Discover more from Cathleen Falsani: This Numinous World
Praxis: Music as Prayer, Desolation, Jubilation
After spending much of a fortnight witnessing my favourite band give birth to an artistic miracle in Las Vegas (of all places), some thoughts on what music can do for our (collective) soul.
This last month has been a whirlwind. More force-five hurricane than haboob.
Since we last spoke in this space, I’ve traveled several thousand miles by car (and air) through the northern tip of the Sonoran desert to the southwestern edge of the Mojave, up the coast of California to Big Sur, across the eastern Sierras into another part of the Mojave to Las Vegas for six days, back home to Laguna Beach for about 36 hours, back to Las Vegas (by air, that time) for another five days, and then home again, finally, a week ago Monday.
Somewhere amidst those travels, I managed to begin my first year of studies in spiritual direction through Loyola University in Chicago. On the first night of one of those classes, five minutes before the Zoom session was to begin, my husband came into the room holding his mobile phone. The clergyman we think of as our “family priest” was on the horn and wanted to speak to me quickly.
The Priest doesn’t usually call. My stomach lurched.
In a few words, he told me that my adopted Jewish mom, who is 88 years young and married to The Rabbi (one of The Priest’s closest friends), had taken a tumble down a flight of stairs, suffered a brain injury, and was not expected to live through the night.
Stunned, I sat on the couch, logged into the Zoom classroom, and when the professor offered an opening prayer, I began to weep. That’s the first impression some of my classmates had of me — a sunburned, frazzled woman sobbing silently in a tiny muted square on their computer screens.
Somehow I made it through the class before becoming fully inconsolable, mourning her like a wailing banshee through the darkest of nights.
But she lived through that night. In fact, she continued to live and improve, miraculously and with no medical explanation doctors could offer, until she was discharged from the hospital a week after the accident.
She’s got a long convalescence ahead, but, to paraphrase Elaine Stritch (and Stephen Sondheim), Look who's here! She’s still here!
We call her Lazar-Ina. Thanks be to G-d.
Exactly one week after The Priest’s call about mammelah’s imminent demise, and an hour before that same class (Introduction to Spirituality Praxis) was about to begin, I received word from one of my best friends that a member of our friend group, someone who had been very important to me for much of my life, had died unexpectedly. We were the same age. His death was and remains unfathomable.
His memorial service was a few days ago, far from here, and I was not able to attend because I’ve started the last phase of treatment for chronic Lyme disease and just have had a PICC line surgically placed in my bicep. Tomorrow, a shit-ton of antibiotics will begin to flow into my body through that PICC line twice a day, every day, for 60 days, in a final attempt to put the disease my doctor believes I’ve had all my life into remission permanently. While presently there is no cure for chronic Lyme, this is as close as we can get. And I am hopeful.
It’s been a month since my friend with the startlingly blue eyes died and I’m still mourning him. We all are. I imagine we will be for the rest of our lives.
I’ve seen for myself
There’s no end to grief
That’s how I know
That’s how I know
And why I need to know that there is no end to love
All I know and all I need to know is there is no end to love
— from “California” by U2
Waves of grief slam into us when we least expect them, often triggered by something seemingly innocuous. A scent. A song. A photo of Tony Campolo smiling from his wheelchair. A road sign bearing the name of the Native American people across whose land we are driving. Catching a few seconds of a movie he told you he loved decades ago as you’re flipping through basic cable on a hotel television. A casino craps table. A hawk’s cry in the distance. A geode in a truck stop gift shop.
Melinda, one of my dearest friends from the same friend group — we all met as teenagers in college a thousand years ago and have remained close throughout our lives — who accompanied me on the trip to Boulder to help my son get settled at university in late August, joined me for another lengthy, therapeutic road trip, this time northward to hang out with the monks at New Camaldoli and to celebrate my birthday, while my lifemate nursed a bum knee and held the fort at home with Stritchie and Sean the canary.
Once in Big Sur, we unplugged (literally as there is almost no cellular reception for a stretch of about 40 miles along the coast and no internet connectivity available for guests at the hermitage), walked, meditated, slept, watched raptors through binoculars, and tried to figure out which creature was making that sound. She watercolored while I read for school. We ate a lot of curried legumes.
Together, we climbed the steep, two-mile-long hill of switchbacks that leads from Pacific Coast Highway to the Benedictine community at the top (twice, including at dawn on the day of my birth). We spotted a lynx, kept a careful eye out for signs of the mountain lions that had been spotted on trail cameras in the area, and toasted my next trip around the sun with cocktails while seated in Adirondack chairs in the middle of the Big Sur River at sunset.
This year, there were no snakes. Hallelujah. #smallgraces
Not long before we left Laguna for Big Sur, with a car packed with such an eclectic and vast amount of provisions that we resembled a two-woman traveling circus, I also agreed to journey on from California’s wild Central Coast to Las Vegas a few days after my birthday to do some editorial work with my friends at U2.com. U2 (the band shares its birthday with me, btw — I’m six years older than it is) were about to launch a run of 25 shows between September 29 and December 16 there at Sphere, which has been described, accurately according to my first-hand experience and all other accounts, as the most high-tech performance space on Earth.
Even though I generally loathe Las Vegas and all it represents, I could not resist the chance to see what U2 and its extended family of creative geniuses had cooked up for the band’s first return to live performing since the before times, and do what I could to be helpful/useful in their endeavors. (I’d last seen the whole band in December 2019 in Tokyo; and last laid eyes on the lead vocalist, whom I’ve been blessed to know and call friend for more than 20 years, in December 2022 on the Los Angeles stop of the tour supporting his truly excellent memoir, Surrender: Forty Songs, One Story.)
So, after leaving the natural beauty and stillness of Big Sur, we drove through a part of California I’d not explored but that Melinda knows well, a path that took us through Yosemite National Park and to Mammoth Lakes (the beauty of that place cannot be exaggerated) where we spent the night. On the final early-morning drive eastward, we wended our way through the Nevada desert until red dirt and vast, uninterrupted free range (where we encountered few other vehicles, but did have to stop for a bull steer crossing the road) gave way to the neon Oz-like mirage of a metropolis called by many names, including, aptly, both Sin City and Atomic City. (The latter, which happens to be the name of U2’s new single, comes from the era in the middle of the last century when Las Vegas was a hub of “atomic tourism,” because visitors on the Strip could see the distinctive mushroom clouds at the Nevada Test Site in the distance.)
“Atomic City” is a banger (and an ear worm. Sorry, not sorry.)
Love is God and God is love
If your dreams don’t scare you they’re not big enough…
My friend Lin, who was a radio DJ for decades, liked to say that music was the fastest vehicle to get us to the place some of us might call God — or faith or spirituality or the transcendent.
He was right (about this and a lot of other things).
Music is my spiritual language. It’s also my love language — whether the love in question is human or divine.
I think I’ve been praying with and through music for much longer than I’ve been conscious of doing so, perhaps for the entirety of my life.
The first epiphany I recall experiencing occurred when I was 12 and heard the first notes of the song “Gloria” — side one, track one of the album October by my favourite band, U2. When the guitar keened and the drums and bass line thumped and then the sound of a young man (not as young as me, but closer to my age than my parents or pastors) singing to and about God, in English and in the Latin words of the Mass I knew from my early childhood, it felt as if my soul did a backflip.
Whatever transpired in that song, however it accessed and addressed the Divine, I wanted in on it.
This last fortnight, I’ve had the crazy privilege of hearing my favourite band play live in concert five times and at each show, at various moments during the two-hour set, I found myself talking to God.
Sometimes in gratitude. Sometimes wrestling, like Jacob and his angel. Sometimes on behalf of the four guys playing on stage. Sometimes for the strangers around me who had stepped inside the sound and were having a peak experience. (At a concert earlier in the week, when the band played ‘Where The Streets Have No Name,’ I turned around to look at the audience behind the riser where I was standing to discover every man in the front row, most of them in my age demographic, weeping. I don’t mean a few gentle tears, I mean full-on, shoulder-shaking, cathartic sobs. It was beautiful.)
Some U2 songs are, in fact, written as prayers and at one point during their concert last Sunday, the lead vocalist changed the words of one of their most iconic songs —“Pride (In The Name Of Love)” — to include the souls who had lost their lives amidst horrendous violence in Israel and Gaza.
Written in the 1980s, “Pride” is as an ode to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his legacy of radical nonviolence. The man who wrote its lyrics, Bono, grew up in Ireland at a time when sectarian violence was commonplace. Last Sunday night, he asked us (the audience) to remember in particular the young people who had been killed during a trance-music festival dedicated to peace.
“Early morning, October seventh, as the sun is rising in the desert sky, stars of David, they took your life, but they could not take your pride, could not take your pride, could not take your pride, could not take — in the name of love!”
Before Bono began singing the anthem, which is a love song and a prayer, he asked the 17,000+ people in attendance, to sing — and to pray — with him.
When that many voices are raised in song, prayer, and lamentation, when that many people focus their attention and intention toward love, peace, and consolation —even for a few moments and even after a few overpriced beers — the molecules in the room (and in our bodies) get rearranged.
The Spirit was heavy in the room that night. I could feel Her.
I also felt connected, deep in my DNA, to the other humans in the room and those half a world away who were running and hiding for their lives.
Tears streamed down my masked cheeks.
What else could we do to help alleviate terror and suffering from so far away?
How do we answer hatred and murderous rage, the craving for revenge, yearning for protection, the fear that divides us into tribes of us and them and that has the power to dehumanize other human beings?
With love. With faith. With solidarity. And, inside a futuristic, high-tech Sphere in the middle of Las Vegas on a Sunday marked by lament, with a song that also was a prayer and a powerful act of resistance.
ISOLATION, DESOLATION, LET IT GO…
On September 13, when I learned that my friend had died two days earlier, I didn’t join the Zoom class for that Introduction to Spirituality Praxis course, where each week, as part of our asynchronous work, we experiment with a different form of prayer. That week, the brief asked us to try journaling as prayer.
I am a journalist, but I am not a journal-er. I never have been. For more than 40 years and with the best of intentions, I have purchased and received as gifts, countless journals. Most of them still are stuffed into bookshelves and trunks around the house, almost all of them with no more than five or ten pages worth of entries.
Journaling is just not a practice that works for me. And that is fine.
I am, however, a writer. Words usually are how I process things. But when my friend died, it felt as if someone had powered down my internal drive. I had no words through which to decipher my feelings, nevermind journal with as a form of prayer.
But I don’t like to miss assignments (the eldest child of educators who, if left to my own devices and with an unlimited budget, I might be working on my third PhD at this point, and takes pride in being a “good student”), so I sat down, banged out the requisite 400 words for my kind professor a few minutes before deadline, and hit send.
Here’s what I wrote, followed by some of the lyrics and poetry that came to me:
This week, I have been mourning.
Last week, not long before our class commenced, I received the sort of news you hope you never receive on a Wednesday afternoon or at any other time.
I lost someone who has meant so much — sometimes too much — to me since I was a wide-eyed not-quite-18-year-old girl; someone I have loved and hated, someone I have fought with and embraced and wrestled with and reconciled with; a friend with whom I had a connection as inexplicable as it was expansive, as confounding as it was, and remains, cosmic.
And now he is gone.
I will never again see those steely blue eyes that could look straight through me or into my soul. He can never again hurt me; I will never again hurt him; we will never again hug or argue or hang up on or smile at or kid or be ambivalent about each other.
The loss will never leave us who linger in his absence, the ones who loved him once, who love him still.
Another friend says that's precisely how we know there is no end to love — because there is no end to grief.
I have not been able to bring myself to write or to journal, bereft of words. Or at least my words.
In their place have arrived snippets of lyrics and poetry. I have spent time listening to and reading those that remind me of him when he was here, and now that he isn’t.
They’ve allowed me to weep, and the weeping cracked my grieving heart open just enough to let in a sliver of light, and for the slow work of healing the heartbroken to commence.
I remember that time you told me You said, "Love is touching souls" Surely you touched mine Cause part of you pours out of me In these lines from time to time... — Joni Mitchell
We were born forever. We are twinned in the fugitive mind… — Rickie Lee Jones
Gasping at glimpses Of gentle true spirit He runs, wishing he could fly Only to trip at the sound of good-bye… — Crosby, Stills, and Nash
You are my friend Though words will fail me here again The sacraments will lift us And we set out in the day again Oh, you'll never lose that light Oh, you'll never lose that light Though so much is gone… — The Innocence Mission
Just hear this and then I'll go You gave me more to live for More than you'll ever know… — Jeff Buckley
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift. — Mary Oliver
One day you'll look back, and you'll see Where you were held now by this love. — U2
Music is spiritual praxis, whether you’re playing it, praying it, composing it, listening to it, dancing to it, vibing with it, or grieving through it.
It’s Tracy Chapman’s fast car — the medium that transports many of us into felt proximity with the Divine Presence, where desolation and jubilation exist and can be expressed simultaneously, and where spiritual kintsugi of the broken-hearted (and really, isn’t that all of us a lot of the time?) begins by picking up the pieces and fixing them together with veins of gold.
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
BITS AND BOBS
For the last month, I have been writing a lot for my friends at U2.com. There’s one story I’m particularly proud of — a “thinky piece” about the U2:UV Achtung Baby shows at Sphere. You can find it on the band’s site HERE, but it is behind a paywall for U2 fan-club members/subscribers. (Sorry, actually sorry!)
If you can access it, I think you’ll enjoy it. And if you decide to become a subscriber over there now, I believe you’ll join in time to receive the annual U2 subscriber gift, which is really beautiful (and a project with which I helped a bit).
So, this week, as the world continues to feel and be a dangerous place for too many of us, please be brave and kind.
And remember: you haven’t met yet everyone you will love, and you haven’t met yet everyone who will love you.
Much love from me,