The next day, Monday the first of August, had a lot of conversation picking up from the opening night's talk, with a lot of news exchange and catching-up. Scott's doctoral exams in History at Saint Louis University were just over a fortnight away, and Wurtz was beginning to prepare for writing his doctoral dissertation at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Liturgy at Sant'Anselmo back in Rome. So it was cool to hear something of their own work (exams in Early American Religious History and Ethics for Scott, and a project on priestly formation since Vatican II for Michael), and to catch a glimpse of where they could take it. Scott had some dissertation thoughts, too, looking at Protestant Scholasticism as it stretched into early American life. As usual, when encountering other scholars, most vividly in related fields, with was exciting and humbling to see the scope of the knowledge that was out there, and which you had yet to even imagine acquiring for yourself.
It was hot again in Arkansas, with a daily high around 100ºF, just like during last year's heat wave when we visited. In the afternoon, Kev ended up working out down at the boathouse, where Wurtz joined him for a swim and some talk. McGlinn, Scott and I ended up talking more up in the house, hiding from the 102ºF high at around 3pm., and following up on some of the political/social commentary and ideas regarding which Scott had mentioned in earlier emails that he was thinking about starting a formal blog. This is where not keeping any ongoing notes or voice memos during the retreat itself starts to plague me: hours and hours of rich conversations that are all starting to blur in memory, or about which I might have to practice some discretion for personal or professional/future publication reasons.
We decided to go for the simpler option of the "breakfast for dinner" that we planned for one of our evening meals. Since we had had to dig into the already-thawing steaks for the previous night's dinner (and I had enjoyed one of the leftover cuts for lunch), I thought that this was maybe a little more fair for Henri, who wasn't arriving until the next day, so that he didn't miss out on any of the "bigger" dinner nights. Not that I was in mourning, because we were having a repeat of last year's "breakfast for dinner," where McGlinn had introduced me to that Southern delight that I had always thought sounded lame in my Northern ignorance: biscuits 'n' gravy. So. Good. I mean, I found a great brunch place down here on Magazine Street in New Orleans that makes a set that's heavenly, the new Uptown location of Surrey's Cafe and Juice Bar, but McGlinn's are no amateur effort. They got that stuff cooking, and we settled in for Mass, the feast of Alphonsus Liguori, which was the beginning of a run of the week's feasts, which all seemed to be early modern saints, some of whom I was not familiar with at all, and whose spiritualities and contributions Fr. Wurtz deftly worked into each of his meditations, for our benefit, and which occasionally then resurfaced in interesting ways later in the evenings' conversations. As I mentioned in the previous entry about the retreat, Wurtzie had also contributed another dimension to the spiritual side of our gathering by suggesting that we add morning prayer (Lauds) and evening prayer (Vespers) to our schedule this year: morning prayer independently, whenever each of us wanted, and evening prayer as a group, immediately following Mass. We did that again tonight, and Wurtz made a point of stressing that the laity are formally allowed or invited to lead such services, and that we were welcome to do so. (As a liturgical scholar himself, I think he enjoyed making that point and giving us such opportunities, although he hammed it up a bit by just indicating that, in his role as a priest, he'd simply welcome the break from having to always lead things himself.) Having that (extremely minor) responsibility myself, however, just makes me even that much more attentive to the text as I'm trying to both read it and pray it, kind of like how I've noticed that teaching books makes me read them even better than when I'm just reading them for myself, and so I welcomed the opportunity. And then after that, McGlinn's biscuits 'n' gravy (and homemade hash browns) were ready, and so we filled ourselves with those goodies, which was kind of sacramental, too.
That night was the most musical of our nights, all of us with drinks out on the balcony, with quite a bit of time devoted to playing with the song "Come To The Water," as McGlinn is in the midst of an ongoing project of re-interpreting and recording popular texts out of the current Catholic hymnbooks. He had played several demos for me on the way down the day before, and pulled detailed critiques of each out of me, and it was interesting to hear perhaps a little of our conversation bear some fruit this evening, as "Come To The Water" began to evolve from its rolling solemnity to something with a little movement underneath it, especially once McGlinn figured out a certain keyboard sound and rhythm. Kevin began to add a little acoustic guitar, very smartly giving plenty of pause and silence in the line he added, giving it the feel of a late-drive, driving cross-country kind of song. I simply tried to snap my fingers consistently on the third beat, which anyone who knows my sense of rhythm can appreciate the effort of. Whatever would be the best way to describe it, it began to work, despite the fact we had managed to all show up without anyone bringing percussion this year. Kevin and I began to play with some background vocals and counterpoint lines, punctuated by strange yelps from sudden bug attacks. We kept playing with the tempo, trying to find the right groove of that quiet driving, without dragging, but I was reassured in that everyone seemed to be coming to the same conclusion that I had told McGlinn in hearing his demo on the way down: that the song gets more powerful the more the music is held back, and the lyrics are allowed to do their work without voices and instruments trying to highlight, or worse, compete with the power there. Wurtz and Scott and drew our attention back to that when needed, keeping our awareness on what the lyrics were really about (such as their being more Christological than is usually remembered) whenever we threatened to follow the musical possibilities to the lyrics' expense, suggesting alternatives that always improved the whole.
We riffed on that for about 45 minutes, maybe, before we lost steam, and began to just riff stupidly over the thing, an earlier glimpse of "Stayin' Alive" being much more aptly replaced with the Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," which was really much closer to the sound we'd been making, and then later a bit of REM's "You Are The Everything," before we decided we'd well and goodly killed the mood. Music continued to pepper conversation for the rest of the night. Something like a soft jazz version of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" emerged out of the mellow mood that we had slid into by the end of the long tinkering with the hymn. Kev came in after a verse on acoustic six-string, and picked it up, driving it forward as it went on verse-by-verse. Kevin and I closed out the night together after everyone else had turned in, sipping our drinks and talking, remembering the night in his new apartment in Indianapolis in 2001, with no furniture, where we came in late and sat on the floor for a few hours, playing our new songs – his "Just In Case" and my "My Mom" – over and over, back from one to the other, in the dark. A little later we even recorded (for the first time, I think) ourselves doing harmonies on "Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard," which we must have been singing together for most of the fifteen years we've known one another. We sang it in a higher key than ever before, though, and so my baritone self trying to return to my first tenor days on the falsetto harmonies was less successful than usual.... Still, we found out later that we all had gained the approval of the owner of the property owner, who was sitting just down the lane on the patio outside of his house and recording studio, listening to us making music in the night.
To be continued.