Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ (MacIntyre, 1981)
It has become something of a cliché to talk about our ‘faith journey’, yet for most people who have lived any length of time, the journey metaphor has a way of growing in import as events unfold in our lives – often events which we could not have predicted, or which have inserted themselves as irruptions into the mental plans we might have made about how our lives were supposed to turn out. As the Yiddish proverb has it, ‘Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht’ or ‘Man plans, and God laughs’.
For some time now, I have been following the life of one of our Perth talents, the writer, teacher, and musician, Renato Antonio. In 2016, Renato published his first book, Into the Cloud of Knowing (Antonio, 2016), an autobiographical journey which he describes as ‘a personal quest for signs of God’s continuing faithfulness’. In November 2017, Renato followed this up with, one could say, the musical accompaniment to the book. His album, Reminiscing Heart, is out now on iTunes, as well as being available for purchase as a CD.
Each song in the collection has significance for Renato, as he described to me during a recent video interview. The story begins before he was married, when he and a friend, Tim Grace, who features as the lead guitarist in the album, were contemplating religious life. It was around the year 2001, and at that time, Renato had developed a devotion to the Divine Mercy, and had randomly opened St Faustina’s diary at a passage which inspired him to write No Need to Fear. ‘No need for despair, no need for anguish, my heart is mercy for your soul,’ sings Renato (together with vocalist Natasha Tsouris), as the violin weaves between the harmonies.
The song Keep the Joy began during a jam session Tim and Renato were having with some friends. During a break, Tim was strumming his guitar, and Renato, pacing backwards and forwards around the room, noticed a portrait of Mother Teresa, and began to sing the words quoted on the portrait, jokingly at first. But as the words and music came together, the song took on a life of its own. ‘Let us keep the joy of loving Jesus in our hearts, and share this joy with all we come in touch with.’ Renato describes this song as being like a Pokemon: always evolving. The last 90 seconds, King of Kings, was added quite recently, and a techno pop beat, inspired by the ‘Fireflies’ song, became another feature.
More to this life, (a Steven Curtis Chapman cover), reminds him of a moment when he was in Italy, listening to thunder, reflecting on his purpose and what family meant to him, and noticing spiritual realities even in ordinary, everyday things. This was during his 1998 trip to Sicily, when he was introduced to two thirds of his father’s family.
Portami a Ballare (Take me Dancing), from the San Remo festival of 1992, is sung in Italian, and is a tribute to his mother. The death of Renato’s mother, as described in his book, was a life-changing event. The song is about a son asking his mother to dance: Renato regrets that he never took the opportunity to dance with his mother before she died so unexpectedly. The song beautifully captures the nostalgia, filial love and regret, and might actually be my favourite in the whole album.
Staying with the theme of dancing, Cinderella is a cover of a number by Steven Curtis Chapman. At this point, Renato was already married, and reflecting on family life (he has five children). He is joined in the singing by his daughter, Marie Grace, and his niece, Kiara Bonasera. One can only imagine what a grace-filled time they all had recording it together.
Another cover (you might have guessed that Renato is a fan of SCC) is the beautiful I will be here. Knowing Renato personally as I do, I am well aware of some of the challenges he has had in his life over the past year or two – challenges which one would have thought might prompt the de-listing of this piece from the album. To his credit, he has retained the song which was originally recorded in honour of committed married love.
In an acknowledgement of his time as Assistant Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College, Renato includes Give Me Your Eyes, a cover of a Brandon Heath song he has made part of student retreats. Another song with a social justice theme is his most recent one, I Offer You, which he wrote after interviewing Francis Leong from the Catholic Missions office about Rwanda and Zambia. Renato describes how the tune arrived in his head before the lyrics, which eventually came all at once in less than a day. The song is a meditation on the problem of evil, and how the only answer he has is – in the words of the Divine Mercy chaplet – offering to the Father the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
His Grace is Enough relates to a difficult period in Renato’s life, when he was visiting the grave of his mother at a time when he was struggling in his personal life (the ‘thorn in the flesh’ reference), going through a dark night of the soul, and needing God’s grace. This is repeated in a more expressive, acoustic version at the end of the album with intricate guitar work by Dom Zurzolo, another colleague from his Aquinas College days.
Although Renato has temporarily retired from active teaching, he wants to share the faith-journey-as-story approach to the Christian walk, by producing a teaching resource from his book and album, which could be used in the Religion and Life curriculum for year 10 to 12 students.
Reviewing the journey life has taken Renato on, we are reminded of Alasdair MacIntyre’s words: ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’. Followers of Renato will be looking forward to seeing which direction God might take him in next.
Antonio, R. (2016). Into the Cloud of Knowing. Perth: Renato Antonio.
MacIntyre, A. (1981). After Virtue: a study in moral theory. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.