A Bargain at Any Price

Halleluia! He is Risen!

My liturgical musician friends and I have completed our singing, playing the organ, ringing the handbells, or blowing the trumpets to rejoice in Christ’s resurrection and triumph over death. To borrow (and mutilate) that phrase from the post office, neither congested parking lots, disruptive latecomers crowding into full pews, nor fiery Pascal candle flame flickering outdoors in that wind Saturday night stayed we couriers of the Good News from the swift completion of our appointed rounds. Unbridled Easter joy!

Well, let me amend that: my Easter joy dimmed a bit as I sat with mug of coffee in hand this morning to catch up with the stack of this weekend’s newspapers on my kitchen table. On the front page of Sunday’s statewide daily paper was a picture of a robed choir in a sanctuary innocently entitled, “On Easter, Singing the Lord’s Praises”.

“Good,” I thought. “Finally, the secular press realizes that, for we church folk, it’s not all about the new clothes or chocolate bunnies or hunting for plastic eggs.” No such luck; by the third paragraph, I read “Easter, and in fact all of Holy Week, is the big season for these musicians…. there is money in it all.”

The writer interviewed a number of both secular and liturgical musicians who perform their craft during the Triduum. A few of them were, indeed, just sharing their talents for a paycheck. One trumpet player/teacher, painfully unaware of the holiness of the season, said unabashedly, “Most of the professional[s] are working on Easter. It’s too bad it’s not every week.”

Thankfully (and not unsurprisingly) however, each liturgical musician interviewed emphasized the love, the reverence, and the feeling of fulfillment they experienced as they led the congregation through the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ via music. John J. Miller, director of music ministries at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark professed it eloquently, noting, “The texture and color of the brass emphasize the jubilance and the glorious character of Christ’s resurrection… the paid (musicians) do not consider it just a job where they show up, get a check, and go home.”

Bravo, John. I’d like to expound upon that on behalf of all of us liturgical musicians in central Jersey and around the world.

Yes, we musicians grow weary from hurried commutes, late Vigils and early sunrise services, but we understand that the weariness is washed away as we celebrate as a church community.

Yes, we musicians grow hungry from inadequate, hastily-consumed meals between liturgies, but we understand that the hunger we feel will be satisfied in the Eucharist.

Yes, we musicians look out upon pews crowded with unfamiliar congregants who attend Mass only during Easter and Christmas, but we welcome the chance to evangelize with the lapsed and the lost and the lonely and, perhaps, coax a few of them to come back more often into the fold.

Yes, we musicians are burdened with extra practices, extra octavos, extra preparation for multiple liturgies, but this burden pales beside the burden of the cross which He carried to save us all and upon which He suffered and died.

And, finally, yes we may indeed draw a paycheck for what we do, but we gain so much more than that paltry earthly reward. Our unique gift of music is for His glory and must be shared to be of any lasting value; we eagerly a reward greater than any paycheck: everlasting membership in the heavenly choir.

We liturgical musicians wouldn’t do what we do for any other reason but for His glory; we know it’s a bargain at any price.

Halleluia! He is Risen!

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April Sage

We’ve rounded the turn and come into the home stretch of Lent, and I’m not happy. With just days to go before the Triduum, I’ve taken stock of my progress on my Lenten journey, and I’ve fallen short of my three goals.

I planned to engage in daily prayer and Scripture reflection.

Didn’t happen: I was too rushed, and there was too much noise from the office, the television, the cellphone.

I planned to sweep away self-defeating, negative thoughts.

Nope: I was even less successful than when I attempt to sweep away the cobwebs in my neglected house.

I planned to frequently pen / pixel scholarly blog entries.

Um…..Need I go on?

But this past weekend, Palm Sunday (and April Fool’s Day, which is as close to a “name day” this Catholic writer/singer will ever have), God’s ever-humorous hand in my life set forward a cascade of events that reminded me He doesn’t always give you what you want, but He’ll offer you the opportunity to obtain what you need.

I arrived early for the Saturday Vigil Mass, planning to review once more the choir’s musical inserts in the reading of the Passion. I scribbled cues into my photocopy of Mark’s Gospel and planned to sing the responses as the lectors read, business as usual. When I “work” a Mass, there’s little opportunity to savor scripture lessons, and I didn’t expect to do so that evening.

As I quickly scanned the reading, Msgr. Joe was pacing around the sacristy, leaning out to peek at the congregation, then pacing again. “Where is that second reader for the Passion?” he wondered aloud. Our narrator had arrived, but the woman scheduled to read the crowd and individual responses was nowhere to be found.

Though my head was still buried in the book, I felt the Monsignor’s eyes bore into my head. “Chris, you read it,” he stated firmly.

“Me?!” I objected incredulously. As he and everyone else in my life knows, I’m a classic Type A (or Type A+) over-preparer who plans for every contingency and fears/hates surprises. (I’m not even happy with birthday presents wrapped in thick, opaque wrapping paper; I like to get the happy face ready, plastic or genuine depending upon the contents, when I open them, fully cognizant of what I will see.)

“There’s got to be another reader in the congregation tonight you can ask,” I pled. “No, you,” Msgr. Joe replied firmly. “You’re here, you can read it.” My happy face was still at home, so I showed him my fearful/incredulous one (probably the cause of all those wrinkles around my eyes) and went into turbo panic mode.

With literally two minutes to go before the opening procession and blessing of the palms, I phoned my music director in the loft and told him I would be downstairs for the Passion reading, then grabbed the lector binder to circle my reading cues. Hmm, looks like I would play the part of the “Weren’t you with the Nazorean?”, “Crucify him” rabble-rouser chick. Simple enough: no huge Biblical names, no tongue-twisting phrases. I could read it accurately and pull this off with a little concentration.

Then, I paused and remembered my Lenten goals:

Engage in daily prayer and scripture reflection? Check! Though I hadn’t planned on it in such a public venue, where better than God’s house?

Sweep away self-defeating, negative thoughts? Check again; I’d have to give myself a booster shot of moxy to get through the 16 pages of script.

Reading the Passion, I could go two for three on the goals, with the bonus of leading the congregation on their journey through the sacrifice Christ made for all of us over two thousand years ago. God was giving me the opportunity to close out the Lenten season publically proclaiming his Word; his gentle tap on my shoulder that evening (with a virtual sledgehammer, mind you, but a loving tap) was an opportunity I wouldn’t squander.

Perhaps I wasn’t the most prepared Gospel reader that evening, but this particular gift from God wasn’t wrapped in opaque paper. It was presented plainly, beautifully, for all to see, appreciate, and cherish. I took a deep breath, stepped up to the podium and the trinity of priest, trained lector and surprised narrator read the words the evangelist Mark used as he told that wonderful, terrible story.

Farewell, Lent, and farewell to my Lenten goals, ineptly achieved though they were. It’s time to savor the rest of the Triduum as it unfolds.

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A Liturgical Sandwich

I sang a liturgical sandwich this past Sunday, but discovered the Bread was much more satisfying than the filler.

Let me explain. As a multiple-church musician, I usually sing at more than one Catholic parish in a single weekend, and sometimes in a single day. Despite a few architectural and homiletic differences, I feel at home no matter where I participate in the Mass.

But this past Sunday morning would be different. Our director of music from my urban Catholic parish had asked me and a few others to join him at his second working parish: a Reformed Christian, Presbyterian church. We were to join his choir in an old spiritual, Ride the Chariot, at their morning service; his group would sing in the loft at the front of the worship space in full view of the congregation, and would wear robes, not our usual street clothes. I was a little apprehensive at first, but since my unofficial motto is “Have vocal cords, will travel”, I assented.

After my usual early-morning Mass at my urban parish, I drove past the state university and into the suburbs to arrive at the Presbyterian church. The choir welcomed the four of us Catholics warmly and prepared us for the service. Once I donned the scarlet robe and white sash, I felt anonymous and thought I might as well take advantage of the situation. (Okay, I realize God knows all, but I like to think He heard my all-too-familiar soprano voice and thought, “Hmm, don’t I know her from the Catholic churches? What’s with that robe and the different religion today?”) I jumped on our Creator’s millisecond-length of doubt and prayed incognito, feeling as if I had cut in line at the bakery to gleefully snatch up the last loaf of marble rye.

The Presbyterian service held much beauty and showed respect for God in its Old Testament and Gospel readings, meditation, and free-form silent and spoken prayer. The church’s young reverend (who reminded me of a young Phil Donahue-esque talk show host, except with darker hair and more verve) strode around the sanctuary, microphone in hand, and exhorted his congregation to know God, to love Him, and praise him. The stained glass windows depicted no saints, but still allowed for the sun to sweep over the heads of the church’s rapt parishioners. But despite the service’s reverence, something truly was missing: the Bread. Their rite did not fill me with the same joy that our Mass, our Eucharist-centered celebration, does each time it is celebrated.

But music is the universal language, and I knew what to do as soon as our director first slid onto the organ bench, then raised his hand for our cue. We sang the old spiritual with faith and fervor, but since the eyes of the congregation were upon us, I reluctantly restrained myself from rocking back and forth and doing my Boppy / Groovy Head Bounce of Joy. (I glanced over at the covers of the well-thumbed music scores my fellow choir members held. Nowadays an octavo costs between two and three dollars; the price stamped on the covers the Presbyterian choir used read 95 cents. My own ancient copy from my college choir days read 60 cents, so in strict musical terms, that made me 35 cents older than these people.)

“Ride the chariot in the morning, Lord / I’m getting ready for the judgment day”, we sang in four-part harmony, recalling the heavenly carriage and steeds which brought Elijah up to the heavens in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). The congregation smiled; the Biblical message was clear despite its being proclaimed in a different religion’s house of worship: God is great, all powerful, all loving.

After the service I jumped into my earthly chariot with four tires and flamed out of the parking lot to sing the noon Mass back at my urban parish and complete the liturgical sandwich. On my 5.2-mile trek along a typical central Jersey roadway, I passed two Methodist churches, a Lutheran church, a Jewish community center, another Catholic church, a Baptist church, and an Apostolic church (and a few secular sites of worship: the great central Jersey strip mall).

“How fortunate I am to live in this country, in this state,” I thought. “We have the freedom people around the world envy: to praise God freely in the style we see fit.” Thought the Presbyterian service I had just attended did not offer the spiritual Bread of the Lamb, I could still appreciate the beauty and value of this alternate route to God’s ultimate reward and feel grateful I had participated.

Today, as the Church kicks off the holy season of Lent, I’ll be back at my Catholic church, proudly sporting an ashen cross on my forehead and breathing a prayer of tripartite thanks:

  • To Jesus for the sacrifice of his earthly life for all of us,
  • To my parents for instilling in me the love for His Catholic Church, and
  • To St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, for enabling me to sing God’s praises wherever my travels take me.

I won’t go all Dorothy Gale / Wizard of Oz on you, clicking my ruby red shoe heels together (mostly because you know I hate wearing fancy shoes), but I have to paraphrase her refrain nonetheless:

Despite it being fun to sing a liturgical sandwich, there’s truly no place like home.

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Everlasting Life

Recently, a 48-year-old woman died. Accolades for her ring loudly.

More than 2,000 years ago, a 33-year-old man died. Accolades for Him will echo throughout all eternity.


Many tears were shed due to the woman’s early passing caused by her own reckless deeds.

Few tears were shed due to the Man’s early passing, caused not by His own reckless deeds, but as a purposeful sacrifice for our sins.


Attention to her work has quickly intensified. Songs are downloaded and movies are rented as everyone wants a small, temporary piece of her. The clamor for her will soon pass as she is replaced by the next idol of the public.

Attention to His work rose more slowly. His words in the Good Book are read, and His eternal, loving presence is cherished each time we gather to partake of the Eucharist. The clamor for Him will never pass, He can never be replaced, His impact will never fade.


The rich and famous claim friendship with her, and beg admittance to her funeral.

The rich and famous denied even knowing Him, and forced His real friends to stay away lest they too suffered His fate.


Her funeral will bring central Jersey to come to a standstill tomorrow. Flags will fly at half-mast, roads will be closed, and television cameras will mark every move.

His death and burial were little-noticed, except among his beloved. They cleaned and wrapped His body in simple cloth, and buried it in a borrowed tomb.


Mourn for the young woman. Her impact in her field came early, her end was tragic, her struggles to make a lasting contribution all in vain.

Rejoice for the young Man. His impact was immediate, His end, though also tragic, made His struggles noble and impact on us mortals endless.


As we begin the season of Lent next week, let’s get our priorities straight. Let us put aside the quest for the glitter and glamour of this life, of its celebrity, of its noise and shallow worship. Let us reflect upon the life of that one God-Man, and upon His death, and let it bring us to a quiet, deep contemplation of what His sacrifice gave to us:

Everlasting Life.



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The Feast of Light and Shadow

Welcome the light! We have seen the shadow on the appointed day! Let us rejoice!

I’m not talking about Punxsutawney Phil or any of his rodent acolytes. I barely pay attention to human meteorologists (especially after that car drowning episode); I’m certainly not going to obsess about a furry, fanged Marmota monax with a press agent and those ridiculous men in top hats. I’m referring to the real celebration of light and shadow for those who have dedicated their lives to Christ and service.

In 1997, Blessed John Paul II designated February 2 as the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life, a day to recognize the holy men and women who are consecrated to God by their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. The day was attached to the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also known as Candlemas; on this day, candles are blessed to symbolize Christ, the Light of the World.

The celebrations for the World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life are usually moved to the following Sunday so that the whole Church might celebrate. The guests of honor, these earthly examples of Christ’s love and selflessness, will be feted for their gift of self. The holy men and women of faith will hold lit candles which will set the darkened church aglow and light our way towards a more joyful, deeper understanding of Christ.

The shadows from these flickering tapers may fall upon the assembled religious, but the Light of Christ shining from within them, and all of us, can help us rise up and conquer any worldly darkness.

Welcome the light! We have seen the shadow on the appointed day! Let us rejoice!

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There’s a New Kid in Town!

Did you ever watch an old Western movie? Remember the scene where the hero and the villain slowly swagger towards one another on the town’s dusty Main Street? (I think the swagger might have been due to saddle sores and their arthritic feet aching in those leather cowboy boots, but I digress..)

The phrase one of them invariably utters is, “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.”

Besides that being grammatically painful to hear, in the electronic Wild West, it’s just plain wrong, pard’ner.

image photo : Happy Cowboy in Old West

As of today, a not-so-new heroine is ambling down the Main Street of the Catholic Wild, Wild West: Mary Morrell. (Cue soundtrack to any John Wayne classic, please..)

You know Mary as author of the book Angels in High-Top Sneakers (Loyola Press © 2000) and the long-running syndicated blog “Things My Father Taught Me”. You also enjoy her wise, deft touch as Managing Editor on every page of The Monitor.

This married mother of six sons is an insightful observer of faith-filled moments, a calm port in life’s storm-tossed seas. (Also, to keep that Western theme running: she exhibits an inexhaustible supply of patience as she attempts to corral a certain mischievous, untamed, cub reporter who shall remain nameless….)

In short, Mary is whom I’d love to become if I ever choose to grow up.

Mary’s newest blog is entitled “Things My Mother Taught Me”, and as soon as I figure out how to connect to it without destroying the entire Internet, you’ll see a link to it on this blog. In the meantime, follow this:


Check out Mary’s initial post, and check back often. You’ll be glad you did. Come as you are: saddle sores and leather cowboy boots are optional.

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A Pearl of Wisdom

Sorry for the unannounced hiatus from blogging, but mid-month I left the fair Garden State for a brief vacation in the Aloha State (yes, again: the line to envy me forms on the right, please). I’m back home, refreshed, a little less pale, but a lot lighter….in my wallet. While I was in Honolulu, I fell victim to a smiling Hawaiian huckster’s entreaty to buy an expensive bit of jewelry, but came away with an insight more valuable than any pearl necklace.

My friend Lisa and I wandered into the island’s famous tourist shop one afternoon in search of an inexpensive trinket to commemorate our trip. Before my sandal had fully crossed the threshold, a wily saleswoman in a gaily-colored Aloha shirt swooped in, acrylic-nailed talons unsheathed, and subtly steered me toward the jewelry case with the promise of a beautiful memento. “I’m just looking for a coffee mug,” I replied stubbornly, but she rejoined, “Oh, a necklace would be so much prettier.  Just pick a key from this tray and see if it fits the lock on the treasure box.”

Reluctantly, I accepted a tiny silver key from the woman, inserted it into the treasure box lock, and saw the lock pop open. “Gee, what a surprise,” I thought. “I’d better back away quickly before my hard-earned dollars fly into the cash register.” I hesitated for just a moment, and the saleswoman smelled blood (or greenbacks). “Oh, yes,” she rejoiced. “Now you can pick the setting for a beautiful pearl.”

Okay, readers, here’s a fact: I don’t own any expensive jewelry, primarily because I don’t attend events which require formal wear. I also don’t attend any events which require formal wear, primarily because I don’t own expensive jewelry. (Careful, don’t get dizzy going in circles trying to figure this out.) “But I’ve passed the half-century mark now,” I thought. “Wouldn’t this be a great time to stop this circuitous logic and get a memento of the trip? Let me just look at the pearls. I can always say ‘no’ later.” (Apparently, a combination of sushi, sun, sand, and surf results in shopper naiveté.)

I walked towards the tray of mollusks in water and steeled myself for the upcoming negotiations. “Pick the ugliest oyster,” the saleswoman urged. “The uglier the shell, the more beautiful the pearl.” I chose the Quasimodo of them all, a mollusk of nondescript color and bumpy exterior, and waited for her to release the pearl.

I was not that lucky: this famous tourist shop assures its visitors undergo more humiliation first. The saleswoman handed me what looked like a putty knife and said, “Okay, take this, tap the shell three times and say ‘Alo-HA!’, and you can pry it open yourself.”

I unleashed The Look, heretofore kept under wraps on this all-too-civil island. You know The Look: it’s the one you give to that shopper with a full cart who tries to slink in front of you in the 12-items-or-less line at the supermarket. Yes, that look, loosely translated as “you have GOT to be kidding me…” which is encoded upon the DNA of native New Jerseyans at birth. But this female Hawaiian huckster, never having visited the Garden State, was invulnerable to The Look. “Go ahead, tap the shell,” she urged again.

I sighed, admitted defeat, and obeyed. “One, two, three,” I muttered as I tapped the shell with the putty knife. “And… ‘aloha’…” the saleswoman reminded me in a cheerful sing-song tone. “Aloha,” I replied softly as I rolled my eyes in embarrassment.

“Alo-HA!” the girl shouted, and rang a bell joyously. (Lisa, safe in the cheap-souvenir section of the shop, looked up with a bemused “better-you-than-me” smile.) The saleswoman, happy as a game show contestant who had just solved the final-round puzzle, pried open the ugly shell to reveal a shiny black pearl. Seconds later, she mounted the pearl in a sterling silver setting, slipped it onto a chain, and clasped it around my neck. The saleswoman guided toward a mirror to see the image of my very first expensive jewelry purchase nestled beneath my chin. With one fluid motion, this Hawaiian incarnation of P.T. Barnum triumphantly bagged the necklace, guided the pen in my hand to sign a credit card receipt, and bade me a happy “Mahalo! (Thank you!)”.

Later that night, when the fog lifted and I realized I owned an expensive necklace, I surfed the web to learn about pearls. These orbs are formed naturally when a small fleck of sand or other irritant becomes lodged in the soft tissue of a mollusk. As a defense mechanism, the mollusk secretes a smooth, hard, crystalline substance called nacre; surrounding the sand, layer by layer, a beautiful pearl is born.

Strange: the genesis of that object of beauty is an ugly irritant.  It seems to be the opposite with me. When I harbor an irritant, resentment, grudge, or sin, I attempt to bury it under layers of denial. Nothing beautiful remains; rather, more ugliness is created and I am even more sin-filled. God’s grace, though always present, seems to take longer to penetrate the hard exterior, and I feel weary, depressed and alone.

“I’m going to try something new,” I thought as I gazed upon the pearl. I’ll keep the core of my inner pearl, my soul, filled with God’s love. I’ll surround it, layer by layer, with frequent prayer, I resolved, and fortify it with a more positive outlook. Friends who have seen me since my return have noted I looked happy and peace-filled, so perhaps my theory of nurturing the pearl within is valid.

There’s still one more problem: I now own an expensive necklace, so someone please invite me to a formal event where I can show it off!

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