At Fordham University on Saturday, our venerable commencement speaker (and a recipient of an honorary doctorate) was the Irish president Mary McAleese. I was a faculty marshal, carrying the "mace" for the Graduate School of Religion, which meant, among other things, that I got to sit up on the stage and -- with many other faculty, administrators, and newly-minted awardees of doctorates -- process the full distance out of the ceremony to the strains of bagpipes. Pipes and Drums of Local 21, an ensemble out of Peekskill, New York, honored President McAleese and all of us with gladsome archaism for perhaps a full fifteen minutes as we all walked out from Keating Hall across Edwards Parade and into the end of the school year's hallowed closing ritual.
Except the true "end" for me was a shocking one. Toward the terminus of the procession, Local 21 had split into two halves, flank-serenading each processant the final few steps as a "yes" to this end. Thus did happen the welcome calamatization of my spiritual nerves: walking through maybe 20 men at arms' length, passing between drums close in on left and right, then pipes close in left and right, I had something like divine cardiac arrest: this thisness of sound and silence in time, this corporeal definition of power known as music, picking me through and up with the aural pressure created when snare drums on each side in perfect time beat so hard they are making a crack that must have been the original sonic inspiration for the very creation of gunpowder, and walking between the snares I felt an utterly new sensation, that I was walking through gunfire of the most blessed sort. Is it this pneumatokinaesthetic cocktail that makes drums and religion so central to military pageantry? But if it were the condition of the precisionistic bombast of the gunner, it would also be its undoing: the power of this sound is power but not violence. But then came the pipes, the bagpipes, to my right and left at once: such a cry, whine, bleat, visitation of the grave at dawn! Sore, sore harmony of tragic truths. Who would not fall into their greatest loss and taste the saving freefall when held between bagpipes at this volume and in this gracious skill? "Where do you live?" I wanted to ask, and "Can I live there, too?"
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States
Cross-posted, out of genre, at Rock and Theology