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Her ministry is the Spirit in song welling up within her

Special Report Writer
West Redding, Conn

She calls her latest CD “Borne by Grace,” but after meeting Notre Dame Sr. Kathleen Deignan, hearing her sing and play the guitar at the Benedictine Grange here, it’s easy to conclude that it is Deignan herself who soars with grace. Her skills as a composer, lyricist and liturgist lift one into the profundity of the profound, toward the mystery at the heart of the mystery.

Deignan’s music is steeped and brewed in Celtic lyricism and Middle Eastern rhythms, flavored with instrumental and vocal harmonies. The title of the CD collection of contemplative songs is borrowed from “Prayer to the Divine Tutor” by second-century theologian, catechist and saint, Clement of Alexandria.

One of the church’s earliest mystics, “Clement was vividly aware of being borne by grace -- of being birthed and carried, bathed and swathed in the numinous field of divine energy,” Deignan said.

Mystics throughout the centuries have known the experience of being borne by grace as a vibrant spiritual awakening and growth into life’s plenitude, she said. Buoyed by grace, worshipers find themselves en route to their real homeland, inspired to sing in their mother tongue, ecstatic hymns of praise and thanksgiving, Deignan believes.

“These are songs that have welled up within me in response to the mystery and mercy of such blessing,” she said. Deignan has been singing all her life. As a latchkey kid of working-class Irish immigrants, she dove into song after school to avoid the “social desolation” of her Manhattan neighborhood in the 1950s. To look out the window was to cry, she recalled.

Deignan knew from age 7 that she wanted to be a nun. She spent many teenage hours singing in folk festivals and making home visits with the Dominican Sisters of the Sick Poor. Her high school sisters, the Congregation of Notre Dame, drew her to visit their Connecticut motherhouse in 1966.

“To encounter these women was to encounter ‘the Magnificat,’ ” Deignan said. “They were so engaged in the world and yet so contemplative.” Her first visit occurred during Holy Week when the sisters performed “wall-to-wall” music in liturgy after liturgy. Deignan discovered she could be a nun and a teacher and not have to abandon music. Her mother was less sure. “She saved everything of mine for years,” Deignan said, referring to books, clothes and teenage treasures.

Three decades on, Deignan is still with the Notre Dame sisters and still a teacher. An associate professor of religious studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., she founded and directs the Iona Spirituality Institute. She holds a master’s in spirituality and a doctorate in historical theology, both from Fordham. “I consider myself a contemplative theologian, even if I’m credentialed as an academic theologian,” she said.

Spirit in song

That’s Monday through Friday’s work. But come Sunday this composer of over 200 songs, recorded on eight albums, makes the hourlong trip from New Rochelle to the Benedictine Grange here, a one-person monastic community founded in a plank-floor barn by Fr. John Guiliani, an artist. For 20 years Deignan has worked as music minister and liturgist, invoking song, dance and ritual prayer to invite the Christian base community of some 200 worshipers into the mystical life.

She blesses the day in 1968 when she met Giuliani while studying at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. Giuliani is a priest of the Bridgeport, Conn., diocese “with a Benedictine charism” she said.

Guiliani and Deignan, along with composer Evelyn Avoglia, are the ministerial core of the sacred music ensemble “Anima Schola,” whose members are singer-guitarists Greta Sibley and Gregory Hauck; vocalists Marian MaJamy and Maryann McFadden; percussionist Gina Sader-Rubenstein and recorder-harmonium player Claudia Chapman.

Community members Joanne and Ed Dobransky of Fairfield call Deignan’s music “the handmaiden of the worship.” Sue Smith of Thomaston, Conn., has made the 102-mile round trip each Sabbath over 13 years for “the nourishment” the liturgy provides.

“The music embodies like the Eucharist. Kathleen has spoken the Spirit in song. It gets right down into the body where we live. It’s like a blade opening us,” Smith told NCR.

Deignan is uncertain whether her musical abilities are a gift or a handicap. She can neither read nor write a note. “Whenever I’ve tried to learn it, I can’t.” Yet she insists, “Music is my ministry.” And her Schola Ministries tries through CDs, tapes and performances to spread the Word of prayer and music.

Haunted by Grandma Kate

The nun credits two influences for the route her life has taken. The first: Grandma Catherine Noone -- called Kate -- a singer and violinist who was said to be able to play any instrument she set her hand to. Kate died young, when Deignan’s mother was 2. “She’s the ghost haunting our family,” her granddaughter said.

The second: her novice mistress, Sr. Elizabeth Scully of Hawthorne, N.J., “who used to lock us in a room and say: ‘Sisters, come out when you’re written a play.’ ”

But wonder has also informed her music. “My ministry is the ministry of the Word,” Deignan said, adding that her ministry is always in service to the scriptures, whether as teacher, composer, musician or liturgist. When Deignan reads a biblical or theological text, she hears the words as if they were song lyrics. “If I want to hold a text, I sing it. That’s how I breathe.”

Lyrics arrive in a rush of aspiration. “It’s as if I’m in front of a page of beautiful words and I just hear them,” she said.

“All of these songs have arisen out of my prayer. These texts are my prayer. They’re what my heart rushes to,” she said.

For someone who loves to hear her Irish family tell stories and display their “devilish wit,” Deignan is convinced that the heart expresses its own richness and color, in whispers and cries, music and poetry. “That’s why every Irish child memorizes, learns ‘by heart.’ ”

Currently on sabbatical, Deignan hoped to use her break to compose and record a new CD. But “my muse has been very quiet,” she said.

The Zen meditator in her -- her mentors are Fr. Thomas Merton and Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh -- “is learning to just be with the breath.” For Deignan, breathing is “the primordial sacrament. It’s the liturgy of every moment, experiencing the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and giving it back.”

She likes to imagine what the Christian life would be “if we were simply fostering breathing this divine life ... if between the breath and the heartbeat, we would feel the vibration of God.”

“We’d realize our acute alienation, how outside of ourselves we are. We have no sense of our own nature as being the body in which God is breathing,” she said.

Can music and liturgy bring us to the realization of God’s life pulsating in us? Yes, “when liturgy informs our insights and brings us to a deep understanding of our unknowing.” No, “when there’s too much singing and no time for contemplation,” she said.

What then is the remedy? “Go into silence,” Deignan prescribes. “If I were an ordained liturgist, I would gradually invite my congregation to take the pauses to where they speak to us. I would not throw another song at them, no matter how fabulous the song.”

Or the singer-musician-composer.

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999