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Nóirín Ní Riain: A Theology of Listening


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Nuggets From Nóirín Ní Riain's Call

Last Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting our long-awaited, rescheduled-from-February Awakin Call with Nóirín Ní Riain.

Nóirín Ní Riain (pronounced Noreen Nee Reeun) is an Irish spiritual singer, theologian, teacher, author and Interfaith minister. Known as the High Priestess of Gregorian Chant (plainchant, plainsong), she is also known as a singer of Celtic music, Sean-nós and Indian songs.

Nóirín has released sixteen albums since 1978, including three with her sons Eoin and Mícheál (Owen and Moley) Ó Súilleabháin under the performance name A.M.E.N.

Author of several books, including her autobiography, Listen with the Ear of the Heart, and Theosony: A Theology of Listening, she is currently compiling an Inter Faith Book of Prayer. In 2003, she was awarded the first ever Doctorate in Theology from MIC, University of Limerick Ireland. This was a theology of LISTENING to the Divine, for which she coined the neologism Theosony (Greek Theo (God) and Latin sonans (sounding)).

In 2017, Nóirín was ordained an Interfaith minister with One Spirit Interfaith Foundation Seminary in London and now she spends much of her time officiating at diverse rituals such as marriages, funerals, naming ceremonies, divorces, house blessings, and other sacred ceremonies. With her sons, she also leads a select group on pilgrimages of Ireland through Turas D’Anam (Journey of Your Soul), visiting the megalithic stone circles and ancient sites, and experiencing Irish music and art in both tradition and contemporary expression.

She began singing lessons at age seven and later studied at University College Cork (UCC), specializing in religious music for post-graduate work. Persuaded by a teacher to become a singer instead of studying law, she developed as a performer despite an almost incapacitant fear. Despite having a voice that seems a divine gift, in public performances, she has said “I went through agonies. I've let so many people down, because I wouldn't turn up on the day. I remember even a live television program, and being just stuck to the seat. Not being able to get up and sing my song. I was a nightmare…"

"Now, I'm nearly the opposite really," she says. "I can't sing for enough people. Nervousness is narcissistic. It's all about yourself. It's when you get in the way. Now I know that it is only the voice coming through me, I'm only a tiny vehicle, of something else."

Nóirín’s first triumph as an ordained reverend nearly 15 years after receiving her theology degree was administering divorce blessings. “I hate the word divorce – it’s ugly. In the same way that two people came together they can come apart. It’s a formal way of saying, ‘this is God’s thing too’. The church regards divorce as a failure. I don’t. It has been a blessing in my life. I wouldn’t have done the doctorate. I wouldn’t be here talking about my ordination, if I hadn’t been divorced.” That she is uniquely placed to do so is evident from her attending the marriage blessing of her ex-husband, composer Micheál Ó Súilleabháin, to Helen Phelan. “There are two kinds of heartbreak: the one that shatters the heart and the one that splinters and lets the light in.” Nóirín feels the light has been coming in all these years. In the context of the 2020 global pandemic, she and her sons Owen and Michael Ó Súilleabháin have initiated Dámh Imeall - The (h)Edge School -- a series of retreats that offer immersive online experiences around thoughtfully curated themes.

Below are some of the themes from the call that stood out for me...

  • What is calling you--at this time? Nóirín's gifts as a singer were apparent from a young age, even amidst growing up in an already musical family in Ireland in the 50s and 60s. The path to musical prestige was laid out before her: singing on the radio starting at age 7, being known as "the little singer" at boarding school during adolescence, university, classical and opera training, and so on. "All those life experiences are now wrinkles in my face," Nóirín shared with a smile.

    Yet also from a young age, Nóirín also wanted to minsiter, "to bring god to people." She recalled stealing into her parents bedroom as a child to say mass. And when she was told she could never minister to people in the tradition of the church--"Don't be silly, you can't even be an altar boy," was was told--she began minstering to other furry creatures around her, starting with her dog and then her mother's hen. :) "Animals are mystics in disguise," she noted.

    While the earlier part of Nóirín's life was given externally to music--and a "finding my voice" opportunity would come through a happenstance meeting with an experienced Irish singer who shared his whole repertoire with her--a chance for integration would come later in life.

    Nóirín invoked this quote from Anais Nin: "One day, the risk of remaining tight in the bud became more painflu than the risk of blossoming."
  • "You can't address listening and sound without including their sister--silence." "Every sound comes out of silence; every sound is enveloped in silence," Nóirín further explained.

    Further enriching the paradox-style insight, she later added, "of course there's no such thing as pure silence; even in a sound-proof chamber, you're still listening to the flow of your blood, the beat of your heart...."

    And to cap it off: "if you reconfigure the letters in LISTEN, you get S-I-L-E-N-T." :)
  • Serendipity and Synchronicity--showing up via relationships. Nóirín shared a story of a serendipitous interaction with the musiciain John Cage (who is quoted to have said, "everything we do is music.") After a 70th birthday celebration for a fellow musician, in the green room, John asked Nóirín if she knew an Irish singer named Joe that was dear to him. Nóirín replied by spontaneously singing one of Joe's songs. John listened with tears streaming down his face. John later invited Nóirín to sing Joe's part on a song John had composed.

    In another story, Nóirín had returned to school for doctoroal studies, after 16 years in a monastery and separation from the father of her children. Then in her 40s, she was shifting rolls from a renowned artist to a beginner's-mind learner. Listening deeply to the murmuring of streams, Nóirín came to the realization of an entirely new word in the English langued: "theosony." (Theos relating to divine, and sonos to sound--in fact, the present participle, "sounding" to convey its ever-changing nature. "Sounds can only be experienced in the present," Nóirín shared.) Despite being received with initial skepticism, encouragement again came from kismetic sources, including the late poet John O' Donahue, who mused, "I think you're on to something..."
  • Integration happens unpredictably and over time. Now, at 68, ministering and singing freely, Nóirín openly delights in "the most lovely journey!" And all the mysteries, happenstance, pains and joys that brought her to this point.

    "I don't think I've ever decided to do anything; I just observe the signs."
  • Cocooning. The term invokes the inevitaby transformation that is undreway (as opposed to the perhaps more stagnation that shelter-in-place may evoke).

Finally, also worth noting that in the context of the 2020 global pandemic, Noirin and her sons Owen and Michael Ó Súilleabháin have initiated Dámh Imeall - The (h)Edge School -- a series of retreats that offer immersive online experiences around thoughtfully curated themes.

Deep gratitude to all the volunteers, forces, kin--and listeners, many of whom tuned in twice!--that made this call happen.


PS: Speaking of cocooning, in another fortuitous alignment, Nóirín will be joined by both of her sons, very soon on May 7, for a special awakin call/workshop titled: Song of the Cocoon: Tuning Our Heart's Ear in Times of Transition.


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