I had an extraordinary time on Vacation with the Northwest CL groups in Bellingham, WA over the Fourth of July weekend.
Some background on me: I’m a convert to Catholicism from evangelicalism. I lived and worked in the Christian contemporary music subculture (both in church settings and in Christian retail) for several decades and was approaching a nadir of total despair at the propagandist nature of it when I discovered the Catholic Church’s artistic tradition and their strong theology of art, and I followed my attraction to the Mystery (which Beauty conveyed to me) into the Church in 1999. Due to my upbringing, I have a strong sense of the secular nature of my vocation as an artist and, to be perfectly frank, “church music” is now a cross that I reluctantly carry when I’m forced to do so by peer pressure or a sense of duty. So, when my friends told me that I would not need to sign up to help with anything (registration, ushering, music, etc.) since it was my first time at a CL Vacation, I was grateful – happy at the prospect that they would allow me just to go and participate in the activities.
Alas, it was not to be. Shortly after we arrived at The Firs in Bellingham on Wednesday evening, before I even checked into my room, my friend Rose (from the Portland SoC) asked if I would be willing to help with music for the weekend. I remember mumbling something ambivalent and noncommittal, and she told me to look for one Richard From Singapore, who was in charge of the music. She then sped off to tend to her four younger siblings (their mom Catherine was due to arrive Thursday night).
I paused and asked myself what I should do – whether I should take my guitar out of the car and find this Richard From Singapore and find out what was going on, or just leave it in the trunk and pretend I knew nothing about leading groups in singing – keep my head down and voice low, and not do anything which might cause someone to expect something from me.
I looked around the parking lot and saw several of my friends from Portland, with whom I’d had significant and grace-filled conversations over the past three years in SoC. In that moment, I noticed that the resentment I’d expected to feel at the mere mention of helping with music was… absent.
So, I went to the building where we were to gather that evening and found the tall, handsome Caucasian man whom the other responsibles identified as Richard From Singapore. Rose had already told him that I might be coming, and when I walked in, he said, “Ah, you must be Kathleen! Are you here to help with the music?” I looked at him, trying to take him in, and paused again before answering. I looked down at the guitar case in my right hand and said, half-surprised, “Well, Rose told me you needed help, and since I’m here, and I’ve brought my guitar, I – I guess I’m here to help you.”
From that moment on and throughout the weekend, my expectations and assumptions were exploded one right after another. Richard was very well versed in CL’s repertoire and very organized, which made it easy for Joe Amsberry (from the Salem SoC) and I to help Richard choose and rehearse enough songs for the gatherings each day as well as for daily Mass. Our planning/rehearsal times were chinked into the cracks between meals and assemblies and reflections, and though we were responsible for a lot, it never felt burdensome – I never felt like I was missing something going on somewhere else while we were rehearsing. Richard is also an extremely talented singer with highly-polished performance skills, and working with him was wonderful fun for me for the following strange reason: He was so high-energy, so crazy, and so good at what he was doing that I felt free to be as high-energy, crazy, and good as I could be. The vibrant energy with which Richard strove to live out his bright, shiny Richardness enabled me to find the place in myself where I can be bright and shiny, in the moment, no matter who’s listening or what purpose it may serve. In the midst of the fortuitous mix of sacred and secular music we played and sang together over that series of days, I sensed friendly spaces where my own Kathleenness could come out and play.
At the same time something else was happening in my soul at a deeper level. While doing music with Richard and Joe was a joy, it also seemed to touch a deep wound in my heart – something I couldn’t quite articulate. At times, I remembered that I had brought my guitar on the Vacation in order to sing some of my original songs for my friends, and I kept trying to figure out a time and place when it would be appropriate to do so. I thought at first that Saturday’s Talent Show would be the proper venue, but most of the other performers’ acts were light-hearted and comedic – and my songs tend to have a darker melancholic tinge to them. I decided to stay on the light side with my offerings, but my original goal of singing my own songs for everyone started to flare up and singe the edges of my thinking – it began to distract me from what was happening in front of and around me.
By Sunday morning, the last day, we were beginning to consider and make judgments about everything we’d experienced together. We began to sense the weight and significance of the revelation of truth, beauty, and goodness of Christ we had experienced in our friendships with one another. As various people went to the microphone and shared reflections and questions at our last assembly, the seriousness of our conversation made me think that this might be the time for me to share one of my own songs. However, as I listened to my friends tell their stories and insights, the Holy Spirit led me in a different direction.
Tami (from the Portland SoC) was one of the first to speak, and she related how she was struck by the presence of Bishop Joseph Tyson (of the Archdiocese of Western Washington, who was with us on Friday and said Mass for us that evening). She talked about our use of the word ‘witness’ in CL – that is, we speak as witnesses to our experience with Christ, but she added another meaning to the word – that of being witnessed, of being seen. She was impressed not so much by the fact that we had the opportunity to see and meet the bishop, but that he had seen and met us. We were witnessed, we were seen by him.
I continued to listen as Catherine, Steve, Keith, and others shared their experiences, but this insight from Tami began to soak through my distracted mind, steeping in the waves of my thoughts like leaves of a strong black tea.
I rehearsed in my mind the words of the song I intended to sing and, though I had consciously written it with some CL vocabulary in mind, I realized that the people in this room, much more than anyone at the coffeehouses I frequented, would understand exactly what I was saying. In singing this song, I would quite possibly be revealed for who I really am. I might actually - be seen.
And suddenly I was filled with terror, and sadness, and – shame, I think. The thought of doing the song, the thing I’d so wanted to do all weekend that had put such a torque on my attention, now made me recoil in fear. I began to cry and couldn’t stop, not even during the Mass that followed the assembly. My heart seemed so black and ugly, and I felt so ashamed of myself – for wanting more of these beautiful people than I deserved.
Over the past week since arriving home from Vacation, I’ve been trying to process my experience and make some sort of judgment about it. I found it difficult at first to find words and images to frame my thoughts, but these words, by my favorite songwriter Sam Phillips, have been a help:
I, I love you
when you don’t – when you don’t do anything
When you’re useless, I love you more
When you don’t do anything
When you don’t know, when you don’t try
When you don’t say anything
When you don’t move, when you don’t win
When you don’t make anything work
- Sam Phillips, Don’t Do Anything, Nonesuch © 2008The judgment that's formed so far in my mind is this: I believe that God granted me a glimpse into the great depths of my heart’s need for Him and the reality of His love for me. I really felt the force of my heart’s attraction to the Infinite Holiness, the Perfect Love and Beauty toward which all earthly loves point.
The quote below also reminds me of the source of my truest desire, my real destiny:
"It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; he is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; he is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is he who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is he who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is he who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choice that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society."
- Pope John Paul II, World Youth Day 2000
*Photo by Greg Wolfe - that's me in the blue hat, singing atop snowy Mt. Baker with Richard From Singapore (center) and Joe Amsberry (on the right)