Celtic Music as a Path to Reconciliation?: Guest Post by Roger Newton (Part 1)

celtic crossLast week I started a series of blogs about the Year of Faith. I wrote that I hoped that the Year of Faith would play a role in pushing the Catholic Church further towards the vision of Vatican II, and that this vision would include deeper and more meaningful ecumenical engagement.

I was recently contacted by Roger Newton, who described himself as a 71-year-old, semi-retired, music-loving Lutheran pastor. Newton, a native of Vermont, now lives in Philadelphia. He worked as a civilian personnel specialist for the US Navy in Groton, Connecticut for 15 years before entering the seminary. He had written some reflections about how music – and in particular Celtic music – had enhanced his own spiritual journey and could be a means of promoting reconciliation between Christians of different traditions.

I thought that Newton’s reflections would be of interest to readers of this blog, especially in light of the opportunities offered by the Year of Faith.

Newton agreed that I could reproduce his reflections in a series of posts. In the first post, he names some of the music that has been significant for him (and which he believes may help others on their spiritual journeys). As he wrote in his email to me:

I pray that Christians can be united as Jesus intends.  And I believe that musicians and poets can help immensely in working toward that unity.

While Newton’s reflections don’t probe the difficulties that some from Protestant traditions on this island may have with the label ‘Celtic,’ what I like about this post is that Newton explores how he came to change some of his own views about Catholicism, in particular, its view of Mary. He also offers to us a range of music that may make for inspiration on our own journeys.

Roger Newton on Celtic Music as a Path to Reconciliation? Part 1

After listening to fiddler Máiréad Nesbitt’s Finan’s Isle Suite, I learned that St. Finan was an Irish monk who studied in Scotland, ministered in England and fostered unity among the Christians who lived in those island nations. Máiréad’s music reminds me how wonderful it will be when that unity will be celebrated among Irish Christians wherever they live, whether in the Republic, in the North or in their worldwide diaspora.

Máiréad convinces me that musicians can accomplish more than clergy to inspire faith and to heal the wounds that afflict Christians at this time when a small number of priests have caused believers to distrust them because of their terrible moral offenses. So let the healing begin.

I have several friends who are Roman Catholic, including two faithful priests. We have discussed the “Hail, Mary” several times. I used to think that saying the “Hail, Mary” was idolatry. But I now know that I misunderstood.

Mary, “the rose that bear Jesu,” becomes for me a symbol of a believer’s simple faith as I listen to Michael McGlynn and Lucy Champion of Anúna sing a medieval carol, “Ther’ is No Ros’.” And I came to share Martin Luther’s life-long love for Mary after listening to an angelic voice singing the Bach-Gounod setting of the “Ave Maria.” The voice was Chloë Agnew’s. I remember hoping that one day I would hear Chloë sing the Schubert setting which my mother loved. Chloë fulfilled my hope when she sang the Schubert setting beautifully a few years later on Celtic Woman’s Believe album.

Recently I discovered, a few days apart, Méav ni Mhaolchatha’s, Chloë’s, Hayley Westenra’s and Michelle Amato’s lovely renditions of “Danny Boy.” The singer asks her beloved to “sing an Ave” for her on her grave. Somehow the song reminded me that I can greet Mary as my fellow believer because in Latin Ave is simply a greeting. It is not a prayer. And because the church on earth is in communion with the church in heaven, I can greet Mary and ask her to pray for me as one Christian prays for another until we are reunited in our Father’s house.

Méav; Áine Minogue; Sarah Lacy of Eden’s Bridge; and Lynn Hilary, Joanna Fagan and Michael McGlynn of Anúna breathe gentle new life into the world’s most beloved Christmas carol, “Silent Night.” Lynn Hilary recreates for me the blessing of Jesus’ birth in “O Holy Night.”

Michelle Amato and Loreena McKennitt help me understand that the most beautiful things happen for me “In the Bleak Midwinter” of my life, just as it happened for all of us when Jesus was born so long, long ago. And Áine tenderly closes the holy season with “Oiche Mhaith Leibh/Good Night to You.”

What do these living artists share with Franz Schubert, who expresses the triune God’s awe-inspiring love in his Mass #6; with Antonin Dvořák, whose Stabat Mater unites me with the heart of Jesus’ grieving mother at the cross; or with Gustav Mahler, whose Wunderhorn symphonies reflect the Urlicht which guides me through my fear of death to Auferstehung and from there to das himmlische Leben?

They share, I believe, an ancient heritage usually known as “Celtic” and usually associated with the Irish, Scots, Welsh, Bretons and their émigrés to the US, Canada and elsewhere. I believe, however, that I can legitimately apply “Celtic” to at least a portion of the musical inspiration of those three composers: an Austrian, a Bohemian (Czech) and a Bohemian/Austrian Jewish Christian.

Celtic poetry and music are associated with pre-Christian religion and with today’s “New Age” spirituality as well as with Christianity. No problem. The poetry and the music express the deepest reality which we all share, namely our humanity. Jesus shared it, too, in His birth, life, death and resurrection.

(Image sourced on flickr, by Tau Zero)

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