The "Africa Room" at Maryknoll Seminary Center in Ossining, N.Y., may remind some folks of a certain experience. You're just waiting for someone to put a lighted candle on that table and fire up "Like A Bridge Over Troubled Water" on the boombox.

Jim Keane: The years 1988 to 1990 surely marked the nadir of popular music in the United States; hard rock had died, hair bands still ruled the airwaves and we were a year away from that magical moment when we all first heard the opening riffs of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I couldn’t get into Whitesnake or Def Leppard or pop music all that much and instead I decided to be maximally annoying by becoming a huge fan of Cat Stevens.

It was a quixotic venture. Stevens has enjoyed a recent resurgence, mostly because everyone from Sheryl Crow to Chris Cornell to Garth Brooks has covered his music, but in those years he was mostly known for converting to Islam and denouncing his own catalog. The experiment was made all the more obnoxious by my insistence on purchasing only used vinyl records of his music.

At my Jesuit high school in Los Angeles, word soon got around at the campus ministry office that I had a goodly collection of such stellar albums as “Tea for the Tillerman,” “Catch Bull at Four” and “Teaser and the Firecat.” Soon I had faculty members sidling up to me before they left campus to lead retreats at the old Jesuit novitiate outside Santa Barbara.

“I heard you could hook me up with ‘Morning Has Broken’,” they’d whisper furtively, watching over my shoulder. “And while you’re at it, can I borrow ‘On The Road to Find Out’ too?”

“I heard you could hook me up with ‘Morning Has Broken’,” they’d whisper furtively, watching over my shoulder. “And while you’re at it, can I borrow ‘On The Road to Find Out’ too?”

I should have charged them for the rentals, but I was also being maximally annoying by becoming a Marxist at the time, and it would have killed my mojo. In any case, Cat Stevens was the sally port for me into a very unique genre: The Catholic Retreat Song.

If you went on a Kairos retreat or one of the thousand variations on it at a Catholic high school or college or youth group in the 1990s, you know exactly what we're talking about. You’d gather in a room full of battered couches, plush carpet on the floor and macrame art on the walls, probably in a former novitiate or seminary or convent. There would be a few moments of silence; someone would get reprimanded for being late; there would be a reminder that if we were caught smoking or drinking we’d be sent home immediately; someone would be whispering that the building was haunted. Then someone would drop the needle on the record (or push play on the boombox), and that day’s session would begin.

Brother Joseph Hoover went to a different high school, but that difference lay solely in that it was in another city. Our educations were all but identical, as were the musical tastes of our parents and peers (lots of white singer-songwriters), so our Catholic Retreat Songs are essentially drawn from the same overwrought well.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” is the ur-retreat song, the deep ore of singer-songwriter poignancy, the tectonic plate upon which all post-1970 contemporary pop songs of aching grace and hope rest.

Joe Hoover:That well was overflowing with a few of Jim’s vintage records (vintage—a word invented to describe records after records became obsolete) but mainly with battered plastic cassette mixtapes. Their inked-in song titles smeared and faint, the tapes were crammed with the secular hymns of Bread, Dan Fogelberg, Carole King, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Jim Croce, the above-mentioned Cat Stevens and similar moody balladeers of the 1970s. Jim and I attended high school in the late ’80s and early ’90s—but those tapes from the previous decade kept showing up on Panasonic campus-ministry-office stereos and spilling out of the glove compartments of our burnt-orange Chevy Novas. It kind of made you wonder: Did the singer-songwriter era come about specifically to fill a demand by retreat directors for a poignant soundtrack to accompany the spiritual epiphanies of 16-year-olds? Or, more diabolically, were Catholic school retreats themselves created to provide an audience for singer-songwriters?

Which came first: the chicken or the egg? In any case, here are the unforgettable earworms of our angsty teen retreat years:

Simon and Garfunkel, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (JH): If you are the kind of person who reads America (and evidently you are) and the kind of person whose eyes and then cursor track instantly to an article with “Catholic retreat songs” in the title, this masterpiece probably hangs about your auditory consciousness like Art Garfunkel’s unbuttoned black concert vest. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is the ur-retreat song, the deep ore of singer-songwriter poignancy, the tectonic plate upon which all post-1970 contemporary pop songs of aching grace and hope rest. Ridiculously beautiful, the song is such a classic example of this kind of music, just putting the needle on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at any sort of spiritual gathering, let alone a high school retreat, is almost a cliche of a cliche of a cliche. Except a cliche that lives in a place where cliches are, well, ridiculously beautiful.

I’ll take your part
when darkness comes
and pain is all around
like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down.

We can just leave it right there, no?

You have to admit, Cat Stevens knew his way around a bewildered teen’s heart before he got himself put on the no-fly list. Mistakes were made.

Bette Midler, “The Rose” (JK): You weren’t soon off the bus at the retreat center before Bette was assuring you that it’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance. Looking back on it, I’m not sure that song isn’t written from the point of view of an extremely thirsty teenager; “Some say love, it is a hunger; an endless aching need”? Why on earth did our teachers and campus ministers love to give this a spin for retreats? And yet one day you’re 47 and it comes on the radio and you still. Know. Every. Word.

Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle” (JH): This song is so depressing I don’t even want to talk about it. It’s surely been played about a thousand times at high school retreats over the decades by any number of guilt-ridden senior peer leaders who have rocky relationships with their fathers; or by resentful theology teacher-dads whose college-aged kid never spends any time at home. The song in a nutshell: A father doesn’t have time for his kid; then the kid grows up and doesn’t have time for his father. It’s the worst. I am sure CITC has guilted thousands upon thousands of 16-year-olds sinking into the backward-facing seat of any number of brown-paneled Country Squire Station Wagons post-retreat to resolve to at least pretend they want to hang out with the old man more. And so find themselves on the following Saturday morning, long after the retreat bloom is off the rose, resentfully hanging out in the tool shed watching pops revarnish some old and “irreplaceable” table lamp. “When’s this song ending dad I don’t know when/ but you’ll feel guilty as hell son/ you’ll want to be with me then son.”

Cat Stevens, “Father and Son” (JK): The anthem of every teenager who is grounded or car-less or riddled with angst because from the moment you could talk you’d been ordered to listen, this somewhat overwrought composition probably had more traction at all-boys’ high schools than anywhere else. Staged as a dialogue between an older man and his restless son, it appealed to the emo side of the high school psyche. Our teachers and campus ministers also loved it, less for the ragey parts than for this:

But take your time, think a lot
think of everything you’ve got
for you will still be here tomorrow
but your dreams may not

You have to admit, ol’ Cat knew his way around a bewildered teen’s heart before he changed his name to Yusuf Islam and got himself put on the no-fly list. Mistakes were made.

Who knew that you could weave soaring guitars and dusty cottonfield vocals into the cloth-bound tomes of Mertonian theology and end up with a coming-of-age spiritual rock classic?

Lynrd Skynrd, “Simple Man” (JH): Lynrd Skynrd may have a reputation as a sort of Southern rock MAGA-rally opening act before there was even MAGA, but this song is timeless and frankly quite lovely. A mama (of course a mama) sits her boy down and tells him what kind of man to be. “Oh, be a simple kind of man, be someone you love and understand….Forget your lust for the rich man’s gold, all that you need is your soul.”

Who knew that you could weave soaring guitars and dusty cottonfield vocals into the cloth-bound tomes of Mertonian theology and end up with a coming-of-age spiritual rock classic? No mean feat. “Boy don’t you worry/ you’ll find yourself/ follow your heart/ and nothing else.”

Emmylou Harris, “Here I Am” (JK): I think this one might have been somewhat more particular to my experience, but it’s a winner. “I am the promise never broken, And my arms are ever open,” Harris sings in that voice that can crack the most hardened heart. Just ignore the part where she says she’s always been your lover. Actually, don’t ignore it because there’s a pattern here. Are all the songs we thought were about God and us actually about two kids at Makeout Point?

U2, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” (JH): This one would be cued up by your fundamentally social-justice-minded student or faculty retreat leaders. The lead guitar riff is like a martial warning skittering up and down the frets as the song rifles into a painful struggle for justice in the name of, well, love. As per usual with U2, The Edge’s guitar licks raise the alarm that something is terribly wrong out there, while the tone of Bono’s vocals manage to raise a note that something better is, or could be, on the way. U2 was angry, sacramental, feverish for social justice—and two of their band members had fantastic rock star names. What more could you want? “Pride” itself is epic and operatic with a perfect progression to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. “They took your life, they could not take your pride.” (Not entirely perfect though, as King wasn’t killed “early morning April 4th,” but about 6 p.m. that evening).

Poor God: “Nobody callin’ on the phone, ’cept for the pope maybe in Rome…”

Bob Dylan, “Forever Young” (JK): Maybe you heard a cover of this—Rod Stewart; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary—rather than the Dylan original, but if you went to a Jesuit high school or college, you definitely saw a teacher fist-pump to “May you always do for others” at some point on a retreat. And honestly, what retreat experience isn’t made better by hearing this?

May your hands always be busy
may your feet always be swift
may you have a strong foundation
when the winds of changes shift.

Joan Osborne, “What If God Was One of Us?” (JK): While most of the songs on this list were staples of the 1970s that migrated into retreat playlists, this one was an anomaly. Released in 1995, it immediately became a retreat mainstay while simultaneously being everywhere on the radio. You remember exactly how cool and down to earth you thought Father O’Mahony was when instead of giving a homily at Mass the first day of retreat, he just walked over and hit play on a boombox and let everyone bliss out to… to what is actually a fairly banal song that most of us now think was sung by Jewel? Poor God: “Nobody callin’ on the phone, ’cept for the pope maybe in Rome…”

Billy Joel, “Just the Way You Are.” (JH): The theme song of my 1987 freshman retreat. The same guy who delivered unto the faithful “Uptown Girl” and “Still Rock’n’Roll” wasn’t exactly the musical artist you thought you’d hear as part seven of an eight-part homily on Day Two (Cocoon Day, I think) of your first high school retreat. But lo and behold there it was. With Joel’s doo-woppy voice, long extended vowels and that sweeping sax coming about halfway into the song, JTWYA always seemed more fitting for an evening’s wooing of a blue-lidded Queens barmaid than the transformation of 14-year-old boys in JCPenney Hunt Club polos into paragons of Christ-like self-actualization. Nevertheless, 34 years later I still remember the point: Just be yourself.

Bill Withers, “Lean on Me” (JK): It’s the last day of retreat and you’ve all gotten past the awkward first day when no one wants to share and you’ve all gotten past the first prank-gone-bad and you’ve successfully navigated the awkward moment when someone got yelled at for cross-talk and maybe you even bonded over your shared dislike of the one retreatant who is hopelessly codependent with his/her significant other. What’s left to do but have Mass with a shared homily and then put your arms around each other’s shoulders and bellow along to the UB-40 version of this old chestnut? You just call on me brother, when you need a hand!

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