Through the door I could hear Donato, the barbone – the bagman – practising this morning's list of saints. I waited for the doorbell to ring, and when I opened the door he chanted the list as usual from a paper serviette and then greeted me. This morning's lecture was on the Blood of Christ. It was more difficult than usual to follow, and when he finished I began. Rather surprisingly, he listened; I knew that Donato's gift lay in giving lectures rather than in listening to them.
One day, five years ago, I told him, I heard a piece of music that was the worst and the best I had ever heard. There was a musician who loved to experiment with all kinds of sounds that musicians rarely take an interest in: traffic noise, industrial noise, the noises of animals…. The more unmusical a noise, the more he saw it as a challenge. That piece I heard was his. As he walked near a railway bridge one day in London he saw an elderly figlio di Dio sheltering there from the rain, with his earthly possessions in plastic bags beside him. He was singing in an old man's voice, a voice full of cracks and squeaks and gasps, with flat notes in plenty. He was singing an old forgotten hymn:
Jesus's Blood never failed me yet,
never failed me yet.
Jesus's Blood never failed me yet;
for there's one thing I know:
that he loves me so.
The contrast between the old man's situation and the words of the hymn was very moving: 'never failed me yet!' The musician taped it – such was his hobby.
Later on, in his studio, he put it on a loop, so that it played over and over like a meditative chant, a 'mantra'. It began at low volume and rose very slowly, through round after round, to its full volume. Then he introduced a musical instrument, very soft, accompanying the voice almost reverentially, not trying to blot out the faults but accommodating itself to them with great delicacy. This sound, like the voice, grew slowly in volume, but remained always in the background. A few minutes later another instrument joined them, faintly at first, taking its cue from them, then more courageously, but never intruding or pushing the pace, and never ashamed of the broken voice. (I remember walking like that with my father in his old age, when he could scarcely walk anymore.) After twenty minutes that tottering voice was accompanied by the full glory of an orchestra....
I could tell that my story was losing in translation, for Donato began to take enormous bites of the panini I had given him for his breakfast. At least it gave me time to bring out the significance of my story.
I have a friend, I told him, who listens to that piece of music with tears in her eyes. It is closer, she said, to the heart of the Christian faith than anything she has ever heard. You expect Pavarotti, and instead you hear an old man's broken voice. It gives hope to every human being that ever lived. So it will be in glory, in eternity. We will still have our wounds, as Christ still bears his in glory. They are terrible wounds, but they are also glorious wounds. In our time, in our place, we too have our wounds; they are terrible, but they are to become glorious. We have our psychological wounds, our moral wounds; we have inherited our family's wounds and inflicted our own. But wounds are no obstacle to Christ; they are an opening, an opportunity. Only the denial is an obstacle. In eternity our wounds will be surrounded by glory, the full orchestra of God's glory. Whatever cannot exist next to God will be purified in us, but in the light of God's mercy our wounds will no longer be a disgrace. Then all our efforts will be seen for what they are: simply gestures of good will, openings, moments of freedom from ourselves. We are called to something much more interesting than perfection; we are called to reflect God's glory in our shaken being. Our dignity is deeper than decorum or elegance; it is God's gift, that unquenchable fire in an old man's spirit - under a railway bridge on a wet day. Our own voices (I concluded), when they are surrounded by God's glory, will be the worst and the best that were ever heard....
'I was very hungry this morning,' said Donato. 'This panino,' he said, holding up the last of it before popping it past his one surviving tooth, 'this panino was the best and the worst I have ever eaten!' Then he smiled hugely and still munching he made for the door.
A domani! he said with breadcrumbs, 'see you tomorrow!'
From In a Fitful Light: Conversations on Christian Living, Donagh O'Shea
Dominican Publications, Dublin 1994