November 2, 2010 / Perspective
Today, as I write this, the world is learning about the death of Ronnie James …
August 20, 2008
In the first days of September 1995—exactly ten years to the weekend before the surging waters of Hurricane Katrina plunged New Orleans into disaster—I found myself wandering alone in the French Quarter on a bright and balmy afternoon. I was twenty-four, single, without a map and without a care, visiting the city for no other reason than I had nothing better to do on a long holiday weekend. I had not been to New Orleans before.
At this time in my life I was a soldier by occupation, stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, hundreds of miles removed from any family member or close friend. I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing. I remember checking into a hotel that was well beyond my means right in the heart of the city, purchasing a few bottles of liquor for some late-night brooding, and walking around with a paperback copy of Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City to read on park benches and in coffee shops. This was my way of trafficking in more “bohemian” directions; my little rebellion from the rigidity of a military lifestyle.
I had nothing but time, which freed me to walk aimlessly, to dwell among the ghosts of the fabled city, contemplating my own dreams and aspirations. I carried a journal around in which to record my thoughts, which were not much more than pitiable imitations of the Kerouac I was only just discovering.
It occurred to me that sometimes our flights of fantasy demand a soundtrack, and because this was the moment for me to branch out, I decided to search for some new music.
First-time New Orleans visitors usually head straight for Bourbon Street. Not me. I’m the sort of person who might happily visit a famous seafood restaurant only to order a turkey burger. So I went off in search of not a jazz club but a CD shop.
This was the pre-iTunes era, of course, when you still needed to buy an actual disc. In most music stores, however, they were just starting to set out those little kiosks with headphones that held a handful of recommended CDs for shoppers to sample. In one of these kiosks I came across a display copy of an album with an old, yellow-toned cover photograph of six young women lounging in what looked like large barrels with the ends removed. Each barrel dangled from a chain, like a row of tire swings. The girls were all smiling, dressed in frocks from another time. It reminded me of youthful pictures of my mother and her four sisters.
In the yellow sky above the women, unobtrusive black letters spelled the name of a band I’d never heard of, the Innocence Mission. And in red font was the album title: Glow. There was something about that simple word, especially when combined with the nostalgic image and the band’s counter-cultural name, that my heart immediately embraced. That title was like gentle encouragement to reengage in something you’ve forgotten how to do, something that would make you feel exceedingly happy—like breathing deeply, looking closely at flowers, or hugging someone you love.
I listened to the album’s opener called “Keeping Awake,” and that was all it took. The music was warm, mellow, even lustrous. This song didn’t rock out; it didn’t smell like teen spirit. Instead, the soft, fluid electric guitar, played by Don Peris, sounded a bit like sunshine, in some unaccountable way.
Thus, it wasn’t too surprising that when vocalist Karen Peris began to sing about children safe in their beds and familiar adult voices “calming people in the house,” her enchanting voice, drifting at an elevated octave like a bird aloft, sounded less like a melody than the breeze that carries a melody to your ears. Together, the voice and the guitar sounded perfectly natural; it sounded like something Created.
The Catholic philosopher and writer Jacques Maritain wrote in Art and Scholasticism that “if you want to make a Christian work [of art], then be a Christian, and simply try to make a beautiful work, into which your heart will pass.”1 This seems to be the principle by which the Innocence Mission has crafted their art from the beginning. Although they are not interested in preaching, their faith is clearly organic to their work.
Originally a quartet, the group formed while its members were still in high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the early 1980s. A slight, quiet brunette named Karen McCullough discovered at a very young age that strumming a guitar and writing her own songs was a means of overcoming shyness and finding her own voice. She joined up with an unassuming, blond guitar player, Don Peris, whom she had met during a high school production of the musical Godspell. The two formed what was, and still is, the nucleus of the Innocence Mission. They enlisted two other classmates—bass player Mike Bitts and drummer Steve Brown—to round out the group.
Don Peris and Karen McCullough formed a bond that endured the test of time in more ways than one: they were married in 1986 and today have two young children. But from those earliest days, they also seemed to share a creative vision in which their individual talents thoroughly complemented one another. As I would encounter for the first time several years later in “Keeping Awake,” Don Peris’s restrained touch as a guitarist found its soul mate, as it were, in the uncommonly delicate singing of the woman he came to marry.
The resulting music is refreshingly beautiful and wistful, with an emotional core that at times feels almost unbearably fragile, like the components of a rose. Listening to it, one finds oneself earnestly hoping that whoever made this gorgeous music, daring to expose themselves to the world, will not be crushed by its inevitable indifference.
I eventually discovered that even as vulnerable as the Innocence Mission’s music can sometimes sound, their songwriting is by no means unsophisticated. It is crafted with the precision and care one associates with such demanding disciplines as poetry and religious devotion. Their approach seems similar to that of the Irish poet and monk Kilian McDonnell, who wrote in the essay A Poet in the Monastery: “I want my poetry to have the simplicity and depth akin to consecrated bread and wine. The hard-edged simplicity of this kind brings its own elegance and power.”2
The compelling name of the group originated with Karen Peris. But the word “innocence” was not a self-applied label so much as an aspiration, a personal standard. “For me, the idea of innocence as it relates to music is about trying to keep a purity of intention, a purity of heart when working on songs,” Karen Peris explained to me in an email, “I think that purity is something to strive for in writing and singing or in making things. But I think that it isn’t hard to do because God gives a pureness of joy to the artist as he works.”3
Peris’s voice, in literary terms, bears the unmistakable imprint of scripture and of her Catholicism. It has a sensitive quality that is extremely uncommon in our present culture, because it has never, at any point in the group’s career, felt dishonest. As the primary writer of the band’s lyrics and music, her art has always seemed intent on revealing what the late John Paul II once described as “that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe.”4 Using economic language, colorful imagery, and even carefully placed punctuation, she writes as a believer whose eyes and ears are open, but whose head is not situated in a cloudbank, as this verse from “Brave” on Glow illustrates:
You paint a tulip red with joy.
You say the psalm; I will not fear.
Somehow, knowing what you do know,
still you tremble out and in.
The world as we know it is discernable here, closing in, but we also witness the writer’s fideism. There is in these lines a perception of the comfort that is to be found in minutia, while at the same time a cognizance of the pressures that come to bear on anyone trying to live a good, or even holy, life. If these pressures did not exist or if they were simply ignored, there would be no requirement for the courage alluded to in the song’s title. We must decide to seek out and accept God’s comforting hand amid our confusion and our sorrow—a theme to which the Innocence Mission returns again and again.
In some ways, the year 1999 was a kind of Holy Saturday of my early adult life, a period of darkness and confusion that preceded a hopeful, even redemptive, dawn. The following year would bring a new millennium—and for me, a new relationship with the woman I would marry and start a family with.
Now, however, I lived in a two-room apartment, so small it once served as the rental office for the apartment complex. The kitchen was literally a hallway. I was still unattached, as I had been in 1995, but I was no longer a soldier. I had fled as far away from my former military life as possible, ineffectually hoping to outpace the same loneliness and the irritating questions about myself that had hounded me in New Orleans. But I had succeeded in changing my surroundings and in piling on distractions, working by day as a business writer in downtown Manhattan and taking classes at night at The New School’s graduate program for creative writers.
My memories of this period are of long sessions early in the morning and late at night, fueled by either coffee or an occasional beer, working on short stories or half-baked attempts at literary criticism. One distinguishing characteristic of my habits then was that I would frequently write while listening to music. I used to take great pleasure racking up the hours with my scribbling while moody or atmospheric tunes played in the background. Usually it was impossible for me to write over vocal music—I would find myself paying more attention to the singer’s words than my own. An exception to this, which may or may not be flattering to the musicians, was the Innocence Mission.
While I had been mailing in my performance as a soldier, doing my time—and then later pursuing a more “exciting” lifestyle by working and attending graduate school in the biggest city in the world—Don and Karen Peris had settled in Lancaster and began writing and recording new material both near and in their home. They released a new record that year called Birds of My Neighborhood, and I played it into the ground.
Their previous album, Glow, had brought them to the zenith of their commercial success. They produced a marketable single, “Bright as Yellow,” and were featured in popular television shows of the time such as Party of Five. In support of the album, the Innocence Mission toured with some major names such as Emmylou Harris and Natalie Merchant, and thus they gained more of a following and increased national exposure.
Yet somehow along the way their music became more nuanced, more refined, and even more removed from the spoils of the material world. They began to eschew a glossier production style in favor of stripped-down, spare melodies and an increasingly acoustic sound. It seemed that the more the Innocence Mission grew in popularity and commercial heft, the greater their imperative from an artistic point of view to refine their focus on small things—the blessings that are so easily drowned out by the bombast of modern life.
Birds was filled with songs that seemed gentler, quieter, and more “innocent” than ever. It made for a wonderful album to write by, with its wintry images, lilting melodies, and the familiar softness of Karen Peris’s voice. There was something about listening to her that formed a kind of comfort zone, a temporary freedom from the harried cacophony of existence: I would spend all day and many evenings in New York City, only to come home, put on their record, and find a quiet space in which I felt free to create.
However, I noticed for the first time that in those initial days of listening to Birds over and over again, I experienced a slight but growing frustration with the Innocence Mission. It seemed to me that they were not evolving. I remember first encountering the record: there again was a young girl in an old photograph at some kind of play. On the back of the album is a photograph of what looks like Karen Peris carrying a guitar in the snow with a scarf wrapped about her head like a kerchief; it looked again more like an image from an earlier time than from the present.
Also, what I heard in the lyrics was more childhood, more memories, more harmless imagery:
We will walk on a hill / red hats and blue coats, and everything still. (“Where Does The Time Go?”)
If I go out in the morning snow / in my pajamas and my winter coat [. . . .] (“Snow”)
We’re looking at the map and we’re laughing and we’re going. (“Going Away”)
Walking in the circle of a flashlight / someone starts to sing, to join in. (“Lakes of Canada”)
“Isn’t this all getting a little too cute?” I thought. Is their music always going to be about laughing little kids and singing songs, Moms and Dads, birds, and light? What does any of this have to do with my own experience?
It is embarrassing to admit this now, because the truth is that there is much depth and eloquence in the writing of Birds, and even a cursory study of the lyrics reveals a clear undercurrent of doubt, frustration, and darkness. You’d only miss it if you weren’t listening.
But at the time, aside from helpfully lulling my spirit into a kind of sedation, their music no longer felt like something I could connect with. So once my initial infatuation with Birds ran its course, I put that record—and their earlier work—aside. I did not return to it in any meaningful way for nearly five years.
“Hope is the thing with feathers,”5 Emily Dickinson wrote in the mid-nineteenth century—an observation that assigns significant weight to the idea of flight. If she was right, then hope flaps and flutters continually throughout much of the Innocence Mission’s canon.
Things that fly are a major presence in Karen Peris’s writing. There is the avian variety of flight, which makes its way into everything from album titles (Birds of My Neighborhood) to song titles (“Wonder of Birds,” “Migration”) to countless lyrical passages. However, one also notices frequent references to modern flight and travel (“Tomorrow on the Runway,” “Song About Traveling,” “Small Planes”) and even to the flight of disembodied things such as thoughts and dreams (“I prize the cloudy, tearing sky / For the thoughts that flap and fly”).
What is to be made of this persistent theme? Does it boil down to a fundamental desire to escape? Peris explained that in one sense, it does: “Yes [. . .] that’s a big one. The escape from earthly worries, the escape out of ourselves.”6
Certainly, birds have a particular importance for the Innocence Mission, and they usually appear in hopeful and joyful contexts. Peris admires birds’ “fleetingness while on the ground” and likens them to “beautiful ideas that come and go in the mind.” Sometimes, they are seen as exquisite creatures to admire, perhaps even to emulate, as in “Wonder of Birds” from their first album: “We will grow our wings / With all the wonder of birds.” Elsewhere, for Karen Peris, they become tangible signs of a boundless love (“All the birds of this day sing a song”) or of peace (“Birds of every wing shall dwell within”); they even become interchangeable with herself (“A singing bird, I call your name”). When they are not present, there is an almost mournful tone to Peris’s lyrics: “When we are lost [. . .] / When we are birdless”; “Flowerless in the country, birdless in the spring.”
“Birds make a lot of different connections in our thoughts,” Peris explains, “The lightness and the ascending, making us think of the soul, the Holy Spirit. Also, with birds, there is the connection of song, and of migration—beginning again in spring, or loved ones leaving, absences.”7
But as one explores the Innocence Mission’s music more deeply, it becomes clear that the references to birds are but one aspect of a larger theme of flight, and ultimately of ascendancy, of the capacity to rise. Many important moments in Peris’s songs, occasions for reflection or even the possibility of revelation, are linked to flight of some kind.
“Brotherhood of Man” from We Walked in Song describes a moment of genuine human solidarity while “waiting at the airport.” In “Medjugorje,” from their first album, a plane transports the song’s narrator to an encounter with the Blessed Mother in a holy place. “Tomorrow on the Runway,” one of the Innocence Mission’s most achingly moving songs, is inspired by the loss of Karen Peris’s mother, and it again incorporates imagery of modern flight. We are given a glimpse of a loved one who is “always miles ahead” and who is situated “in tomorrow on the runway” and whom Peris clearly yearns in the lyric to follow after: “I want to fly, fly forward into the light.” Finally, in “Small Planes,” there is a general longing for all of this flight to be completed, for the ultimate destination to be reached: “When am I going to leave? [. . .] When am I going to get there?”
“I do like to write about travel,” Peris concurs. “I think it has to do with wondering about connections to other people in other places. And the bitter-sweetness of traveling through a place, driving by side streets, long avenues of houses, and wondering about the people. A big reason I keep writing is wanting to feel connectedness to other people. And this has become more important to me since I lost my parents.”8
For Dickinson, hope had “feathers”; but for the Innocence Mission, hope alone is insufficient. Hope is present in the form of the soul’s longing for flight, for the chance to rise up “with wings as eagles,”9 as the Psalmist writes. But it is our faith that gives us the wings—without it, we will remain stranded on that runway, and the question of when we will “get there” will always be on our lips. When we listen to the Innocence Mission we share in the longing and join in the desire to hear Christ say to us, as He does to the suffering woman who touched his garment in the Gospel of Matthew, “Your faith has saved you.”10
In the height of the 2007 holiday season, a time of year when the smallest dose of perspective can help to relieve the tension of a harried culture bent on intemperance, I had my most startling and moving encounter with the work of the Innocence Mission yet.
It was a crisp, cold Saturday morning, following a difficult night in my household. By this time, I had become the father of two little girls, and my wife was pregnant with our first son. Ours is a loving family, but on this occasion my wife and I were both under a great deal of stress for a variety of reasons. There had been frank discussion and tears over our dealings with our daughters. That morning, I headed off to the second of my two jobs hanging on the precipice of despair, even while I understood that it was imperative for me not to languish there, or fall over.
When I started the car, the CD player kicked on. In my distracted state, it took me a few minutes to realize what was playing. It was We Walked In Song, the Innocence Mission’s most recent release, specifically the opening track, “Brotherhood of Man.” My mother, who now knew Karen and Don Peris through St. Mary’s Parish, had purchased me one of the CDs as a Father’s Day present months before. The CD turned out to be a most fortuitous gift.
While I struggled with the unhappy sensation of being overwhelmed by the trials of adult life, the first two verses of “Brotherhood,” which describe rather placid encounters between Karen Peris and genial strangers, filtered slowly into my brain. Without my realizing it, the simple beauty of Peris’s observations, married to her husband’s silken electric guitar performance, began to work on me.
Then came a breakthrough moment, perhaps arriving in an interval between black thoughts. I heard Peris sing the following words near the song’s conclusion, as though I had never heard them before:
I never can say what I mean
but you will understand,
coming through clouds on the way.
It finally occurred to me what was happening here, that in turning this song into a kind of dialogue with Jesus, Peris had evoked an image of what the early Greek Christians called the Parousia, the second coming. But more importantly, she had, in the space of just seventeen words, thrown all the challenges of this world and this life into relief. She had reminded me of just who God is, as opposed to who I am with all of my problems.
Peris, who has written in more than one song about her concerns over being properly understood, couldn’t have been more clear here. The confidence of these lines reminded me that the same God who has numbered the hairs on our head holds us forever in His hands and knows our hearts. It didn’t bring me completely out of my mood, and it certainly did nothing to move me toward overcoming the stark realities I was facing. But on that cold day, this experience of the power of song offered me comfort and helped to lift, at least to some degree, the dark veil that was covering my head.
This encounter also brought me into, I think, a deeper understanding of what the Innocence Mission has accomplished. It seems to me that “Brotherhood” can serve as an effective paradigm of not only what the group has always done well, but also of what their art has evolved into. It captures their best strengths both as musicians and as writers, and it delivers them in a manner that is sweet without being saccharine, pure without being positioned. In a word, the song manages to reacquire the most fundamental qualities of innocence.
The lyrics of “Brotherhood” again celebrate the beauty of the everyday: a close family member with a new haircut who looks “like a painting”; an outdoor image where people are “planting the maples”; an “older man” who “smiles through the limbs” and with whom friendly conversation comes “easily.” The song also inspires a feeling of consolation, familiar to the Innocence Mission’s admirers, that comes from acknowledging essential things like family (“I miss my Dad”) and human kindness (“a girl traveling from Spain became my sudden friend”).
Looking closely at this song in comparison to the Innocence Mission’s earlier work, I see evidence of a clear evolution into highly disciplined and mature songwriting. The song is, like most of the album, more concise and refined than their music was in the past. After Glow, drummer Steve Brown left the Innocence Mission, which no doubt contributed to the reductionism of subsequent arrangements. But it seems clear that their music was evolving this way regardless. The earlier albums had more layers, overdubs, and effects—compared to recent work, some of these songs might even be called excessive.
Over time, however, their focus narrowed and their touch acquired a kind of unique grace. This is due, at least in part, to the influences of religious devotion and poetry. One should not seek from these songs the status of the Peris’s own faith, but I think the music they are making today reflects its influence more than ever in that it eliminates clutter in an attempt to see the world more clearly and to fully appreciate the Creator and His gifts.
Like all mature Christian artists, the Innocence Mission is aware of what it can do, and they do it as well as they can, bringing glory to God in the process. A song in which the music and the lyric complement each other as beautifully as “Brotherhood” reflects this clarity.
It is also an impressive literary performance on the part of Karen Peris, whose lyrics have gradually decreased in length while increasing in profundity. Citing poets such as Czeslaw Milosz, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Anna Akhmatova as creative influences, Karen Peris indicated to me that she enjoys being meticulous in her compositions, “I usually have to work a fairly long time at a lyric. In conversation I am often tongue-tied, so it is a comfort that I can take time in writing. Some lyrics have gone through ten or more versions after they are finished the first time.”11
The lyrics for “Brotherhood” might be easy to dismiss as almost dewy-eyed. But I had already made this mistake once before. The truth is, it matches up neatly with Robert Frost’s famed standard for an effective poem in that it “begins in delight and ends in wisdom” and provides us ultimately with “a clarification of life.”12 The writer has experienced the crucibles of loss and heartbreak, but she recognizes God in the details and has maintained a firm embrace on her faith.
Not long ago, I was reading a superb guide for fathers raising little girls that rather passionately pointed to my responsibility to “stay in the fight for [my] daughters’ innocence.”13 I took heart in this notion, but it also raised an interesting question: What about our own? Is it not true that most of us, after witnessing it suffer devastating blows on the battleground of this world, leave our own innocence for dead there?
The extraordinary thing about the Innocence Mission is that they refuse to concern themselves with the question of whether actually saving the fallen is possible. They stay in the fight, and they hope. Jesus Christ said, “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”14 It takes great faith and great strength to adhere to this vision, and any artists who make it their mission to do so, and to not let go, deserve attention and admiration. To the extent that they have not sought it, the Innocence Mission has earned it nonetheless.
2. Kilian McDonnell, Yahweh’s Other Shoe (Collegeville, MN: St. John’s University Press, 2006).
3. Email interview conducted with Karen Peris by the author, March 25, 2008.
4. Pope John Paul II, “Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists,” The Holy See (April 4, 1999).
5. Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (New York: Little, Brown, 1960).
6. Interview by author, March 25, 2008.
9. The New American Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988).
11. Interview by author, March 25, 2008.
12. Robert Frost, Collected Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1939).
13. Meg Meeker, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters (Washington, DC: Regenery Publishing, Inc., 2006).
14. The New American Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988).
Jude Joseph Lovell
Jude Joseph Lovell holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, and his essays and reviews have appeared previously in America, Paste, Touchstone, Xavier Magazine, Rock & Sling, and St. Austin Review. He is currently at work on a novel set in Indiana in the first half of the twentieth century. Together with his twin brother, Lovell is a cofounder of The Secret Thread, a blog that centers on literature, film, and the spiritual life (http://thesecretthread.blogspot.com/).