Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What is Liturgical Music For?

This is the whole text of a response in the comments box at Pray Tell prompted by an axiom posited by a fellow commentator, Tom Poelker:

“That is to say that it is God nourishing God’s people more than it is the people doing anything for God. Mass is much more about us being receptive to God nourishing us than us bringing our best to God.”

I’m thinking that Tom Poelker is on to something here that is greater than what appears to the eye and mind initially. And I also think that at the crux of Tom’s distillation of Benedict’s letter is some sort of peep stone through which we ought to earnestly examine the elements of worship from many perspectives, not the least of which include “liturgy: gift from God” and “liturgy: offering back said gift in its best expression from our “hands” back to God.”

Over at the the Chant CafĂ© I took the long and winding road to get across a notion that my colleague and friend Kathy Pluth clarified as me saying “there are way too many ‘Talking Heads’ and not enough thinking about what liturgical music is for.” I think we fall prey to the temptation of answering that question by yammering on about what liturgical music is NOT meant to do. We stumble over our tongues and sometimes our foot ends up in our mouth if we claim we’re not using music to manipulate the emotions of the faithful. I think we earn more time in purgatory each time we defend ourselves from that notion. I think that we err significantly when we unrelentingly argue that our musical refuge is based righteously either upon orthodoxy or heterodoxy. More time. I think we waste time and energy trying to put square people into round chairs and its complement opposite just by saying “you can, and must accept that this is the way it’s supposed to be.” So, what is liturgical music for exactly? Truthfully, I don’t know how to even approach the question, much less the answer. But the answer, I hope, lies in the middle of Tom’s quandary above.

In this very thread Tom and others have brought up the issue of the “feminization” of our sacral-liturgical expressions. I was amused at the notion that a man’s man such as da Bear’s Mike Ditka would squirm if compelled to sing “On Eagles’ Wings,” as if that poor tune just dripped estrogen and lavender. Well, I was at its premiere at Chicago NPM, ’79, just to the left of, I believe at that time, Deacon Joncas’s solo performance on the platform stage at McCormack Center, and I recall to this day that “wimpy” was not the affect in that huge room at that moment, and that both the song and Mike’s performance of it was, ahem, quite muscular and powerful. But, that was then, this is now, and our perceptions evolve and change. I have to wonder if a yearning for more masculinity to be evident at worship, if only in music, would eventually descend to some sort of Monty Python parody that caricatures both their send-up howling of “Jerusalem” and “I’m a lumberjack and that’s okay.”? Is not our worship meant to reflect “neither slave nor free, woman or man…” in principle, being so freed by our kinship to Christ. I don’t see any value or merit in advancing biological destiny as a lens by which to measure any aspect of liturgical arts or function. At the risk of sounding quaint, that’s silly.

What is liturgical music for? I can only share now something that happened yesterday at our principle Mass (generally a Missa Cantata or, happily, more towards a Solemn High Mass, depending on the cantillation of the celebrant.) Try to read through the account before making a judgment. One of our vicars is a Missioner of Charity, has been with the parishes for a couple of years, and was notified of a reassignment a week ago. At the Mass yesterday, he felt he could “finally” share his conversion story (actually “reversion”) to the Faith during his college years. Pretty much every homily he’s given has been golden, and we don’t get them very often as the rotation among three parishes of four celebrants necessitates his fluency in Spanish to be used in Misas. Anyway, the account was breath-taking. At its conclusion and before the Creed, I instructed our amazingly gifted organist that at the onset of the Offertory, he was to slowly count to 45, and then freely improvise upon “Veni Creator Spiritus.” Oh, we surely had a suitable song at the ready. But following through with that or even the proper Offertorio would have euthanized the impact of the homily, the resonance of it both in the Creed and General Intercessions. I’m not fond of the term “sacred silence” though quite enamored of its occurrence at worship. But I was already convicted of the rightness of my decision before I informed the organist, and later the schola. And the silence was sacred. And the improvisation was inspired and brilliant. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that decision is not among the options found in the GIRM. But did that combination of acts, silence and reflection through inspired invention in the moment, constitute full, active and conscious participation? Hand on the Douay-Rheims, Yes! What is liturgy for? Perhaps, if nothing else, to celebrate God’s everlasting love and desire for us to live in love, fully in the moment, and in appreciation and praise of Him as acknowledged by the highest caliber of arts we can manifest.

Guess what? That may occasionally involve the intuitive risk(as some would call such) to use “On Eagles’ Wings” as your best call to edify, or ratify a specific liturgical moment, more than likely at the Offertory where the “hymn of the day” rationale finds its most convenient lodgings. But the programming of OEW, or any warhorse hymn or song out of convenience or persuasion of some editor’s “helpful hints” is anathema to me, indicative of a lukewarm, anemic and ignorant practice of one’s office and duties.

Lastly, I think we’re all pretty desperately trying to defend turf, rather than to answer Kathy’s question. And I hope that as we try to comprehend Benedict’s letter and vision, that we don’t pigeon-hole his words to suit our perceptions of his and our political persuasions. We have many other concerns, we DM’s with diversity of genres and cultures factoring into a ton of weekend Masses’ with which we contend our choices. But at our “most solemn Mass” I first have to respect the liturgical sensibilities of my pastor who is also my “boss,” and that means a reasonable balance between the use of English and Latin. Beyond that, I know that our parish is not prepared to turn on the dime to an all-propers, all the time modality. But we sing and chant them weekly because they are, after all, native to our ritual culture. (We have to use the “stuffed Mass” model, and that has to suffice for now.) But if I am going to choose to supplant another option, I’d better be seriously mindful of Kathy’s question: what is this music for? Because, if I can’t honestly say that it serves the liturgy the best in that moment, I’d better stick to the sacral language and music that the Church has at the ready and embraces as having principle place at worship.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pastor I. Harold Dispensationalism, M.Div., U.L.C. Modesto, CA
Contemplating the
The Raptor!
(What? May 21, ought eleven isn't about a dinosaur apocalypse? Nevermind.)

Celebrating "Reverend" Camping's Eschaton Day, I humbly offer this wonderful video I stumbled upon as my testament and His holy Will:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Amadeus Visits Visalia, soli Deo gloria!
The link below will take you to the Chant Cafe Blog where I contribute. And the "Amadeus" article will link you to all the movements of our May 5th performance of Mozart's REQUIEM.
My deepest thanks to Diane Townsend and Limuel Forgey for documenting this once in a lifetime experience for us.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I know as much about "blogging" about having just conducted the Mozart setting of the REQUIEM as I do about resting after having just conducting the Mozart setting of the REQUIEM. Next to nothing. I sort of wish it was absolutely "nothing."
The first thing I realized: no questions concerning the experience naturally rose up within me last Thursday, and still to this moment. Was "it" a success? ....Wha'? Was what a success? What is "success?" Well, how did it go?....Uh, from what I remember, I took a deep breath while stepping onto the podium and was still breathing when I turned around and stepped down. What did it mean to you to have performed the work? I didn't perform the work as far as I know; neither, as I reckon, did the soloists, choir, organist or orchestra, nor Mozart, Sussmeyer and the rest of us. God performed the REQUIEM then, last Thursday, before then and ever since and forever, amen. Seriously. Really? Really.
I think now of distance. Even though God is ever imminent and present to me, I do remember the intransient weight of the distance between the weakness and darkness in my soul and the Lux Aeternum to which the prayers of the REQUIEM are flung with flayed muscles towards MERCY, MERCY, MERCY.
I think though it is often difficult to be a human, even if just in the way Descartes reduced that state of being, it is infinitely more of blessing to endure the inexorable decline of a creature in His Image, than to relent one's soul to the author of lies and betrayal. To "go there" involves no distance whatever, it's actually quite easy apparently.
But I won't know REQUIEM in this life. I will, however, light a candle so as not to curse the darkness and distance. He is there. He is listening. He has spoken and called my name. And, if I know one thing of the REQUIEM, it is my answer to that.
When we have video, it will go up.
God bless us all.