Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 22, 2009

Music for the Soul of a Man

When I did the CAC’s Men’s Rites of Passage last August, there was a handful of  really important music that was either used in the rituals, or else kept springing to mind from my personal CD collection. As I’m re-doing my private devotional mix-CD (original got scratched) I thought I’d go public and let y’all in on what’s on it.

The centerpiece is a classical work from of one of the earlier rituals at the event, a grief ritual, was Polish composer Henryk Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony (aka Symphony of Sorrowful Songs). Composed in part as a memorial to the many young men who died in WWII, either Polish or otherwise, this evocative work builds to some powerful crescendos.

Second up on the CD, a new addition to the earlier CD that I scratched, is the Finale to Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. Ever since college, this entire work has been my own private version of headbanging music, inspirational, emotional and just downright fun. I put just the Finale on, only because I need room for the rock and folk songs that also have meaning to me as I try to understand how to enter into that “beginner’s mind”, that monkishly prayerful headspace, which came so consistently when I was on the “confront” (the opposite of a retreat).

First on that non-classical list, another one that Father Rohr used to great effect in one of the rituals, is Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem. The most famous line from this song is probably “There is a crack in everything… that’s how the light gets in.” Cohen had been a fave of mine for years, but I had not listened closely to this song until last year. He’s a great writer for contemplatives, with a Buddhist/Jewish angle, but seems to have great respect for Jesus and New Testament imagery also.

Next up, a trio of songs by Bruce Cockburn, my “spiritual director” for the week that I spent in the woods being initiated (btw, that’s two Canadians in a row, for those of you keeping score) . Snippets of his songs are always popping up in my brain as I go through life, but these three took on greater importance when I started the men’s work.

a) Get Up Jonah (from The Charity of Night) – a hard-rockin’ call for the reluctant prophet to get it together and come straighten us all out. Also a call for me to get off my ass and find the courage to speak up about what’s gone wrong in our world.

b) Closer to the Light (from Dart to the Heart) – a grief-induced tribute to Cockburn’s friend and fellow songwriter Mark Heard… who’s right up there on my “old school” list with Cockburn, Cohen, Townshend, Dylan, Springsteen, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Lennon/McCartney and Peter Gabriel (most of whom I had no room for on this disc. And I haven’t even gotten to the women yet…)

c) Open (from You’ve Never Seen Everything) – a cheerful, honest appraisal by a middle-aged man stating that he’s enjoyed walking (or stumbling) down some pretty odd paths, led by God, and he’s looking forward to finishing the journey in an equally colorful way.

Last on the disc, a dark horse entry by a woman, trying to connect the spiritual sensibilities of the 13th century Sufi poet Hafiz and the mindset of Jesus when he walked the earth. That would be Rickie Lee Jones, on the little-known album The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, one of the more unique projects of the past decade. The song I chose was Nobody Knows My Name, a mostly improvised, chant-like thing based on Lee Cantelon’s book The Words (as in the words of Jesus) that reaches into some new territory  musically, lyrically, even theologically. I have not picked up the book yet, but her interpretation of some of its themes is a jazzy, folky, very postmodern (and yet sort of orthodox) perspective on what the gospels might mean to people who work at diners and text their friends on a Sidekick or Blackberry.

And that’s it. That’s all I had room for. A first-person narrative sung by Jesus, in the guise of a 21st century woman, gets the last word. If I had room on a standard CD-R, I would put John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme into the mix to wrap things up. Guess I’ll just have to reload to hear that one.

And as a bonus for you dads out there, here’s a link to a slightly silly, mostly great song called Father’s Day by a New York fratboy band called Guyz Nite. To paraphrase Ted (or was it Bill?): Be excellent to yourselves and one one another, gentlemen!


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