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Anna StaudApril 06, 2023
The Notre Dame Folk Choir The Notre Dame Folk Choir, November 9th, 2018, in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame.

Peter did not want to come down from Mount Tabor. He immediately wanted to set up camp when Jesus appeared in all his dazzling glory on the mountain with Moses and Elijah. “How good it is for us to be here,” Peter says to Christ. This small detail in the Transfiguration story—that Peter preferred to stay where he was—never meant much to me until this past May, when I graduated from college and immediately left on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Singing has always been my favorite way to praise God. I grew up in South Bend, Ind., and learned how to sing in church. I began cantoring regularly at my school and parish, and I sang throughout middle and high school. Once I made the decision to attend the University of Notre Dame, I joined the Folk Choir, a 60-person choir that serves weekly at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. This choice had a special place in my heart—I grew up with the CD collection in my car, and I sang in the same place my parents were married over 30 years ago.

Peter preferred to stay where he was, and as a member of the folk choir, so did I.

We wear colorful interpretations of Sunday best rather than formal choir robes. Our music has permeated popular culture, with our rendition of Chysogonus Waddell’s “Rosa Mystica” featured in the Greta Gerwig film “Lady Bird.” I always knew of—and dreamed of participating in—the Notre Dame Folk Choir’s lively and contemporary sound for a post-Vatican II Church. But I didn’t realize until I joined that this joyful and authentic community would quickly become like a second family on campus.

During my sophomore year, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, our director Dr. J. J. Wright invited students in the folk choir to collaborate with him and librettist Tristan Cooley on a musical project related to Christ’s Passion.

At this time, in the midst of the pandemic and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and after having recently returned from a week-long Mexico-U.S. border immersion, I was questioning how an all-powerful, all-loving God could allow senseless suffering to occur. I was also confronting my own privilege and processing canceled study abroad plans and a breakup. Virtual liturgies felt lifeless without music and friends to give the sign of peace to. I didn’t really know how to pray, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t know if I even believed prayer had any purpose.

Virtual liturgies felt lifeless without music and friends to give the sign of peace to.

But all of a sudden, in the midst of fear and hopelessness, I was filled with a creative energy that came from looking at the suffering all around us. We were being challenged to find both wisdom and music in the story of the Passion.

We engaged with the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises of meditation and contemplation (often on Zoom) to connect Christ’s Passion to our own lives. We used passages of Scripture and our own emotions as the basis of our free writes and eventual drafts of lyrics. I saw myself in the doubting and tired apostles who could not make sense of how the same man they saw transfigured in glory was now sweating blood in Gethsemane.

I could not make sense of how some pro-life Catholics did not also speak out against police brutality and racism. I could not make sense of how a church that was always a beacon of light to me could also cause agony and darkness to others, especially in its attempt to keep its own acts of racial and sexual abuse hidden in the shadows. I grappled with my own failures to love consistently, too.

We engaged with the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises of contemplation to connect Christ’s Passion to our own lives.

When J.J. and Tristan invited me to write songs from the perspectives of the women in the Passion, I became drawn to even more paradoxes in that narrative. I was at grade school gathering to pray the Stations of the Cross when I first learned the story about Veronica, who wiped the face of Jesus on the road to Calvary and received in return a lasting image of Christ’s face on her cloth.

But in writing “Veronica’s Song” for “The Passion,” I began to see that it is Veronica’s vulnerability that empowers her to run to Jesus, and then to keep this painful, beautiful relic of his pain. Through many conversations with friends as we collaborated during the writing process, I also came to appreciate for the first time Mary our Mother’s bold courage, deep suffering and unwavering love.

As both a feminist and a Catholic, I was struck by how it is the women who often seem to understand Jesus' mission before the men. Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Christ and wipes them with her hair, as a precursor to his burial. Women remain at the foot of the Cross when the men have fled. Mary Magdalene stands as the first witness to the resurrected Christ. In spite of what the Passion tells us about the vital role of such women in the ministry of Christ, women still remain marginalized within our church. (Mary Magdalene was missioned by Christ to preach the good news to the apostles, yet the church restricts women from preaching homilies.)

Mary Magdalene preached the good news to the apostles, yet the church restricts women from preaching homilies.

I was once utterly perplexed and frustrated by all of these contradictions in the church. Yet, in writing these songs, I began to imagine how beauty can coexist alongside pain, as well as how we might reform our broken world and church for the better. Poetry and music became the way I rediscovered prayer and embraced the contradictions inherent to being a Catholic.

After almost two years of writing lyrics and melodies together and hours rehearsing and workshopping the piece, the folk choir produced a 95-minute staged production titled “The Passion,” which premiered on a tour of Catholic parishes between Notre Dame and New York City during March 2022. At the end of the spring semester, after I graduated, we brought “The Passion” to Israel, recording it at the Jerusalem Music Centre. While we didn’t perform the piece in full outside of the studio, when we gathered to pray at holy sites throughout the pilgrimage, we sang the pieces from “The Passion” that took place at those archaeological sites.

In Israel, we sang “Women’s Song,” which alludes to Mary’s Magnificat, at the Church of the Visitation.

We swam at sunrise in the Sea of Galilee, sang “The Lord’s Prayer” at the Mount of Olives, and walked the Stations of the Cross. The most memorable, even sacred day took place at the church of the Visitation, only a short bus ride away from the heart of Jerusalem. There we sang “Women’s Song,” which alludes to Mary’s Magnificat, and part of which became the final anointing scene in “The Passion.” When we sang the lyrics I had written, “My soul glorifies you, in all I am, in all I do. I know no frugal love, oil overflows,” at the same place Mary sang her Magnificat, I felt fully heard and loved.

But in the afternoons in the recording studio, my work in the chorus felt in one sense complete, and I did not quite know my purpose anymore. Like Peter, I felt as though I had reached my mountaintop, and I did not want to leave my friends and the project. Toward the end of the trip, and in a moment of exasperation, I asked my director, “Why can’t I just stay?” He responded with a question that has stuck with me to this day: “Where is there room for resurrection in what is passing away?”

Here was the finished product of two years of work, love and tears, and I could not bring myself to listen to it.

As we made our way through the post-production process, we finally got to hear a “final” version that was sent around for review. I had left college and was now in my first semester of teaching high school English in Mobile, Ala. The music file sat unopened in my email for weeks. Here was the finished product of two years of work, love and tears, and I could not bring myself to listen to it.

I told myself it was because I was busy. After all, I had plenty of lessons to plan and essays to grade. But deep down, I think the reason I did not want to listen to the recording was that I did not want to face memories that all of it was, in one sense, over. Listening to “The Passion” would now be tainted by the painful reality that I no longer belonged to a beloved community of faith in the same way I once had.

For four years, I had been blessed with routines, music and friendship. But now, Sunday mornings felt empty without brunch and folk choir Mass. I missed the peace and comfort of candlelit prayer at the end of Thursday night rehearsals. I didn’t know how to transition to the everyday, mundane grind of a new job in a new city after such a transformative experience.

 If Peter stayed on Mt. Tabor, he would not have had to encounter his own shortcomings and the loss of his closest friend.

When my fellow 2022 graduates eventually gathered together (virtually) to listen to the final recording, I was crying like a baby by the Crucifixion scene. I had finally reconciled the contradiction of having made “The Passion”only to give it away to the next group of folk choir members. Once again, the story of Christ’s Passion opened me up in a way I didn’t know I needed to be opened.

Peter did not want to come down from the mountain. If he stayed, he would not have had to encounter his own shortcomings, insecurities, and the loss of his closest friend. On Mount Tabor, Peter could not take the leap to imagine the resurrection. In the months after leaving the folk choir, I failed to recognize that if Peter stayed on the mountain, he would not have been ready to answer, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” and respond to Jesus’ call, “Feed my sheep.”

Life as a first-year teacher has not always felt like a resurrection. This spring I still sometimes feel disoriented and inadequate, as I am sure Peter did in his ministry. But recently, I have been more grateful for the joys my students bring me when they ask an insightful question in class or stop by before school just to chat. It has truly been a gift to grapple alongside my students with the problem of suffering and to imagine a better world through literature.

One Friday during Lent, we took a break from analyzing The Great Gatsby, and put our close-reading skills to work on scripture. I had my students draw parallels between the Agony in the Garden and the Transfiguration, in the same way I had done in my first meeting for what would become “The Passion.” As they prayed and worked, I played for them the corresponding scene from “The Passion,” hearing it anew from the ears of 15-year-olds.

The story of Christ’s Passion continues to invite me, and all of us, to lean into the hopes hidden in the cross. I still struggle to see the grace in a hard transition. But maybe it is right now, in my always-questioning, still broken life, that Jesus is asking me—Anna to most and “Ms. Staud” to 100 high schoolers—“Feed my sheep.”

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