“The Subject is Light: 1718 – 1918 - 2018” is the title we used for a concert event with Thirteen Strings which took place at Dominion-Chalmers Church (one of Ottawa’s largest convert venues) on May 4, 2018. This is not a review; that’s a task for others. But I will comment on this event and its decidedly different approach to classical music here in Ottawa.  


“The Subject is Light” is a phrase used throughout the career of a controversial English surgeon, Dr. John Taylor in the first half of the eighteenth century. Read most musical biographies of Bach or Handel and they will state that he is the man who “blinded” both these composers with botched surgeries. What most of these biographies overlook is that Bach and Handel were not hapless, uninformed victims. They sought help from one of the most famous (yes, and certainly infamous) medical practitioners of the era. Unlike many quacks, Taylor was a qualified medical practitioner and surgeon. But let’s take a step back.


This event, with a script that I crafted, put Bach and Handel in conversation, even though they never met in their lifetime. These world-famous musicians and composers were born in the same year (1685) and they grew up about 50 kilometers from each other. As their careers developed, they were certainly familiar with each other’s very different music. Whereas Bach remained in what is now Germany all of his life, Handel was more itinerant, with long residencies in Italy before he moved to London where he eventually became a British subject in that strange German/English culture of the Hanoverian royal court.


“The Subject is Light” placed Handel, Bach, and Taylor in dialogue in between performances of their music (Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos #3 and #5, and Handel’s Guilio Cesare overture and Concerto Grosso Opus 6, #4.)


The composers chided each other. Bach challenged Handel over his flamboyant, entrepreneurial preoccupation with opera, an art form he thought was trivial. Handel said that Bach had become an apostle entrapped by Lutheran orthodoxy in a manner that limited and constrained his creativity. One thing the could agree on was that encountering Dr. John Taylor had dire results. Bach died within months of his two surgeries, and Handel lived on, his vision severely disabled for almost a decade after his surgeries. It’s terrifying to consider “surgery” at that time: no anaesthetic, and limited instruments and pharmacology. Not to mention centuries-old approaches to testing and diagnosis.


The two composers describe their lives in 1718, a time when their careers were being assured, Handel’s in the opera house, and Bach as he was making the transition from composing for the court and composing for the church. This was also a time a great sadness for Bach. His wife, Maria Barbara, mother of their seven children, died the next year at the age of 36.                


The composers remained on stage and the clock moved forward from 1718 to 1918. We introduced the orchestral music of (Sir) Ernest MacMillan, the Canadian musical prodigy who was detained in a prison camp in Germany for the full duration of the 1914-1918 war. His music (a setting of two French Canadian folk songs) allowed the narrator, Kevin Mallon, conductor and musical director of Thirteen Strings, to place MacMillan’s story in the context of a world war and the 1917 Halifax explosion. That explosion of two ships in the harbour, blinded more than 800 people in Halifax and destroyed much of the city, rendering thousands homeless.


All through those war years, blinded and severally visually disabled Canadian soldiers, sailors and air crew were returning to Canada. Medical care in Canada was private or charitable in those days. A group of seven volunteers (a solicitor, two doctors, an electrical engineer, an insurance professional, a fundraiser, and a librarian) decided to create an organization to support those in need and, in 1918, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind was established. Although there were obvious military roots to their organization, it soon became a supportive charity for all Canadians living with blindness and vision loss.  


Then we moved on to 2018 and “Dawn,” a prize-winning composition by Noora Nakhae, a student in the School of Music at the University of Ottawa. The final stage “moment” of the event was the invitation for the audience to follow Bach, Handel, and Noora Nakhaei into the large space behind the auditorium and an exhibition, That All May Read.  The work of Jane Beaumont and Wendy Robbins, this exhibition tells the story of how from 1918 to 2018, CNIB has used all manner of technology to bring published works to people who are blind or living with sever visual impairment. It’s a story of the interplay of literacy and technology, including giant “talking book” machines, examples of raised type, and of course, the transformation brought about by digital technologies.  


The final “image” of the event was the arrival at the front of the stage of Sam Fulton, a long-time CNIB client and volunteer, guided by his dog Etta. As the composers were about to leave the stage he told them, “Etta and I will show you the way.” And the procession into the exhibition began.


A few more event details: the concert program included a braille insert with an overview of the event, prepared by the CNIB’s regional manager, Duane Morgan and his Ottawa team. There were sighted guides, (volunteers) who escorted audience members who required it to their seats, all the while explaining the stage setting. I saw perhaps 7 guide dogs in the audience. During the intermission, members of the orchestra told me that they had never performed in a room with so many dogs! They were certainly amazed at their absolute silence. I think they expected howling and whining to interrupt the music.


So, what did this event do? It celebrated great music. We told stories about early medical practices involving the eye. We recounted the origins of a major charitable organization, CNIB. We celebrated that organization’s centenary, and we looked to the future in a spirit of expectation.


We also brought an audience together that only rarely finds itself in the same room. I’m not saying that this was a “first” but it was an important demonstration. I can’t recall ever being a music event with so many people living with blindness and various eye conditions. This event was an overt “counter-cultural” and teaching moment for a lot of people. If it all sounds a bit heady, I can report there was laughter (thankfully at all the right moments!) and a great warmth and enthusiasm what was happening in the room.

And because this is Ottawa people stood and clapped at the end. We are SO polite here in the nation’s capital!

May 15, 2018

Dr John Taylor (Peter Haworth)

Kevin Mallon and Johann Sebastian Bach (Tom Charlebois)

George Frideric Handel (Robert Bockstael)

And recently in print:

Jon Sweeney invited me to contribute to this collection which has just been released by Ave Maria Press.

And when you turn the page:

What the blurbers say:

I am delighted to be in such company.

CNIB at 100

During the March 21, 2018 launch of the centenary of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, medals were handed out to long-standing volunteers. I was included in that list for my volunteer services with the CNIB's library during the past two decades.

CNIB's John Rafferty and Ron Kruzeniski at the centenary event at the Canadian War Museum, March 21, 2018

As 2017 Drew to a Close:

Covers Poster

2017 Ottawa Book Award Winner

And the winner is:

English Non-Fiction CHARLOTTE GRAY

The Promise of Canada: 150 Years - People and Ideas that Have Shaped our Country (Simon & Schuster Canada)

The Promise of Canada is a fresh take on our history that offers fascinating insights into how we have matured and yet how—150 years after Confederation and beyond—we are still a people in progress. Charlotte Gray makes history come alive as she opens doors into our past, our present and our future, inspiring and challenging readers to envision the Canada they want to live in.

Charlotte Gray, one of Canada’s pre-eminent biographers and historians, has won many awards for her work, including the prestigious Pierre Berton Award, the Edna Staebler Award, the Ottawa Book Award, the Toronto Book Award, and the CAA Birks Family Foundation Award. Gray is a Member of the Order of Canada and was a panelist on the 2013 edition of CBC Radio’s Canada Reads. She lives in Ottawa.

Jury Statement: "Charlotte Gray’s approach to a definition of Canada is both surprising and surprisingly familiar. By choosing nine Canadians to profile, some, like Tommy Douglas, obvious choices, others, like Harold Innis, more obvious in hindsight -- she arrives at a sweeping, multi-faceted mosaic that seems exactly right. Brilliantly illustrated, beautifully written, this is more than a celebration of Canada’s 150th: it’s a book to be read and savoured for a long time to come."

Jury members: Wayne Grady, Alan Morantz, Patricia Smart.

Finally: This has been a wonderful experience and I am delighted to be among such distinguished colleagues. kpb

September 18, 2017:

I am delighted to announce that my book Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit  been listed as one of 5 finalists in the non-fiction category of the 2017 Ottawa Book Awards. The winner will be announced on October 18, 2017 at a public awards ceremony.  The book is a biography of  Henri Nouwen, the celebrated writer of more than 40 books. A Dutch-born psychologist, Catholic priest and successful academic, Nouwen was a wounded, restless soul. Encouraged by Jean Vanier, he moved to Canada to work in the l'Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario. A decade of intense creative renewal resulted. Since his death in 1996, Nouwen's readership continues to grow. This book, published by Franciscan Media in the United States and distributed in Canada by Novalis, explores why.


The other 2017 no-fiction finalists are:

Deborah Gorham for Marion Dewar: A Life of Action

Charlotte Gray for The Promise of Canada: 150 Years-People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country

Nathan M. Greenfield for The Reckoning: Canadian Prisoners of War in the Great War

D. Peter MacLeod for Backs to the Wall: The Battle of Ste-Foy and the Conquest of Canada.


The Ottawa Book Awards / Prix du livre d’Ottawa  recognize the top English and French books published in the previous year. Both awards have separate categories for fiction and non-fiction. All shortlisted finalists receive $1,000 and each winner receives a prize of $7,500.


Awards will be presented to the winning authors on Wednesday, October 18, 2017, at 7 p.m. at Ottawa City Hall, Jean-Pigott Place, 110 Laurier Ave W. This is a public event, attend it if you can!

June 24, 2017:

Henri Nouwen - His Life and Spirit has just received a 2107 award from the US-based Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada. It received 3rd prize in the CPA's 2017 Biography category.

This is what the citation says about my book:

Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit by Kevin Burns, Franciscan Media

At first glance I thought "just what we need, another book about Henri Nouwen," but this little tome effectively captures something of his spirit which has been missing in some other biographies. I was especially struck with the real love that people experienced with Henri and their dedication, not so much to him, but more to what they understood was his authentic struggle to believe and to apply in his own life what he preached: that you are loved and that you are precious. Although it has been noted before that he died alone for some reason, this sad result became all the more real to me in this reading. I felt a connection with the experience.


I can report than I am delighted! And a special thanks to my publisher: Franciscan Media.

Below outlines how we go to this moment:

After years of working on the books of other people, this one is my own, published in September 2016 by Franciscan Media in the United States:


"Kevin Burns’s book is a great contribution to understanding

the life and work of Henri Nouwen, a spiritual writer whose message

was so deeply rooted in his own struggles--his gifts as well as his wounds.

As Henri himself would appreciate, this book is not only an account of his life,

but an invitation to see how the gospel is written in our lives.”

Robert Ellsberg, author, The Saints’ Guide to Happiness and editor of several of Henri Nouwen's own books.

The book is distributed online and to Canadian independent stores by Novalis:


And everywhere else through that online river that runs through the global rain forest. 

In February 2017, Adeo Verlag in Germany will release the German edition of the book giving it an interesting new title: "Henri Nouwen - Liebe macht den Unterschied" - which would be something close to "Henri Nouwen - Love Makes the Difference" or "Henri Nouwen - The Difference is Love."  There, the mini-bio says: "Kevin Burns ist freier Autor, Lektor, Dozent, Radioproduzent und Drehbuchautor. Für seine Radio-Dokumentation "Genius Born of Anguish: The Life and Legacy of Henri Nouwen" gewann er den New York Festival's Gold Award." In a word: Beeindruckend!

In November (2016), I took part in Gabrielle Earnshaw's presentation of the letters of Henri Nouwen. This was at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. Here's a link to the university's "flickr" site where they have posted some photographs of the 2016 Henri Nouwen Lecture:

And to give a bright start to this brand new New Year, Beth Porter (an author who has also written about Henri Nouwen) posted this review on the Franciscan Media website on January 2:


A Lovely Book with New Content

Beth Porter on Jan 02, 2017

I just read Kevin Burns’ new book about Henri. It is very lovely and an interesting read,

with some material I had not known before, especially about Henri’s childhood and

young adulthood and about the context and times of his Central and South America stays.

I like the way Kevin Burns handles the gay issue—inserting it early but not dwelling on it and

capturing well Henri's unfailing pastoral orientation—and also the way he situates the story of

Henri's life in the context first of writing biography and then of his own life, without letting these dominate at all.

Beth Porter, co-editor of "Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen" (Doubleday, 2001) and a long time member of L'Arche Daybreak.

And in the Canadian Jesuit blog "igNation":


Jan 18, 2017

Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit

Posted by Joseph Schner:


If Kevin Burns latest book, Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit, were a musical composition, it might be subtitled “variations on a theme”.  With Michael Higgins, Burns wrote Genius Born of Anguish:  The Life & Legacy of Henri Nouwen (2012) as a CBC Ideas project.  Using his interviews with many of Nouwen’s family, friends and colleagues that served as a basis for this work, Burns reflects on some of these in relation to his own experience (the autobiography within biography that he describes, an intimacy with God that has its grounding in human relationships).  In the process Burns also explores Nouwen’s written works as illustrations of this biographical account, and his own fascinating exploration of Nouwen’s life while reflecting on its personal impact.  Thus, he creates a contribution of particularity and depth to Genius Born of Anguish.

The major theme that Burns elaborates, as he tells us in his Introduction, is love.  Nouwen’s life was, to follow the musical motif, a symphony of love:  love of his mother and family; love of the priesthood; love of research and study; love of teaching and entertaining; and love of life-long friends.  Each variation is rich with moments of great joy and sadness.

Nouwen loved his family, but at the same time struggled until late in his life with the relationship with his father.  He loved the priesthood, but ministered most of his priestly life away from the ministry that would be involved in a Dutch parish.  He loved his theological and psychological research, especially when it involved great conversations with figures like Thomas Merton, Anton Boisen, and Jean Vanier.  But Nouwen never completed either of the two doctoral dissertations that he began on Boisen although during his lifetime he published thirty-nine books.  He loved his friends and visited and spent time with them, but suffered from life-long loneliness and a yearning for intimacy.  Each motif could have created a symphony in itself.

Nouwen’s lived exploration of love, however, ultimately lead him to a transformed love for his father, as he describes in The Return of the Prodigal Son. His priestly ministry was enriched by his spiritual, theological and psychological knowledge.  This is especially so in his books about his care for Adam, one of the core residents at Daybreak L’Arche, and about the creative painfulness of love, in his work describing his battle with depression, The Inner Voice of Love:  A Journey through Anguish to Freedom.  In these biographical references there is the development of a melody of growing intimate relationships not only with those he loved, but through them with God.  These relationships, difficult as they were, enlivened his prayer, his ministry and his life.

In his voyage through Nouwen’s biography Burns relates his own encounters with individuals from each dimension of the developing love theme. These encounters contributed to the richness of the lecture series and the accompanying book that he and Michael Higgins created.  Simultaneously, it seems from this new work that it also was the cause of reflection on his own life and experiences, and a rewarding task leading to both other- and self-enrichment.

(Joseph Schner, SJ, is interim President of Regis College, Toronto and professor of Psychology and Religion at the Toronto School of Theology.)

Here's a link to the igNation blog: