MAHER: A Guide Through 'Jungleland'
Published: Thursday, November 10, 2011
Updated: Friday, November 11, 2011 13:11
Bruce Springsteen and Broadway have made me a better Catholic. Really.
In March of 1988, I found myself at a Springsteen concert in the Spectrum in Philadelphia. It was the "Tunnel of Love" tour. I had fallen in love with Springsteen's music when I was a high school student in Arizona. Once I came to Georgetown as a freshman in the late 1970s and met honest-to-God Jerseyites, my appreciation of the Boss only deepened as I realized that he wasn't making these people up.
By the time the "Tunnel of Love" tour rolled around, Springsteen's music was a deep and rich part of my life. It moved me, simple as that. I didn't understand it, but I knew it was true.
Oddly, though, on that March night, the Boss's music moved me and thousands of other fans to the last thing I expected to encounter in the Spectrum: silence.
After a full night of raucous music, Springsteen came back on stage to play an encore. We went wild. Carrying an acoustic guitar, Bruce walked to the center of the stage and, with a single spotlight plucking him out of the dark, he sang a gentle, haunting version of "Born to Run."
Honestly, at first I was a little disappointed. I had been looking forward to the "regular" version of that song, the version I had come to love over more than a decade of listening. But as the acoustic version unfolded, I found myself drawn into the song in a new way. And I soon realized that I was not alone. The Spectrum, full of people, was being drawn in the song together.
When the song ended, the thousands of us in the arena were, for lack of a better word, stunned. I remember clearly, all these years later, that we stood in silence for several long seconds after the last note. The whole Spectrum, silent. I will never forget the charged quality of that silence. It was followed, of course, by more raucous cheering and applause, but the power of those silent seconds has stuck with me. It was a silence that rose from somewhere deep inside me and from somewhere deep within the "us" that was the audience that night.
We had shared beauty. Powerful stuff, that.
Obviously, not all experiences of musical beauty lead to silence. Earlier this year, I was at the closing performance of the Broadway show "Catch Me If You Can." It was a show I had been lucky enough to see several times and liked very much. The lead actor, Aaron Tveit, had also been in a show that I had loved the season before called "Next to Normal." For reasons that are still mysterious to me, he was denied Tony nominations for both of these shows.
On top of that, "Catch Me If You Can" was closing earlier than expected due to inside-Broadway financial politics. For all of those reasons, closing night was emotionally-charged for Tveit and for the Broadway-savvy closing-night audience.
As seemed fitting, the final song Tveit sang in the show was a heart-grabbing number called "Goodbye," in which the main character renounces his life of crime. That night, though, he was singing goodbye to the show, to the cast and to the sort of connection that develops between a good show and its audience.
As the song thundered to its close, the entire audience joined in an immediate and sustained standing ovation and raucous, surging "hurrah" that sounded like something out of "Braveheart." We were on our feet cheering for the heartfelt, emotionally-charged performance we had just experienced, and the connection between the actor and audience, like the connection among the audience members, was palpable. Although it evoked a response that was far from silence, it was an experience very much like the experience I had had in the Spectrum so many years before.
Both of those musical experiences, different though they were, moved me in a way that I honestly believe helped me grow as a human being and as a man of faith. That may sound like an overblown claim, but I don't think it is. Experience has taught me that music and the shared experience of beauty that it makes possible can stretch and warm the human heart, rendering it open to the sorts of gifts for which it was made — gifts like compassion, forgiveness, love, hope and faith.
But more: Music can attune the human spirit to the frequency of the Divine. It really is as simple as that. The part of us that can be moved by music is the part of us that can be moved by God. Bruce Springsteen and Broadway have made me a better Catholic. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J. is an associate dean and director of Catholic studies in the College. Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O'Brien alternate as the writers of As This Jesuit Sees It ... , which appears every other Friday.