I went out to dinner on Monday night with Gary Healy, formerly of Riverdance, who teaches with the Norton-Healy school of Irish dance here in Chicago. Gary is chairing the 2006 Oireachtas (the Mid-American Regional Irish dancing championships held over Thanksgiving weekend each year). Well, over a burger and Guinness he asked me to play the Oireachtas again this year.
And I said YES.
What was I thinking? As some of you will recall, the last Oireachtas was traumatic. I felt so out of place, so disoriented, and had a very hard time being back in such a high-pressure situation. I never ruled out playing for smaller feiseanna, but I certainly did not think that I'd ever return to any major competitions. As I recall, in fact, I think my sense at the time was that I would content myself with just playing for the "little kids" while leaving the more prestigious competitions to the musicians who are able to play more frequently than I am able.
I was shocked that I said yes, that I would answer this invitation in the affirmative. It's tough to leave the comfort zone of low-intensity, low-pressure feiseanna and enter the high-pressure championship competitions. But it seems to me that I could not not say yes. Because at the end of the day, I am an Irish musician, a feis musician, and one who has found great life and joy in playing for Irish dancers. Though it is hard sometimes to admit it, I do have a skill that people have expressed a need for and a skill which, when plied, brings me life abundant. Playing music is not just something I do, it's the someone that I am: I am a musician. At the end of the day, I am proud to say that the blood of my tradition runs through my instruments and the reels and jigs echo deep within my soul. So I will play because I must play, because were I not to do so I would be denying a very large and very sacred part of who I am.
But at 9:48 in the morning, with my Einstein's coffee in hand, another thought occurs to me (in addition to how delicious Vanilla Hazelnut coffee is). Each of us is called wholly and fully in life, a call that takes full accounting of our strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the tunes I play for the dancers are now old and not as fancy as many of the musicians...but I play on time, I have a decent variety, and I do try my best. I am certainly not the fanciest or technically proficient accordion player, but I do the best that I am able. Sure, I am intimidated by the other musicians who are so much better than I am, but I do take consolation and courage in realizing that I have something to add to the tradition, that I have a place in flow of music and that I have a note to contribute to the song.
I guess what I am getting at - as I extrovert at the keyboard - is that each of us is called into service through our great loves and joys. My call to play music parallels my call to be a Jesuit - I want to provide the music and spiritual nourishment that frees people to dance, to fall in love with the tradition and in falling in love, to fall more deeply in love with themselves, each other, and their creator. My skills as a musician - and as a human - are radically limited! I own this. But I cannot not respond, I cannot not try, because it is who I am. The fear that assaults me and intimidates me will not have the last word because, and the end of the day, I can do nothing more than play my tunes because it is who I am. I am what I do...I am a musician....I am a Jesuit...I am a sinful co-laborer who tries and fails and tries again. I am in love with a tradition, a Tradition, so much larger than me and one which seems to call for my contribution, which calls for all of our contributions.
Here, too, do we see the limitations of the English language. "I am Catholic." "I am Irish." "I am afraid." In the first two expressions, these are permanent existential states which inform me and help to define me as the man I am. Yet the third seems to have the same cache as the first two, which is terribly problematic! The spiritual malaise that afflicts so many seems to be that they are paralyzed by fear, that their very being in life is defined by fear. In Spanish, I find such clarity when to express the English "I am afraid" they say, "Yo Tengo Miedo" or "I have fear." Here fear is not something that defines, but something that is had, something that is owned and possessed. To "have fear" allows you to keep it close to you, allows you to examine it, but to "have fear" also gives you agency in preventing fear from defining you. As much as I am not defined by any of my possessions, so too am I not defined by my fear. Yes, I acknowledge it but it is still external, added-on, and though often healthy and important, it does not define me as the person that I am.
A friend wrote to me saying that he wanted to enter religious life and concluded a sentence with, "but I am afraid." As far as I can tell, many of us resist making commitments of any sort because of this - marriage, new job, new school, new instrument, etc.. I pray that my friend resists being defined and controlled by his fear. I pray that he surmounts the difficulties posed by it and takes ownership of it. I pray that he can say realistically that "I have fear" but "I am not afraid" and that he hold his fear, allowing it to inform his decision making, but that he be "in love" enough to make the decision that sets his heart aflame. There are too many out there who live in and muddle through lives of dreary banality controlled by fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the darkness that stretches before them. Fear of failure. Fear of fear. Fear. A single word that exercises such power! I pray that my friend gasp for breath and push, push the fear t his fingertips that I might grasp it. And in control of it, find control of himself so that he can be led by the light that shines in his heart rather than by the darkness that clouds his life. For him, as for all of us, in finding and exposing our fear, we find and expose our greatest freedom...a freedom from fear, a freedom for what we are being called toward.
So those are my thoughts for today. I'm jacked-up on my 20-oz coffee and protein bar (which make a delicious combo, by the way) and I'm looking forward to my evening at the hospital. I guess my musings are as much for me as for anyone else and if you derive assistance from them, I am glad that I "am not afraid" to make a public spectacle of my self! And if they don't help you, that's okay, too. I have no fear...at least not of that!
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