Thursday, September 16, 2010

From Dead Into Life

When I arrived on Capitol Hill from Dulles early Wednesday evening, my dinner companion, who has a fascinating international portfolio that need not concern us further, slipped me a small shopping bag containing 12 CDs (actually, more than that; most are double albums). They ranged from 1967, when Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia and bassist Phil Lesh spun and talked about their favorite records on a radio show in San Francisco (it's astonishing the tape of the show exists) to a concert Garcia and mandolinist David Grisman performed at San Francisco's Warfield Theater in February 1991. My friend said the recording of the second set would be one of his ten desert island discs. You know the concept: If you were stranded on a desert island forever, what albums would you take (in case you couldn't take your iPod)?

Garcia's first instrument was the banjo, which my friend said he took up during what he called "the Great Folk Scare" of the early 1960s. For several years he and Grisman tailed Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, and taped his concerts (the way people would later tape Dead shows). The 1991 set in question, which my friend played in the car, begins with "The Thrill is Gone," a 195os blues song popularized by B. B. King and belted out by Garcia in a husky but sonorous voice I'd never heard from him before. It continues with some country standards ("Old Rocking Chair"), a few Dead songs, and Irving Berlin's "Russian Lullaby."

So I have a feast of several weeks' music to listen to, including a Dead concert my buddy and I attended on Sept. 15, 1987 at Madison Square Garden. It includes "China Cat Sunflower">"I Know You Rider" (ask your local Deadhead what ">" means), which also appears on the Dead's commercially-released three-disc "Europe '72." My friend winces when I proclaim that the album captures them at the height of their powers. They played about 2,000 concerts, and he knows far better than I when the high points occurred. Indulgently, he also gave me a complete recording of a London show from May 1972 that comprises part of "Europe '72."

With the Dead dispatched, over a long dinner at a French restaurant about ten minutes' walk from the Capitol, we talked about friends, love, politics, Nixon, and synchronicity. Earlier in the week, I'd listened to a radio interview in which mandolinist Ricky Skaggs talked about performing with Bill Monroe, and here was my friend talking about Garcia's Monroe tapes. On my flight from Long Beach, I'd just read Terry McDermott's New Yorker profile of the enigmatic sociopath Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who dreamed up the Sept. 11 atrocity and marketed it to Osama bin Laden. In the original plan, he was going to hijack ten planes, use nine as bombs, and land the tenth safely, climb out, wave, and hold a press conference. McDermott writes that KSM also conferred with and helped fund the Jersey City-based architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. When I mentioned all this, my friend said that his and his wife's favorite picture was taken in Jersey City, with the World Trade Center in the background, and that while they'd been friends for years, their affection had deepened in the traumatic aftermath of the attacks, resulting in their marriage.

Once we'd turned to matters of faith, I learned that these little non-coincidence coincidences mean a little more to me than to my friend. When they occur I usually experience a frission of alertness, as if something has locked into place. I find, for instance, that if I think of someone and then call him, it was usually the right thing to do at just that time. That doesn't mean it's magic, since these days calling someone is probably always the right thing to do (instead of e-mailing or Facebooking or, worst of all, doing nothing). And yet I do see them as little evidences of the sovereignty of God. No less spiritual but perhaps somewhat more democratic, my friend is inclined to think that noticing any coherence amid the universe's seeming chaos and prevailing cruelty means that one has learned to observe creation "with the third eye open."

After dinner he dropped me at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where I was due this morning for a meeting of the governing board of the National Association of Episcopal Schools. I'd never been here before and tried to find someone to guide me, but by 11 all the gentle seminarians appeared to have said their prayers and gone to sleep. I soon found my way across a broad, dark lawn to the snug campus guest house.

This afternoon, during a conversation about the challenges facing Episcopal schools and parishes, I remembered something else my friend had said at dinner. Once a daily-mass Roman Catholic, he's taking a break from Rome because of its handling of the sexual abuse scandals. He praised the Episcopal Church for facing up to issues of gender and sexuality that most of Christendom ignores. Since Episcopalians are sometimes more inclined to wring our hands than ring our own bell, I repeated to my colleagues what my friend had said as evidence that our beloved, sometimes beleaguered church may yet end up as the most logical safe haven for the west's substantial cohort of enlightened orthodox. "And the thing about my friend," I added, "is that he's a Republican!"

The seminary playing host to our two-day meeting has been training Episcopal priests, deacons, and laypeople for nearly 200 years. These eminences include my bishop diocesan and our St. John's rector, Jon Bruno, and second-year seminarian Shivaun Wilkinson, a postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of San Diego. She's shown here with her classmate Laura, a postulant from Nebraska. Shivaun's parents and sister attend St. John's, so I thought I'd better check up. Plus she and her husband, Chris, are expecting their first child in February, and I wanted to get caught up on all all the news.

We made arrangements to meet at the daily Evening Prayer service in the campus chapel. Those who planned the liturgy combined the beautiful service in The Book Of Common Prayer with folk-style songs led by a four-member combo featuring guitars, bass, and mandolin (could've been Garcia, Lesh, and Grisman about 40 years ago; coincidence? I don't think so). We were 25 worshipers in all. As we sang the verses from Ecclesiastes first set to music by Pete Seeger in his song "Turn Turn Turn" and made famous by the Byrds, my eyes met those of a four-year-old girl who'd come to church with her mother, and I felt that frission again, this time the grace of knowing as a matter of absolute certainty that I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing, and, this evening, doing it with the brave, talented, faithful young people who will lead our church far into this century. And what a church it is! Before we walked out of the beautiful old chapel into a warm September drizzle, we heard this old, beautiful prayer:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.

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