Friday, September 4, 2009

Blessing Blackburn ~ The Sequel ~ Installment 3

“‘Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life.’” (John 6:47-48)

Friday, 9/4/09
6:30 pm in Blackburn, Scotland

It’s hard to keep track of our jet lag, since Marie and I started out in separate time zones and our various clocks (cell, laptop, blog, forum) are all different even though we are now in the same place, GMT. Anyway, we awoke early on Thursday morning to enjoy our traditional Scottish breakfast, expertly prepared by Shirley. Overnight, heavy rain had caused the Almond River to rise dramatically, but neither we nor the cows grazing just across the river were at all nervous about possibly being flooded out. I decided to stay home and work on yesterday’s blog post, while Marie traveled by bus to the frame shop in Bathgate. Nearby, she posted this message on the fan site:
“I'm at a tiny internet cafe in Bathgate, near Blackburn, West Lothian. I took Susan's usual local bus here about an hour ago. I'm sipping coffee out of a paper cup, checking my emails on my laptop. I get the message from Amazon. I click and order 3 CDs to be shipped to my home address near San Francisco. Isn't this surreal? What great fun!”

Marie was in Bathgate yesterday for a special purpose, and she is guest blogging here to explain that aspect of her visit to Blackburn. Susan Boyle has inspired many people from all sorts of backgrounds – people who relate personally to her in some way or another. As people analyze their own connections to Susan, they have shared these musings widely on fan forums. My other blog has one perspective, and Marie shares below her impressions as well as news of a special gift for people in Blackburn.

Guest Blogger ~ Marie Sheahan Brown

I Am The Bread Of Life

One person who heard Susan Boyle’s audition in mid-April became a quiet fan.

She awakened one morning in the convent near San Francisco where she has lived for nearly 60 years. She padded downstairs and turned on her computer. She clicked a link to YouTube in one of her emails and watched the unforgettable audition. She noted Susan’s voice and her breath control (“sha-a-a-a-aaame!”); her underdog story and persistence; her humble, devout life.

This quiet fan, herself gifted yet humble, composes sacred music. She celebrates the church choirs and assemblies that nourish the soul in song.

Susan Boyle began singing in church at age 12, developing both her gift and her faith. Although the church has no actual choir, quite possibly over the last 40 years the parishioners of Susan’s church in Blackburn, West Lothian, Scotland, have sung what Sister Suzanne Toolan, RSM, now in her 80s, calls “an old chestnut.” Most people know it as I Am The Bread Of Life, translated into 25 languages.

Most do not know of its narrow escape, related in the National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007:

“It was 1966 and Mercy Sr. Suzanne Toolan had been asked to write a song for an event in the San Francisco archdiocese. With the deadline looming, she worked on a song in an unoccupied room next to the infirmary in the Catholic girls’ high school where she taught. ‘I worked on it, and I tore it up. I thought, “This will not do,”’ Toolan said. ‘And this little girl came out of the infirmary and said, “What was that? That was beautiful!” I went right back and Scotch-taped it up.’”

The composer of I Am The Bread Of Life is the quiet fan who, when asked if she might bless the community of Susan’s church in Blackburn by writing a few words on a copy of the score, immediately responded: “I would be so honored!”

For this purpose, Sister Suzanne allowed me to make a digital duplicate of her original hand-notated score (not the Scotch-taped one). She signed the copy with a special message to Susan’s church, and a blessing in the songs of praise we sing.

I carried the one-ounce treasure wrinkle-safe in my laptop case from San Francisco to Blackburn. Leslie and I asked around and found a craftsman, Neil Anderson, who owns Bathgate Picture Craft and reputedly does excellent work (for example, the framed landscapes in the Happy Valley Pub). We easily found his shop on Wednesday – closed. So I returned Thursday while Leslie blogged at the cozy Burnview B and B.

I found Neil at work in his shop on Jarvey Street in Bathgate. I asked if he had a few minutes to talk. Very politely he replied, “Yes, a minute.” I began explaining what I wanted him to frame, and he chuckled. “I thought you wanted to sell me something!” I suppose I did look like a peddler with my backpack and Gore-tex jacket to keep off the rain!

He suggested possible mats and frames. I chose the dark blue mat to draw out the color of Sister Suzanne’s 1960s-era blue pen, and the silver-gold wooden molding to complement without overpowering the image. He recommended glare-free glass to reduce the potential of fading. We arranged for me to pick up the opus on Saturday.

Hopping off the return bus in Blackburn, I stopped in at Susan’s church. In this week’s adventure, I feel myself more pilgrim than tourist. As a pilgrim, I go to experience a place, to learn something about it, about the people, about myself. I attend to God’s presence along the way.

I entered the Blackburn church as an insider, having chosen to enter the Catholic Church more than 22 years ago as an adult. Some five thousand miles and an ocean away from home, I recognized everything in the sanctuary as an old friend.

I sat and considered the people who have worshipped here over the decades, the joyous occasions, baptisms, weddings, and unexpected moments of grace. I imagined the pleas to God during times of loneliness, grief, fear, anger, shame – all the human conditions. Not only would they pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But in Sigrid Undset’s wry wisdom they might also pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those against whom we have trespassed.”

American poet Frederic Ogden Nash wrote, “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Neither the people of Blackburn nor I are yet ready for the Saints’ Hall of Fame. I doubt Susan Boyle is, either – which is why so many in the wide world love and can relate to her. That doesn’t mean she’s not learning, nor her fellow villagers.

I sat in the quiet, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, listening to sheets of rain on the metal roof. A silver-haired lady came in, said her own prayers, and left. We honored each other’s silence.

I went to the back of the church and found neat stacks of well-used slim songbooks on each side of the doorway. They told me, “This congregation sings.”

I leafed through worn pages and found hymn number 226, I Am The Bread Of Life, by Sister Suzanne Toolan. This confirmed my guess that these Blackburn parishioners and pilgrims have sung “the old chestnut” often during Communion and at funerals.

May the villagers of Blackburn, near Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland, find deep comfort in this rescued music that touches spirits and offers hope worldwide in 25 languages.


  1. This is a lovely piece, and I thank you so much for it, Marie. I have sung that song in my Episcopal Church many times, and it's just delightful knowing its background. I love knowing that the people of Susan's home church will have that wonderful gift! Enjoy your pilgrimage... I understand exactly what you mean by that....


  2. This gives me goosebumps each time I read it!