Monday, November 11, 2013

Richard Morris, RIP (May 30, 1942 - September 12, 2013)

Sometimes when a dear friend dies suddenly, I find myself so struck and stunned that I can't write. No words seem quite up to the task. Nothing I could say could possibly sum up a life and I don't even like the idea that words could ever sum up a life.

For this reason, I've often found myself waiting months or even years before offering public tribute to great people who died. Maybe it is a personal quirk. I'm not sure.

But in any case, this is precisely what happened when two months ago, I heard word that my old friend Richard Morris, organist at St. Francis de Sales in Mableton, Georgia, died after a car accident. He had been such a good friend to me, so warm and welcoming, so patient with me when I was singing for the schola at the parish, so generous with his time when I granted me a long interview. He had arranged for me to have tickets to a concert he gave at Spivey Hall, put me in touch with various people in the sacred music world, helped me through various mistakes and errors I had been making both musically and intellectually. I had been one among thousands and thousands who experienced his gifts and benefitted from his generosity throughout his spectacular life.

But as the years have gone on, I gradually lost touch with him. Then I heard that he died. The pain somehow deepens when you realize how much time has gone by when you might have stayed in touch, might have exchanged a phone call, might have sent a friendly email, but none of this happened. Then one day he is taken from us. It is startling and somewhat infuriating actually. Guilt is another feeling we have, and maybe that is the source of my reluctance to have posted anything until now.

Regardless, this is it. This is my small tribute to an amazing man. Whatever you have heard about his musicianship, his thrilling competence in all matters of organ and choir and pretty much everything, sacred and secular, multiply that by about 1000 times and you begin to get a glimpse of who he was.

Many people knew him only from St. Francis did not know that they were being graced with the presence of one of the 20th centuries great performers. As this wonderful obit says:
For 25 years, Richard performed an average of 50 to 60 concerts a season for Columbia Artists and the Community Concert Associations of the United States and Canada, both as soloist and with his very popular organ-and-trumpet program, Toccatas and Flourishes. He was an acclaimed soloist in performances for national and regional conventions of the American Guild of Organists and with orchestras throughout the country. In 2005, Richard was master of ceremonies and a featured soloist of the Virgil Fox Legacy 25th Memorial Concert at New York City’s Church of St. Paul the Apostle. Throughout his career, he made a series of critically acclaimed recordings.

At Mrs. Spivey’s invitation, Richard served as consultant on the tonal design of Spivey Hall’s Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ, built by Fratelli Ruffatti of Padua, Italy, and dedicated in 1992. He was named Spivey Hall Organist-in-Residence in 1994, serving also as head of Clayton State’s Organ Department, giving annual recitals, and taking part in numerous special events, including two live broadcasts of National Public Radio’s program, Performance Today.

In addition to his duties at Spivey Hall, Richard Morris served as Organist/Choirmaster at St. Peter and St. Paul Episcopal Church in Marietta, Georgia, and, since 1994, as Church Organist and Georgian Chant/Polyphonic Director at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Mableton, Georgia. In Rome, he sang in Gregorian Pontifical Institute choir workshops, including a performance for the Holy Father Blessed John Paul II, with whom he had an audience. He attended Catholic music conferences at Ft. Royal, Virginia, and his perspectives on music in the Catholic Church were published in an extended interview with Latin Mass Magazine.

This last mention was the interview I had conducted with him. I recall so well how he came to my house for the afternoon and we just talked and talked about all fundamental matters. Mainly I wanted to know, from his long experience, why Catholic music was in such sad shape. His answer -- which explained at length -- was really about the liturgy. The liturgical change caused enormous upheaval and we lost our bearings. We lost our language, we lost the musical language, and we lost the sense of sacred that calls us to embrace great quality over schlocky pop music. He reflected on his many efforts to introduce sacred music in modern parish life and how he had continually met with frustration. There were too many negotiables, too many variables, too many choices, too many players who have a hand in somehow making the liturgy happen. He contrasted this with the liturgy of history, which had gradually worked its way toward an ever clearer picture of the ideal -- maybe not always in practice but at least in ideals.

I recall too being to inspired at his dedication to his little Catholic parish in Georgia where the full Gregorian propers were sung each week. He made no money directing this choir or playing this organ. But he rushed to do it every week because it was his true love, the thing that made all his musical study and expertise truly come to life in a meaningful way. He had this wonderful sense of the faith too. For him, Catholicism was serious in liturgy and wild, exuberant fun in the rest of life. Being around him, I gained a real sense of what it means to be a full-blown mature man of faith. He was such a delight in so many ways.

No tribute can do him justice and I won't even attempt it. However, this homily given at his requiem Mass comes very close.

Requiem – Richard Morris
Homily by Father Matthew J. McCarthy, FSSP

How does one define a man?

How would one define Richard Morris? Doubtless you who knew him better than I could - like his obituary - speak of his keen intellect, his ability in foreign languages, his brilliance playing the organ and numerous other talents far beyond the comprehension of a musical illiterate such as myself.

A man is first of all defined by what he is. Philosophically, man is defined to be a rational animal. Man shares obvious similarity with the higher members of the animal kingdom. He shares a common genus – animal - a logical not biological origin. Man, however, is different - specifically different: he is rational. And it is that specific difference which is most important, which ultimately defines a man.

Man differs from all other animals by reason, most properly the image of God within us, conferring intellect and will. And the highest natural instinct in man, proper to reason, and which specifically distinguishes man from brute animals, is that instinct to seek the truth, to recognize and live by the truth.

And to recognize and live by the truth is to be dogmatic. In an age of intellectual and moral relativism, the term dogmatic has taken on a pejorative tone. We are all exhorted to be tolerant of differing – even contradictory - opinions. Indeed the only opinion which is not tolerated is that there is such a thing as objective truth. We are all exhorted to be broad minded. But as GK Chesterton once observed, a stick of celery is broad minded, i.e., indifferent to the truth. Being broadminded is not virtuous. It is profoundly contrary to human nature. Being dogmatic is what defines man.

Being dogmatic defined Richard Morris. Richard Morris was not broadminded. I don't mean in respect of whether this or that composer or artist was better or worse. I mean in terms of those things which ultimately matter, which ultimately define a man. It was Richard Morris' love of the truth – his dogmatism - which brought him, and others after him, into the Catholic Church.

A man is defined, then, by what he is: rational. A man is further defined, and more so, by the end to which he is ordered, the purpose of his existence. In so far as a man strives to attain – to seek after - the end to which he is ordered, he is defined by what he loves. By nature we are ordered to seek after the truth. But the truth ultimately is not abstract: not something but someone. A man is defined then not-so-much by what he loves as by whom he loves. By grace, we are ordered to eternal life with God. As Our Lord himself taught: This is eternal life: that they may know you the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Richard Morris was in love with the truth. Richard Morris was in love with God. And Richard Morris was in love with the First Truth become man, Our Lord Jesus Christ. This defined Richard Morris.

A man may have many gifts – extraordinary gifts – but without love they are nothing. As St Paul writes: If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profits me nothing.

Richard Morris undoubtedly had extraordinary musical gifts. And he could have used those gifts and remained ... a sounding brass, a tinkling cymbal. But those gifts did not define him. He was defined rather by his love of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin, the saints. He used his musical gifts – as all God's gifts should be used – to extoll God and the saints: to bring people closer to them. That is why he worked in the insignificant backwater of Mableton Georgia, for a fraction of what he could have earned elsewhere, in a job which by his own
admission, was the only one he ever loved. This defined Richard Morris.

In so far as love compels us to seek out the beloved, it compels us to act, for we order our acts to attain to the beloved. A man therefore is defined by his acts. Indeed, a constant theme of the scriptures is that reward and punishment are meted out according to our acts. As St John records: And I saw the dead, great and small, standing in the presence of the throne, and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged by those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and hell gave up their dead which were in them; and they were judged every one according to their works.

In so far as a man is defined by his works, he is defined by the authority which he follows in guiding his works: what to do, what not to do. It was his love of the truth which had drawn Richard to Rome. And despite whatever sins he may have committed through human frailty, he was resolute that Rome, and she alone, would – could – guide him to his beloved. This is what defined Richard Morris.

And if a man is defined by his acts, he is especially defined by his last act, because that last act should put him in contact with his end, with his beloved. Indeed, the whole of one's life is a preparation for that last act which can make or break everything. A failure to put that last act in place spells disaster, and renders a lifetime of effort worthless. That is why we are exhorted to pray for a good death. Richard's wishes for his last act were very simple. Conscious of the fact that he was a sinner – worse than some, better than others – he did not want to appear before his beloved, the First Truth made man who will render to each according to their works, without the assurance of having been forgiven for his faults and failings, whatever restitution would still have to be made. Knowing that He to whom all authority in heaven and on earth had been committed, in turn had granted authority to men to forgive sins, Richard's wishes for that last act were very simple: make sure a priest is there God granted Richard that wish. He could have been killed instantly in his accident. He wasn't.

While still able to communicate in some fashion, he was absolved, anointed and received the Papal Benediction. And this ultimately defines Richard Morris.

How does one define a man? How would one define Richard Morris? Richard Morris was dogmatic: he was in love with the truth; he was loyally subject to Rome; he was a sinner, but he knew it and confessed as much. He was not a sounding brass, a tinkling cymbal; he was in love with God and the First Truth made man, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

There is a quintessential Catholic prayer. It ends: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. It is known to God alone how many times Richard uttered that petition. Richard's accident was on September 8th, the feast of the Birthday of Mary, the Mother of God. He passed into eternity shortly before midnight, four days later on September 12th, still within the feast of the Holy Name of Mary. We can hope that it was her who presented Richard before her Son.

Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon him:
may he rest in peace. Amen.
In the name of the Father ...

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