This is the third in a series of posts about the upcoming book, Let the Mountains Sing. For Part Four, click here.
The author on the left, Richard Wayne Mullins on the right. Both photos were taken in 1974
Just this weekend, I came across some scraps of the dress I was wearing when Richard and I first laid eyes on each other in August of 1974. I recalled the first words out of his mouth, "I like your dress." It was the beginning of a friendship that taught me so much more about God than I'd dreamed of learning. I don't have many souvenirs of that time of my life, and if you've ever read Singing from Silence you know why. But I count this song among my memories of our early friendship:
I would like to acknowledge Beth Snell Lutz for her faithful preservation of Richard's early music, and for being there for him so many times when I was not. Thank you, Beth!
This is the third in a series of posts about the upcoming book, Let the Mountains Sing. For Part Four, click here.
Rich Mullins was learning to play classical piano music while he was still in elementary school. Richard's first big hit, Sing Your Praise to the Lord, later recorded by Amy Grant, demonstrated his classical roots. Amy left out the song's bridge, but in this performance at Wheaton College, Richard leaves it in:
You will find Richard's opening phrase at 1:38-1:47
Richard follows up with a few bars borrowed from Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto #1. You can hear it starting at 8:12-8:20
This is the fourth in a series of posts about the upcoming book, Let the Mountains Sing. For part five, click here.
One of my favorite Quaker elders, who is a great storyteller, recently shared this story with me. The original version she had discovered in The Little Flowers of St. Francis:
One winter day St. Francis and Leo were walking together to their abbey. As they continued on their way, Francis would quiz his brother Leo:
"If I spoke with a silver tongue and sang like an angel, would that be pure joy, Leo?"
Uncertain how to reply, Leo echoed the question back: "Would that be pure joy?"
Francis answered his own question firmly:
"No?" asked Leo.
Next, Francis asked Leo,
"If I healed the sick and raised the dead, would that be pure joy?"
"I don't know, Brother Francis. Would it?" came Leo's reply.
"No!" said Francis, more strongly than before.
Again, Francis queried Brother Leo,
"If I converted all the crowned heads of Christendom to our cause, Leo, would that be pure joy?"
"No?" asked Leo.
St. Francis nearly shouted his answer:
Timidly, Brother Leo asked Francis, "What, dear brother, then is pure joy?"
"If we were to arrive at our beloved abbey and, when we knocked on the door hungry and covered in sleet, the doorkeeper stared us in the face and said, 'I do not recognize you. Begone, liars, thieves, and murderers,' then beat us and threw us into a ditch full of freezing slush, that would be pure joy."
The elder who told me this story paused for effect. In fact, she stopped altogether. That was the end of her story. Encountering trials is such a common experience to those who follow the path of Jesus that nearly anyone in such an audience would be able to make an application of this story to their own lives. I loved this story and re-told it several times over the next few weeks, although I didn't show the elder's restraint when I encountered blank stares. In a few instances I couldn't help but suggest interpretations to those I told it to, because many find it confusing or harsh.
Without interpretation, though, the story sinks in deeply and we work on it like a puzzle that remains unsolved. I think it's really better that way.
Hearing God's Voice, Doing His Work: Beyond the Ragamuffin Gospel
"Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry." --James 1:9
These observations are from my own experiences in the past three years of membership in an unprogrammed Quaker Community. Unprogrammed Quakers have no pastors, typically worship in silence until anyone among them is called by Spirit to speak, and usually function in committees to conduct the activities a pastor would normally perform. I am trying to express simply some of the practices these Quakers use to move from contemplative listening to God's voice to acting as his hands and feet in the world. The following statements about Quaker practices are only based on my experiences and from instruction and eldering I have recieved, and at this time have not been endorsed by representative Quaker groups. I am conveying them here as an invitation to those who are unfamiliar to discover more about Quaker traditions.
The Ragamuffin film frames Richard Mullins' life in terms of his struggles, and while it pretty much affirms he could be a jerk--and who isn't, sometimes? it falls short of describing how he became such an effective agent for God in a fallen world. I hope to convey an alternate way of viewing some of the practical steps of service taken by Rich Mullins, who has recently been discovered to have had Quaker immigrant ancestry on both his mothers' and his fathers' sides.* Perhaps you will recognize his one-on-one style of listening in love, his "step by step" approach to following God's call, his accountability to a committee very much like the "anchoring committees" described here, his habit of traveling paired with a spiritual partner--like Christ's disciples, like St. Francis, like the seventeenth century Quakers, and more recently, like contemporary Quakers.
Present-day Quakers are beginning to re-discover the profound effectiveness of carrying out these spiritual practices of seventeenth-century Quakers--steps, which we hope, may lead to bringing the Kingdom of Heaven down to Earth more fully. It's not necessary to be a Quaker to learn from these practices. Perhaps you will find something useful here, too.
The Quaker practice of listening begins with listening in silence for Spirit, our Inner Teacher, to speak to our hearts. When all the distractions of media, cell phones, texting and facebook scream for our attention so loud we barely have time to hear God, that's when we need silence the most. Quakers practice silent listening both at home during the week and at their morning meetings on First Day (that's Sunday).
Next, we listen to one another in spiritual friendship, This relationship between Friends is kept free of hierarchy or competition--we don't consider either of us more important than the other, acknowledging that God speaks to all of us. We can hear him through our spiritual friends if we are open to his presence "wherever two or more are gathered in his name." Quakers highly prefer face-to-face listening to telephone conversations or other means of contact. Deep listening is practiced by clearing space.
When we are clearing space, we let go of all our preconceptions and expectations when we listen to our spiritual friend. We disregard any personal gain, status or benefit we might derive from our spiritual friend so we can remain objectively open to God's call. We are effectively clearing space when our inner vision begins to unfold the wonder of a universe full of potential. We don't give our friend direction at these times, but by gentle questioning prompt him or her to listen to the "Teacher Within."
Over time, the friend who is practicing listening in silence and deep listening with another friend may begin to experience a concern.
When we have a concern, our attention begins to focus more and more on some practical matter not right with the world. Our intention moves toward taking steps to counter this obstacle to bring God's kingdom more fully to earth. Still, it requires more discernment, the contributing gifts of others, and often much time, to determine which gifts we are to use on our journey and to discover the practical steps we need to take.
Clearness committees will be assembled at the request of a friend to assist in discernment. The committee's contributions seldom offer specific direction. Instead the members of the committee offer open-ended queries which refer the friend to his or her inner teacher. Sometimes, the individual who has called the committee becomes convinced over time of a particular leading--a specific calling by God--to act on his or her concern.
The key to acknowledging and unfolding the individual's spiritual gifts to be used for the benefit of the Quaker community or the larger world is eldering, a term more descriptive of specific incidents of activity than permanent status or hierarchy. Any man or woman in the Quaker community can act as an elder, as long as the person taking on the role is known to have a gift for it. Occasionally eldering involves correcting, but more consistently, the productive work of an elder is to recognize and verbally acknowledge the gifts of individuals within the community. This is not a long-winded or highly directive discourse. More often, an elder in a public setting will look into a friend's eyes and briefly announce, "You have a gift," leaving the friend to further reflect and commune with Spirit. Sometimes the gift is named more specifically, either publicly or privately. The elder also extends oversight to a friend who is in the process of learning to use a gift. Elders temporarily selected for the role also accompany traveling ministers and provide practical, emotional, and spiritual support during their journey. If vocal ministry is to be given, the elder will be present to sit and hold the minister in prayer during this time.
Quakers have anchors, too, in the form of a committee called an anchoring committee. A friend whose calling is acknowledged by his local Quaker community, and whose work will take him to distant areas, is called a traveling minister. He or she can request an anchoring committee to work with him on understanding and acting on his calling, and carrying it out. The anchoring committee will hold the traveling minister accountable for his or her work in the world, manage financial details of the ministry, and support the work of the traveling minister in silent prayer and deep listening. The anchoring committee does not often offer direction in decision-making, but refers the traveling minister to the Teacher Within and asks him/her questions to help surface the next steps to be taken in the ministry. Quaker traveling ministers are not sent alone, but like Christ's disciples, travel by twos. The traveling minister will be sent out with an elder appointed by the anchoring committee. Traditionally, traveling ministers do not accept financial compensation from the Quaker communities they visit, other than reimbursement for the cost of travel. This frees the traveling minister to speak at the direction of Spirit unhampered by the need to placate the more wealthy members of the distant community.
*Richard's immigrant ancestors would have followed these practices, and although he may have learned them from oral tradition in his family, many Indiana Quaker meetings hired ministers following the Great Awakening.
This Quaker woman has been moved by the Spirit to give a message. These Quakers are wearing plain dress.
Contemporary Quakers, with few exceptions, wear contemporary clothing, and men and women sit together in meeting. We sit in a circle or a rectangle facing inward, to indicate our belief that all are equal in God's eyes, and all alike can be called to speak by Spirit. Meeting Houses are still typically unadorned, to focus us within.
This is the sixth in a series of posts about the upcoming book, Let the Mountains Sing. The seventh is here.
When I was invited by the Illinois Yearly Meeting (a Quaker gathering) to present a study of the Song of Songs, I knew I wanted Paulette Meier to travel there with me. She had the talent, creativity, and chops to learn the opening lines of the Song of Songs in Hebrew for us to a tune of her composition. I am posting her song here, with a link to her website below. A thousand thanks, Paulette!
". . . In the beginning, God divided the light from the dark. And the light he called Day, and the darkness he called Night." When God, the creator of worlds, made man in his image, he imbued his creatures with the ability to become creators of their own worlds--and creativity became a trait that defines humanity.
The art of mapping, recording and detailing known geography is cartography, best accomplished in ancient times by daylight. All maps of the medieval world began with Jerusalem as the center of the world and moved outwards toward parts unknown. On the vague corners of their maps, medieval cartographers inscribed, "Here be dragons." Back then, some of us thought we knew what dragons were, and where. At least in the light of day.
In light we find inspiration, illumination, life, love, truth. In darkness, we face mysteries. Here in the confines of time and space, we see through a glass, darkly. Hereafter we see face to face. Only then do we know fully, even as we are fully known.
In Signing from Silence, I told the story of my brief glimpse of "face to face." It probably amounted to no more than two minutes of clock time. There wasn't as much detail in my vision as that experienced by the little boy who nearly died, went to heaven for half an hour, and spent the next ten years teaching his father the theology he'd learned face to face. In my own two minutes of face to face time, all the barriers to love and forgiveness felt in a lifetime burned away. I only have a scrap of a map of heaven, but not being as advanced as a little child, I guess God knows it holds all the theology I can handle for now.
Not a map, but a dark mirror is the surface that shows us the mystery of the unknown. "Here be:" the unnameable, the unspeakable, the invisible. If light is the gateway to revelation, darkness is the womb of imagination and the unknown. In darkness we find shadows, moonlight, wolves, stars, and exultant choirs of angels who know that their effect on mankind is to provoke deep fear.
It is difficult for me to look back into that dark mirror now, to revisit my memories of Richard's anguish and fears. Back when Rich Mullins was alive, when he looked into that dark mirror, sometimes it was a werewolf he saw looking back at him. Not literally--that's a medical condition--but metaphorically. The darkness, anguish, the fear of repeating the primary loss that drove his destructive behavior appeared to Richard in that form.
Art arises so consistently from pain that some believe anguish is as indispensable a component of the creative process as fire is to alchemy. Pain, like the need to love and be loved, is a great universal. No one living escapes it--we can count on everyone to share it to some degree.
Richard seemed to experience more than his share of pain, and the fear of it. But when God gives us weightier talents like prodigy and creative genius, perhaps he gifts us too with deeper thorns of the flesh. . ."
Excerpt from the work in progress Let the Mountains Sing by Pam Richards
This is the fifth in a series of posts about the upcoming book, Let the Mountains Sing. For the sixth, click here.
An excerpt from Let the Mountains Sing:
"To some, art is freedom of expression of all kinds, and its means and objectives are myriad.
To my friend Richard Wayne Mullins, art had a specific purpose. He never questioned whether art was meant to communicate; hypothetical discussions of the merit of non-communicative schools of art made him chuckle. Which communicated pretty clearly what he thought.
Richard's art communicated, and not subtly. He wanted it to; he insisted that it do so. He honed and tinkered and shaped songs into sculptor's tools. He preferred to baptize those songs with the tears of their first hearers before he took them on the road. Until they took on life of their own and began to move audiences, his ideas for songs were carefully put up with the dozens of others which still revolved through his mind in a fluid state of progress.
To find the source of the artist's technique, we ponder what is in his heart. Out of a man's heart, the mouth speaks; or, in Richard's case, sings.
Richard's heart was full of longing, and even in the mid- to late- seventies, his mind was fully furnished with the world of twelfth-century thought seen through the eyes of saints and sinners. How did he discover a way to touch his modern audience--convey his heart full of sunlight and shadow--through the stained glass prism of eight-century old conventions?
It helped that Richard was thoroughly fascinated with people. He studied them as a painter studies the juxtaposition of color, probably studied them harder than the textbooks at Bible College during the years I knew him. He found equal fascination with historic people as living ones. In studying people, he found the same constants of the human condition as King David had millennia before: downcast or darkened aspects of the wounded soul in a world of imperfection, a separation from God, a need to love, a longing for love, redemption, a reunion with God, praise for perfection found in God. These responses describe a cycle of transformation we all may travel through many times in a lifetime, or during a personal crisis, many times in a single day.
Rich Mullins cited Scriptures extensively in his liner notes, but rarely lifted the language of Scripture for his songs. He knew and respected the power of that language, but he knew that even more than making pretty or powerful or scriptural Christian songs, he needed to experience Christ in his life. He strove to convey Christ in his songs to precisely the degree he experienced Jesus in his life. By remaining true to his experiences, Richard blessed his audience with permission to struggle through the process of living out their faith--just as he did. "
--Pam Richards, from the work in progress Let the Mountains Sing
"Someday I shall be a great saint - like those you see in the windows of magnificent cathedrals. I will have a soul made of sunlight and skin as clear as the stained glass panels that make their skin, and I will shine like they do now - I will shine with the glory that comes over those who rise up early and seek the Lord. . . "
". . . But I do not shine so now - especially not in the morning. In fact, I grimace until noon, I would never be mistaken for a stained glass saint, though at 7 AM I might be grey and grotesque as a gargoyle. By faith I accept that 'God's commands are not burdensome,' but right now, I am not grown in that measure of grace that frees me to exalt in this particular command to seek Him 'early in the morning.'" -- Richard Mullins
This is the ninth in a series about the upcoming book, Let the Mountains Sing. The beginning post is here.
From FAQ about Rich Mullins:
Q. How would you describe your relationship with Rich Mullins in one word?
A: There have been many times I thought Richard was such a creative genius, that he invented a new category of relationship just for us. There does not seem to be a term that can encompass all of it. Friend? Really, much more than that. Girlfriend? Both less and more. Fiancee? No, that's someone else. Inamorata? It's an uncommon word, but perhaps. But like many descriptive terms for love, it may imply physical intimacy. Those who search for one word to describe the relationship between Richard and me need look no farther than "transcendent."
1) of, relating to, or being part of a reality beyond the observable physical universe
2) being so extraordinary or abnormal as to suggest powers which violate the laws of nature
-- definition by Merriam-Webster
From FAQ about Singing from Silence:
Q: You refuse to describe yourself as Richard's fiancee. Why would I want to know more about a relationship that was never defined, never resolved, and never resulted in marriage or children?
A: The intensity of a relationship which cannot be described in simple words breathes in our hopes, inhabits our dreams, and takes flight in our songs, our poetry, and literature.
You could argue that fulfilled marriage is the only significant relationship between a man and a woman, but you would be arguing against several millennia of songwriting tradition, starting with the Song of Solomon--written about love between a couple who have yet to consummate their marriage. The Song of Songs offers the metaphor of God's love for his intended bride, humanity--suggesting love is a mystical journey which permits the lover and the beloved to experience the love of God through even unfulfilled and imperfect human relationships.
If you know Richard died unmarried, you already know what our relationship was not.
The mystery remains in what it was; hence the book, Singing from Silence.
A Tribute to William Butler Yeats by Richard Wayne Mullins
“In the summer of 1976, Richard hitchhiked across the country. He was left-handed, so to avoid smearing the page with ink, he sent me a letter that had been written completely backwards like Lenardo DaVinci's notebooks. I had to hold it up to a mirror to read it.
I wrote Richard a poem in response. I answered a deep need I knew he felt for someone to affirm more than his incredible skill and talent--he needed to be loved for the totality of who he was, complete with his quirks and failures, in spite of the interference of his public persona.
My poem to Richard contained the line:
‘Though we're strangers I still love you
I love you more than your mask’”
--Rich Mullins Peace (A Communion Blessing from St. Joseph's Square)
Singing from Silence, p.54
Knowing Richard as I did, I had struck on a motif that Irish poet laureate and Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) had used throughout his literary career: the mask. Yeats’ concept of the mask seems to have been an outgrowth of his deeply held sense of personal dichotomy as an artist and an individual. As a prophetic performer with a very private personal life, duality was an experience Richard would bear in common with Yeats throughout his life.
Richard later offered a tribute to Yeats by including my line and naming his corresponding song Peace--the title of one of Yeats’ most famous poems.
The rest of the title, A Communion Blessing from St. Joseph's Square, refers specifically to a location in Dublin, Ireland—a city Yeats had inhabited, and quite possibly a place Richard visited when he shot his video for The Color Green.
The writings of Both Yeats and Mullins are derived from life experience. As a literary leader of national standing, Yeats felt drawn to evoke and breathe a national spirit into the country of his birth through his poetry. To the end of shaping the destiny of a nation, Yeats carefully defined the meanings of his metaphors and blended ancient Irish legends with his personal view of unfolding history.
Mullins, on the other hand, aspired to a transpersonal level of communication. While some of Mullin’s metaphors carry a consistent significance in his work, in his sojourn as a troubadour he encouraged variance in his listeners’ interpretations of his songs. Taking on the role of bard to the Holy King of Israel, Mullins welcomed variety in the interpretations given to his songs by his audience. He meant Americans, Irish, Quakers, Catholics, and Protestants alike to be able to find themselves in his songs.
So in his concept album, A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, Richard’s Quaker Irishman kisses his father’s grave in the Irish homeland and sets sail for America, where he slips into a cathedral to receive a Communion Blessing that rings all the way back from Dublin, Ireland. Here on this side of the Jordan, we Quakers don’t ordinarily practice the sacraments and Catholics may or may not hear the rocks cry out in worship of the King—unless we’ve discovered a New World transcending time, space, and limiting theologies: like the one where Mullins carries us in his songs. In an recent interview with Reed Arvin, Christopher Marchand said this about the world Richard transported his listeners to:
"A classic album makes the listener feel as if the music has always existed, but that also feels as if it came from another world altogether. A Liturgy, A Legacy, & A Ragamuffin Band is one of those albums for me."
Yeats and Mullins were both creators of new worlds who employed ancient legends as a means of constructing those worlds. Yeats wrote his poem Peace about his reunion with Maude Gonne, a woman he loved from whom he had been separated for many years because of her marriage to another. This was a life experience Yeats and Mullins shared. Many literary anaylists have found a metaphor for Yeats’ frustrated relationship in one of his legend-based plays, Deirdre.
In the legend of the same name Yeats’ counterpart is a gifted songwriter, Naoise, who has captured the heart of his love Deidre through music. But since infancy, her hand has been promised to a desperately jealous king. The setting of Mullins’ song Peace may loosely allude to Deirdre. At the king’s invitation, the unsuspecting couple enters a fatal prison where a table is spread with the ruined tokens of a communion feast. Deirdre’s musicians sing: “. . . love longing is but drought for all the things that come after death.” The inspired songwriter King Solomon could hardly have said it better.
The play, like the legend, ends in tragedy. On her way to her death, Deirdre pleads with her singers to “. . . set it down in a book, that love is all we need. . .” a sentiment Mullins was later to echo.
In his tribute to W.B. Yeats, Mullins has deconstructed the Deirdre story line and retained the concept of reconciliation found in Yeats’ famous poem: Peace. By keeping the framework loose, he draws attention to Yeats’ primary motifs: mask, prison, and drought, yet allows us the latitude to identify parallels for these metaphors in our own lives.
The uplifting effect of Mullins’ Peace owes partly to its dark prison setting. Despite the dismal milieu, the songwriter finds hope in Christ, whose outstretched arms still have the “strength to reach beyond these prison bars and set us free.” Mullins offers this benediction: may His peace “rain down from heaven . . . on these souls this drought has dried.
Peace of Christ to you. . . ”
This is the eighth in a series about the upcoming book, Let the Mountains Sing. For Part Nine, click here.
Had he known his ancestral line included Irish kings, I don’t think Richard would have allowed it to change him much. The integrity of his message came first:
“. . . if they fed me like a pauper, or dined me like a prince I don’t care . . .”
Rich Mullins, Elijah
The ancient chieftains of Ireland were not like later imperial kings who owned the very land their subjects subsisted on. The concept of land ownership was foreign to the indigenous Irish. The land was home to the whole clan. The ancient Irish king was truly a servant of his land, his family, and his allies. And if he was not, he would not long remain king of his clan.
Perhaps the Irish value of humility in leadership is the reason fellow Irishman Steve Stockman was so impressed with Richard’s style of leadership:
“. . . we got there just in time to hear a Navaho (sic) High School Choir who were nothing short of awful. It was this that left me with my most challenging memory on the life of Rich Mullins. I turned to Rich at some stage to give him my short and to the point review of the choir. He agreed with my conclusions but went on to inform me that he was going sing "Awesome God" with them and they hadn't rehearsed and it was going to be with a backing track. And so he did. Now why? Why would a man of this stature risk a ropey performance? It seems that it was more important for Rich to give these school kids the thrill of their lives and the sense of dignity of singing with him than it was for him to sound good. It was the first becoming last that the last might somehow be first. It is an act of sacrifice that still slaps the face of my selfishness. . .”
Irish Legends Brought to Life
An ancient Irish King wasn’t necessarily wealthy, but he had a luxury few of us can afford; he had publicity managers who were artists, called bards. Bards observed battles and other newsworthy events, like news journalists sometimes do today. A bard was an expert in the lore of his land who could affect the education and attitudes of others through the skilled use of poetry, storytelling, or song. A king was a man with power, but his actions must make a good impression on his public relations man. The bard could reflect the king’s image back like a mirror and add luster, or focus a light on his actions to reveal flaws. Frequently, the songs and storytelling of the bards were repeated often, and traveled to many counties. A single song could make or break a king.
When history goes back far enough, facts become impossible to verify; the tales repeatedly told tend to crystalize on the deeper truth of the story and over time, these ancient stories are transformed into legends. Yet, behind the potency of legend lies the fact that it condenses a description of human experience we can all find in ourselves, and for this reason it lives through the ages.
I think the thing that would have intrigued Richard most about his kingly tribal line is the rich vein of lore and legend running through it from generation to generation. Scientists may have little use for legends, but they represent great wealth to artists, storytellers and songwriters—those who strive to connect with an audience through the heart.
The legends and lore of Richard's indigenous Irish ancestors are so numerous, with a quality of such depth, that I am only able to briefly recount a few of them here.
* * * * * * * * * *
Amairgin, First Bard of Ireland
Among the earliest of the native Irish named is the legendary first poet of Ireland, Amairgin.
The story is told that he arrived on Ireland by ship. When embarking for the first time upon the island, he celebrated his connection with Nature in this, historically known as the first Irish poem:
I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the murmur of the billows,
I am the ox of the seven combats,
I am the vulture upon the rocks,
I am a beam of the sun,
I am the fairest of plants,
I am a wild boar in valor,
I am a salmon in the water,
I am a lake in the plain,
I am a word of science,
I am the point of the lance of battle,
I am the God who created in the head the fire.
Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?
Who announces the ages of the moon?
Who teaches the place where couches the sun?
(If not I)
This isn’t a very Christian poem, but recalling that it has been dated to 1000 BC and that St. Patrick didn’t step foot on the island until about 416 AD, it could hardly be otherwise. It does express a profound empathy with nature, to the point of expressing religious belief. Some believe the degree of nature connection found in indigenous tribes like the native Irish may have taken the form of a shamanism similar to that more recently found in native American tribes.
Richard also was known for his ability to feel the touch of God’s hand in the warmth of a patch of sunlight, or to see the painting of the great Artist in the shade of green He’d chosen for the fields:
“Be praised for all Your tenderness by these works of Your hands
Suns that rise and rains that fall to bless and bring to life Your land
Look down upon this winter wheat and be glad that You have made
Blue for the sky and the color green that fills these fields with praise”
The Color Green, Rich Mullins
* * * * * * * * * *
Here in America, most of us are familiar with JRR Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was based on the legends of many cultures, from Norse to Anglo Saxon to Germanic. And there is one location in Middle Earth that bears a certain resemblance to an ancient Irish site: Tolkien’s description of Rivendell may have been based on Tara.
Tara of legend served both as the administrative capitol of Ireland, and a center for the arts: it was known to be constantly attended by the Irish songwriters and historians known as bards, musicians, and poets. Its Gaelic name, Te-mur, translates to “Wall of Music,” describing the music of the harp. Its ancient monuments are still to be found just northwest of Dublin.
This passage describes the artistic character of Tara:
“The Dinn Seanchas, or history of noted places in Ireland, compiled by Amergin Mac Amalgaid, in the year 544, relates that in the time of Geide, monarch of Ireland, "the people deemed each other's voices sweeter than the warblings of a melodious harp, such peace and concord reigned among them, that no music could delight them more than the sound of each other's voice: Temur (Tarah) was so called from its celebrity for melody, above the palaces of the world. Tea, or Te, signifying melody, or sweet music, and mur a wall. Te-mur, the ‘wall of music.’ This extract contains the earliest allusion to the harp, which Mr. Hardiman has met with. There is an ancient Gaelic poem which used to be sung in the Highlands of Scotland, in which the poet addresses a very old harp, and asks what has become of its former lustre. The harp replies, that it had belonged to a king of Ireland, and had been present at many a royal banquet; and had afterwards been in the possession of Dargo, son of the Druid of Baal — of Gaul — of Filan, &c. &c. . .”
The harp was not one of the many instruments Richard was known to have mastered. But the notes of the hammered dulcimer, although more staccato, unfold the lingering sustain that builds a similar “Wall of Music” effect. Although the hammered dulcimer is not considered a Celtic instrument, here in America its distinct tones are often heard as representative of both Appalachian and Irish sound.
* * * * * * * * * *
Lugaid Loigde and the Loathly Lady
“. . . the young knight must answer the question "What do women most desire?" The answer, he learns from the old hag, is sovereignty over herself. However, in gaining the answer, he is forced to marry the hag. She then offers him the choice--to have her be pretty and unfaithful, or old but a faithful wife. He wisely allows her to choose, thus demonstraiting (sic) the concept of soveriegnty; at this point, she declairs (sic) that she will be both beautiful and faithful. . .”
“. . .In the older versions, usually found in Irish, the old woman represents the sovereignty of Ireland, and he who submits to her becomes the high king, and marries the sovereignty in a type of hierogamy. There is often a drink involved, which may be connected to the mead and horse cults, as alluded to in various texts, even as late as Gerald of Wales in the 12th century. Here, the sovereignty is a horse goddess who has a cup, often of mead, which she offers to the king; his accepting of the cup seals his kingship and their marriage. . .”
The Legends of the Grail
In the years when I knew him, it seemed to me Richard carried with him his own set of myths and legends, which he would willingly unpack and inhabit in order to bond with those who appreciated them. His timeless sense of connection with legend is one of the themes I’ve attempted to convey in Singing from Silence.
Richard had a lifelong habit of dubbing his close friends with nicknames. He gave me one back in 1974 when we first met. At the time, Wagner’s more updated version of the Loathly Lady was the only one I knew:
“Spooky! I begged him to reconsider the nickname, because everyone else on campus was a Christian and I made no secret of the fact that I was not. I was already standing target practice for the Christian Soldiers who felt a need to practice their evangelism skills; I had no wish to be the subject of a witch hunt.
‘I’ll just tell them I call you that cause you’re so pale,’ he said. And he went on and did just as he pleased.
So when Richard insisted on calling me Spook, I called him Parsifal. I was confident he had enough classical music background to know the story; and he did.”
Singing from Silence, p.20
Back in 1974, I didn’t realize the oldest versions of this tale are told in ancient Irish lore of Richard's ancestral clan:
“. . . in his (Perceval’s) own story there is also a Loathly Lady, though she does not become the Grail Knight's wife; instead, she is often the bearer of the Grail, as well as the chastizer of Perceval for losing his way in the quest. . . ”
This tale is one of the legends of the Grail, a subject of great interest to Richard Mullins in the years when I knew him. Those who have read Singing from Silence will know why I find the Loathly Lady in the Grail legend particularly poignant. The story of Loathly Lady and the Grail King is probably the major theme underlying the book.
From a different time, another continent and a distinct and monotheistic religion, the story of the Song of Songs mirrors the Loathly Lady motif in the reluctance of the Shulamite as she complains about her appearance. She lacks confidence in her worthiness to marry the king so exercises her sovereignty in escaping the palace, only to be mistreated without his protection. At last she realizes she has been in love with the King in disguise as a lowly shepherd all along. And spiritually, this is the story of all of us who exercise our free will by running our own way, only to discover our fulfillment is found in receiving God as our lover and King, not in hiding from him.
The final blog entry in this series is a discussion of a tribute to Irish poet laureate and Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats in one of Richard Wayne Mullins' songs, and the ancient legend behind the song.
God help me, I'm an artist.