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John Michael Talbot: Ministry flows from your being

30 November, 1999

To launch the Dublin Diocesan Prayer Initiative, million selling Catholic composer John Michael Talbot led prayer through music events for over 2,000 people in Drumcondra, Bray and UCD in early November. Here he talks to Link-up about his background, his ‘search for the Church’ and the source of his music.

Originally from Oklahoma in the mid-west of the United States, John Michael Talbot comes from a long line of Methodist ministers. His grandfather was a ‘circuit writer’, who started churches in small country towns. In his mid-teens he began performing along with his brother Terry in a group called Mason Proffit, playing music that was the forerunner of country rock. They shared post-Woodstock stages with virtually everyone in the US folk and rock scene “except Hendrix and Cream,” he clarifies. “I got a chance to see all the people I thought I wanted to be like up close and so many of them were really miserable,” he says. He knew there had to be more than the excesses of the rock-and-roll lifestyle.

Religious search
“So I started a religious search and began reading all the way from Hinduism to Native American spirituality to going back and re-reading the bible my grandmother had given me.” Despite having “fallen away” from his Christian upbringing, he always carried it with him. “The words of Jesus just spoke to me,” he explains, and he once again became a Christian with the subsequent moral and artistic soul-searching struggles.

Talbot began to use his musical gift in the area of Christian Contemporary Music. He was always most attracted to folk music as it was “music with a message about something greater than just the performance of sound” and thus the acoustic, more meditative style of music for which he is best known evolved.

Around this time he also began what he calls his “search for the Church”. He was drawn to Catholicism for three reasons. One is what he describes as the ‘three legged stool’ of apostolic tradition, together with scriptural interpretation linked in with the teaching Magisterium. “It takes at least three legs for a milking stool to stand up right. Otherwise, it’s quite a balancing act.” On the experiential level he was very interested in contemplative and mystical prayer. “And in the West, Catholicism is the keeper of those deeper kinds of prayer,” he says. Thirdly he was deeply attracted by the monastic tradition in the Catholic Church, the challenge “of living the Gospel radically”.

Broken channels
He admits that if the diocesan and parish system were all that Catholicism had to offer, he would not have “bought into it” and is under no illusions about how the Church is “filled with fallibility – with human sin. The miracle is that God continues to reveal himself through these very broken channels.”

Having spent time as a member of the Secular Franciscans, he later founded his own order, the Little Brothers and Sisters of Charity, “a different kind of monastic community with celibate brothers and sisters and married people professing the same evangelical counsels but in a different way” on a 425 acre plot in the Arkansas mountains in Eureka Springs. John Michael tries not to be away for more than 70 days in the year. They live poverty: “simple living in the midst of the consumerism of Western society,” chastity: “according to our state of life, in the midst of a very promiscuous society” and obedience: “a tough one – to God, the Church and the parameters the community gives us to live the Gospel life.” They have a common chapel where they pray three times a day. They work together on publishing and grow their own food. They have a clinic for the poor and a retreat centre. Financially, they benefit from the income John Michael makes from his recordings. His concerts and music also fund a charitable organisation called Mercy Corps International, who bring relief worldwide especially to areas troubled by conflict.

God is the answer
Despite combining married and celibate states in a community, Talbot knows that his order does not ‘have the answer’. “The answer is God. We have the same turnover of vocations as all other communities. To get Christians (in the US) to understand that a vocation is for life is really difficult – to stay more than 4 to 5 years.” He sees it as the ‘Achilles heel’ of Western society that there always appears to be “something new and better and improved. Buddhist monasticism in the US has the same experience. But we have to allow God to bring His cross through the fallibilities of the culture in which we find ourselves because we carry a lot of that baggage with us into community.”

Where does his music come from? “Out of prayer. Ministry has to flow from your being and if you try to make ministry your being you’ll suffocate it. My being has to be in union with He-who-is through Christ. When that is in place my ministry is able to fly because I don’t have to possess it. I don’t have to have my music ministry in order to live. In so many ministries, Catholic and non-Catholic, they have gotten into terrible trouble because the minister begins to possess the ministry and the same thing is true of music – it has to come out of my being. I usually use a text I am praying at the time.”

Hearing the silence
He often invites those at his concerts to a deeper listening. “You have to listen not only for the note but also for the space between the notes, not only the lyric but also the silence between the words. When you begin to hear the silence, then you learn to hear the space in the note and the silence in the word and then you discover that all the world is music. There are some mystical traditions that say that God created the world with music. And if you think about it – everything is vibrating!”

“I hope [my music] helps take people on to an experience of Jesus, the Incarnate Word. He was proclaiming even when he was silent, actively bringing Good News even when he was sitting in stillness. So the goal of the music is to take people back to the experience I have before I write the music, and it’s all interdependent.”

This article is reprinted from Link-Up, a publication of the Dublin Archdiocese.

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