A Religious Experience

Artist-in-Residence Fr. VerEecke co-writes a dance program and book focusing on the spiritual

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

In addition to preparing the annual presentation of "A Dancer's Christmas," his highly acclaimed rendition of the Christmas story through dance, University Artist-in-Residence Robert VerEecke, SJ, has produced another program that integrates spirituality with the performing arts.

Fr. VerEecke is the co-creator of "God's Incarnate Word: A Program of Formation with Imagination," a three-part program that expresses elements of Christian faith in dance, drama and story-telling. Under his direction, the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble - the University's dance company in residence - has performed the program at Jesuit colleges and universities, and will present it at Boston College next September.

The centerpiece of the program is "For the Greater Glory of God," a theatrical musical based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. The piece was conceived by Fr. VerEecke with Employee Development Director Bernard O'Kane and part-time faculty member Michael Burgo (Music) during the 1991 Ignatian Year Celebration, and performed during the Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry's 25th anniversary week in 1996.

Artist-in-Residence Robert VerEecke, SJ-"The language of dance is strikingly similar to the language of prayer and worship." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Also featured in the program is a one-man performance of St. Mark's Gospel by IREPM part-time faculty member Michael Corso, and a workshop on story-telling in liturgical and catechetical settings. The latter is based on a recently published book of parables, Ritual Plays: Engaging Communities in God's Word , that Fr. VerEecke co-authored with Corso and George Drance, SJ, a performer and graduate theater student at Columbia University.

The continuing popularity of "A Dancer's Christmas," as well as the interest "God's Incarnate Word" has drawn, demonstrate the vitality of religious-oriented art forms, Fr. VerEecke said.

"Religious imagery has nurtured people throughout the centuries, and continues to do so today," said Fr. VerEecke, pointing to the University-based Religion and the Arts journal, and the work of iconographer William McNichols, SJ, who was in residence at BC last year.

"This renaissance is part of the contemporary search to develop one's own spirit," he said. "At the same time, it is very much in keeping with traditional Jesuit spirituality, which talks of finding God in all things, and how critical it is that we use all our creative talents and skills."

The ensemble premiered "God's Incarnate Word" last summer at Loyola Marymount College, and will perform it at the universities of Scranton and Gonzaga in the coming months. Some parts of the program also have been performed separately, such as Corso's piece, at retreats or other events sponsored by parishes.

Fr. VerEecke says the program, and especially "In the Greater Glory of God," is meant to appeal to a wide range of experience in, and familiarity with, Christian and Ignatian faith. "It offers an introduction to the dynamics of the four weeks that make up the Spiritual Exercises," he said. "The language of dance is strikingly similar to the language of prayer and worship, so it's very appropriate to be called to see the deep connection between dance and religious expression."

Similarly, Fr. VerEecke said, the role of story-telling in celebrating God helped inspire Ritual Plays , a collection of short plays which integrate drama into the movement of the liturgical rite. The stories, which use modern, often humorous language, have been used in Sunday liturgies, prayer services, classrooms and on retreats in the parish of St. Ignatius Church, where Fr. VerEecke is pastor.

For example, "Harold the Herald" concerns a lonely young boy who is befriended by an angel and finds the voice he thought he lacked. Although the story was inspired by the character of John the Baptist in the gospel of the Second Sunday of Advent, Fr. VerEecke said, it speaks to children's feelings of being ignored.

"However old we are, the child in each of us enables us to enter into ritual time and space, which in turn opens onto the sacred," Fr. VerEecke said. "These stories invite us to reflect on the sacred story of our lives as it unfolds in the creative imagination, in laughter and delight."

The 1997 version of "A Dancer's Christmas," which also features the Boston Liturgical Dance Ensemble, will premiere tomorrow night in Robsham Theater and continue through Sunday, Dec. 21. Shows are at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. performances on Dec. 14 and 21, and a special children's performance at 2 p.m. on Dec. 20.

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