The Organist

The Organist at Work. Source:

Fathers and Sons:

When I say the “Our Father” I often slip from prayer mode and catch myself thinking about “my dad” instead. I envision him, in full General Post Office uniform, delivering the mail in heaven on his bike, even when the weather is awful.

My dad died in 2000. He had been ill for a while, and then died suddenly. I was here in Canada and he was in north-west England. I got there for the funeral. I’ve been thinking a lot about him these past few days after reading Mark Abley’s, brilliant book about his father, The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind. It helped me to see how much further I have yet to travel on that mysterious journey we call grief.

Harry Abley in 1922. Source:

Abley’s father was a gifted yet deeply troubled artist: a musician whose career, despite obvious achievements, never quite matched his expectations. A deep vein of resentment eventually overshadowed his life, and all the routines of his family. Abley is an only child, and he writes with great compassion and also critical clarity about his experiences as a child and then an adult who must try to negotiate life within such a difficult, tension-filled dynamic.

Adult children and their ailing parents is certainly a publishing niche, but The Organist is in no way a self-help book. It defies such limitation. I placed it immediately alongside those timeless father-and-son authors, Edmund Gosse and Turgenev, and more recently Fergal Keane and Canada’s Patrick Lane.

Abley mentions the great Anton Chekhov in passing, the author who always includes inexplicable gulfs that suddenly open up between individuals who think they really know each other, but realize with great surprise and dismay that they don’t: “If only you knew! If you only knew….”

Two phrases from the book continue to resonate for me. Abley describes the impact of living in a family with such emotional turmoil as “solitary confinement for the soul.” And although the book is about a musician (and he certainly writes brilliantly about music) Abley talks about “the power of silence.”  This can be a calming helpful balm, and at the same time a source of simmering emotions and reactions.

Source: University of Regina Press.

The Organist is a beautifully written and inspiring work. It tells a seemingly familiar story about an immigrant family from the U.K. as they try to create a life for themselves here in Canada. Music is at the heart of that life and Abley has found ways to put words to those beyond-word insights that music can evoke, just like prayer, meditation, liturgy, conversation. Just like being together once more with your dad, even if only in memory.

The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind, is published by the University of Regina Press (2019) and is dedicated to Mark Abley’s parents: Henry Thomas (Harry) Abley (1917-1994) and Mary Muriel Collins Abley (1916-2012).


Ottawa-based author and editor, Kevin Burns is a frequent contributor to igNation. His latest book, Impressively Free – Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood and co-authored with Michael W. Higgins, has just been released by Paulist Press in the United States and by Novalis in Canada.

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 01:38h, 23 March Reply

    Thank you Kevin!

  • Robert Czerny
    Posted at 10:39h, 23 March Reply

    Thanks Kevin. I’ve also read this very rich book and I appreciate your insights.

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