Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound);
That sav'd a wretch like me!
Guitar virtuoso John Fahey put out a ton of albums before he died, but there’s one I had to order just because of the title: The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death – I mean, how can you pass up something like that? Besides, any album by Fahey was a good bet. His acoustic Christmas collections have been family favorites since forever, but what made me a devoted fan was Yes! Jesus Loves Me, a collection of Fahey’s affectionate, intricate takes on Sunday school songs and hymns. It was a lousy seller, but critics loved it – like reviewer Mark Allan: “These musical snippets…are unlikely to convert anyone to Christianity. But if you unplug the phone, turn off the TV and give it the chance, this music might briefly remove you from your everyday existence.” Jason Draper, another reviewer, went further: “If you can’t be touched by this, you can’t be touched by anything.” I didn’t know anything about Fahey’s faith commitments, but he clearly had an interest in religion – Christianity in particular – and an album with the words “transfiguration,” “blind,” and “death” in the title was bound to include some choice moments of epiphany.
My investment paid off handsomely, for the album is packed with Fahey’s artistic genius. There’s plenty of his unusual tunings and distinctive picking style, plus some wild album cover art and evocative liner notes – lots to dig into. My favorite cut by far, however, is “Poor Boy,” Fahey’s cover of a traditional blues standard. The first time I listened through the CD, I was in the van and running errands, so I was a bit distracted when I thought I heard a dog barking on one of the tracks. I hit the back arrow button and pulled over to listen more closely. Sure enough, about 10 seconds into the song, you can hear a deep-throated woofing and a pause in the music. Next comes a very loud “shh” – you can easily visualize the guitarist leaning over his instrument toward a dog and putting a finger to his lips. The dog shuts up; Fahey starts the song over; genius ensues.
Naturally, I took to Google to find out the story. It turns out music entrepreneur and radio personality “Dr. Demento” (Barry Hansen) was involved – I shoulda’ known! Here’s what he wrote about the Fahey barking-dog interlude:
We didn't have the budget for a legit studio for that one. So I found someone who had a real nice home recorder and a quiet room. I pretty much set John up and let him play…. He sat there with a dog at his feet. There's one track where the dog barks in the middle of the music – it was my decision to leave that false start in.
Hansen doesn’t say why he left it in or why Fahey allowed it to remain on the released recording, but I love it that it’s there. It’s like a testimony to humility – a little nod to the fact that even masters of their craft have false starts and do-overs. Don’t we all?
I know I do, and that’s why I was so happy when chest thumping was restored to the Confiteor. “Through my fault (whack), through my fault (whack), through my most grievous fault (forcible whack).” In truth, this liturgical action never really went away from the rubrics, but it was rarely promoted since Vatican II and so fell into disuse. Now, in the revised and re-translated English Missal, striking the breast is a liturgical action front and center.
Really, it’s our weekly (or daily) barking-dog moment – a reminder to ourselves and to the world that we’re far from perfect. More specifically, it’s a public demonstration of remorse that aligns with our public declaration of contrition. “Yes! I’m a sinner (whack)! Don’t let my Sunday outfit or my large contributions to the Bishop’s Appeal or my membership in numerous prayer groups fool you – I’m a real sinner (whack)! In fact, if I wasn’t a sinner, I wouldn’t have any business being here or seeking after mercy and grace (forcible whack)!”
And it’s great because it’s so honest – which is the exact opposite of my furtive escapes from the confessional. Ordinarily, I can’t wait to put my sins behind me and bask in the glory of a fresh beginning – so much so, I often trick myself into a false confidence: “No more gossip or gluttony for me, no sir! No more losing my temper; no more sloth,” is what I tell myself after mumbling my penance. “All that vice and evil was so…twenty minutes ago. Now I have absolution; God has forgiven and forgotten; I get to write a brand new story!”
Not so fast, self. While it’s true that “God gives us the strength to begin anew,” as the Catechism teaches us, we do well to bear in mind the “horror and weight of sin” – our sin – to firm up our moral resolutions (CCC 1442). Like St. Paul, we shouldn’t hesitate to accuse ourselves of being “chief among sinners” – not in the past tense, but the present – because we probably are. The more we Catholics know, the more grace we receive through the Sacraments, the closer we get to Jesus, the more we realize just how far we fall short. What’s more, being forthright regarding our weaknesses will make it more likely that we’ll be generous and patient with the weaknesses of our neighbors – particularly when their weaknesses match up with our own.
It’s like Gloria Dump in Kate DiCamillo’s novel, Because of Winn-Dixie. Dump, a sober alcoholic, keeps a large tree on her property draped with multiple empty bottles – wine, whiskey, beer, you name it. It’s not that Gloria obsesses about her broken past, or even that she finds it hard to forgive herself or receive forgiveness. No, the very public clanking of the bottle tree simply “chases the ghosts away,” as she tells Opal, her young charge, and it ushers in continual conversion. As a bonus, it fixes in Gloria’s consciousness (and Opal’s) that she is no less flawed than the next guy.
There’s a fine line between scrupulosity and personal moral realism, to be sure, and we have to be wary of any kind of disordered fixations. Yet in this age of personal branding and social media image massaging, we should be glad for appropriate prompts to shun illusion, put away self-deception, and own up to our oh-so-human nature. Our need for God’s mercy is perpetual – there’s no use pretending otherwise. We’re never done – even future saints are always being sanctified – and we do well to hold on to our barking dogs and bottle trees as a reminder of that.
Even to the very end – death offers no respite from the chest thump – and in this we can take our cue from Austria’s royal Habsburg line. For hundreds of years, the traditional burial ceremony of Habsburg monarchs has included seeking admission for the deceased to a Viennese Capuchin friary that houses the imperial crypt. Almost as a parallel to our liturgical breast-striking, the ceremony begins with a trifold knocking at the friary door.
“Who’s there?” the porter asks from within.
Then, a herald proceeds to name the dead royal and list all of his high falutin titles and associations – as in the following litany from the last time this happened in 2011: “Otto of Austria; former Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary; Prince Royal of Hungary and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria, and Illyria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow,” and so on and so forth.
“I do not know you,” the porter replied, following the ceremony protocol.
Then, the herald knocked on the friary door and this time offered Prince Otto’s name and a shorter list of alternative titles and accomplishments. Once again, entry was denied with the porter’s simple admission, “I do not know you.”
Finally, the herald knocked one more time to make entreaty for his dead prince. When the porter asked, “Who’s there,” this time the herald replied: “Otto, a poor mortal and a sinner” – the final Confiteor (whack), the last barking dog (whack), the bottle tree in extremis (forcible whack) – and it worked! “He may come in” came the response, and the doors swung open.
“When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him,” wrote C.S. Lewis. Let’s get better, and keeping tabs on our barking dogs and bottle trees can help. And when we get to the “I Confess” at Mass, let’s follow the Habsburg herald’s lead and thump away proudly. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.