Saturday, September 27, 2008

Just an afternoon.

I’ve written before that I’ve joined a group of parish volunteers who travel a great distance each Monday night to participate in chapel meetings for Roman Catholics in one of our many state prisons. After about a year’s absence from inmates in my first yard chapel, I returned to their chapel about two months ago.
I remember that the chaplain had cautioned me upon my first night in chapel with “the fellahs” that they were vocally and musically quite challenged. That, of course, is never the case with any “group” who labor to sing well as they pray; more often they just need a helping voice with strong leadership skills.
When I returned for my second stint with the fellahs in this particular yard, I was dumbstruck in all ways by their progress over the year. Some guys had composed (as in to completely and accurately notate) remarkably sophisticated songs with profound spirituality and theological content, and often set employing contrapuntal choral techniques which were rendered quite beautifully in actual services. It was the most pure and sublime evidence of God’s power and grace mirrored in a poetic text by Henry Vaughn (which I set in one of my own songs) “And here in the dust and dirt, oh here: the flowers of God’s love appear.Recently I received in my church mailbox an envelope and letter from one of the inmate composers on official envelope stationary and the letter and a song was xeroxed. Even if you’ve ever spent only one hour watching one of the ever-popular “Locked-Up” documentary shows, one would know that this exchange was of an important magnitude. Volunteers are generally discouraged from any actions that would disclose either their own personal information or solicit personal information from inmates. And there are clear, present and rigid policies in place to maintain those distances because there is much to be risked on both sides if one party is na├»ve and the other is unscrupulous. Breaches, even if well intentioned or unintentional, can affect whole programs and large numbers of people in “the system.” But, apparently the authorities at this institution recognized that the letter’s content, and the song, being addressed to a “titled” person at a specific church proved no threat, contained no hidden code or agenda, and merely was an honest expression of faith and mission on the part of the inmate composer.
I’m trying to discern if God is charging me to some sort of calling beyond my initial longing to renew my own heart by sharing my “expertise” in this very Matthew 25 manner. What do I do with what I have witnessed, shared and been graced with behind those prison chapel walls?
I’ve been critical of the over-exposure of pretty pictures of TLM’s all over the LitBlogs, as if their proliferation actually works against some catholic sensibilities by an implicit self-glorification of all of their nuance and minutiae. So, is there a real calling, reason and purpose that is telling me that someone has to share that there are still martyrs and miracles happening within these severely difficult environs? Should I formally ask the warden to record, even if only for posterity, these Christian men’s musical expressions of faith in Christ Jesus? Should some part of the Christian Body, no matter how small, be reminded and gifted with these worship “arts” that are the works of men who have likely committed heinous and grievous criminal acts and are living with the consequences of those acts and their attendant guilt, yet have sought the obvious and ultimate refuge and peace in their Christian faith? Is there something very Pauline that needs to spread in this era for its own sake, not just as a token antidote to the prurient interest in the prison and gang cultures so glorified on television and film theater screens?
As I said, all of this is being discerned through prayer, counsel and common sense. “When in a prison, you came and visited me.” But then what, Lord? Oh, yeah, your Grace is enough for me.
Just over a week ago, the Catholic Chaplain let me know that he had secured a priest for a scheduled Mass at which “some” inmates would be initiated into Communion with the Church. This Mass was likely going to begin on a day and time that I am free of my normal parish responsibilities; my own time such as it is in the evening that I spend each week in chapel with the fellahs.
So, after a very beautiful morning school Mass with our kids (who are singing their “amens” and collect responses wonderfully, as well as the Ordinary and songs, I headed cross-state and arrived at the prison with an hour and a half to chill; had a green tea, read a tad of Garry Will’s new book (my bad!) and signed into the prison an hour early. When I got into my yard’s chapel many of the guys were already assembled. Their ensemble consists of an organist on an old Thomas toaster replete with bells/whistles/cheese drums (which are never used!), another keyboard, three guitarists who all sing and a couple of “just singers.” The ethnic mix is generally 50/50 Anglo to Latino regularly, so we all collaborated towards making the repertoire as bilingual as possible. In my previous visits I had also floated the concept that a natural bridge of language has always been in place in God’s wisdom and Church- that being the use of Latin. It’s always enjoyable for me personally when using my pigeon-Spanish to say “LA-teen” to the Hispanic brothers. And they’ve done well with some brief chants and collects. But with short notice and really, more out of respect for each other than political correctness, songs and settings by Bob Hurd, John Schiavone and Jaime Cortez surfaced to consensus quickly. Schiavone’s “Amen: El Cuerpo de Cristo” and Cortez’s “Vayan al mundo” were heartily embraced and sung robustly both in Monday’s chapel and at Mass after only one exposure.
Back to the chronology….
After setting up my music, stand and instrument, greeting most of the regular chapel participants and a few new faces, I sat down to pray quietly. I was seated towards the rear of the small chapel while the keyboards and others were up closer to the altar area.
I had never met the celebrant before, an older Jesuit priest who is the diocesan Social Ministries director, and it occurred to me while praying and meditating I hadn’t gone to confession for over a month. I went out into the hall office area and there were a couple of inmates waiting outside of the office-cum-confessional. I asked if they’d mind if I joined them; no problem. The one thing that keeps this whole thing, for me, real is that I am experiencing very different facets of what “communion” means for catholics behind bars. After the gentleman before me came out of the office an older, “regular” chapel inmate had also sat down in his wheelchair to await confession. He’s been positive for nearly fifteen years and recently mentioned that he stopped taking his daily “cocktail” regimen for HIV/HepC about 10 months ago. He motioned for me to go ahead of him, and I assured him I wouldn’t take long, as confessions before prison Masses can go on for many hours. After reconciliation I noticed that Father and the chaplain had their clerks call certain inmates back into the office. For what reason, I couldn’t surmise; but this is serious business for these men. So serious that the Mass, itself, didn’t begin until nearly an hour and a half after its appointed time. And the chaplain then called me out into the hall; “uh oh, what’s this mean?” I’m thinking. It turned out that the inmates who were going to be fully initiated had already received valid baptism and confirmation sacraments, so would that alter any of our musical plans? “Nope, not at all. We go with the flow” was my unintentionally punned response. Then more and more minutes passed as some men came in and out upon requests and such.
Here’s where the small voice of the messengers spoke to me internally. Here, Charles, you are never watching the clock, never worried about the next task or event. Here, though you have been waiting for over three hours to assist these men with the musical aspects of their liturgy, you are truly at peace with “waiting.” And that realization at once seemed somewhat bittersweet. Was my inner-peacefulness rooted in an authentic identification with these men in koinonia, or was it tempered by some innate convention that knew I could leave those walls and gates at will, and that “waiting” and its eremitic-like peacefulness that washes over me each visit was, therefore, conditional?
The Mass itself….
Started rather abruptly and without a sort of normal “headsup” mentality due to Father’s inadvertent leaving and re-entering the chapel. The clerks had a large whiteboard with the order of music clearly noted, so when it was apparent that Father was now “officially” present we all began Hurd’s VEN AL BANQUETE/COME TO THE FEAST.
What I didn’t mention earlier is that in Monday’s meeting a number of liturgical and theological concerns were discussed in chapel. The most obvious issue of using bi-lingual music was NOT concerned with the ethnic or linguistic facets; this issue was part of a larger fabric of instilling a sense of the sacred dialogues that occur both in scripture and in our Masses. The sharing of each other’s “mother tongue,” in a sense, reaches across both human and divine boundries. I will make this clearer shortly.
After singing the song, Father began with the “In Nomine..” and some brief remarks afterwards after which he segued directly into a spoken “Kyrie/Lord have mercy.” The music leaders had an incredibly beautiful Greek/English setting prepared, so that became moot. However, after a glance toward the lead cantor, we launched into the bilingual Gloria.
The OT reading was proclaimed separately in both English and Spanish, respectively. And then we had chosen Hurd’s “ENVIA TU ESPIRITU” for the psalm (yes, I know it’s a paraphrase!) On Monday I talked to the guys about how and, more importantly, why we were going to structure the singing of this in a particular sequence. Our lead cantor would intone the refrain, as the Psalmist, and then we would respond to that call beyond the ages. The guys are used to singing ALL of every song generally heard in chapel meetings and Masses, so I explained to them that one cantor singing the verses reflects a dialogue with many symbols: God’s Chosen People to the People of the New Covenant, God’s inspiration revealed through the prophets and evangelists, and finally the dialogic communion between heaven and earth that is the whole Eucharistic Celebration. The inmates reached consensus and understanding with much more dispatch than your average RCIA class. And then we structured the other two verses of the Hurd setting so that the Spanish-speaking inmates would sing verse two to the English speakers, and the reverse during verse three.
After the double proclamation of the epistle, the inmates had chosen a Steven Angrisano setting of the Gospel Acclamation.
After Father’s homily, a seemless mixture of English and Spanish reiterations of his major points, he initiated general intercessions which were then opened up into extemporaneous intentions uttered by various inmates.
Then, for me, we entered into a very brief, yet intensely powerful musical moment, the singing of Arguello’s RESUCITO, which I found out very few of them had ever heard prior to the previous Monday. On Monday I taught them the very simple refrain and verses, but went a little further having the English choir singers singing the parallel third above the melody while the Spanish inmates sang the melody. Then I had a couple of other guys join me on singing the parallel on the tonic, creating this primitive but beautiful triadic chorus. When we repeated this at liturgy, the effect was incredible. For those of us who understand the sublime purity of enjoining in unison plainsong chant, I ask that we also consider that these men, who like monks are required to return to their cells on a daily schedule, however do not share the daily ability to meet and labor to unify their worship as do their religious brothers who pray the hours and Mass daily. So, though a three-part singing of a very formulaic song cannot measure up to the demands of effecting pristine chant, the mere joy that was present in their singing with great precision after such little preparation is some sort of revelation or breakthrough for me. What could they do if….? Would they “get it” if they could grow in their abilities with guidance….? But, on its own, RESUCITO, right then and there, was absolute praise to God and His Grace and Power.

Why, then, this wasn't just an afternoon nor an occasion of unstructured waiting...
During the reception of Holy Communion an absolutely beautiful, sacred and holy song was taken up by the inmate choir. This song was one of many written by an inmate, who I understood had no formal musical training prior to his incarceration. Immaculately notated, as he'd learned to take musical dictation from another inmate who was a prolific songwriter, it's components were sophisticated, including use of well crafted homophony AND polyphony, "correct" chordal assignments that were light years from I-vi-ii-V7-I, and inverted chordal assignments that showed an understanding of bass note movement. NONE of that describes the spiritual power and grace of the piece. And even that pales by the realization that this was the fervent result of one man's conversion and decision as to how he was going to "pray ceaselessly" during his time in the desert cells, literally.

In this age of denigration and degradation, it is all to easy to forget that it is not standard operating procedure for believers in Christ to be perpetual cynics, critics and, to some extent, dictators of orthodoxy. The liturgy and music wars that we, myself included, perpetuate upon each other lead to dead ends, spiritually. And it's taken this very brief snapshot from the perspective of felons on the mend to just say to myself: "Pray without ceasing" and to reach for joy in my work rather than other forms of feedback and reward.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The following memo was sent to our parish's various directors and cantors:

Dear Music Ministry Leaders,

There are a few items of interest that I would like to bring to your attention regarding the programming of certain songs and hymns for use at Masses. The following is an article that outlines a decision that was first an-
nounced about a month ago from the Vatican Congregation of the Divine Faith by Cardinal Arinze. This letter to American bishops is From Bishop Serratelli:

Not to be used in Catholic worship

Holy See lays down law on use of ‘Yahweh’ and ‘Jehovah’

The Holy See has ruled that the tetragrammaton, the Old Testament’s name for God and rendered “Yahweh” or “Jehovah,” may not be used in Catholic worship.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued the ruling earlier this summer, and Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, informed the U.S. bishops of it last month.

Though the ruling does not affect in any way the official liturgy of the Mass, it will require the editing of some general intercessions used in the Mass and the celebration of other sacraments. Also affected will be some popular songs used in the Church in the United States, such as “I Will Bless Yahweh,” “Rise, O Yahweh,” and “You Are Near,” which opens with “Yahweh, I know you are near.”

“You Are Near” is among the more popular songs used in Catholic worship in the U.S., said John Limb of Oregon Catholic Press, according a Catholic News Service article in the Sept. 8 Catholic Voice, the newspaper of the Oakland diocese. The article said the Oregon Catholic Press web site lists about 12 songs that feature the tetragrammaton.

Oregon Catholic Press has already printed its songbooks for 2009, so the changes will not be apparent until 2010 at the earliest. Another major publisher, GIA Publications in Chicago, has long had a policy against using the tetragrammaton. For instance, in GIA songbooks, the song “Thanks Be to Yahweh” appears as “Thanks Be to God.”

The tetragrammaton is so called because the holy name of God in the Old Testament appears only as the four Hebrew consonant equivalents of YHWH. “As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: ‘Adonai,’ which means ‘Lord,’” said the Holy See’s letter. Greek translations of the Bible use the word Kyrios, translated into Latin as Dominus and in English as Lord.

“Since the text of the Septuagint constituted the Bible of the first generation of Greek speaking Christians, in which language all the books of the New Testament were also written, these Christians, too, from the beginning never pronounced the divine tetragrammaton,” the letter continued.

The New Testament’s calling the “risen Christ” Lord corresponds exactly to the proclamation of his divinity, said the Holy See. "The title in fact becomes interchangeable between the God of Israel and the Messiah of the Christian faith, even though it is not in fact one of the titles used for the Messiah of Israel."

The Holy See concluded, "avoiding pronouncing the tetragrammaton of the name of God on the part of the Church has therefore its own grounds. Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining faithful to the Church's tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context, nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated."

I would suggest that should you desire to program “You are near” or other songs or hymns that contain “Yahweh” or “Jehovah,” that you inform both your singers and the congregation that a substitute term will be used in its place. In a case such as “You are near” the addressing of “Yahweh” could be easily changed to “Abba” or “Father,” or “Dear Lord,” “Lord, God” or any two syllable combination (“My Lord”) that is licit.

Despite whatever personal preferences or feelings we may have regarding this issue and the prohibition, it remains nonetheless an authoritative dictum that all faithful Catholics are bound to observe. Whatever reservations that you or I have regarding these sorts of policy issues are worthy of respect and discernment. But there isn’t any merit to be gained from debating the issue, as there can lawfully be no argument or willful disobedience.

Another issue that is not yet officially articulated, but should be considered when programming songs and hymns, are the theological and dogmatic implications of their texts. The USCCB/BCL both have sub-committees studying this issue currently. But we need not wait to re-examine our own methods and reasons for choosing our own repertoires. We need to constantly monitor our own criteria for choosing repertoire as a progressive enterprise: immersing ourselves more deeply with resources beyond those provided by our hymnals’ publishers, or by commercial exposure at conventions and catalogues. The many search engines on the WWW such as Google, Yahoo, Ask, etc., can provide you with perspectives on specific songs that you may never have considered or heard of before. Take, for example, the following quotation from an internet blog “Unam Sanctam Catholicam” (One Holy Catholic [church])-

“Now let's look at a few "Catholic" songs. First and foremost on the list of offenders is Tom Conry's "Anthem": We are called, we are chosen. We are Christ for one another. We are promise to tomorrow, while we are for him today. We are sign, we are wonder, we are sower, we are seed. We are harvest, we are hunger. We are question, we are creed. Aside from not making any sense ("we are creed"?), these lyircs completely glorify man. Gone is the centrality on worship of Jesus, gone is any acknowledgement that man is a sinful being in need of Redemption. Everything is man centered. Though this song comes from a "Catholic" writer, it leaves out everything distinctively Catholic. Furthermore, the Protestants we mentioned (Sonicflood, Keith Green and Matt Redman) all firmly believe in the Gospel (as they know it), thoroughly believe in their own unworthiness and take the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. But we know that men like Conry, Haugen and Haas believe that the some of the moral teachings of the faith are no longer true, that doctrine can change, etc. To put it blankly, the Catholic songs are driven not just by an anti-Catholic agenda but by an anti-Christian agenda."

Now, that is quite an incendiary indictment of “Anthem” by an author who uses a nom de plume rather than his/her own name. But it illustrates my point that there are many folks “out there,” including in our own pews who may well harbor many valid questions as to how our choices are aligned to sound theology, dogmatic premises and liturgical principles. “Anthem” comes to mind easily because I’ve known of it since its inception, and became aware quite early that critics of its lyrical thrust cited the heresy of Pelagianism/Semipelagianism as being transparently implicit in the prose. I’m not rendering judgment here. I’m just letting you know that we live in an extremely information-rich era, for better or worse. And because we are providing leadership in singing at the one human activity that is dogmatically defined as the “source and summit of our being” we need to go the extra distance to know “what” we are singing about and “why” we are singing it.

So, please take this information to heart. Consider this issue of texts’ merits as well as its licit theological content when programming for Sundays and other Masses.

The peace and blessings of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you,


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

This ain't a Chicken or Egg debate:
Texts supercede Tunes when cooking hymns!

(Reprinted from a combox post of mine at
the CMAA forum.)

This is an enormous topic as I see it. Without diverting to a discussion whether the Church's song should or will ever revert to primarily the psalms, the reality is that we will continue to employ hymn texts at worship for the forseeable future. And that reality should inform ourselves as well as our "superiors" that we DMs cannot just be arbiters of musical taste and viability. I agree with David's sentiment and zeal (tho' a bit melodramatic, which I love); if I'm entrusted with that responsibility originally by a pastor-it should then be common knowledge that no one supercedes that authority except the pastor. And should a pastor have repeated and fundamental problems with a DM in these concerns, the DM has a real problem that didn't surface during the hiring interview.
I'd like to offer a couple of examples of how text supercedes music:
1. As in many hymntunes, FINLANDIA was appropriated from "theater" or art music. I love everything about this melody and its harmonic foundation. Most of us, at first blush, would likely associate it with the hymn "Be still, my soul." But there are at least a handful of other texts within my office reach that someone has couched in FINLANDIA. The most recent is a strophic treatment of the Magnificat by Californian Janet Sullivan-Whitaker. (Quite a unique treatment with a very not-Kings College descant that works for my money.) There are many others that, were they in OCP, I'd program because of their text's worthiness to the tune. However, another text, "Gather and Remember" was, IMO, misappropriated by the otherwise level-headed Owen Alstott to FINLANDIA to commemorate the elevation of John 23 to Blessed. It's text is fraught with problematic, revisionist portrayals of the Church's worship through the centuries in order to praise the "spirit of Vatican II." This sort of didactic propaganda hasn't any place in an actual liturgy, no matter what tune is attached to it. (Need we mention the infamous text with NETTLETON? These two are buddies with OCP and with "Are are welcome" the 3 Musketeers of NEWCHURCH thinkspeech.) But I cannot, in good conscience, program this hymn for Sunday Mass despite the fact that I personally love FINLANDIA as MJB loves Edelweiss. I believe a studied and intuitive DM can make these assessments quite easily. I remember instantly knowing that M.D. Ridge's "Three Days" was clearly worthy of her using THAXTED the first time I sang its text in my head. Understandably, not everyone regards FINLANDIA itself as appropriate music for worship, and I'm okay with that. YMMV.
2. Strangely, one hymn tune and text that, by virtue of its title, text and meaning would seem perfectly matched, actually drives me nuts: "When in our music God is glorified..." set to ENGELBERG seems to me so pompously hokey I've never been able to justify programming it for Sundays. The tune, so very English like JERUSALEM in its leaps and bounds, is quite well matched to the grand idea of its text. So what's my problem? I suppose it's its ostentatiousness. In its own way it seems just as self-congratulatory as some of the texts mentioned above. I can't find reason or resonance with using it at my parish, even tho' we have all the requisite externals (environment, choral/organ forces, singing congregations, etc.) I think there's certain biases we all bring to our deliberations about this stuff. And not all of those involve ONLY the text to music axiom. There are other associative factors; anyone else have a bit of trouble singing EIN FESTE BERG simply because of its origins? ST. ANNE? NEW BRITAIN? HANSONS PLACE? HOW GREAT THOU ART?
I think you get the point.
Whether or not the people "like" the tune is a secondary symptom indicating a hymn's nutritional health. If you, the DM, get the whole package of a hymn to tune marriage, then your job duty is to get the people to "get" and therefore "like" the hymn as well. I know that's easier said than done, but that how I see our priorities.