Almost Holy: Confessions of a Bad Catholic

The Bishop's Send-Off and the Return of the High Priest

It’s become a defining trait of my journey that much of it is spent in the “bridge and tunnel” traffic of crossing parallel universes. As it keeps things fresh and diverse—and keeps me learning and open as a result—I’m convinced that it’s good for the soul, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Then again, I have a high tolerance for pain.

Another eclectic journey is on-deck for next week. It’s not terribly exotic, but I’m still really looking forward to it.

Next Friday evening begins in the friendly confines of Philadelphia’s Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, as the hometown Church crowd gathers to bid farewell to Bishop Michael Burbidge, a longtime friend who Pope Benedict named in June to head the Diocese of Raleigh.

The journey from the City of Brotherly Love to the Tar Heel State might not be an easy one, but we’ll all be gathering around our friend with the wish that, both for Raleigh and its new bishop, life will be good.

By Flip-flop and Ferry

After a bit of prayer and kibitzing with the faithful, I’ll be ditching the black suit and French cuffs and—by flip-flop, ferry and Rockmobile—will end up across the Delaware River at the Tweeter Center in Camden.

I may have left the Cathedral, but it’s at the Tweeter where I’ll be greeting the return of the high priest. After two long years, Damien Rice is back in town.

For those who haven’t heard of Rice, the Irish singer-songwriter who recorded his 2001 breakout album O on an eight-track in his bedroom, in the homes of friends and while busking on the road has caused a bit of a stir in the music world. In the grand tradition of Nina Simone, Leonard Cohen and the late, great Jeff Buckley, Rice rode the Little Album That Could to indie glory and platinum sales on the back of stunningly simple and emotional lyrics, a voice ridden with pain at the way of the world, and a dynamic stage presence that belies the singer’s intensely introverted reality. (Believe me, as a backstage fixture at his shows since before Rice hit it big, I know how introverted he can be. Unless you ask about the situation in Myanmar.)

Who Is This?

I first “found” Damien Rice on the 2nd anniversary of 9/11. The cycle of grief being shown on all the broadcast and cable news channels was a little too much to bear, so I started flipping channels and landed on VH1 where I heard this voice coming out of the TV.

“It’s not hard to grow when you know that you just don’t know” -Damien Rice

“Who is this?” I couldn’t help but ask myself. I hadn’t heard anything like it in my life – a blend of blues, jazz, folk and classical wound around two voices. The angelic co-vocal and cello sealed the deal.

At the time, I was still beating myself up over a relationship, the end of which I felt responsible for. If only I had the words that came up in “Volcano,” the song that wafted out of the TV, “For what I give to you is just what I’m going through… another phase of finding just what I really need.” It was a much-needed reminder that, in our relationships, we can only give what we are, and it helped get me over my inherited double-shot of Catholic and Italian guilt over the way things fell apart, and what I saw at the time as my role in it.

Rice Wisdom

Over time, some other bits of Rice’s wisdom resonated with me as I picked ‘em up. Things like, “Loving is fine if you’ve only the time for walking on stilts at the edge of your mind” (“The Professor”) “We all seem to need the help of someone else to mend that shelf with too many books” (“Older Chests”), “Stones taught me to fly, love taught me to lie, life taught me to die, so it’s not hard to fall when you float like a cannonball,” and the best advice of all, “It’s not hard to grow when you know that you just don’t know” (“Cannonball,” both).

Even though I’ve gotten to spend some time with Rice, his band and their bevy of Irish expat friends over the years, the most priceless experience given me by the man and his music was one when he was nowhere around. At least, not physically.

A couple weeks before Christmas 2003, I saw Rice for the first time at a small Polish social club cum rock venue in Brooklyn. I have a recording of the show, and its dominant thread of trying to view the letdowns and frustrations of life in a less daunting way has been the soundtrack of many sleepless nights since.

One Word

The most moving bit of it, however, wasn’t a song, but a songwriter’s story: the inspiration behind “Amie”—the crie de coeur which, for me at least, is the peak of Rice’s body of work. It’s a hymn to a woman the singer referred to as his “dreaming partner,” and the circumstances of its origin were something with which I could easily relate: a lonely night, a large window, an indelible longing, a fear of the unknown, and the unique state that combination produces, a place where powerlessness and prayer meet, and you find yourself able to do nothing more than to simply hope, to literally ask the stars for a sign.

Tough though they are, moments like that aren’t as powerless as we might think. If anything, to quote another version of the story of “Amie,” they’re the times “where you allow yourself to believe those things which other people think are stupid and unbelievable.”

More often than not, this quality often goes by a one-word definition: faith. Its results don’t always fit our plans, they’re not always delivered in our own time, but every once in a while, those moments come along to remind us that, for all its pitfalls and letdowns, we can do nothing better than to allow ourselves to let go and keep looking upward.

In many ways, it’s the most powerful thing we can do. And next week as I navigate the bridges and tunnels from one spiritual experience to another, that’s what I’ll be celebrating most.