David Haas – October 30, 2014
I have often been asked, "what inspired you" or "what led you" to compose "Blest Are They?" One of my favorite stories is when someone shared with me: "what a great song. Where did you come up with the words?"
The song was composed in 1984, in the midst of my second of three years as Director of Liturgy and Music at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in St. Paul Park, Minnesota (a suburb of St. Paul). It was soon after my first two collections with GIA, "Psalms for the Church Year" (with Marty Haugen) and "We Have Been Told" were published.
Our parish had a monthly commitment to the "Loaves and Fishes" program at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, and my good friend (who also happened to be our parish liturgy committee chairperson) Barbara Colliander, was one of the on-site coordinators for the daily evening meal for the poor in the area. In those days at the Center, those of us who volunteered to serve the meal would actually "serve" the guests, who were invited to sit down at table. There are two important images here, serve and guests.
Some of the volunteers were simply appointed to spend time sitting with them, engaging them in hospitality, conversation, and just being "present." My friend Barbara was amazing. She was so attentive, not in a condescending way, but truly present - listening and conversing, and embracing in an intentional way the message (usually without words) that each and every one of them were important; that they were, are, and will always be, "holy." Almost immediately the line came ringing into my brain: "blessed are you, holy are you", as well as my love of the text from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel. Barbara saw them as Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin saw the poor and vulnerable, as holy, as blessed, or as Maurin would have said, "Ambassadors of God." The first time that I was a volunteer, I was so moved by Barbara's witness, that the very next day, I remember as clear as day, running down to the downstairs room near the parish hall at St. Thomas Aquinas (referred to as "B-9"), and composing the song, in less than 10 minutes and the old brown upright piano in that room. Most of the time (much to the disappointment of those who cling to a more romanticized view of the creative process), compositions are usually created amidst angst, writing and re-writing and editing; putting it back in the drawer, and bringing it out again to work on some more; testing it with choirs and liturgical celebrations and colleagues. And even then, there is never any assurance that a piece will "work" or serve well. Well, it was not the case with "Blest Are They" – it came from a place of tremendous and total gratitude: for the "ambassadors of God" at the Dorothy Day Center, and for the witness and example of my good friend, Barbara.
We sang and prayed it at the parish soon after, and in the fall of 1984 it was "premiered" for a larger group of about 4,000 people at the St. Paul/Minneapolis Archdiocesan Faith Gathering as part of the "Come and Journey" concert in the old Minneapolis Auditorium (GIA: CD-171). It also became the centerpiece for a national event that Marty Haugen, Michael Joncas and I presented for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians' 1985 national convention in Cincinnati; when it also became a part of the "To Be Your Bread" collection.
There are so many memories of this piece, I cannot begin to remember them all, but a few come to mind: experiencing it as the actual Gospel proclamation on the feast of All Saints in 1985 at Malia Puka O Kalani Parish in Hilo, Hawaii (including Hula and chant); recording the song in the studio where Michael Joncas, on the spot noticing that the piece needed a bit something more, composed right then and there the familiar descant and counter melody for the refrain. I also remember playing it for of the music ministry ensembles that I directed at St. Thomas Aquinas (the Emmaus Music Ministry), and my good friend Jim Waldo suggesting that the chord on the second statement of "rejoice and be GLAD" be an F minor chord (he was so right on this!). I also remember Michael Joncas coming to offer a retreat for the Emmaus Ensemble where he broke open this section of Matthew's gospel through the lens of my setting.
I remember the first time meeting and singing with John Angotti at an NCEA Convention concert a few years back, him publicly thanking me for composing the song, which he remembered was sung at his First Communion (thanks, John, for making me feel old!). I also know that John Foley, SJ, used rhythmic pattern of the instrumental refrain accompaniment as an example of teaching music theory students about "hemiola" (not going to explain it here – you can "google it"). And I love the many instrumental versions of this piece that have been recorded, especially by Jeanne Cotter, Stephen Petrunak, Tom Kendzia, and Paul Tate.
During Pope John Paul's second visit to the United States, it was one of the communion songs for the Dodger Stadium mass in Los Angeles. The video (you can find it on YOUTUBE) shows the ever-wonderful (and calm) Frank Brownstead - wearing his white gloves so that the gargantuan choir could seem him - conducting the piece with joy and gusto – and to top it all off, seeing the Pope actually singing along on the refrain. At the very top of the list of cherished memories, however, is the four different occasions I was able to lead "Blest Are They" for groups of pilgrims at the actual Mount of Beatitudes in Israel - truly moments of humility and gratitude. Those are just a few stories that I can remember. I continue to be humbled after all of these years as I have heard it sung, recorded, arranged, and "covered" by many and prayed and published in numerous languages a around the world, many have shared stories of faith and growth around an experience of this piece at liturgical celebrations and/or other settings. And of course, I am grateful to GIA to helping this piece serve so many.
One concern that I have about the piece is that because it is one that is sung so often, and almost always at the many parish concerts that I present each year, we can be prone to forget the deeper call and conversion that the Beatitudes call us to on a daily basis, to see everyone as blessed, and to work and strive to become the living embodiment of treating all with dignity; to see everyone as blest, and to remember the ethical demands of being the Body of Christ. That all being said, I give thanks to God and for all who have found this piece a renewal of their baptismal commitment, and hope and pray that it still continues to serve the rejoicing of a praying people.
Go to "Blest Are They" 30th Anniversary page