Friday, October 21, 2011


Since I spend a lot of time praying the psalms each day in the Liturgy of the Hours I'll often pick a particular psalm to study and meditate on. This week I'd spent some time with one of the great praise psalms, Psalm 100. I thought you might be interested in hearing how it came to life for me on Friday.


Thursday I had occasion to read an interesting paper written by Ivan Lamourt, our Assistant Headmaster, in which he detailed a dozen or more scholarly books and articles on education theory concerning the education of inner-city youths, and then showed how the research is corroborated in our monastery's school, Saint Benedict's Prep. This reading had made me realize how much we at St. Benedict’s have gotten right just on pure instinct and common sense. The reading also sharpened my perception and awareness of the extraordinary things that go on in the school each day, things that most of us here just take for granted. This morning (Friday) my heightened awareness helped me to appreciate one daily event that is truly extraordinary, our daily school meeting, which we call “convocation."


Our 550 boys, grades 7-12 had crowded as usual into Shanley Gym. The daily meeting was being overseen and run entirely by students who were in charge of keeping order and seeing that things got done in an orderly fashion. (I suppose that's pretty extraordinary in itself, come to think of it.)
In the midst of the noise and milling around, the senior in charge stood in the middle of the gym floor and raised his hand for quiet. Quickly the signal spread until everyone had his hand raised, and after a few more seconds the whole place had fallen silent. That’s pretty extraordinary too!

Then attendance was then taken out loud, with the student leader from each homeroom group calling out the names of any absentees. Having the students being responsible for such a task is extraordinary enough, but how about this: in this inner-city school with its 85% minority population our daily attendance averages about 98%!


Then came the heart of “convo,” the prayer service. It began as always with a song. The singing was led by students playing three guitars, three bongo drums and a little Peruvian charango (pictured to the right) while Dr. Fletcher added some color with his tenor saxophone and Dr. Lansang accompanied on the upright piano. At this point things got truly extraordinary: the thunderous sound of 550 teenage boys singing with full voice came very close to what the psalmist must have had in mind when he wrote the opening lines of Psalm 100 (King James Version):

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands.
Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.”

After we prayed a psalm and listened to the day’s gospel reading Fr. Augustine gave a brief and insightful reflection. (He, too, is a Ph.D. -- is it extraordinary for a Catholic inner-city high school to have five doctors on the staff?) Then came a period of spontaneous petitions in which students and staff prayed out loud for various intentions, especially for people who are sick or suffering. After the final oration it was time for a closing song.


Picture the 130 freshmen sitting in ranks and files covering the entire floor of the gym (nobody tell the Newark Fire Department, please!). As we began singing, dozens of freshmen began spontaneously reaching to put their arms around the shoulders of the classmate on either side and to sway, as they sat, in time with the music. Their sense of joy was palpable. Typical of our school, these kids singing with arms draped comfortably around one another were a diverse group: African-Americans, South and Central Americans, European-Americans and several natives of Africa. They were a living example of King David’s “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands,” with the clear emphasis on all ye lands."


As I watched, it struck me that each of these kids was exulting in the feeling of belonging to a community. Did you know, by the way, that research shows that creating in a young person a sense of belonging to a community enhances self-esteem and has a positive effect on academic performance? (Wow, what a surprise? Who knew, right?) As I watched this spontaneous celebration of camaraderie I realized that these kids were experiencing the next line of Psalm 100 (NAB trans.):

Know that the LORD is God,
he made us, we belong to him,
we are his people, the flock he shepherds.

Each of us is a member of the one same flock. Each of us in our school community knows that he or she is a member of the family. We are not a random collection of sovereign autonomous souls, but members of one another.


As the song was ending, I looked up at the twenty-some class banners hanging along the edge of the elevated track. This year we’re displaying those from the anniversary years of 2006, 2001, 1996, and so on back through the 1940’s. The students are surrounded by reminders that they are part of a line of St. Benedict’s men that goes back to 1868. That kind of permanence in the middle of an American city is an extraordinary thing these days. It’s also a living example, by the way, of the final line of Psalm 100:

“good indeed is the LORD,
His mercy endures forever,
his faithfulness lasts through every generation.”

I walked out of convo this morning feeling Psalm 100 in my bones and more appreciative than ever of the great gift that I’m privileged to be part of every day. It’s certainly enough to make one want to sing and make a joyful noise for the Lord!

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