Monday, May 28, 2007

New Music School

Before I head out for the week (workshop in Detroit) I want to plug a new Irish music school opening in Cleveland.

Brian Holleran, a native of New Jersey (and my sister's fiancee) will be offering classes on Flute, Tin Whistle, and Uilleann Pipes here in Cleveland. Brian is a terrific musician and a gifted teacher. For more information, contact Brian at:

brianholleran000 AT (substitute @ for AT).

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Another One from the Audience

The person who posed a question a few weeks ago has posed another:

Do you ever look to the cross and simply see a guy dying?

After agonizing about how to approach this response, let me just dive in and say simply:

Yes. There are times when I do just see a guy dying.

I wish I could at all times experience the power of the resurrection, the hope and joy of Easter morning. I am, however, tragically who sins too freely and never prays hard enough or long enough or well enough. I grapple with the issues of faith and belief and I very often wonder how it is that I've come to commit my life to what can appear to be a corpse on a cross.

I've gazed on the bodies of drug dealers shot through the face; babies the tragic victims of abuse; children mangled in car wrecks; women beaten at the hands of abusive partners; men's arms embroidered with heroin track marks. In their bodies I have seen the sin and evil and brokenness of this world etched and carved and gouged into human flesh. In those bodies I have seen the homicidal narrative of human destructiveness written on living parchment.

So too have I gazed upon the cross to see much the same: a man unjustly tried, wrongly convicted, and shamefully executed. A man beaten down and abandoned, forgotten by even those that promised to be with him always. A man bereft even of his God, his Abba, who cries out "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?"

It is when I bring myself to the foot of the cross and gaze upon this broken body, when I place at those pierced feet the images and stories of those with whom I have journeyed ministerially, it is only then that the body upon the cross ceases to be just a guy dying and becomes the symbol of both the tragedy and triumph of Christ crucified.

Christianity has never promised an easy road or a pleasant path. It promises only that in responding to Christ's invitation to "come and see" that each person will find true humanity and life abundant. There is no guarantee that one will not drink deeply from the cup of woes. There is no guarantee that one will not suffer. There is only the guarantee of the resurrection that death is not the final word in our lives, and that God is truly the "God with us" who knows and fulfills our humanity.

The resurrection does not efface or erase the wounds of Christ. Christian faith does not cause easily track marks to disappear or limbs broken by abuse to mend. But the body upon the cross and the bodies we see each day bear one thing in common: our shared humanity, a humanity assumed by God in Christ.

So yes, I do see 'just a guy' on the cross. But in each body I find, I can also see the wounded Christ. The incarnate Word of God who has assumed our humanity enables us to see in the bodies and on the flesh of all we encounter the sinful history of humanity writ large. The body nailed to the cross directs our gaze to the crosses people bear each day. Bodies nailed to the crosses of addiction, homelessness, disease. Crosses of prejudice, hatred, discrimination nailed to bodies.

Bodies nailed to crosses; crosses nailed to bodies. How often are we complicit in such heinous acts?

These are just some thoughts. As I said before, we can allow this to serve as a jumping-off point for further discussion. I would only offer that if I see "just a guy dying" when I look at the crucifix, that doesn't mean that I don't also see Jesus. And when I look at the broken bodies and lives of others, I don't look past their particularity in order to see Christ. I guess the Crucifix gives me a centering point, one that recalls the harsh reality of our sinful world and the hope of the resurrection, a reality/hope that guides our human stories and structures our evolving human narratives.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Class Mass

I still want to respond to an earlier question, but I wanted to say a few things about another issue first.

So I went to Mass at my elementary alma mater this morning. To be wholly truthful, it is a bloody wonder that the majority of these children aren't atheists after such a liturgy.

First off, the music. Sung by a cantor at a pitch easily eight octaves higher than 99.9% of human can reach, the notes of the hymns were totally inaccessible. Then again, even if the songs had been sung at any pace other than a funeral dirge, I don't know that I'd have been able to sing - the songs were the most deranged settings of the Mass parts that I've ever heard. As a professional musician and a (VERY) regular Mass attendee (try every day) I think I have a good sense of music...but this was just ridiculous.

Directly behind me there were a group of children (I believe a parent was with them) who had something of the "Old Country Buffet" operating on their pew. In the space of a 50-minute Eucharist, they went through several courses of food ranging from Ziplock-sealed cereals to pretzels to some sort of gummy fruit snack that smelled like cherries mingled with scorched rubber. While the rest of us were praying, they were milling about re-enacting various scenes from "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Harry Potter." Okay, that's hyperbole.

After communion, several classes ascended the altar and were led in a meandering rendition of Dona Nobis Pacem sung about 100 beats too slow and 100% off key. Then we applauded them.

Ryan-the-curmudgeon: cute does not good liturgy make. I'm firmly of the school that if you can't do something well, don't do it at all. Especially the liturgy. I was really distracted throughout the entire Eucharistic celebration.

I'm sure it's tinted by nostalgia, but I remember our school Masses being great events. We ALL sang loudly (granted, we were given reprieve from homework assignments if we achieved full and active participation) and we all knew the songs. The songs were selected especially for us and were the melodies that we could both grasp and enter into. Today's hymns were more appropriate for the Mass celebrated at "Sunny Acres Retirement Home" where short-term memory is the rule and hearing aide batteries fill bowls instead of M&M's.

So that's my morning rant. I haven't yet had a delicious Enstein's coffee (I'm heading out now for it) which definitely impacts my mood. But I thought I'd share my post-Mass musings for your consideration...or entertainment...or mortification.

Monday, May 21, 2007


After a week of packing, meetings, good-byes, and a feis I'm getting ready to head home. A new question has been raised in the comment boxes concerning the crucifix and I'll have a response sometime over the next few days! I just need to get home and get an Einstein bagel in my system.

Monday, May 14, 2007

It's All About Me

Karen has tagged me to answer several questions:

1. Male or Female: Male.
2. Married or Single (or religious): I am a religious.
3. Dream Vacation: A road trip with friends across the country.
4. Birthplace: Cleveland, Ohio
5. Area I live in currently: Bronx, New York.
6. Someone you wish you could meet: Jean-Luc Marion.
7. Biggest "Pet-Peeve": Drivers who BLARE their music. I'm usually quite content with my own selection and I resent having to listen to someone else's...particularly
when my windows are rolled up!
8. Favorite Religious Devotion: Rosary.
9. Favorite Saint (Besides the Blessed Mother): St. John of the Cross
10. Favorite Sport that you play: softball. That you watch: sports are on tv?
11. Favorite Food: Bagels and Cream Cheese
12. Tridentine or Novus Ordo: Novus Ordo.
13. Would you home school or public school: Home
14. How many kids do you have: 0.
15. Ever been in an auto accident? Not really - a few scrapes, but nothing major.
16. Ever seen a pope in person? Nope.
17. Languages that you know fluently: Just English. Functional Spanish.
18. Last movie you saw in theaters: Spiderman 3.
19. Next movie you plan on seeing: 28 Weeks Later.
20. Favorite Blog: Mine. And Whispers In the Loggia
21. Your thoughts on Barney, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Clause: I believe that they are graven images and should be destroyed. Honestly, I haven't any thoughts on Barney save for the fact that I found him annoying for many years. The Easter
Bunny is just silly. Santa is a good guy, albeit somewhat misunderstood. I think he should develop a harder edge and start giving out more coal.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


Congratulations to Michael and Brian English who today captured first-place at the Mid-Western Fleadh. The Fleadh is the regional championship for Irish music and Michael brought home the gold in the 15-18 bracket and Brian won the 12-15.

Props to Brian Holleran and Tom Hastings who have contributed immeasurably to their success!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

From the Audience

A recent comment:

Thanks, I just found this blog and like it. I like your approach a lot and am hoping you could shed some light.'s what I don't get. Are we supposed to believe that God directly intervenes (interferes) with daily events? If so, is that why you pray? If not, then why do you pray? I see problems either way.
-I dont understand, but I'd like to.

As many of you know, prayer is a favorite topic of mine...probably because I myself struggle with it. So any opportunity to address questions in regard to this matter often afford an opportunity to reflect on issues that I have struggled or continue to grapple with.

It is natural to pray as though God were a cosmic Spiderman, who needs only to be called upon to save the day. Many of our prayers take this form, "Oh God, let me get this answer right." "Dear Lord, please don't let me mess this recipe up." "Holy God, please let the Indians/Cavs/Browns win something important this season" (If this prayer worked, it would be definitive proof - even for Richard Dawkins - of an all-powerful God).

Jesus, it would seem, had a similar prayer: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me" (Matthew 26:39). For many of us, this is the prayer that leaps from our heart with a genuine hope that the hand of God will mysteriously begin to manipulate space and time in order to bring about our desired outcome. The instruction manuals for such "Deity Manipulation" read: if you pray long enough and hard enough, God will eventually do what you want. If you don't get what you pray for, it's because you prayed poorly or you are guilty of some sin that God is punishing you for.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus fights against this type of prayer. Read carefully:

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want. (Matthew 26:39)

The prayer of Jesus is wholly realistic: he has a pretty good sense that the end of his life is imminent and that the act of betrayal perpetrated by Judas is going to bring about a painful and shameful death. Here Jesus expresses fear - Luke's account of this scene has him sweat blood - and anguish over what lies ahead of him. His request is so like our own - "Let this pass!" - and yet his prayer marks his openness to hearing and responding to God's will.

"So," one might think, "if Jesus couldn't get his prayer answered, then why should we bother praying?"

We pray because to do so is what makes us human. Prayer is the event recognizing that we are not God, that we are not all-powerful, and that we cannot control the future. Rather than calling God down from on high, prayer helps us to sift through our days and our lives in order to uncover God's abiding presence within our day-to-day goings on.

The Prayer of Gethsemane - "Not what I want, but what you want" - is a far cry from Spiderman. It does not demand that we strain our eyes to the roofs and to the skies in order to glimpse the arrival of the hero; rather, it demands that we close our eyes and allow the presence of God to be felt here and now. Such a prayer recognizes a God who is present in the world, straining and working to bring about God's Kingdom. Prayer helps to make us attentive to this presence, bringing us into alignment with it, helping us to respond to it even when it is difficult to do so.

So for the young parents whose son has leukemia, what does prayer do? Will it necessarily destroy the cancerous cells that ravage the child's fragile body? Will a boy's prayer for his grandmother rescue her from the oblivion of Alzheimer's? Will a family's novenas cure a daughter's cancer? Will prayer rescue the gunshot victim? Will it hold aloft the thrown ball as it sails toward the end-zone?

If only it were so.

Prayer is our entrance into a dialogue between God and creation. It centers us, enabling us to see how God is and continues to work to bring about God's Kingdom. This does not posit a God who afflicts babies with AIDS or cancer, but it does recognize that God is present with those children, with all children and all persons. We pray in order to see the trace of God in our lives, to have our eyes directed toward the promise of the Kingdom where "God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away" (Revelation 21:4). We pray because it is what makes us human, recognizing with Augustine that "Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you." We pray because we trust that God is at work in our world, in our lives, and even if we cannot yet understand the movement of God's work, even if we can't see the totality of what God has promised, we pray in order to discern and to accept God's will.

I fear hitting the "publish" button without one further statement. I don't want to make it sound as though cancer/AIDS/drugs/etc. were all a necessary part of God's plan. But they are part of our human reality, and I reckon that God has to work with what is available. So for the parents of an ailing child, a person with a terminal or serious illness, or a city with a doomed sports team I do not wish to sound callous or blithely nonchalant saying, "Accept your lot!" Prayer affords us that opportunity to rage, to scream, to cry to a God who can accept and can hear what we have to say. I do not believe that God afflicts people or strikes them down - so the idea that AIDS is a punishment is wholly deranged. Instead, I believe these happen in our world but that God is still present to the persons, with the persons. Prayer might not take the cancer away, but it can remind us that we are not alone as the war against the cancer is waged. Prayer probably won't expunge HIV from one's body, but it can draw us closer as one Body of Christ.

I offer this for now, but I hope people will have comments and we continue the discussion as needed. I hope this gets us started.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Late at Night

I haven't posted anything this late (1:34 am) since I worked at the hospital. But after spending an entire day wandering the streets of New York and drinking probably WAY too much coffee, I find myself unable to sleep.

I've finished "The Road" as well as James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room". If you did not care for Brokeback Mountain, you'll not care especially much for Giovanni's room. It is, however, a beautifully written book that touches on the dynamism of human longing to be with one's beloved and the terrible consequences of denying one's true feelings. In this novel in particular, the tragedy of David's life (the main character) is foreshadowed by his inability to love his father, who himself knew not the role he was called to play in David's life. In short, so much of the novel's tension rests in discerning and answering the fundamental question "Who am I?" and accepting the consequences of discovering the answer. I'm now reading Willa Cather's "Lucy Gayheart" and, only thirty pages in, I'm in love with Cather's descriptive prose and can feel an affective connection already with Lucy.

My trip into Manhattan today led me down 5th Avenue. Before my eyes was played out scenes of great contrast: a morbidly obese man garbed in a tacky "I heart NY" shirt leaning against a Cartier window - two symbols of excess, but in radically different expressions. A homeless man begging for money in front of the Coach store - and the feigning of empty pocketbooks by women emerging who'd just spent a small fortune on new purses.

A woman on the train announced loudly "Excuse me, everybody. I'm sorry to disturb you, but I'm broke...that ain't no joke...not trying to be funny...ask you for money" - her rhyme/rap moved lyrically in this way. I'm ashamed to say that she did disturb me...that her (apparent) need burst in upon my reading as I sat on the train. We don't get a lot of money and I don't often carry a lot of cash on me and I still flush read when I have to face someone asking for money and say, "Sorry, I don't have anything." I often like to entertain the notion that by "ministering" through my blog or with music or with theology that I am making or will make a difference in the lives of others. And then a voice crying "I'm sorry to disturb you" recalls me to the fact that I have - as we all have - a very long way to go in seeing God's Kingdom come to fruition on this earth.

Monday, May 07, 2007

As in the Days of Yore

So I played another feis this weekend: that makes five feiseanna in three weeks. I haven't played this much in quite a few years and, while I'm not back to 100%, I can feel the rust crumbling and some glimpses of the "Ryan of Old" returning.

It is hard to make a return to playing, especially in a region where I know virtually none of the dancers. Yesterday I played for children who were still in diapers when I entered the Jesuits - now they're in school! In some ways its a different world and I am a different person entering into it. While my love for Irish music and dancing has not waned, I must say that I see the 'conspicuous consumption' as an offense against good reason.

Think about the dresses. I watched small children (8-11 years old) ascending the stage garbed in $2000+ costumes. That's a lot of money! Rhinestones, fancy patterns, sparkles, etc., adorn these dresses in hopes that they will catch the eye of the judge. Wigs, face-glitter, and make-up accentuate spray-on tans (because the Irish are notorious for their natural tans).

So for all of this money, do you think that maybe it would help if the kid could dance? A really expensive dress and a raid on the Estee Lauder counter does next to nothing for these kids when they have no rhythm or timing. While being bald probably jades me against excessive hair, it does seem odd that there are children whose head size is effectively doubled by putting on one of these silly looking wigs.

It's become my belief that Irish dancing has, in many ways, ceased to be about preserving Irish culture and has become a beauty pageant with a talent show under the guise of a tradition. Without an attentiveness to the tradition, I don't see much difference between Irish dancing and a Pet Show. Cats and dogs are forced to run around and perform tricks; these animals where goofy collars and are primped and preened over; most of them don't live in a cage; the parents/owners are usually over-invested in the success of the child/pet.

Speaking of parents. I think back on my own family experiences and I'll admit that my mother and the others parents were pretty nutty. That being said, they'd kick back afterwards with a few beers and the whole feis experience was soon forgotten. Kids were left to their own devices to run around the feis and, so long as you didn't kill anyone, the day was deemed a success.

Yesterday I saw a mother go "Alec Baldwin" on her daughter because the 4-year old forgot her reel step. Another musician told me of a dicey encounter with a mother who was indignant that he wanted to take a 15-minute lunch break after playing for four hours. I went at it with a parent who attempted wanted a group of children to practice their hard-shoe dances on my stage (hard shoes = LOTS of noise) in-between competitions. Last week I saw a father give his daughter a Red Bull right before she got up on stage. As soon as she was finished, she barfed all over the place and delayed the stage for ten minutes as it was cleaned up.

Ryan's in a testy mood this morning!

I got involved, and have stayed involved, in Irish dancing because of the people. From the other Irish dancers to the parents, teachers, and adjudicators - they all have contributed much to my love of the tradition and my passion for Irish music and dance. So it is semi-traumatic to see that disappearing, to see a tradition being commercialized and children being lost in a sea of superficiality. My hope is that awareness of this grows and is addressed quickly. My fear is that, if it is not, the preservation of the tradition of a country in dance - its joys, struggles, sorrows, and triumphs - will be lost and, in its place, a rhinestone encrusted, wig-sporting, off-time idol will rise in its place.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Days of Leisure

True to form, I'm finished early with my papers/finals/work for the semester. This gives me a few days to relax and enjoy being in New York before I return to Cleveland on May 21st.

It has been a quiet few weeks. I've had no major insights, no profound experiences, nothing particularly funny or amusing or poignant to talk about. I will, though, make two book recommendations:

First, Ian McEwan's Atonement is a fabulous novel. It's the sort of book I would use in a theology paper largely due to its beautiful writing and powerful insight.

Second, I'm reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Known both for its recent Pulitzer and its inclusion in Oprah's book club, it is a peculiarly written novel about a father and son in what might be called a "quasi-historical" landscape (For Karl Rahner there is history only where there is freedom and, in this novel, one can question how free the characters are). My speculation aside, it really is a good book.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

After a long weekend

After two weekends of playing for Irish dancing competitions, I must admit that I'm pretty tired. In my youth it was nothing for me to play two competitions per weekend, multiple weekends in a row. As I grow older and as I'm still somewhat out of practice, it's hard to do. My back is still sore from this weekend and I've got a sizable bruise on my chest from where my accordion rested for many hours. Who'd ever have thought that playing the accordion might actually be deleterious to one's health?

With this in mind, I've not much to write about. Sort of uninspired, I'm just slogging through the last two weeks of class. My papers now written, I'm doing the obligatory "read for class" trying to maintain my waning interest in the material. Summer is nearly upon us and I'm falling headlong into vacation mode!

I'll read for the rest of the morning and then I'll try to get my tin whistle class organized for tonight. I'm still unsure what I want to teach -- probably another pub song or maybe a polka. In light of my experiences this term, I've totally revamped the course for the Fall; the trial-and-error approach to teaching many students using limited class time and YouTube has produced a decent pedagogical model, but now that I've established it it is almost too late to maximize the benefits for this crop of students.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame