Spiritual Formation with Music, St. Francis, and Frosty the Snowman (guest post from Richard Bruxvoort Colligan)

For the last several months, we have been embarking on an exciting creative project and collaboration.  It started with choosing 12 dancing monks to be a part of the original Dancing Monk Icon series painted by Marcy Hall.  These icons were meant to depict some beloved monks and mystics in a joyful and colorful way, reminding us of our call to dance through this life. I have been following with a series of poems I am slowly writing about each of these wondrous figures, choosing moments in their stories to illuminate.

Then we had the inspiration to feature a dancing monk for each week of our Advent/Christmas and Epiphany/New Year’s online retreats. In conversation with my beloved teaching partner Betsey Beckman, we started to dream of having a song composed for each one as well, which Betsey would create gesture prayers and dances to accompany them.

So we enlisted the help of some musicians we love, including Richard Bruxvoort Colligan. One of the great joys of the Abbey is collaborating with other artists to create resources that support the life of this community.

I asked Richard if he might reflect on the process of creating the songs he was responsible for, as an insight into the creative process.

(You can read the first post in this series by musician David Ash here)

If you would like to join us for these online retreats you can find the registration info here:

Read on for Richard’s reflection:

Have you heard? We’re making an Abbey album! A soundtrack for pilgrims and our adopted Dancing Saints. There’s nothing like it anywhere.

When Abbess Christine asked me to be one of the songwriters, I was tickled because making songs on behalf of a community is one of my favorite things to do. Plus, what could be better than spending time with Thomas Merton, Amma Syncletica, Rainer Maria Rilke, Benedict of Nursia and St. Francis of Assisi?

Can you imagine singing with these saints? Dancing together?

Music as a spiritual practice means we enter a song as a way to discover and stretch beyond and within.

Whether the music is contemplative or groovy, singing weaves the words and ideas into our consciousness using both brain hemispheres. What we upload in this way we test and often come to believe. What we believe, in turn, becomes part of our core.

John Bell of the Iona Community of Scotland says the songs we teach one another are about spiritual formation, that the songs we teach our children are preparing them for their death beds. Which is to say music gets life-giving stuff into our bones where we have access to them at any moment.

That’s been true for me, too. Family lore says whenever I was scared as a kid, I’d ask mom to sing the most happy song I knew: “Frosty the Snowman.” I still get teased about that, and I still insist Frosty is healing the world with his “thumpity thump thump.”

Imagine us singing together in a circle, looking at faces, feeling one another’s breath, listening carefully to the sound of humanity within and about us. The day after or the following week that song might pop into our heads in the shower, on the train to work or as our heads rest on the pillow after a long day. As that song carries that moment to us again, we will remember, resonate and integrate that experience of being together.

I’m excited about the Abbey’s adoption of these great dancing saints, the presence of whom are good company for our journey. Marcy Hall’s visual art for each saint is brilliant. We’re hoping these recordings will be another way to engage with them.

I want to tell you about one of songs and what happened to me in the process of making it.

St. Francis is one of my heroes because shows me what’s possible in a life. I love him and have been a student of his Tao since seminary ten years ago.

The phrase Christine has tagged on his icon is stunning and simple: “The world is my monastery.” Perfect for us monks in the world.

I decided to make a slow, walking song, and use these words and not much else.

At the same time, I felt the tug to risk adding something fresh. In the spirit of Francis who set aside the safety of his original home to discover the Christ, I wondered what it might be.

One of Francis’ gifts is a model of an integrated life deeply engaged with both one’s own unique spirit and with all of creation: “The world is my monastery.” An earth-wide church. A wide and wild field for prayer and service connected to a great cloud of witnesses.

I wondered how Francis might feel about adding, “The world is my home.” A place of anchoring and identity. A primary place of stretching and growth and pain and delight. A place to be open-hearted in order to discover our fullness.

What if our home planet is that sacred place of home?

And I wondered about adding the phrase, “The world is my heart.” The soul, the unique essence of the self, including some mysteries about how our thoughts, feelings, bodies and instincts even work.

What if planet earth is the heart of us?

We will sing with St. Francis:

The world is my home
The world is my heart
The world is my monastery

It’s harvest time in the Midwest where we live, and farmers are finishing in the fields. With the resonance of All Saints and a glimpse ahead to Thanksgiving and Winter solstice, it’s an intense season for many of us.

How great to be connected with one another as monks in the world in the monastery of the world.

Richard Bruxvoort Colligan - webRichard Bruxvoort Colligan is a Psalmist, husband, dad, son and brother, and a contributor to the Abbey of the Arts. He’s just completed his fourth album of songs based on the Psalms, “Love Stands With.”

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