We went to Graceland a few weeks ago. Thirty-three singers, together with 21 friends and family, left on July 13 for France to spend ten days singing and worshiping and building bonds of community. I don’t think any of us knew that Graceland could be found in France, but our chaplain, The Right Rev. Eugene Sutton, reminded us on the first day that people make pilgrimage for all kinds of reasons to all kinds of places. Santiago de Compostela…Mecca…Temple Mount…Canterbury…Disneyland…Graceland…
Paul Simon’s 1985 song “Graceland” became the unlikely theme song of our time in France. A song ostensibly about the home of Elvis Presley holds layers of meaning about cultural divisions, personal loss, and forgiveness. The song’s refrain tells us that we’ll all be received in Graceland, and so it was for 54 pilgrims from Washington, D.C. in a western European nation where Christianity once flourished and where Christian sites now provide a substantial draw for tourists. We were received in the Graceland of France, bringing our questions, fears, and troubles with us, and embraced by the sounds and nourishment of a foreign land.
Make no mistake, croissants played a major role in this pilgrimage. Maybe as much as the sacred spaces where we sang. They were each nourishing in their own way and in return the music sung by the choir nourished the sacred spaces where tourists flocked. I know this from my own experience at Sacre Coeur in Paris, atop Montmartre. We didn’t sing there, but were shepherded through the building as tourists. And it was just a building to me, until the organist began an extended improvisatory prelude to a noon mass. Suddenly the building came alive and generations of prayers poured out of the walls. I believe that many people had the same experience when St. Albans’ choir sang at the parish church on Mont-St-Michel, and in the cathedrals of Rouen and Bayeux. It certainly happened when we held a service at the American Cemetery in Normandy and suddenly a crowd appeared around us and we all knew through our prayers and music that the lives lost in Normandy in 1944 were blessings to those who gathered around the graves on a cloudy July day in 2015.
Whether singing for tourists, or for wonderful audiences made up largely of local residents, as we did in Chartres and at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, this group from St. Alban’s in Washington, D.C. spread a message of devotion to God, of music’s power to elicit prayer even from stone, and of the fraternité that is possible between two nations.
We experienced some of the hardships that are inherent in any pilgrimage – crowds, grumpiness, injured souls and bodies – but the lasting memory will be of a grace-filled land. Graceland.
You can easily find Paul Simon singing his “Graceland” on YouTube, so I leave you with something else from our trip. A piece written for us to sing in Normandy by David Caleb: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKZzBPpccxs
PS Join us for the Adult Forum on August 30 following the 10:00 am service when several of those who went to France will share stories, photos and music from the pilgrimage