Tuesday, September 28, 2021

"I Done Done What You Told Me to Do"

 [Solicted for a project on Jesuits and Theater, coordinated by George Drance, SJ]

The title of this reflection comes from one of the grand old Spirituals, which should be no surprise to anyone who has sampled any of my other writings. What amazed me when I discovered this song, just a few minutes before I began writing this piece, is how it could be the drumbeat for a meditation on how one lives one’s vocation – no matter what the circumstance or specifics of the call. Not only could I use this song as a way of thinking about all the moments in my life when I was told to do something by my parents or by teachers, something – anything – that I was either hesitant to do or absolutely paralyzed from doing, I can use this song as a way into understanding how faith has been performed throughout my life.  No; it is not a quirk that I have never been able to imagine doing all sorts of great and fulfilling things. I tell people that I have been most successful when I have been told, “I think you ought to do……” and I say, “If you say so….” I have learned to trust those who see gifts in me that I often overlook.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62LSdhqxHXM&list=PL-W4ZdGkUNrnIQvye1F_w4E6f6DgbF0tM&index=55

My sixty years of work in theater is the perfect proof of this being led by faith into and out of a wilderness of discovery and transformation. Within weeks of my entering the Society of Jesus in 1962, Fr. Joseph D. Sheehan, our Novice Master, understood that I would need a forceful intervention in my life if I were to ever break through the overwhelming fear I had of speaking in public. Oh, I had been the drum major for the Beloit Catholic High School marching band for three years in high school. But in almost every other public setting I fell into a traumatic state of confusion and fear. I had to be forced to have my picture taken, to be put behind a microphone to speak. Looking back all these decades, I know why this condition controlled so much of my public life. Racism. I was the only Black person in my high school for three of my four years in attendance. The administrators manipulated me into every publicity photo ever produced. I was always pushed forward for the public view. Even my selection as drum major was racially based. “You have a better sense of rhythm than the other band members,” our band director said. Oh, really? The only Black kid in the school? How sensitive. And how completely wrong – at least in the beginning. By my senior year I could perform as well as any drum major in any of the southern Wisconsin high schools.

Three months after I entered the novitiate, Fr. Sheehan had grown frustrated with having to demand that I answer questions or offer comments in our classes. He called me to his office one afternoon, to “give him some advice,” he said. The novitiate was going to produce a holiday musical. It would be a parody of “The Music Man,” called, “Man, Music.”  And he wanted my opinion as to which novices could be cast in many of the roles in the play. He handed me the cast list. My name was already there. “No.” I was clear. “I will not appear on stage. I cannot appear on stage.” “I didn’t ask your permission,” he said. And truly, the rest is history. I went into the absolute wilderness of the theater and came out of the wilderness, more alive than I had ever dreamed possible. The first enthusiastic laughter and applause for what I was doing told me that I should wade into that water, with faith and gratitude.

During my four years in that building, I acted in seven plays – sometimes small roles; sometimes the lead roles. Crafting costumes and creating choreography when needed, added to my skills set. Soon after I moved on to St. Louis University to begin the formal study of philosophy, theater classes and productions became a therapeutic oasis.  My year of graduate studies at Johns Hopkins pulled me into directing – at the request of the Hopkins undergraduate drama club. I directed three plays (two one-acts and one full-length play) during that one academic year. And on and on.

In all of these years, I learned that the theme for this reflection is about faith. This Spiritual fits how I feel about religious life and priesthood – connecting also with another powerful meditation, “Done Made My Vows to the Lord, and I will go, I shall go, to see what the end will be.”  That was the song Sr. Thea Bowman blessed us with when the community of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies visited her in Canton, Mississippi, the year before she died.

I will go. I won’t turn back. I will trust the truth of the vision of others. I have no idea what the end will be, but when I get farther along the path, I will tell God, the ancestors, my elders and my trusted circle, “I done done what you told me to do.”  That is theater at its most vulnerable and transparent.  We trust the script, the director, the actors, the crew. Faith. And then…. oh, how blessed is the moment when we begin to have faith in ourselves; seeing, finally, within us what those who love and trust us have always seen.

From a production of “Teahouse of the August Moon,” performed at St. Louis University in 1968. The director, Leo Hanson, had to convince me that I could play a 90-year-old village elder of Okinawa. At least one member of the audience confirmed Mr. Hanson’s choice. They asked him who was that retired professor who played the old man. An almost 70-year difference between my age and the age of the character. It does not matter. The Spirit of Wisdom inhabits all of us.

And from the most recent moment of blessing and confirmation: playing Solly Two Kings in the 2018 production of “Gem of the Ocean” at Southern Illinois University. The character fit me better than a costume. An elder taking a young questor on a journey into their history and then turning over the role of guide to the young one.

Teaching? Ministry? Acting and directing? Being an elder? 

I done done what I was told to do.

https://www.jesuittheater.org/



Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Tomb of Ignatius: Rome 1972

 

 



Rome.31 July 1972. Photo: Michael Harter, SJ

Liturgical Dancers: Luis de Tavera & Joseph A. Brown, SJ.

Eucharistic Liturgy: Presider: C. J. McNaspy, SJ. Community: Jesuit Institute of the Arts. 3rd Annual Meeting.




The Tomb of Ignatius:  Rome

31 July 1972

 1.

mark it out:  six footsteps.  just under

that.  deep enough for a child

for a child to  hide    and if able to stretch

and turn over    it would touch the walls.

no more room.

not even air would be comfortable beyond

these limits.   and tightly sealed.

 

2.

see it:    a boat

a covered  gold boat    shaped

to float lightly into the sea    riding

high off to the edge of nowhere

if called.    or sent.

 

3.

angels everywhere.   pulling the eye

up and around.    pointing into corners where

prayer evaporates and silence lingers.

behind marble clouds and silver folds

bronze curving in and out    the breath

that comes from the holy places everywhere

you look.    can you see it.

now.    mark it.    out.

 

4.

when the bones have been cleaned they must be

boiled until the last scraps of meat and muscle

collect on top.    boil them in lye for the

best results

 

5.

results are seldom expected.    even though

you know that plants need water

and rich dirt for successful growth    once

in awhile    a seed has been found

to take root in dust    airless dust

dust that is sealed away from

light    from rain    from everything but

memory

                 (and even some times in forgotten

dust)

 

6.

we were wrong    distracted    fools

after gold to believe that visions

come in silence

                           though a busload of belgian

tourists buying postcards    av├Ęs riding

in a wave of mumbled music    timed by

camera shutters and lights locked in

15 minute cycles

                             the vision in that should

have been a clue

 

7.

that he would have accepted

 

everything at once

how clear he knew that

not even bernini himself could contain

an italian determined on devotion

 

8.

little child

ignatius

who could follow a lame man

who wept more and more as

time slipped him somewhere.

beyond he child.

and back again

 

9.

called.    or sent.

the eye cannot be held to sliver

lights the perfect draping on an

angel’s thigh

                       it is drawn to wonder

if the dust

has any hidden

 

10.

Sustenance

 

 

11.

it could

it could

 

12.

something brought us here

 

13.

mark it.    nowhere.    mark it out.

see.    somewhere.    see it.    dust.

gold and bronze.    tears.    visions

called it.    out.

                          sustenance.

sent.    sent or called.    called.

and sent.    sent and called.    here.

yes here.    of course here.    he

would know.

                       he knew.    a flame

is always certain.

                             especially

in darkness.    in silence.    here.

yes here.

               sustenance.    in dust.

in tears.    in tourists.   lights.

and visions.    yes.    mark it.

everywhere.

[Published in The Sun Whispers, Wait: New and Collected Poems. Brown Turtle Press. 2009]

Saturday, June 12, 2021

"After the Flare and Flame"

 

After the Flare and Flame

 The Road to Emmaus: Luke 24: 13 -32

 We knew it no longer mattered

                                                      how we stumbled

away from the gushing women

                                                          and

our brothers who were no longer ashamed

to weep

 

If we walked twice the seven miles to home

we would

 

Anything to exhaust the rage

                                                     before we were crushed

and as empty as he said he found the cave

 

Burning everywhere    our eyes   our throats

our lungs

                   my skin was dry enough to peel

with the merest touch

                                                     enough

 

What stoked this fire   was fear

 

Neither of us noticed

                                         or cared

to see the stranger nearly upon us

 

His first words startled me

reawakening the rage that had

                                                           almost

settled like ashes  after the flare and flame

 

The confrontation took us both into a howling

threatening storm of words

                                                    Until he twisted us free

of the knots that had strangled us  these last

fearful days

 

How could we be blind

                                            how

could we not hear the voice that will now

forever  hold us  still

 

                                       Our hunger shifted

from needing  protective enveloping dark

 into the memory of his mother

handing us bread so many nights

 

When he broke the bread

                                                he brought us

from the tomb where we had cowered

 

And now we can do   

                                      as he had done

and will always do

 

give that bread to all

 

-- Luke

 

Dedicated and offered as a gift to a group of men bringing their light into an all-too-shadowy world. For the ordination of newly ordained priests:  Ajani Gibson (for the Archdiocese of New Orleans); and for the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus: Thomas Bambrick; Jeffrey Dorr; Garrett Gundlach; Robert Karle; Aaron Malnick; Hung T. Nguyen; Trevor Rainwater; and Jeffrey Sullivan.