Ms. Cook is a free-lance writer who lives in Waco, Texas.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 18-25, 1987, p. 279. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The devoutly religious John Michael Talbot turned from folk-rock music to the life of a Franciscan monk and remains an incomparable singer and guitarist — though a devoutly religious one. He spends half of his time in retreat and half in ministry.
The year is 1968. The place is suburban Chicago. The room is crowded with long-haired young people clad in faded blue jeans, hand-strung beads, Indian headbands, moccasin boots and long calico dresses. Here and there, a clandestine marijuana joint is shared.
On stage is a folk-rock band whose dress and demeanor resemble those of the audience. The songs, from the hit album Hangman, are mostly concerned with civil rights and the Vietnam war.
This particular concert is a fund-raiser for Jerry Rubin, one of the "Chicago Seven," arrested for protesting the war and racial inequities. The group is Mason Proffitt, whose members include brothers John and Terry Talbot.
Almost two decades later another concert takes place in Dallas, or Chicago, or Minneapolis. A mammoth crowd has gathered. Gone are the garments and atmosphere of the ‘60s. The audience hushes as the lights go down, and a Franciscan brother -- clothed in the order’s traditional brown robe -- walks quietly onto the stage, sits down and begins to play an acoustic guitar.
There is no attempt to entertain. Indeed, the evening is more like a mass than a concert. The Franciscan whose soft, sincere sound of praise and worship mesmerizes the audience is John Michael Talbot.
To reach the Little Portion, a Franciscan hermitage founded by Talbot, one must have a tremendous desire to get there. The only approach to the secluded spot in the Arkansas Ozarks is up a steep, unfriendly gravel road that winds for 30 minutes after leaving the paved highway near Eureka Springs, but I am determined to make my visit.
At last I spot the gate and drive slowly onto the hermitage grounds. I am struck first by the silence, and then by the surrounding mountains. The air is clear, the ground is fresh and moist from a recent rain. A small lake sits serenely on one side of the area. Several buildings are scattered around the hermitage, each one divided into two compartments, and each, with its chimney and solar panels, speaking eloquently of careful conservation.
Near the lake on one side is a tiny chapel equipped only with a circle of pillows and a simple altar. A larger building in the middle is used for meals and housekeeping tasks.
John Michael and his older brother, Terry, began singing gospel music for various church groups when they were eight and nine years old. Their love of music accompanied them into their young adult years when their convictions found expression in the songs of Mason Proffitt.
"We were a social comment band," Talbot recalls. "Our hearts were in the right place. We were asking the right questions, but coming up with the wrong answers in many cases. There were some really good people back then, people who were genuinely seeking a better way. We were searching for something universal -- some absolute point of reference. But we couldn’t find it. . . . All of that searching was real. It was genuine. But much of it ended in despair, because many of us found no lasting answer."
Mason Proffitt hit the peak of popularity around 1968, and by 1969 John Talbot was looking elsewhere for fulfillment. "Music had become my god," he says, "and I knew that something was terribly wrong." Within the next few years Talbot had found his absolute truth -- his point of reference -- by searching through Scriptures and reading the Patristics.
Talbot is surprised when I tell him that people see his life and music now as a drastic change from those days. "The Franciscans," he says, "are similar in many ways to the activists of the ‘60s. . . As a Franciscan, I am still working for justice, but in a redeemed and completed kind of way."
However, Talbot did not move directly from his social-activist band to the Franciscans in one step. Indeed, at the time of his conversion to Christianity and for several years afterward, Talbot associated with the "Jesus Movement" and was blatantly anti-Catholic.
During those years the band dissolved, and in 1973 John and Terry, as "the Talbot Brothers," made an album, Reborn. Then in 1976 they collaborated on Firewind, a musical about the events in the early portion of Acts. Talbot also cut two solo albums with the same record label: The New Earth and John Michael Talbot. On the cover of the latter, he is pictured in a white suit with almost waist-length hair and beard, clutching the ubiquitous guitar. The music on the albums was not unlike the folk-rock songs of Mason Proffitt.
Many of Talbot’s phrases and mannerisms are still reminiscent of the Jesus people, with whom he associated for some time. When I point them out, he laughs. "I did identify with the Jesus people," he replies, "although my conversion was independent of any group. I was a freak who came to love Jesus so I guess that makes me a Jesus freak."
During the following years Talbot was divorced, leaving him deeply depressed. "I had lost my wife. I had lost my child. Apparently my Christianity wasn’t so hot -- my wife wasn’t impressed with it," he reflects bitterly. No longer was he finding the answers he needed in the places he had looked before. "I was totally broken."
Then he began reading about St. Francis of Assisi. "I cried and cried," he remembers. "There was this man, living the gospel so humbly and effecting far more than anything I was involved with -- any denomination, any peace and social-action group, any charismatic renewal or Jesus movement. . . . I wanted to know how Francis did it. I wanted to know more about the Franciscans."
Despite his anti-Catholic convictions, Talbot began finding more and more comfort and healing in the writings of Catholic mystics. "Somehow all of the books that were helping me turned out to be Roman Catholic," he says. He decided to visit Alverna, a Franciscan retreat center in Indiana. There, he recalls, the friars "did not try to make me Catholic or Franciscan." But he found such healing among them that he soon became both.
While studying the life of St. Francis, Talbot discovered that much of the saint’s life had been spent in seclusion, and that he had founded more than 25 hermitages. I realized that, in order to be effective in ministry, you’ve got to have an effective contemplative life, or your ministry will burn you out."
So Talbot, now a Third Order Franciscan, obtained permission to build a hermitage at Alverna. There he started the Little Portion House of Prayer and a group called People for Peace. "People started coming -- lots of them," he says. "They thought there was a holy man in the woods. But it was just me."
Soon the hermitage had attracted so many people that it could not maintain its contemplative purpose. "It was too accessible. We needed more seclusion," he recalls. By that time Talbot had sold everything and given the money to the poor -- everything except an isolated plot in the Ozarks that simply wouldn’t sell. "I was going around saying, ‘Where can I go to establish a new hermitage -- a secluded place? Where?"’ Talbot remembers. "And one of the brothers said to me, ‘John, you are so stupid. Look at this property you can’t sell.’ And he was right, of course. It was perfect. And here we are."
The Lord’s Supper (1978) , a quiet and rich musical adaptation of the Catholic Eucharist, was the first recording that Talbot made after becoming a monk. "It was going to be my last," he says. "I thought I would just do that one last album and then go on to other things. It turned out to be the most successful recording I had ever done."
In 1980, he and his brother released another album together -- an intricately arranged feast of music (recorded with the London Chamber Orchestra) titled The Painter. In 1981 Talbot composed Troubadour of the Great King, a double album commemorating St. Francis’s 800th birthday that captures the spirit of the medieval saint in a joyous way. Included are prayers and sayings of St. Francis set to music in a variety of styles, as well as songs about the saint and the things he loved.
During those years, Talbot also recorded Come to the Quiet, an instrumental album with acoustic guitar and a small woodwind and string ensemble. As the title suggests, the music is intended for contemplation, and is widely used by religious groups in periods of corporate silence.
In 1982 Talbot released a marvelous celebration of the incarnation called Light Eternal with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Light Eternal has been presented by some church choirs (extremely talented ones; it is a difficult piece) in the place of more traditional Christmas cantatas. Songs for Worship (I and II) , released at about the same time as Light Eternal, are the kind of songs that belong around a campfire or beside a lake.
More recently Talbot has recorded The Quiet, which, unlike its companion album, Come to the Quiet, is primarily an instrumental collection. The instruments used are mostly acoustic guitar and woodwinds. He has also produced a collection of his own songs and those of friends (including brothers and sisters from the Little Portion) called Be Exalted, which captures more of the charismatic nature of the Little Portion and Talbot’s Franciscanism.
A new instrumental album, Empty Canvas, can be found in the New Age section of most record stores. Heart of the Shepherd is the singer’s newest album, released earlier this year. Coming out this summer will be Few Be the Lovers, which suggests the bride-of Christ theme that is central to Talbot’s thinking.
Talbot’s albums offer clean, intricate acoustic guitar and a rich tenor voice. Background vocals are blended in an almost mystical harmony. Superb symphonic arrangements in some (such as Troubadour of the Great King and Light Eternal) capture a festive praise. Some are more quiet and contemplative (The Quiet, Come to the Quiet, Empty Canvas) and some are rich liturgical offerings (such as the luxuriant cello prelude to The Lord’s Supper) In every case, though, the music constitutes worship.
Talbot sees his role as a musician as a way to bring people into an authentic relationship with Christ. "I don’t do the challenging myself," he explains. "I just present Jesus to them as real, and Jesus challenges the socks off them. The music just prepares the way for that to happen."
The Little Portion constantly receives letters from people who have been strongly affected by the albums or by the many concerts that Talbot performs with Sister Donna of Little Portion. The overwhelming response is: "It’s more than a concert; it’s profound worship. It’s mystical." Many say that the concerts or albums have changed their lives drastically. Talbot’s response to the feedback is that he would rather not hear the praise. "In one way it would be encouraging, but when I think about it, it scares me to death."
Almost all of the proceeds from Talbot’s albums, books (he has written three) and concerts go to the Franciscan Mercy Corps, which Talbot founded last year to deal with such concerns as a consciously chosen lifestyle of poverty; funds for Third World relief and development; and itinerant ministry – "being a joyful presence in the midst of this materialistic society, to alleviate some of the atrocities of our own country, like the scourge of homeless people now on the streets." Talbot says that he wants to build "an army of friars to remind the people of this country that you can be poor and happy at the same time." He has also founded a national ecumenical order of lay Franciscans, called the Little Portion Associates, made up of people who are not ready (or not meant) for the monastic life; but who respond to the challenge of Franciscan ideals of simplicity, compassion and the living of the Sermon on the Mount.
Talbot describes all of these initiatives as "the gentle revolution." He and others at the Little Portion spend half of their time in retreat and half of their time in ministry. In dealing with such issues as global poverty, social injustice, nuclear war and abortion, Talbot and his associates are living out the 800-year-old Franciscan spirituality. That spirituality is being expressed profoundly in Talbot’s music.
I see that he is getting tired, and I realize that I have taken far more time than I requested. So I ask one more question: What do you want your music to convey? He smiles, and his answer is one word only. "Jesus," he says.