by Mary Vasile
“Who hears music, feels his solitude peopled at once.” –Robert Browning
I spent my semester abroad in Cork, Ireland. I lived about a three-minute walk from a church in which there was very little interaction between people. No Kiss of Peace, no uniform Mass responses (people mixed the old and new with regularity), and no universal cadence or rhythm to anything, not even the Our Father, which was taken at breakneck speed. Communion was a free-for-all, and just stepping into the aisle was a leap of faith. To be honest, the atmosphere was a little icy. I don’t think anyone ever really looked over and greeted his neighbor.
I was also struck by the complete lack of music. Although, to be honest, at first I thought to myself, “Yes! Fastest Masses ever!” Eventually, though, I couldn’t stand the silence. I missed opening songs, sung psalms, and communion hymns. They really do warm up the Mass. I missed the music through which God gathers the congregation together. I missed the community that develops spontaneously when people sing along to something. I realized that music is not just an outlet for our creativity; by bringing us together, it reminds us of the ultimate creative Being, the master composer and conductor. Without music, I was keenly aware of being disconnected from the people around me, which was difficult for a foreigner.
So I had to look elsewhere for that musical community. Luckily, I didn’t have to look too far. My roommate Aimee was a bluegrass fiddler, I had a guitar, and we both sang, so we decided pretty early on that we were going to be collaborators. We’d go through our repertoire, practice a set, and then, every week, haul ourselves over to the Brú Bar Open Mic Nights.
They were usually quiet nights, as most open mic nights in Cork were Mondays, but there was always a small, faithful gathering of familiar faces. There was the guy that sang his own heart-breaking songs about war (cheery, I know). There was the guy who joined in with his friends on kazoo (you wouldn’t think it would work, but it did). And there was the band that always closed the evening, usually with “Hit the Road, Jack” (and with a chorus like that one, you got everyone singing). Aaron, the bartender, would tell you when you were up next, and offer you a pint when you were done.
When you got up onstage, your voice flowed through a sound system that was slightly imbalanced until Aaron adjusted it, and then your song became part of the very air.
Some people stopped and listened, some continued chatting, and some sang along, but it didn’t matter what they did. It mattered that they let that music seep into their talk and their drinks and their weary Mondays. It mattered that the line between performer and audience was constantly fluctuating, that borders between people were deteriorating. It mattered that those lyrics and notes were flitting through bits of conversation, slowly bringing people out of the cold, rainy night and gathering them together. And in those intertwining melodies, voices, and rhythms, I caught glimpses of the Conductor at work.
I know this because good things started happening. Songs grew familiar and faces got names. For instance, one day as I was walking around Cork, I saw this guy singing and playing his guitar on the street. I recognized him from the open mic, so I just went up and introduced myself. His name was Darren, he had a great voice, and we had a lovely conversation that never would have happened without music.
People sometimes didn’t even know the good that they did. One night, I was feeling pretty downcast, and then someone started playing Tom Petty. It was exactly what I needed. Another night, a guy came up to me to say he had heard Aimee and me on the night he arrived in Cork, four months before. He had been dreading living there, but when he heard us, he felt uplifted and found the courage to face his new life.
Pretty soon, all this interweaving of sounds and people started soothing the homesickness and filling in the community I was missing. I still went to Mass every Sunday because it was still important. I always found healing there because I chose to look for God in His beauty, and of course, I found Him—in the homily, the readings, the Eucharist.
Here’s the problem, though, and here’s what gives Christians a bad reputation. I tried to find fellowship with the congregation, but the people there would not meet me halfway. It wasn’t just about the lack of music. That was just a symptom of a certain hardness of heart. They would not open their eyes, their ears, their mouths. They were silent, and that is not what we as Christians are called to be. We’re called to be active, to engage people, to show them Christ and see Christ in them. In the end, it was the silence of that congregation I found most unbearable.
So in those Monday open mics, I tried to break that silence, to reach out, to connect with my fellow man. I saw how music was just God’s tool for helping strangers shake up the monotonous drone of everyday life, see the good in others, and realize they are never alone. The people I saw every Monday may not all have been Catholic, they may not have cared about Mass, they may not have even believed in God, but they never turned down a little “Wagon Wheel.” So if “Wagon Wheel” is how God wants me to show people His love and gather them together, I feel pretty lucky, and I’ll just go grab my guitar.