Now there’s an inflammatory and hyperbolic title! More on that in a minute. First, drugs.
I never did drugs growing up. No weed, no acid, no coke, no nothing. There was plenty around and accessible, to be sure, but I just wasn’t interested. When my friends would offer me their latest substance of choice, I’d say, “no thanks,” and that I just preferred reality—why distort it? It was definitely a fork in the road: They couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand them.
At least, I couldn’t understand their desire to trip out, but I think I have an inkling of what tripping out was like for them thanks to Jefferson Airplane and their song White Rabbit. It came on the radio as I was driving home the other day, and immediately I was pulled into Grace Slick’s hallucinatory riff on the children’s classic.
It’s an effectively suggestive song, even to the point of being trite or corny. There are references to hookah pipes and mushrooms, and the twangy guitar combined with the psychedelic paraphrasing of Lewis Carroll couldn’t be more reminiscent of those groovy times. The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds does the same, as do any number of songs by Jimi Hendrix or the Doors. In all, songs like these conjure up an experience I’ve never had, but through them I can sample that experience, at least as an observer and outsider, and even if it’s only for a couple minutes.
The music of Van Morrison did something similar for me, but with reference to mystical union with God. I started listening to Morrison right around the time of my flirtation with Catholicism, and his blend of Celtic melodies and images along with pop undercurrents and poetic streams of consciousness became like a soundtrack for my spiritual pilgrimage. Album after album—Common One (1980); No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986); Enlightenment (1990); Hymns to the Silence (1991)—Morrison’s songs seemed to give voice to my own searching and yearning, and I listened to them over and over.
A good example is Coney Island, Morrison’s haunting meditation from the album Avalon Sunset (1989). It’s not sung, but instead it’s a spoken narrative about a visit to the seaside with friends. Intensely evocative, the song seems to draw the listener into the scene—to join in the ambling and conversation, to feel the warm sunshine, to share in the placid joy the companions have discovered. It’s a little taste of heaven.
So, fine, I like Van Morrison. Does that justify the hyperbolic blog post title? Why the heresy?
Admittedly, it was a hook to get you to read on, but not only that.
In fact, properly understood, I do think it’s a true statement, and not heterodox at all. A helpful parallel, I think, is Cyrus of Persia—savior of the Jews! Cyrus the Great, the sixth-century B.C. ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, was a pagan. Nevertheless, he is celebrated in the Old Testament as God’s instrument in restoring the Jewish people to Palestine and rebuilding the Temple. Isaiah even referred to him as “shepherd” and “anointed” (or, “messiah”), although Isaiah and the Jews certainly weren’t confused about Who was the power behind Cyrus’ throne.
Same with Van and my spiritual renewal. It was as if Morrison’s music was a Cyrus for me—an instrument used by God to restore and rebuild. And, like Cyrus, it makes no difference what particular creed Van adheres to, for God was able to use him and his music regardless.
Tomáš Halík, in his description of second-wind faith that often follows initial conversion and subsequent disillusionment, says this:
Maybe we won’t encounter Christ where people tend to seek him first, but instead he will come to us like he did to the travelers on the road to Emmaus: as a stranger, an unknown fellow traveler. And then we will have to let him retell the “great narrative” of the Bible to us.
Van Morrison’s music mediated Christ to me in a fresh, unprecedented manner. For me, it was, and still is, an Emmaus encounter, recapitulating an overly familiar Gospel, and compelling me to meet Him afresh.
Make no mistake: I know Who is really saving my soul. I catch a glimpse of Christ and his grace in Morrison’s music, but I encounter them directly through the Church and the Sacraments. Even so, I return to Van Morrison regularly, on bad days and good, to conjure up those images of peace and paradise, and to help me re-set my sights on heaven. “And all the time going to Coney Island, I’m thinking,” Morrison intones in Coney Island. “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”
Yes, great indeed. Let it be so.