Christmas Letter 2018: Seraphim Song
This is a True Story.
It is a starry April evening in Rome, and as a chaperone of the JSerra Catholic High School Choir, I am privileged to be part of a private evening tour of the Vatican Museums. There are about 60 of us in the group: 45 teenagers, a dozen or so parents, and four faculty chaperones. On this trip, I have functioned as the caboose. As we have marched from venue to venue, up and down the winding cobblestone alleys of Assisi, Spello, and Orvieto, I have taken the rear; I’m the sweeper, like the catcher in the rye, making sure no one falls behind.
Now, taking up the rear, I am the last of our group to enter the Sistine Chapel, where the vastness has been waiting for us, waiting for centuries. At first, we sit obediently along the perimeter as the tour guide recites the obvious, but his is a perfunctory speech. There are no words here, only elocutions that dissipate into the vacuity. Like everyone else, I am not listening. I am craning my neck, straining for the angle from which to soak in the ochre, cerulean, vermillion. I search to find the images I will recognize: There is the audacious Separation of the Sun and the Moon; there is Eve tentatively emerging, locking knowing eyes with her benevolent Creator; and there, of course, is Adam, resembling a bored adolescent, reluctantly acknowledging his own self-importance, in fuchsia, russet, ecru.
Finally, the tour guide’s spiel has finished, allowing the 45 choristers to rise and form the circle they have rehearsed. The girls float in their flowing black taffeta; the boys stand in their smart performance suits. The choir director moves to the center with her songbook in one hand and her pitch-pipe in the other, looking around for assistance. She sees me sitting in the corner with hands unoccupied and waves me over. “Will you help me?” she asks. “Will you hold open this book, so I can conduct them?” So I do; I become the podium, holding the book open in the center of the encircled singers as she dogears the pages she’ll need. The students are ready; she’s about to begin. “Wait,” I say. My voice is the color of water. “Wait.” I look up and shift back two steps, gently pulling her sleeve toward me, placing us both directly under the Creation of Adam. “Here. We want to stand right here. At the beginning.” She smiles, and she begins.
Teenagers are beautiful humans. Everything about them is transcendent. They part their lips; they square their shoulders. They stand ready for the director’s signal with adolescent yearning, the young men with their big feet and narrowing jaws, the young women with their flowing hair and flawed skin. They inhale the white dust of popes long dead, and they exhale the future of the world. They sing. They sing Ave Verum Corpus and O Sacrum Convivium and the notes waft up up up to the masterwork that encapsulates us: amber, chartreuse, cracked alabaster. They sing with their eyes closed and their souls exposed. And I, standing invisibly in the center of the known world, am washed washed washed with all that is good in this earthly world: youth and faith and gifted beauty beyond telling.
Teenagers are beautiful humans. Let me tell you about ours.
Ø Ronan turned 13. He transcends space. I cannot tell you how many times he has saved the virtual universe from the evils that abound. He bridges the space between friend groups at school. He is the tendon that binds our family together. His song is tempered, his vocal folds still finding their resilience. To be honest, he laughs more than he sings. His voice is the color of rippling wind.
Ø Therese turned 16. She transcends distance. She can wake up on a Saturday morning and make a 10-mile run seem like a mere frolic through an Irish field. When she races, she courses like a river. Her sundrenched skin, her lean muscles, her ponytail flapping antagonistically behind her. Her song glows; it radiates. Her voice is the color of the warm morning sun.
Ø Brian turned 18. He transcends culture. His AP Studio Art portfolio pays homage to cultural distinction; he paints dappled canvases of Columbian, Japanese, Mexican, Indian, and Celtic art. He is applying to international universities in Dublin, Ireland and British Columbia, Canada. His song is stridently certain, emanating steady note after steady note. His voice is the color of loam.
Gabriel and I stand sentinel on this second watch, this river of transcendent moments. Gabriel’s song, his woodworking opuses, fill every corner of our home: elegant provincial tables, wine casket cabinets, artisanal kitchenware. His voice is the color of the sea after a storm. We are married now 22 years. Together, we labor to make sure no one falls behind, and everyone keeps craning their necks to soak in the masterwork above: saffron, celadon, umber.
Every day, our children stand at the center and at the beginning. Every day, they are encircled by angelic voices, the words not as important as the divine breath that utters them. Every day, they strive to separate the darkness from the light. Every day, they take the first tentative steps toward the pregnancies that await them: the unintended sufferings and the incalculable joys. Every day, they stretch, they reach with extended fingers, they attempt to understand their very purpose.
It’s true, though, that as much as they strive, they may never, in this earthly world, touch the finger of God. But they can learn
to see His face painted in the majestic iridescence above them,
to hear His voice singing in the seraphim that embraces them,
to be washed by their own youth and faith and gifted beauty beyond telling.
This is my song. This is a True Story.
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:13-14).
This Christmas, we wish you vibrant color and joyous song.
May you find your voice, and may it glorify one pure, majestic moment
on the cusp of all that is to come.
Merry Christmas from the McKeagneys 2018