Gotta be a few screws loose somewhere. I was lucky. All that happened to me was that I got whacked hard across the backside by my Grade One teacher for innocently sitting on my heels while practising kneeling at the communion rail, strapped by the Christian Brothers beginning in Grade Three, lifted off my feet and smashed against the lockers outside my Grade Nine classroom, and propositioned cleverly, but unsuccessfully, by the religious principal in my senior year. There were other offences, but these stand out. So how was I lucky? I didn’t get sexually abused, as at least one of my football teammates did, or murdered like some First Nations girls and boys in Canada’s lethal (culturally, emotionally and physically) Roman Catholic and protestant residential schools.
The religious penny, for me, took a few decades to fully drop.
For many years I was a true believer. Heart over mind, perhaps. I remember in 1962 or 1963 explaining to a sensible, protestant girlfriend from McGill how I knew all this stuff they fed me to be true. I wanted it to be true. Later on I worked tirelessly for my local church in liturgical music and on other activities related to social justice.
The years devoted to my parish church (1976 to about 2000) were personally satisfying. I was inspired (still am) in so many ways by the Franciscan pastor that put me in charge of our fledgling Folk Group in 1976 at our start-up parish where the first liturgies took place in the gymnasium of a local elementary school. He allowed me full rein on musical selection, from the Saint-Louis Jesuits and Carey Landry to Ed Gutfreund and even some appropriate secular music. An intelligent motivator who knew the power of a self-actualized congregation, he asked me to translate French lyrics from some of the original songs used in the very progressive pre-planned Lent and Advent themes coming out of Québec. That experience motivated me to write my own liturgical music. By this time we were also doing original arrangements for songs that suited our choir’s mix of voices and other instruments. Songs were transposed into keys that wouldn’t force the men to sing higher than their “comfort level.” B flat was the typical ceiling for melody. Our congregation came to love what we did. Many of those who attended our services were enriched by what they experienced. In those heady, Franciscan, Vatican II days our visiting preachers included women and men involved in several controversial issues of social justice.
I felt part of a human body that was evolving toward a higher form.
Something akin to the noogenesis of the brilliant Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, seemed to be happening. Pope John XXIII was a humble, graceful beacon. The bishops and cardinals couldn’t have been too impressed by the direction this new consciousness was taking, but it must have been good for business. It kept a few churches like ours filled and enthusiastic in tough clerical times. Much inspiration came from the social reformers and young musicians who produced and participated in the camping weekends at the farm of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Sharon, Ontario.
Gradually, at first, church leadership in Rome began to regain control of the agenda. It seemed that they saw the benefits of appealing to the religiously conservative, materialistic and obsequiously pious – the fastest growing and most easily manipulated sector of our churches around the world.
People who would ask the pastor to please bless their new BMW parked in front of the church were courted with a new missionary zeal.
A long period of working with many fine pastors, personal doubts growing, occurred until a variety of minor disappointments both in my church and in the broader religious community led me to explore my doubts more actively. Signs of grace were hard to find. My growing belief that the entire planet wasn’t just made for us humans to exploit did not find resonance among very many fellow Catholics. Particularly disappointing was our homilists’ failure to actively preach against the Iraq war. I now believed, as did many so-called “pagan” peoples, that all life is interconnected and sadly remember it being suggested by our chaplain that one of my songs, Sapphire, was “Pantheist” and thus not appropriate for a particular school liturgy. In church politics the signs of conservative bias were everywhere. The church that had gathered me back into her bosom with the fresh, open, ecumenical approach of Vatican II, folk music and the “option for the poor” was clearly shifting course. I resigned as choir leader but continued to play and sing with the people who had become like family to me.
At this point the penny had almost, but not quite, hit the turf.
A friend then introduced me to a book called The Pagan Christ by Tom Harpur, a man of great integrity with an impeccable religious and scholarly background. In this simple, direct, little book Mr. Harpur revealed that he could no longer believe in a historical Jesus of Nazareth. He had been introduced to the writings of Gerald Massey and Alvin Boyd Kuhn by a persistent reader of his Religion column in the Toronto Star, and, for him, the penny dropped then and there. Reading his book led me to read Massey and Kuhn for myself. My philosophy up until then had been influenced by thinkers like Teilhard de Chardin, Simone Weil, David Suzuki, Wade Davis and Hans Selye, to mention a few of the most memorable.Tom Harpur’s book helped crystallize my thinking. There remains almost no contemporary historical evidence for the Jesus described in the Gospels, and what little that does exist, according to Earl Doherty and supported by Richard Carrier, is not the best explanation available for the undeniable phenomenon that, assisted by Emperor Constantine for political reasons, became the powerful institution that remains so influential today. Reading more widely informed me that eminent humanitarians like Albert Schweitzer had figured out the same thing. Most Canadians knew about the great Schweitzer’s work in Africa but most of us never knew of his opinion on this topic. (N.B. There is room for debate on this issue and there may indeed have been a man called Jesus of Nazareth. I simply have no personal confidence that there was, and if there was, I don’t believe that he was God.)
The penny had just hit the turf.
My attendance at Mass became rarer, though I still love the effect that a beautiful liturgy can have on a congregation and have helped produce the occasional funeral Mass for a friend or colleague. Since 2003 I’ve lived in a type of voluntary exile from organized religion. Part of me still wants to be there and I feel entitled to attend, even as a non-believer, because it is my heritage. Permission from the priest to contribute musically in any significant way would likely be withdrawn when my philosophy became known. Moreover, the growing control the hierarchy has over the music that is performed in Catholic Churches here is a situation that would be unacceptably sterile.
Then the penny bounced!
Personal metamorphosis has taken a decade or so to gel. A lifelong interest in many jazz classics, religious pieces, folk songs and much international music has produced a large, eclectic repertoire that is an ideal basis for healing music ministry among a diverse population. Since 2009 I have been part of a group of local folkies who jam one Friday a month with residents of a local prison. They learn from us; we learn from them. In addition to the prison sessions I’ve been singing and playing guitar in the atrium, complex care and palliative wards of our local hospital every Monday and Friday (or Thursday) since 2012, an activity that is particularly rewarding.
Most recently, in April and May, 2013 while walking on the Camino Santiago, the realization came that I’m just a simple vessel for an uncomplicated gift: an ability to move people through my feeling for a song. I sing what people ask to hear or what seems right to bring peace, joy or relaxation to someone who is suffering. A simple pot of restorative song for almost five decades.