Sunday, August 9, 2020

Be Not Afraid

Attempt number two of my new writing efforts:

All the good ones are Schutte. This phrase, uttered by my family many times over the years, passed through my head as Mass this morning closed with Blest Be The Lord. Without a hymnal (hazards of mid-COVID liturgy), the words nevertheless returned with perfect recollection, the mark of a great song. Growing up in the Catholic Church from the mid-1980s on meant repeated exposure to the post-Vatican II musical stylings of the St. Louis Jesuits- a prolific quintet of composers so named because of their inception during their time as Jesuit Scholastics at St. Louis University. While not all would go on to complete their formation, the moniker stuck. Songs like "Be Not Afraid", "Here I Am, Lord", "Though the Mountains May Fall", "Come to the Water", "The Cry of the Poor", and "One Bread, One Body" were ubiquitous in my upbringing. That "all the good ones were Schutte" wasn't necessarily true, but his did seem to be some of the more frequently sung- "Table of Plenty", "You Are Near", "River of Glory", and "City of God."

I had the privilege of getting to know one of the famed St. Louis Jesuits during college and while they were no longer making music (aside from an early 2000's reunion album resulting in one of my favorite new liturgical songs- "O Beauty, Ever Ancient"), I was still a little star struck by Fr. Roc O'Connor. Fortunately, Fr. Roc oozes humility and hospitality and joviality, so it wasn't long before he was just another priest, and the lead clergy in our weekly Eucharistic Adoration nights. Every once in a while, his musical prowess would make an appearance, reminding me of the mark he'd left on liturgy. Each week, a different student would take point on the Adoration programming, noting the daily readings, selecting music that fit the Scriptures, and preparing a short reflection for the other students in attendance. One week I led, I selected "Lift Up Your Hearts" for our opening song. While sometimes music was selected for relevant lyrics, other times I was just seeking a familiar well-known song that would promote participation. This week, it was just a familiar, faithful standard and one I didn't give a second thought to until Fr. Roc, with his 12-string guitar, started enthusiastically jamming out with accompaniment. #facepalm Of course I realized after the fact that he had written the song, and of course he would play it with gusto. 

Another memorable night found the Adoration planning team gathered in a Jesuit lounge in the Admin building. Not the "upper room" lounge, reserved for very special occasions and those with high connections (I claim at least two such VIP nights, ending in access to the coveted rooftop), but still a much cozier atmosphere than a classroom or the library. We held these planning nights once or twice a semester, but this night we hosted a very special guest, Fr. Roc's fellow St. Louis Jesuit, Fr. Bob Dufford. "Duff", as Fr. Roc called him, put us quickly at ease with a witty sense of humor and ready smile. He told us the story of writing "Be Not Afraid", arguably one of the most beloved, relevant, and masterful liturgical songs of our generation. But it didn't start out that way. He had written a first draft and felt like he had a real winner on his hands, so he eagerly shared it with the others. After he finished, they (he probably told us which Jesuit specifically and I've forgotten) jumped in with criticism. Each of the lyrical lines we know so well today have been edited from the original version. 

You shall cross the desert, but you shall not die of thirst

You shall wander far, though you do not know the way

(Taking artistic license as I don't recall the exact words but) The lyrics and cadence of the melody had put all the emphasis on the "You". And the St. Louis Jesuits wanted the emphasis on the despair of the circumstances and the journey, ultimately on God, not on the person who was faltering. By adding a couple key words and modifying the syllable structure of each line, the song went from mediocre to pure genius. As a songwriter, I remember this lesson so vividly and treasure that we got to hear this story straight from Duff's mouth. 

One fall semester, I found myself on an adventure retreat on the Western slopes of Colorado with a few members of the Candlelight Mass choir. The second night of our trip, they were planning music for our outdoor mass and wanted to incorporate the majestic beauty of the mountains surrounding our campsite. "Though the Mountains May Fall" seemed an excellent choice but none of them could remember the words of the verses. I could, because all the good ones are Schutte, which meant I was suddenly an honorary choir member for the night. Less vocally gifted to be sure, but lyrically confident. 

I doubt I'll come across many outside my family and a couple other Creighton Adoration alumni who feel such a continued connection to the St. Louis Jesuits and the music that changed an entire generation, but I am blessed by these memories and by the songs. 

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I reserve the right to make this blog as worthless to read as I feel like, and also to write as infrequently as I deem necessary. Just thought I'd let you know since I finally decided to share my blog.