This Thing Called Courage

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Smashed Windows and the Sevants of Love

I came across this account of the 'Servants of Love' (love that name!) in this month's edition of the Boston Irish Reporter (which always has great book reviews of tomes you'd otherwise never hear about) and found it so intriguing I wanted to share. The article is reprinted below. In other news, I'm giving a lecture next Monday April 9 at 12 noon at the Cambridge Center for Adult Ed in Harvard Square on Irish Culture as Expressed Through Story (or something like that-- basically I'll be telling old stories) so come by if you can, 56 Brattle Street. And I'll be doing a reading/signing event at the Barnes and Noble on Route One in Saugus (yes, Virginia, Saugus has bookstores...) on Thursday night, April 26, at 7:30 pm, for A Map of the Harbor Islands.

In other other news, last night when walking Fionn I stopped in at the store down the street as my friend Ray works there M-W-F. He was greatly disturbed last night (he is usually cheerful and quite pleasant) because someone threw a brick through the picture window of his living room the other evening, barely missing his young son (and in fact sending a glass splinter into his son's arm.) A neighbor said they looked out the window after hearing the crash and saw a guy running away (not a kid, but a full-grown man). Ray is liked by everyone and it is so troubling to him to think who might have done this, and why. He has, he says, no beef with anyone, and surely his character is a testament to that. He called the police and they responded-- telling him rather offhandedly and half-heartedly to call his insurance company and his landlord to replace the winodw. Then they left. He was surprised they didn't take the brick to check for fingerprints, but they kind of laughed at him when he suggested that. Couldn't be bothered, I suppose. We frequently talk Dryden and Pope when I visit him. He's an English major and used to be a teacher; he was laid off, and, most towns cutting teachers as they are, can't find work, so he must work at Mobil Gas Stations that have those mini-stores attached that sell cigarettes, potato chips, scratch tickets, energy drinks, and other healthful products. They lost their home as a result and now he rents in a rather shitty neighborhood in Everett. There is no better evidence of what has happened to this country (especially the vivisection of the middle class) than stories like these. I told him it was a shame he didn't work for Halliburton or BlackWater, or for an armaments company, as otherwise he never would have lost his home. There are plenty of jobs there-- but it seems those who would educate and enchant our children with the magic of beautiful words are reduced to working at Mobil Gas Stations in the evening. Moscow does not believe in tears, and America in 2007 apparently does not believe in teaching its children poetry.

Okay, here's the story on the Servants of Love. And I promise I will write up an account of my encounter with the mating ritual of the American Woodcock on Saturday night next time.

By Susan Gedutis Lindsay
Special to the BIR

Along a narrow, one-way street that winds down
from the main road of Wicklow town to the docks, you’ll
pass a row of houses whose doorsteps spill straight
onto the street, then a repair garage tucked back into
an enclosed, paved courtyard. Just after that you’ll see
two unimpressive galvanized steel gates that still show
chips of a bright blue painted past. A small sign reads
“S. O. L. Productions.” Those are the only landmarks
that mark the warehouse “abbey” that is both home
and work to the Servants of Love – S. O. L., as the sign
reads – a very small community of Catholic monks
who have dedicated their lives to inspiring others to
love God in a way that bears much in common with
the Christianity St. Patrick first brought to Ireland
some 1,600 years ago.
Brother Seamus, who is the resident musician and
composer in the Servants of Love, met my family
and me at the gate. I had first met Seamus when he
came to the States to perform at a friend’s wedding at
Christmastime. We were introduced via a local Congregational
minister, who had visited the monastery
on a pilgrimage to Ireland’s early Christian holy sites
a few years back.
During Seamus’s visit to America, I caught his
performance at a local Border’s Books café, a most
incongruous location. There was Seamus, a willowy
sandy-haired and bearded man in his 40s, with soft
eyes and a royal purple hooded monk’s robe, producing
soothing and benign sounds on an Irish whistle
over prerecorded, mystical music piped through a PA
system he brought with him. His “stage backdrop”
was the store’s brightly painted snowmen and Santas
in a jolly winter scene. The train in the mall Santa’s
Village kept circling behind him. He looked entirely at
ease, despite the unlikely setting. We spoke at length
that day, and arranged that I would visit when I was
to come to Ireland a few months later. So there I stood
two months later, in Wicklow, wondering with some
anxiety what lay behind those chipped blue gates.
For the next two hours, Seamus Byrne took us on a
grand tour of the inside of the “monastery” building,
culminating in a cup of tea and light lunch of homemade,
wholistic food. The monastery building is a
labyrinth of studios and workspaces that include a full
music studio, a television studio, a graphic arts space,
a kitchen where the monks prepare the health foods
that make up their “raw food” diet, a large machine
shop with heavy-duty machinery for manufacturing
and repair work, a small braided cord factory, and a
new space under construction that will house a demonstration
space and prep room for their foods. All of
these industries help this Catholic community of eight
remain self-sustaining. According to their brochure, the
Servants of Love – three men and five women – dedicate
their lives to bringing healing, balance, spirituality,
and love into the world. The servants live communally
in a monastic, celibate lifestyle and follow the ethos
and teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. They
eat, live, work, pray, and sing together.
The community works largely in arts and entertainment.
They are performers, artists, musicians, writers,
and art technicians, and their products include the
numerous recordings and DVDs that Brother Seamus
produces, as well as workshops and spiritual retreats
he and his fellows conduct worldwide. Another aspect
of the community is to live a wholistic and healthy
lifestyle, producing health foods and programs to promote
personal wellbeing. With a growing worldwide
interest in “Celtic” Christianity from the New Age,
Catholic, Christian, and whole-health corners, the
Servants of Love have found great demand for the
stated mission.
How proud St. Patrick would have been.
While they never set out to be “Celtic,” Brother
Seamus says that the Servants of Love is a Celtic community.
It was founded in Ireland more than thirty
years ago by a Dane, Nils Jacobsen, who converted to
Catholicism in the 1970s on the ancient Celtic monastic
island of Inishere. His conversion was inspired by the
religious experience of St. Kevin of that island, then
in the spirit of early Irish monasticism, Nils – who
renamed himself Kevin – founded his own community.
His was to include both men and women, in the style
of St. Brigid’s of Kildare or St. Hilda’s of Whitby. The
group lived for many years in Inishere, then onto to
Roundstone in Connemara region of Galway, where
they fished and farmed for a living. The group spent
much time “spreading the faith” through preaching and
evangelizing. In 1990, the community purchased the
two warehouse buildings in Wicklow, and relocated.
The Servants of Love have appealed for official recognition
from Vatican but according to Brother Seamus,
it is a lengthy process and some Catholic communities
don’t even bother to apply for it. “It’s a legal, as well as
a spiritual, process. If the work of the applying group
is very new, the church can take extra long to give official
approval because it has to study, understand, and
discern what the new group has to offer,” he said. But
Seamus added that not receiving official recognition
does not inhibit the community from working for and
with the church, as well as independently of it.
While the Servants profess Catholicism, their beliefs
have much in common with early Christian Celts. Their
“co-ed” communities are not hierarchic, but rather are
run under the gentle direction of a moderator who
presides over the spiritual and business health of the
community. Members wear hooded robes of bright blue,
perhaps an expression of their appreciation for the
beauty and vitality of nature. While the early Celtic
Christians in Ireland inscribed their own nature-glorifying
verses in the margins of the Gospels they so
painstakingly, artistically, and famously copied, the
Servants of Love express their appreciation in their
own artistic productions as well as their diet—a diet
that is based entirely on the consumption of raw foods,
including fruits, nuts, some dairy, and a healthy help-
ing of wheatgrass and various kinds of sprouts—which,
the Servants told us, boast significant nutritional value
over the less enzymatically charged beans and nuts
from which they came. Seamus is careful to state that
the Servants of Love never intended to be, nor is does
it actually consider itself “Celtic,” but people who study
the community tell them that they are.
Seamus joined the group in 1974. A searching sort,
he had first appealed to the Franciscans, inspired by
St. Francis’ devotion to nature and vow of poverty.
However, Seamus – who’d envisioned that his call would
play out as St. Francis’s had, begging on the streets
– was daunted by the enormous amount of academic
study that would be required to join the order. He said
that a few days later, he was praying in his room and
considering his spiritual future when a phrase “Mary’s
Followers of the Cross” came into his mind. He sought
out the source and discovered that there was indeed
a group with this name, a preaching people he had
encountered before on the streets of Dublin. He visited
with the group a few days later on their “meeting night,”
entering late as they were kneeling and saying the
rosary. “I distinctly saw rays of spiritual light shining
from the eyes of the nearest member,” Brother Seamus
said. “The room that they prayed in was saturated in
peace. I knew this was home for the rest of my life.” The
group later changed its name to the Servants of Love,
as its attitude of community became more positive and
less penitential, he said.
Over time, Seamus’ role in the community leaned
toward music. In 1987, he began composing music to
be used as soundtracks for video productions in both
corporate applications and for the community. Much
of his music then and now is rife with nature sounds,
broad swaths of keyboard rumbles and flourishes, and
more primal sounds from acoustic instruments. It bears
much in common with the “New Age” style of music that
was just taking flight at the time, but Seamus says that
living in a reclusive community, his own explorations
were really just coincidental; he wonders if perhaps it
was part of a growing global consciousness.
It’s only in more recent years that his music has taken
on a distinctly Irish sound. After 10 years of composing
in a more classical style for meditation and relaxation,
he decided that he also wanted to play the Irish flute,
whistle, and bodhran. He says that he felt mysteriously
drawn to those instruments, and to the whole sound,
melody, and what he refers to as the “spirituality” of
Celtic music. “Mastering the instruments came easily
for me, almost instinctive, as did the Irish singing
style – like I was born for it,” he said. “Some things
are in your blood.” To illustrate, he pointed out that
his ancestors are the O’Byrnes, an ancient Celtic tribe
from Kildare and later, Wicklow. They were a tribe of
warriors who dedicated themselves to defending the
Catholic faith, and many died for it. He speculates that
many of those were Celtic monks living in monasteries
in Kildare, Wicklow, and neighboring counties, just as
he is today.
His first release was a recording called The Healer,
in 1992—which to date has sold more than 10,000 copies,
a huge success for a self-released recording. Not
far behind it is a more recent recording called Healing
Flute Music. He also has recorded with a Native American
flute player Johnny Two Hawks, and continues to
work on new compositions for future productions. The
Servants of Love’s catalog includes some 60 titles, in
both music recordings and DVDs.
Today, Brother Seamus’s work appears on the Spanish
record label, Producciones de la Raiz, as well as
on the English New Life label. He travels regularly to
Europe, the US, and South America to perform and lead
workshops in both secular and religious settings. All
proceeds from these efforts go back into the Servants
of Love community. Currently, his passion is to build
a new monastery and retreat center where people can
come to find healing in mind, spirit, and body. This
will require an enormous amount of money. The facility
the Servants of Love are in now needs significant
work; the roof leaks in many places, some of the larger
rooms are impossible to heat, and should the Servants
decide to rebuild in the current location, the existing
buildings would cost no less than 2 million euros just
to tear down.
Still, the music goes on. Brother Seamus is currently
negotiating with a major label to release a DVD, recording,
and book set some time this year, and while there
certainly are financial aims, it’s clear that the ultimate
destination of these finances is not the Servants themselves,
but those they serve. “When I was composing
The Healer, my motivation and inspiration was that
the music would inspire people to love God,” Seamus
said. “My approach to composition is that the listener
need do nothing but listen to the music allow it to have
its effect. […] My hope is that my music inspires the
prayer that the listener wants to express; that it is a
language which opens the heart, mind, and soul of the
listener to the deepest truths.
To find out more about Seamus and hear his music,
visit his Web site at . The Servants
of Love community also has its own site,


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