A Journey to the Sacred


The Fall season is a hectic time for me at work and with my family. Typically Monday holidays such as Columbus Day rarely change my work pace, since I also work on Sundays. But this year we all had off Columbus Day weekend, so it was nice to get an unexpected break and take a road trip together.

I was unplugged for most of it, but I did gather afterwards that there was some continuing controversy over the holiday. Some noted that it was more appropriate to have an Indigenous People’s Holiday. Others mused that it was a minor holiday celebrated for a colonizer who in fact did not discover the New World, nor even land in North America. All that aside, my family took the less controversial trip to Cleveland OH via the scenic back roads of MD and PA to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Trip to Chagrin. © Copyright 2015 Jay Cuasay Photography, Ohio Collage (8-photo collage), Jay Cuasay, October 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Trip to Chagrin. © Copyright 2015 Jay Cuasay
Photography, Ohio Collage (8-photo collage), Jay Cuasay, October 2015. All Rights Reserved.

It was a bit of a nostalgia trip for my wife and myself. I had gone to graduate school years back in Athens OH and we were among the first visitors when the Museum opened. We remembered the glee of visiting on New Year’s Day when there were maybe 3 or 4 other people in the museum. At the time, the only food we could afford in the museum cafe was an overpriced peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a side of jelly beans. We also remembered our car getting locked in the garage and using one of the first cellular phones (a Motorola with 30 minutes talk time and a 1 hour battery life) to call for help, which came rather quickly on that cold New Year’s Day.

This year, the cafe had sweet potato bisque, an Indian spiced wrap, an assortment of fruits, salads and even locally brewed beer all reasonably priced. The weather was also much better. What was more difficult was the task of bringing our 9-year old-daughter, an avid Beatles fan (thanks to my wife), to a place in which the much that she knew would be dwarfed by the history of what she did not.

Early on, at one of the listening kiosks, she was perplexed by old 1950s footage about various local, state, and national figures speaking out about the evils of Rock and Roll and participating in record album burnings. Somehow comparing it to the scourge of too much personal electronic use today didn’t quite get at the level of objection to Rock and Roll then and now. My own daughter’s taste in music, promoted by what is played over the loudspeakers at her public school and shared among friends is itself less cultural critique or social protest, and much more the product of commercialized “pop” meant to be enjoyed widely. Fair enough.

But the museum itself could be described as a pantheon not unlike visiting a religious shrine or spending a reflective moment (as we will later this year) on the Litany of Saints…names, faces, biographies of those who have gone before us and have influenced us and the trajectory of history.

This is where my daughter is right now, walking on the shores of “Indian Summer”, turning around to see some of her footprints still visible, others washed away. And for a moment, she might consider (a la The Talking Heads), “Well…how did I get here?” Or she may simply have that brief moment to contemplate the vastness of the ocean, the smallness of the tiniest grain of sand and be wrapped up in the awesome mystery of life and the Creator who comes to be with us there.

I found myself comparing on at least two levels this museum to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis TN I visited earlier this year. First, was the method by which each museum tries to recreate the feel and cultural environment into which each moment or historical figure played a role. The second level was the degree to which the displays allowed visitors to experience an historical artifact.

In Memphis, one retraces the March from Selma and the history of the Civil Rights Era: you walk over the bridge, you turn the corner and find yourself at the lunch counters enduring insults, you ride a bus with Rosa Parks and hear the bus driver try to make her move, you stand next to a garbage truck during the worker’s strike, etc. The history becomes very real and you journey through it.

In the Rock and Roll Museum, there is a lot of sound and a lot of video. But to my daughter, it is hard to consume that as “history” and not just some other “show” or “lesson.” Similarly, the artifacts make their impact depending upon what is impactful to the viewer.

At the the Civil Rights Museum, I took to heart the impact of school segregation (having grown up as a minority in lilly-white Catholic schools, I could relate). I was particularly influenced by the examples of discriminatory policies and sentiments expressed in the state of VA, where we live now, and how shockingly recent some of these sentiments were. Within my lifetime, things in VA were entirely different than they are now for my daughter, who has befriended a girl in her class who moved here from Egypt and doesn’t speak any English.

At the Rock and Roll Museum, I pointed out things like Ringo Starr’s swimming certificate he received while in grade school. There was also a school notebook from John Lennon, which showed even at an early age his talent and imagination for drawing and writing fantastical stories and poems. These were interesting to her. But most meaningful to me was seeing Otis Redding’s yellow sweater. I’d seen album and concert pictures of this before as well as video footage. But seeing it up close, was very much like the expression, “Behold, the man.” He was such an accomplished musician with a voice so much more mature and soulful for his actual age.

There were other costumes/wardrobes for other famous musicians: Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix for examples of some male legends; Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift for my daughter’s generation of female pop stars.  For my wife,  it was well worth the price of admission to see the handwritten lyrics for God Only Knows. A Beatles fan-savant herself, she still considers this Brian Wilson song to be the quintessential “best rock and roll recording of all time.” But when I ask her what was most meaningful or her favorite part of the trip to the museum, she is less specific: “All of it.” It means that much to her.

I was glad to have an unusually enjoyable out of town trip. It was 6 hours both ways, but the drive was easy and took us through some beautiful roads in “God’s Country” USA with the changing leaves. We stayed outside of Cleveland in Shaker Heights, which enabled us to enjoy the oversized sandwiches from my wife’s Jewish ancestors at Corky & Lenny’s and the Catholic parish of St. Dominic near the Shaker Heights Country Club. We also got to enjoy Lebanese food (Klinger from M*A*S*H would have been proud) visit one of those vanishing artifacts known as a bookstore, as well as the only Choolah restaurant currently in the U.S. (it’s a test case for a burgeoning franchise). All this and very near our hotel, very near the site of the first enclosed shopping mall in the U.S. and all on an ironically named street called “Chagrin Blvd.”

What does my daughter remember? She remembers how much time she spent in the backseat. But she also remembers how much music we listened to along the way. She remembers how much there was to sing in the church we visited and noted what was different than our parish in terms of how it looked inside and out, how loud it was, where things were. But it was also familiar. We celebrated a baptism inside the mass, they offered communion under both species. Even though the Mass settings were so different, we were able to follow along because we knew the words, if not the melodies. And, though she might not have thought of it that way, this too was like the road trip or the visit to the museum because it involved the actions of visiting a sacred space in which the living history of human activity actually draws its breath.

“Rock and Roll will never die,” sang Neil Young thinking of Johnny Rotten. “The long arc of history bends toward justice,” says Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, in Atlanta, and at his memorial in DC. And the Catholic church continues to ring out its Gospel in Shaker Heights and every Sunday celebration at home or on the road from “Chargin Blvd.”

Some reflections

  1. When you visit museums and see costumes and cultural artifacts of the times, does this help you relate better and understand more about those times? Do liturgical vestments help you in a similar or different way?
  2. What places move you in ways that are similar to experiencing the presence of God in a church?
  3. Are these places that you can share with children or people from different backgrounds/generations?

© Copyright 2015 Jay Cuasay
Photography, Ohio Collage, Trip to Charin (8-photo collage), Jay Cuasay, Oct 2015. All Rights Reserved.


About Author

Jay Cuasay is a freelance writer on religion, interfaith relations, and culture. A post-Vatican II Catholic father with a Jewish spouse, he is deeply influenced by Christian mysticism and Zen Buddhism. He was a regular columnist on Catholicism for examiner.com and a moderator and contributor to several groups on LinkedIn. His LTEs on film and Jewish Catholic relations have been published in America and Commonweal. Jay ministered to English and Spanish families at a Franciscan parish for 13 years. He can be reached at TribePlatypus.com.

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