catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 24 :: 2005.12.30 — 2006.01.12


A light shines

Editor?s Note: The following was excerpted from the foreword to Robert G. Vagacs? book Religious Nuts, Political Fanatics: U2 in Theological Perspective (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005).

?I?m at a place called Vertigo.? The words were penned by Bono and performed by U2, but this evening they were spoken by Henry as we walked down the hall of the Critical Care Unit of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. At the end of that hall, Henry?s wife Sarah was keeping vigil at the side of their daughter Hannah, now on life support, after spending most of her five months of life in this hospital.

And U2 was in town.

So where was my friend Henry at? ?I?m at a place called Vertigo.? This may not be Club Vertigo. And it certainly wasn?t a place that could afford the luxury of postmodern anomie and irony. But it was a place called Vertigo. How do you keep your bearings, how do you maintain orientation, how do you even know how you feel, when you?ve been with your daughter struggling for life this long?

In discussion with Michka Assayas, Bono once said that ?the world demands to be described, and so, painters, poets, journalists, pornographers and sitcom writers, by accident or by design, are just following orders, whether from high or low, to describe the world they?re in? 1. But what about the world of Hannah, Sarah and Henry? What about my world as their friend, as someone who also loved baby Hannah? This world needs describing, yes, but more importantly, this world needs healing and hope.

These were not academic questions that week in September, 2005. You see, U2 was in town. And we all had tickets. Can you go to a U2 concert while Hannah is just blocks away in the critical care unit? Does that make any sense at all?

The initial answer was, no. No, it didn?t make sense to go to a concert this week. So we all started to make arrangements to sell our tickets. Henry and Sarah could not leave Hannah?s side even for fifteen minutes, let alone a whole evening. And my wife, Sylvia, and I couldn?t imagine enjoying a U2 show while things were so precarious with Hannah.

But two conversations changed our minds. One of my students took me aside after class and encouraged me to go to the concert. ?This could be the most healing thing you can do all week,? he suggested. And then another friend said, ?Good liturgy doesn?t come to town very often. The least you can do is be there.?

And so Sylvia and I went to hear U2 while our beloved Hannah was on life support just up the road. Could this rock band minister to us while we were accompanying Henry and Sarah in the shadow of the valley of death? Dare we even hope for such a thing from a rock concert? From the first song to the last, the answer was clearly, yes.

So much of U2?s music is created in the face of and in response to death. The concert opened with ?City of Blinding Lights??a song written in response to the events of 9/11 in New York City, yet rich enough to address a very different tragedy that we were facing that night. ?Oh you look so beautiful tonight,? Bono sings, and I?m thinking of that beautiful little girl in her hospital bed. ?Oh you look so beautiful tonight,? and I?m thinking about the tenderness of my friends holding their daughter. ?And I miss you when you?re not around? Bono sings to the lost souls of the Twin Towers, and to his father, and to the children who have disappeared in Chile and other places of oppression. And I hear those words coming to a place deep within myself as I have longed to have Hannah, Sarah and Henry at home with us where they belong.

We are only one song into the concert, and I know that I?m in the right place.

Larry counts out four beats on his drum sticks, the Edge adds a percussive two measures on his guitar, Bono shouts out, ?Unos dos tres catorce!?, the stage becomes a whirl of dizzying, swirling color, and the band is off to a place called Vertigo. Is this where I want to be? I just came from Vertigo, do I really want to follow U2 deeper into that place? And the answer is again, yes. I didn?t come to this concert to escape my grief, my fear, my vertigo. I came here knowing that U2 would meet me there, enter into the grief, describe this world and offer, in the very description, a word of hope. Yes this is a dangerous place, full of temptation, ?it?s everything I wish I didn?t know.? But even in this place, Bono sings, ?I can feel your love teaching me how/Your love is teaching me how, how to kneel?? The place of vertigo is transposed into a place of prayer. And now we know that this concert is a place of worship, a call to prayer.

But what should we pray? What words do we find in such a situation? In the next song, the band launched into a toned down version of ?Elevation,? and during the middle eight, Bono gives us the words to pray: ?Love, lift me out of these blues/Won?t you tell me something new/I believe in you.? Bono the psalmist. Bono who won?t avert his gaze from the blues, who won?t countenance any cheap escape, but who will pray for something new because the same old shit just won?t cut it anymore.

Within a few minutes, it is clear that Hannah is somehow on U2?s radar screen. Bono introduces ?Miracle Drug? by dedicating it to the folks who work so hard at the local children?s hospital. Those are Hannah?s nurses he?s talking about! And again, the band brings us back to prayer, ?God I need your help tonight.? Yes, that?s why we are here. Not looking to U2 for salvation, but allowing the band to bear witness, allowing this ?scribbling, cigar-smoking, wine-drinking, Bible-reading band man? to ?make the light brighter? to illuminate the darkness we were facing 2.

From song to song it seemed that the light did get just a little brighter. Moments of immediate recognition. ?Sometimes you can?t make it on your ownwell, of course not. But ?I don?t know if I can take it/I?m not easy on my knees.? As the band sang ?Love and Peace or Else? the powerful political message was transformed into a deeply personal statementI need some release, release, release? is sung for all of us who have been hanging on a thread with baby Hannah. And when Bono sang, ?As you enter this life/I pray you depart/With a wrinkled face/And a brand new heart,? the tears began to flow. Hannah no longer has the wrinkled face of a newborn, and there is nothing wrong with the heart of this little one.

?I was born a child of grace,? sings Bono in ?All Because of You.? Child of grace. That?s what ?Hannah? means! I didn?t come to this concert to get away from this little girl, and there seems to be nothing in the concert that will allow me to escape her precarious reality.

Rich liturgy?that?s what a U2 concert is all about. Describing the world, opening the heart to grief as a doorway to hope. Prayer. The concert began with prayer, and ended with prayer. ?Yahweh, Yahweh/Always pain before a child is born. Yahweh, Yahweh/Tell me now/Why the dark before the dawn?? Prayer and pain. Faith and longing questions. Deep darkness, longing for the dawn.

And then the last song. ?I waited patiently for the Lord/He inclined and heard my cry/He brought me out of the pit/Out of the mire and clay.? We are back with Bono in the Psalms. And somehow, in the midst of this concert, with Hannah?s hospital room never far from my mind, I have a quiet confidence that my cry has been heard. But I still join my voice with thousands others in the hall, ?How long to sing this song/How long to sing this song?? To use the words of the prophet Isaiah, how long must we hear the cry of distress? How many more children must be born for calamity? Or, back to U2, how long until we can sing, ?Then will there be no time for sorrow/Then will there be no time for pain/Then will there be no time for sorrow/Then will there be no time for shame??

In grief and sadness, in a state of vertigo, I went to a concert with some ?religious nuts? and ?political fanatics.? I went to a rock concert by the biggest band in the world expecting a liturgical experience that would be healing. Before going, my friend Rob Vagacs assured me that I would not be disappointed. He was right.?

Reacting against any cheap grace and junk-food religion, any easy escape from the burden, complexity and grief of life, Bono once said that, ?the true life of a believer is one of a longer, more hazardous or uphill pilgrimage?where you uncover slowly the sort of illumination for your next step? 3. The frenetic energy and the bright lights of the concert hall notwithstanding, the illumination is always slower, longer and more hazardous. This is an uphill pilgrimage that we are on. But there is light for our path. Some of that light shines through the music and lyrics of U2.

1 Bono in Conversation with Michka Assayas (NY: Riverhead Books/Penguin, 2005), p. 26
2 pp. 43, 86
3 p. 207

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