Friday, April 16, 2010

Rich Mullins

Recently I've been on a huge Rich Mullins kick. He and John Michael Talbot have been the only Christian musicians whose albums (do we still call them that?) I purchased diligently, release after release, back in the days when I still did that sort of thing.

I started buying his albums when I worked at a Christian bookstore and had them under my nose all the time. My first purchase was Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth which contains the song Awesome God. This is the song currently responsible for my Mullins resurgence, as I am trying to coordinate the performance of this song for a benefit concert I'm organizing for next weekend. It is still his most popular song, but by his own admission, he didn't much care for it. It has a strong pop feel to it, which is decidedly different from most of his music.

I was privileged to see him in concert twice in the early 90s. As everyone else was getting seated, he would unobtrusively come to the stage (in ripped jeans, a t-shirt and barefoot) set up his instruments with the band, and just start to play with no fanfare or introduction.

What really strikes me about Rich's music, and always has, is a sense of the sort of beauty in it that makes one's heart ache. Songs like The Color Green or Calling Out Your Name evoke a sense of longing and yearning that is palpable.

One metaphor that appears repeatedly in Rich's music is that of the beauty of the stars, the same stars that Abraham saw. His song Sometimes By Step speaks of how "sometimes [the sky] seems to stoop so close/ you could touch it but your heart would break." I was thinking a lot about this image today, and it seems the perfect one for the longing for the transcendence of God. This Beauty approaches us, we sometimes feel wrapped up in it, but if we try to grasp it and hold it as ours, we suddenly realize how Other it is. We cannot hold it. It is infinitely far from us, yet close enough to completely surround and envelop us, filling us. We cannot grasp God, so to speak, but we can surrender to His embrace of us. This is the sense of the aching longing, of the immense, infinite Beauty of which he sings. His songs can leave one feeling something like sadness, yet it is not really sadness. It is like the sadness of one who has seen the joy of heaven but must live on earth. Ok, yes, it is sadness. But it is the most hopeful kind of sadness possible to mankind.

Rich was killed in a car accident in September of 1997. He was 41 years old. He died on a Friday, and the following Monday he was to be received into the Catholic Church. This seems so consonant with the way Rich lived. He spoke and sang about dying more than once, and as a single man with no children he seemed more than ready. I guess God desired to fulfill His longing not with Sacrament, but with the Reality itself, sans veil.

His life and death still leaves much that Christians admire, discuss and ponder. His attraction to Catholicism was not easy for many Christians to swallow, and because he never did actually enter the Church some deny that he intended to. But none of that matters, and Rich would be the first to tell us so. Giving oneself entirely to Christ, radically, as He calls each one -- that is the thing.

It is impossible for me to choose my favorite song by him. I think my favorite is usually whichever I happen to be listening to at the moment. This one is called Peace: A Communion Blessing from St. Joseph's Square, and is from his album A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band.

Rich, I miss you so much! Pray for us.


Beth said...

I just stumbled on your blog - and I absolutely LOVE Rich Mullins. You're so right - his lyrics make my heart ache. I think I own all his albums too.

Actually my daughter's name is Madeleine because of his Madeline's song - which was never recorded but was on a concert DVD that I heard in college. The line "God gladly bends just to hear Madeline when she prays" is what did it for me ;)

Marie said...

Thanks for stopping by, Beth. I've really been enjoying watching his videos on YouTube.

Jeff said...

So, since he died before being formally received your church, where is he now? Is an expressed desire enough to allow entrance or does there have to be the ex opere operato of baptism? Just curious.

Marie said...

Hi Jeff,

Exactly what Rich is doing right now is a question for the One who made him, of course. But what I can say with absolute certainty is that there is but one baptism that unites us to Christ, and Rich had received that already as a child. (He testifies to it in a video available on YouTube.) Clearly he was not, technically speaking, "entering" the Catholic Church -- as that lingo is more about meeting Christ for the first time. (As the Catholic Catechism 838 would show: It would be more precise to say he was taking a step toward full unity with the Church

The Catholic Church recognizes that those who have put on Christ in baptism but have been born into communities of the separated, fractured Church, are guilty of no sin of separation and are accepted as brothers in the Lord. But we are all called to follow Christ as He calls us to grow up in the oneness, the holiness, the catholicity and the apostolic nature of the Church, regardless of the Christian communion in which we find ourselves.

That's also the message that seemed to drip off of Rich's life.

Jeff said...

Hello Marie,

I guess I'm somewhat confused. If he was baptized as a child, thus absolving him of original sin, I wonder why he saw the need to attend classes about Catholicism? He couldn't just join up? Is baptism by a priest necessary to make it official or will any baptism suffice?

What about the thief on the cross? He wasn't baptized but Jesus said that he would be with Him in Paradise (Luke 23:39-43). This begs the question is baptism even necessary? As I read the Bible, it says that we are saved by faith, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Maybe I'm out in left field or something.

Marie said...

Hi again Jeff,

Rich wasn't going to be receiving Baptism, he was preparing for Confirmation and first Eucharist. As I said in my other post, there is only one baptism, and as long as it was an actual baptism (water applied with the Trinitarian formula: "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit"), it cannot be validly repeated. And as long as there is some proof that it happened (a church record, a relative who was present and testifies to it, etc.) the Catholic Church acknowledges its validity.

About the thief on the cross and other such people (martyrs, etc.), if you read how the Church in the first several centuries after Christ understood it, you find what Catholics call "baptism of blood" and "baptism of desire". In circumstances where it is impossible for people to fulfill Christ's command of baptism, incorporation into Christ, union with Him, is accomplished through union with His sacrificial death (martyrdom) or through the longing for the sacrament.

Would Christ command his followers "go ye therefore and do this rather unnecessary symbolic thing, because I just feel like instituting it today."? :) Fortunately, Jesus is not so whimsical with us. Everything he told us, everything Scripture gives us, is replete with meaning and purpose, personally, for us and for our salvation.

I absolutely concur that we are saved by faith and not by works. But we have to be more precise, again. The Protestant church I grew up in tried to define "making a decision for Christ" as a work by which some tried falsely to be saved. We are saved by faith in Christ, which has to involve conformity to Christ, obedience to Christ. This conformity, this obedience is what we cannot pull off by our own effort, by our own works. It has to be by the grace of God working in us. And if the grace of God works in us, we have to give it a response, preferably our Yes.

Anyone, anywhere is always welcome to just start showing up at Catholic Masses and the community life of a parish. But to be incorporated into the Church, to "become a Catholic," and therefore to share fully in her Sacramental life presumes a Yes, a commitment, given to the grace of God that has been working. It's something like friendship/dating/engagement/wedding/marriage. Human commitments require time and preparation, understanding, and a decision that goes beyond today's feeling.

You might be interested in this article where baptism is concerned:

Jeff said...

Hi Marie,

Question: Was Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross insufficient for forgiveness of sins?

Marie said...

No, of course not! Christ's life & death & resurrection is the ONLY thing that opens the path to the Father for anyone.

That's why the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in the world to unite us each to Christ, because He is the only way to the Father, to heaven.

Sacraments aren't at all about "extra sufficiency," over and above Christ's, to get us heaven. They are all about the Holy Spirit's work to unite us to Him, to make Christ's super-abundant sufficiency our own possession, in the on-going walk of our lived experience.