Novak (novak) wrote,

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Personal/Theological Notebook: The Tenth Anniversary of Rich Mullins' Death

Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of Rich Mullins. It was a stunning piece of news, and everyone who knew his work moved in a sort of shocked state of disbelief that day, looking at one another with a bleakness that belied words. He and L'Engle were the only two I considered "first tier" spiritual masters that lived in my lifetime, and he was the only one I met. His big achievement on my behalf was to fill in the great gap left in my childhood Catholic formation of passing onto me a sacramental vision of reality. In company with our mutual master and great influence, Francis of Assisi, Rich broke through to me in my undergraduate years both in giving this ability to see God revealed in all things, as well as embracing a lifestyle of simplicity, or even poverty, where the lack of ownership opens up the pleasurable use of everything in the world.

He was a songwriter who the Chicago Tribune, in a retrospective feature on October 10, 1997, rightly described with, "In a career spanning seven albums in 11 years, Mullins matured from a sophomoric-but-ambitious neophyte into a master craftsman who, creatively speaking, deserves the same praise as Sting, the Chieftains and Paul Simon...." In those seven albums, he produced many well-received songs, and two albums which I would grant the rank of "masterpieces" – a term I do not liberally cast about. The World As Best As I Remember it, Vol. 1 and A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band both earn that lofty recognition and do so with very distinct merits and styles. (By way of comparison, I would rank another favourite of mine, the more widely-known U2, as having produced three "masterpieces": The Joshua Tree, Achtung, Baby, and All That you Can't Leave Behind; just to let you know what level of quality and artistic achievement I'm talking about here.) With the luxury that we always realize we had only when it is illumined by death, I had expected many such more over the course of my life. I gathered with other mourners over the coming weeks, to hear a copy of the scratchy, awful, brilliant boom-box cassette demo of his "Ten Songs About Jesus" that he had spontaneously pulled over and recorded in an empty country chapel ten days before his death. He never recorded demos in that way, but this time he had, and these dubbed cassette tape copies were meatier than most other artists' studio recordings.

My roommate David Nutting turned me onto him, and in time I found myself part of a troupe of students who would follow Rich around the area, Deadhead-like, whenever he would tour in the region. He gave words – supported by a music indebted to the breadth of the American folk and rock traditions – that gave expression to the love I felt for my Midwestern landscape, being the only singer I knew who seriously sang about the land itself, and not some more abstract "Earth" or "Nature," but with the sacramental depth that supported the love of the world as something beyond an end in itself. It wasn't just for the music that we followed him (he frequently toured without a band and chronically had difficulty remembering his own lyrics, which we would shout to him from the audience whenever the vague look of panic would cross his face), but even more for the "conversation" with his audience: a sort of free-form ramble through his train of thought that featured reams of insights that could have filled books of useful quotations. Although he'd occasionally say something ill-advised, which he was likely to point out himself, we were aware that we were in the presence of a man who was being transformed into something distinctively new. I couldn't help but notice the similarities to Francis, as I read The Little Flowers and other such early sources in those years, but here we were seeing it in our time and culture. One of the most successful musicians in the industry, he gave his entire income to a charitable fund from which he drew an annual salary determined by the annual average worker's income in the U.S. So different from the glam of Nashville, and the gruesome "gospel of prosperity" so popular among some wings of Evangelicalism. Rich's own journey into Catholicism paced my own, although for me it was a matter of return, without nearly so much baggage as someone coming straight out of the Protestant American context.

In the aftermath of the traffic accident that took his life, I was stunned by how often his own death seemed to obliquely peer out from behind his lyrics: a desire for consummation in the God of Jesus Christ that wasn't hidden by his own frustrations, nor hid them, whether his confusion about what to "really" do with his life, his disappointment that he never married, or his struggle with his own deep anger and inability to move beyond old wounds.
Calling Out Your Name
Well the moon moved past Nebraska
And spilled laughter on them cold Dakota Hills
And angels danced on Jacob's stairs
Yeah, they danced on Jacob's stairs
There is this silence in the Badlands
And over Kansas the whole universe was stilled
By the whisper of a prayer
The whisper of a prayer

And a single hawk bursts into flight
And in the east the whole horizon is in flames
I feel thunder in the sky
I see the sky about to rain
And I hear the prairies calling out Your name

I can feel the earth tremble
Beneath the rumbling of the buffalo hooves
And the fury in the pheasant's wings
And there's fury in a pheasant's wings
It tells me the Lord is in His temple
And there is still a faith that can make the mountains move
And a love that can make the heavens ring
And I've seen love make heaven ring

Where the sacred rivers meet
Beneath the shadow of the Keeper of the plains
I feel thunder in the sky
I see the sky about to rain
And I hear the prairies calling out Your name

From the place where morning gathers
You can look sometimes forever 'til you see
What time may never know
What time may never know
How the Lord takes by its corners this old world
And shakes us forward and shakes us free
To run wild with the hope
To run wild with the hope

The hope that this thirst will not last long
That it will soon drown in a song not sung in vain
And I feel thunder in the sky
I see the sky about to rain
And I hear the prairies calling out Your name

And I know this thirst will not last long
That it will soon drown in a song not sung in vain
I feel thunder in the sky
I see the sky about to rain
And with the prairies I am calling out Your name
Tags: art, musical, mysticism/spirituality, personal, rich mullins, sacramental, theological notebook

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