Christian Rock and Rocky Soil

It used to baffle me. “How can so many of my peers who were so ‘churchy’ and ‘involved’ in high school have just drifted away in college?”

It doesn’t baffle me any more.

If you are a new DRE, youth minister, or high school chaplain in the USA, here’s a sobering reality check: the chances are that a lot of the kids volunteering on the weekend, helping lead retreats, signing up for work camp each year, etc., etc., will fall away when they leave high school. No, not all, and probably not most, but many. Some will eventually find their way back, maybe by a chance encounter with a priest, or a random itch of their conscience, or if and when they get married in the Church and decide it’s time to “get serious.” Some will find their way back, but not all.

Why does this happen, how does this illusion of commitment work, and what can be done to prevent this?

Despite the provocative title of this article, music is only part of the problem, though it is one of the best examples of the core conflict – trying to choose both God and mammon in parishes and ministry programs.

But let’s talk music first.

It is possible for rock music to be authentically Christian and still be good rock. But the Christian message must be indirect, or else there will be a lack of proportion between what is being said and how it is being said. Proportion is an essential element of beauty, and who wants music that isn’t beautiful to be used for worship?

Here is one comparison between two songs with similar themes but achieved in radically different ways.

This song is a first-person account of someone trying to overcome some life obstacles.

The lyrics are vaguely Christian, but it seems like even if they were more direct it would not help much – it would still be inappropriate for worship, because it is taking a music genre entirely from and for the world and trying to Christify it explicitly. That is why it’s so awkward, at least for me, even just to listen to.

Furthermore, the music itself in this example is just plain second-rate. The message itself also is very self-centered, which would be one thing if it wasn’t marketed as “Christian” and there wasn’t the almost artificial insertion of a mini-prayer in the lyrics, “God, I want to dream again.” I’ve never heard this at church, but I don’t frequent Protestant megachurches. I can certainly imagine it being used.

The next song is about a couple of kids whose lives are going terribly wrong, starting with one who gets shot on his way to school.

This is good rock music. It’s also profoundly moving, albeit in an unexpected way. Nobody would play this at a church, and rightly so, but I argue that this is a much better example of “Christian Rock” than the first song, not only because it is better musically but also because it knows what it is: the artists don’t try to insert the explicitly other-worldly into a worldly genre, apart from a one-off Scriptural reference (“the blind leading the blind”). Instead, they vividly illustrate real world problems and the emotions associated with them. This leads the listener to the simple consideration of the bleakness of sin and the need for something dramatically good to counter young people’s hopelessness. Finally, they suggest that the solution is at least in part our responsibility: “We are, we are, the youth of the nation.” That’s about a thousand times more Christian and artistic than the previous song. (The band, P.O.D., is loosely self-described as Christian, by the way.)

Anyway, as an alternative to Christian Rock at church, we have masterpieces like this available to us:

It’s very hard to pull off something like this well – and it really MUST be recited live – but that is part of what makes it worth so much as an act of worship. It involves serious dedication. Sacrificial worship doesn’t only mean killing goats, of course: it can also mean slaving away for a few dozen hours just to produce one beautiful arrangement for a single Mass. God likes that.

“But I like the churchy Christian Rock. So do lots of other people. In fact, a lot of the people at my church come because we play that kind of music.”

Now we come to the root.

If it were a simple matter of aesthetics, one taste does not rule over other tastes. Chocolate is not inherently better than vanilla, etc. Except we are not talking about ice cream, we are talking about the public worship of Almighty God and spiritually encountering Him in that worship (which is distinct from emotionally encountering Him). There is an objectivity to music and worship, which is why the objection that “classical” music is just the “rock” or “pop” of the 17th century (etc.) does not work. Certain kinds of music do not appropriately resonate with our soul inasmuch as it is ordered toward loving and encountering the otherworldly. As the famous saying goes, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – as one worships, so one believes. If someone heard a “Christian song” without knowing the language in which it’s being sung, and he thinks it’s probably about some guy’s girlfriend, for example, there is a big problem. If God, as the Author of Grace, is going to be treated directly, He deserves something more than what your girlfriend deserves, as nice as she may be. And the more one treats God like a girlfriend in worship, the more one is likely to think of God that way. It’s just how human beings work. When your girlfriend gets boring or too challenging, you can leave her for someone else. When God or the Mass or the one true Church is treated like a girlfriend in worship, when they get boring or too challenging, they are all too likely to be left for something else. And the more one tries to dress them up like some other “girl,” the more one will realize that it would be easier just to go after that girl instead. We can’t make God in our image, and when we figure that out, the choice is forced upon us: we either destroy our little idol and worship God on His own terms, or we go seek the thing that we were trying to make Him into.

The trumpets that will blare at Our Lord’s return will be playing music closer to Mozart than to Meatloaf, and not for no reason. If I don’t like the Parousia’s music – or even Heaven’s music – will it be because God doesn’t know what’s “relevant,” or will it be because He knows there’s something more objective about transcendence than my fleeting emotional inclinations?

Liking secular-ish Christian-ish music and feeling good about God on its account is not wrong in itself.

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Go on ahead! Feelings and emotions are NOT evil. But they are only GOOD if they are in line with reason.

What is wrong is when those things are at the foundation of one’s spiritual life, instead of the imperceptible indwelling of the Holy Spirit and sanctifying grace expressing themselves in the exercise of moral virtue and frequent prayer (even continuous prayer, to the point where instead of talking to yourself to think through the mundane tedium of your daily life, you talk to God). If and when well-performed secular-ish Christian-ish music and/or nice feelings about God become inaccessible for some reason, a person who had seemed to grow up in the spiritual life so quickly is liable to become “withered by the sun and die,” so to speak, just like the seed sown in rocky soil (Mt. 13: 1-23). Such a person will eventually notice that the world (or even some other church) gives quicker and easier nice feelings, and that continuing to pray and go to Mass diligently is really hard when faced with that alternative. And why resist? “If spirituality is all about the feels anyway, when I get them, great, when I don’t get them, then I just won’t kill anyone or rob any banks, and I’ll go to Heaven, or something like that. But maybe the whole ‘organized religion thing’ is all just a psychological prison anyway, and a nondescript ‘spirituality’ is where it’s at.” And down the slope we go. People don’t usually think or express their desires in exactly these terms, but they often act based exactly on the ideas found in them.

If you live in the Western world, this process is almost certainly happening with people in your parish, especially to millennials. The problem, of course, is not limited to music – the approach of condescending indefinitely to worldliness can permeate the air of entire parishes. Let pastors who are looking to “Rebuild” be aware of the lesson of Aaron and the calf… Money and popularity do not make a parish a spiritual success. Your sanctuary may be tricked out with the latest live streaming gear and some nifty projector screens, and your band may make a 6 figure salary due to generous tithing, but if there’s not perpetual or nearly perpetual adoration; if there aren’t vocations; if there aren’t long lines at the confessional; if people are not praying before and after Mass in silence… these deserve more attention.

The Protestant megachurches and the world will always win the game anyway. They produce better, flashier, trendier stuff, including morals and doctrine. They produce better rock music. They condescend to our worldliness better. Therefore, the game ought not be played. Our Lord did not play the game, though He was invited to by the Devil. (Mt. 4: 1-11)

Christ condescended to our worldliness by becoming a human being. Beyond that, He used language and images we could understand. He identified with us in our need for food and drink, as with the woman at the well, or with the Eucharist itself. He pointed out the way to perfection to the Rich Young Man and to those wondering about divorce by meeting them where they were, and yet He did not insist on poverty or celibacy as Commandments. All this condescension, however, actually serves the will of the Father by calling people to look beyond the world. Christian Rock, as commonly understood, does not do this, but instead lowers God more than He lowered Himself by putting Him into a worldly genre of music which can certainly make people feel nice feelings but cannot lead one to contemplation as it is understood by the spiritual masters. (In fact, prolonged silence is one of the best things for that.) And of course, some other parochial and ministerial projects fall into the same trap. We must not be in the business of making good novices: we must be in the business of making saints.

The longer one pretends he can find God in the storm, the earthquake, and the fire, the more likely he is to miss the small whispering sound that calls a soul out of the cave. God showed His might on Sinai with signs of His fearsome power, but now, in the invisible life of grace, the signs of His love manifestly prevail – and lovers very often want to be alone together in silence, do they not?

Education in the spiritual life must become a greater priority in parishes, especially youth ministry programs, if we are to stop the bleeding of parishioners looking “to be fed” somewhere else – back in Egypt, that is, where there were melons and leeks and fleshpots.  We especially ought to curb the enthusiasm in our young people for getting chills and thrills on retreats – and certainly for “speaking in tongues” and being “slain in the Spirit,” for goodness’ sake – and instead teach them that the greater effects of prayer and the sacraments are in an undying thirst to do what is right out of love for God and the pursuit of union with Him at the expense of any and all other pleasures. Growth may seem slower, but it will be steadier.

Better, more subdued, more dignified music is just one part of the solution. Christ our Rock is more spiritual than worldly, after all.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

The Liturgical Creeps

In my time in parish work, and in my exploration of the world’s great (and little) churches, I have encountered many interesting phenomena. As you might imagine, that involves a spectrum, with the simply “good” on one end and the simply “bad” on the other, with plenty of ho-hum stuff in the middle. But there is also a category of things sort of “in the middle” which don’t really fit well into such a simple paradigm. They deserve their own little separate space.

In psychology, there is something called the “uncanny valley.” Here is a chart:

uncanny1

At this point, I’m not exactly sure how I would rearrange the variables on this chart to explain these experiences, but they are definitely of the kind that would fit into that valley which just feels “off.”

Electric candles – especially votive candles – are a big one.

Yes, it’s cheaper. Yes, it’s less dangerous. Yes, it’s cleaner. But isn’t that all part of what makes it not as good? It seems far “less human” than it should. All you do is put in a coin… Some electrons move… And there you go. That’s it. No careful management of the flame as you transfer it from a candle already lit, no satisfaction of getting your wick to light, no organic timeline for when it will go out, and nothing is actually burnt up and “wasted” on God. The last bit is probably the most important. Here’s 2 Sam. 24:22-24:

But Araunah said to David: “Let my lord the king take it and offer up what is good in his sight. See, here are the oxen for burnt offerings, and the threshing sledges and the yokes of oxen for wood. All this does Araunah give to the king.” Araunah then said to the king, “May the Lord your God accept your offering.” The king, however, replied to Araunah, “No, I will buy it from you at the proper price, for I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”

King David was worried about not spending enough himself for a burnt offering of oxen. One can only imagine the king’s reaction if Araunah had offered to put coins into a candle machine that just moves electricity in a circle.

This does not necessarily mean that the one using a candle machine is doing a poorer job praying, but perhaps over time it could have an effect on a person’s perception of worship, leading to the thought that what’s in your wallet is more important than what’s in your heart… After all, there are no “suggested donations” for a machine.

Another big one is recorded music.

We don’t accept lip-syncing at concerts. Why would God accept a recording from a CD at Mass? This can be especially prevalent at funerals, where a well-meaning family wants their loved one’s favorite song played, and while it is certainly difficult to deny a grieving family, the songs are often inappropriate and are never anything much more than a catharsis over memories when what the funeral rite is primarily for is prayer for the soul of the deceased.

Recorded music also shows up outside liturgies as “filler,” when silence is, I suppose, too unsettling. You will find this in many churches in Rome, Paris, and beyond. While the music is often “good,” the fact that it is an mp3 means that those voices and instrumentalists are not actually there praying with you – it just sounds like it. And to me that can be a bit more unsettling than silence.

Notice once again the lack of “waste” – it is a mere digital re-presentation of someone else’s work.

On the other hand, once I walked into Wieskirche in Bavaria and there was a magnificent little choral arrangement being sung by a small group. Wonder and joy, the opposite of the liturgical creeps?

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Notice the real candles. The detached altar was nothing to write home about, but everything else was!

The “liturgical creeps” are then, I suppose, when something a little “fake” is helping mediate or ground prayer that reduces the “waste” of human effort. It’s a working definition, at least.

Perhaps you have had the experience yourself. What else fits into the liturgical uncanny valley?

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

Main image: Opening title from the popular 90’s kids’ show, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”

Uncanny chart: By Smurrayinchester – self-made, based on image by Masahiro Mori and Karl MacDorman at http://www.androidscience.com/theuncannyvalley/proceedings2005/uncannyvalley.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2041097

Should Christians Dance?

A young priest sets out into the countryside to journey to his new assignment… He is not quite sure how to get there, but in the evening, while walking in a field he finds two boys. They tell him he has just crossed into the parish boundary. Father gets on his knees and prays in thanksgiving for being sent there and in preparation for the work he will do in the little country town. The first and most important job, he would find out, will be to eradicate “the scourge of dancing.”

Of course we are speaking of the one whom they called “the saint” even during his lifetime – St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars. We are not speaking of Rev. Shaw Moore, the antagonist of Footloose… Although the two might have gotten along, ecumenical issues aside.

Dance is commonly assumed to be an art form and a generally good way to recreate. Such assumptions are in fact so deep that the suggestion that it might be better to do away with public dances is seen as rigid, cruel, “medieval,” etc. One can only imagine the reactions of North Dakota’s teens to then Bishop Aquila’s decision a few years ago to ban dances (and pajama days) in one of his Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fargo… Maybe even some parents and faculty were upset. But would they have told John Vianney that he had been “too rigid” after he finally conquered the last of the dancers in the tiny village of Ars, which by that point had become the brightest beacon of holiness and civility in all of France?

The Abbé Trochu, in his famous biography of the saint, notes that, while St. Francis de Sales “wore gloves” when treating the topic, Vianney did not. “Go on! Dance! Dance all the way down into Hell!” Thus spake the saintly curé from the pulpit, time and time again. After decades, Ars was perfectly obedient to its pastor and was much happier for it.

Imagine the efforts it would have taken to accomplish the same feat in a 21st American century town even of normal size by today’s standards.

The people of Ars were not having dainty upper-crust waltzes, but neither were they “grinding,” “twerking,” or doing any other kind of categorically pornographic actions, which no reasonable person would think to call morally acceptable. They were simply dancing like country folk, having some drinks, and then getting too familiar with each other. The saint saw that this was not an accidental relationship, and he thought “the dance” to be the single greatest occasion of sin in Ars.

Note that it was seen by him as an occasion of sin, not necessarily a sin in itself, except perhaps inasmuch as a certain recklessness therein could be an expression of a lack of due care to avoid offending God. So, the question remains: can a Christian dance?

It depends.

The downfall of dance is usually what is touted as its greatest quality – the ability to arouse and express the passions. It is violent, it is sensual, it is angry, it is sad, it is joyous, it is whatever you need it to be. It intensifies all these things and shows them to others, while “freeing the spirit.” That’s the point. And that’s the problem.

In expressing the passions haphazardly, one can lose a grip on reason and be drawn to wherever that passion leads. The main problem is with sensuality.

First of all, we can, without hesitation, discard the utterly obscene motions and actions that have no other purpose than to sexualize the participants. These are not only done out of inordinate desire for the pleasures of the body, but they are also scandalous. Scandal here means a “stumbling block” to the spiritual lives of others – to cause sin in them. We are bound to avoid causing sin in others inasmuch as it is possible while not neglecting other duties. Nobody has ever had a duty to do anything like one would find going on at the average American high school dance. And it can never be good art, if art is the good expression of something good to express.

Secondly, we must examine the motivations and circumstances of those dances which are less clear. Should a desperate bachelor engage in a romantic tango with a beautiful woman he’s just met? Perhaps this will be a real challenge to him interiorly, urging him to go further and further… The same may hold true for her, which he must be careful about as well. Such a dance loosens the foundation on which chastity rests.

But what about a professional dancer who is so used to these movements and is so concentrated on his craft that he is greatly fortified against temptations? It seems the difficulty begins to disappear. And if a man is dancing with his wife, certainly there is no problem.

The case becomes different according to the abilities and circumstances of those involved, and according to the capacity of a dance to evoke problematic urges.

What would John Vianney think of the teens of Bomont jumping on the Kevin Bacon rock-n-roll-will-free-your-soul bandwagon? If we are honest – which we are here to be – we must say that he would probably be just as indignant as he was when he arrived in Ars, if not more so. He would think Rev. Moore was a wuss and a bad leader for finally caving. He would go to his bedroom, scourge himself to a bloody pulp, not eat for a few days, then start preaching, if his approach in Ars is any indication.

While the final scene of the film doesn’t have anything too bad (especially since these kids who have apparently never danced before are actually professionals), it is the culture and ideas which are introduced by the habitual loosening of inhibitions in social settings with the opposite sex (that often also involve alcohol) which sends up red flags. It is the dark cloud on the horizon: there is not yet a storm, but one is coming.  Just as well, the spirits of angst and rebellion are not spirits from God, but they are exactly what Kevin Bacon’s character and the whole idea of rock-n-roll are about.

There are ways to “cut loose” and socialize that do not involve the dangers of “the dance.” Running, golfing, hiking, and yes, even spelunking are all appropriate alternatives. I simply can’t imagine John Vianney giving a sermon against spelunking… Can you?

“But wait!” some will say. “There is that scene where Bacon’s character goes before city council and throws down some verses from Scripture about how great dancing is! Ha. Game, set, and match, you Jansenist clown!” Unfortunately, we will have to save the detailed examination of the Scriptural treatment of dancing for another post. For now it will suffice to say that the Holy Bible decidedly does NOT encourage us to “kick off our Sunday shoes” so that we can do the worm to impress our friends.

Here is a challenge to those who have charge of Catholic schools: take a good, long look at the reality of what is going on at your dances, and whether it is worth the spiritual risk.

 

Main image: screenshot from “Footloose” (1984)

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Sing to the Lord a New Song – in an Old Way?

“I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord.” But if you can’t figure out what that chord was, maybe just try singing. God made your voice, after all.

With roots going back to ancient Judaism, singing is an integral part of Christian worship. St. Paul tells us to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph 5:17-19). One would guess that musical instruments would be helping to make this melody, adding another musical layer and aiding proper pitch, tempo, and rhythm.

Aulos_player_Louvre_G313
Aulos Player

However, the Fathers of the Early Church came down very hard against the use of any musical instruments in the liturgy. For example, St. John Chrysostom says rather forcefully that “where aulos-players are, there Christ is not.” By exploring their reasons, we’ll uncover some theological underpinnings to the Church’s use of chant in her liturgy.

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Hebrew Psalter, 15th century AD

Jewish Roots

“Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with timbrel and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:3-6)

Although the Temple at one point was known for its loud instruments, Judaism itself cast aside musical instruments in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. When the Romans left Jerusalem devestated, the Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire abandoned their harps and lutes, as they had once done in the Babylonian Exile 600 years prior:

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, remembering Zion; on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps. For it was there that they asked us, our captors for songs, our oppressors, for joy. “Sing to us,” they said, “one of Zion’s songs.” O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil? (Psalm 137: 1-4)

Like the Babylonian Exile, the destruction of the Temple fundamentally changed Jewish worship, and the “lute and harp” lost out.

Another reason musical instruments lost out was that pagan cults were known for playing musical instruments. And since the early Jews had a real fear of obfuscating the sacred and the profane, the association of musical instruments with paganism was enough to render musical instruments unclean.

When the Early Church looked for guidance in how to conduct their worship, they seemed to follow suit. But the Church Fathers didn’t stop with just condemning the use of musical instruments in the liturgy of the Church; they went on to condemn them in other aspects of secular life. For example, St. John Chrysostom calls musical instruments “the devil’s great heap of garbage.” St. Augustine adds: “The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.”

Because of this great aversion to musical instruments, early Christian liturgical music was exclusively vocal. The liturgy would be sung but only in a subdued fashion, using a form of singing called “cantillation” that resembled speech more than song.

Clement
St. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 AD)

Patristic Interiorization

“He who sings, prays twice” – this aphorism often attributed to St. Augustine is actually a distillation of his commentary on Psalm 73:

For he that sings praise, not only praises, but only praises with gladness; he that sings praise, not only sings, but also loves him of whom he sings. In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection of one loving.

Perhaps better distilled as “Only the lover sings,” singing adds to our praise the element of love, the internal disposition of the heart. The act of singing, involving the mechanisms of the human voice, expresses that love of God or, even, is that love of God. Something much more profound is happening in the song of the lover than a mere doubling of prayer.

But what about musical instruments?

Although Jewish and Christian worship changed, the Old Testament did not. How did the Early Church contend with the many instances of musical instruments in the Old Testament?  The Church Fathers interiorized the external musical instruments featured in the psalter. Chief among the Church Fathers in that area, St. Clement of Alexandria writes on Psalm 150:

The Spirit, to purify the divine liturgy from any such unrestrained revelry, chants: ‘Praise Him with sound of trumpet,’ for, in fact, at the sound of the trumpet the dead will rise again; ‘praise Him with harp,’ for the tongue is a harp of the Lord; ‘and with the lute, praise Him,’ understand the mouth as a lute moved by the Spirit as the lute is by the plectrum; ‘praise Him with timbal and choir,’ that is, the Church awaiting the resurrection of the body in the flesh which is its echo; ‘praise Him with strings and organ,’ calling our bodies an organ and its sinews strings, for from them the body derives its coordinated movement, and when touched by the Spirit, gives forth human sounds; ‘praise Him on high-sounding cymbals,’ which mean the tongue of the mouth, which, with the movement of the lips, produces words.

Far removed from the “unrestrained revelry” of pagan culture, the human voice alone sufficed for authentic praise of God. All the references to musical instruments are made into allegories for the human body, each signifying different aspects of our physical anthropology.

But more than just our bodies, God made the whole human person – body and soul – in His image, capable of praising Him in melodious song. The early monk Cassiodorus writes that “the notes previously observed as issuing from musical instruments are now seen to emanate from the rational bodies of men.” Connecting this to the Incarnation, St. Clement of Alexandria writes:

The Word of God, scorning the lyre and cithara as lifeless instruments, and having rendered harmonious by the Holy Spirit both this cosmos and even man the microcosm, made up of body and soul – he sings to God on his many-voiced instrument and he sings to man, himself an instrument: “You are my cithara, my aulos and my temple,” a cithara because of harmony, and aulos because of spirit, and a temple because of the word, so that the first might strum, the second might breathe, and the third might encompass the Lord… The Lord made man a beautiful breathing instrument after his own image; certainly he is himself an all harmonious instrument of God, well-tuned and holy, the transcendental wisdom, the heavenly Word.

The Word of God became flesh – with human lungs, lips, tongue, and voice – and continued his eternal praise of the Father, now as one of those “beautiful breathing instruments.”

The definitive departure from “lifeless” Davidic musical instruments made room for such interpretations of the psalms. With this anthropologizing and allegorizing of the psalms with the elevated anthropology of the Incarnation, we have the beginnings of a theological foundation for liturgical chant.

Theology of the Unassisted Voice

When the Word became human flesh in the Incarnation, the study of human nature became a study of God – anthropology became a theology. Likewise, the study of the human voice reveals in some way the mystery of Christ. According to Dom Mark Kirby, the human voice in the Church’s liturgy prepares “in a kind of renewal of the mystery of the incarnation, an acoustical body for the Divine Word” (“The Psalmody of the Divine Office,” 17-18). In this way, liturgical chant is a participation in Christ’s mediation to the Father, as manifested in the Incarnation.

Here (with some help from Dom Kirby) are some theological musings on several aspects of the unassisted human voice.

Breathing: Within the Trinity, “the breath of God is indissociable from the word of God, and the word of God cannot be uttered save in a communication of the breath of God.” (“Toward a Definition of Liturgical Chant,” 15). Breathing thus images the action of the Holy Spirit in singing. In a cappella singing, pauses for breathing are left unfilled and exposed. Through the breathing necessary for supported singing, “the human person, fully alive, expresses likeness to God. Breath, life, and word constitute an inseparable triad in the divine economy of creation and redemption” (Ibid.). Together, the co-incidence of breath and word resonate in the human heart, the inner sanctuary of the temple of one’s body, where one prays to the Father in secret (Matt 6:6).

Memory: Unlike visual art which is stretched spatially, music is stretched temporally, requiring the human memory to link words across time into a coherent discourse. “Liturgical chant,” according to Dom Kirby, “being heightened discourse, engages the memory of both singer and hearer, becoming a disclosure, in time, of the timeless mystery, a contemplative unfolding of the Word” (“Toward a Definition of Liturgical Chant,” 14).

Communion: The prayer of the Christian is never solitary; every prayer is uttered in union with Christ and in communion with His Church. Chant captures this aspect of communion. The propers, antiphons, and psalmody chanted in the sacred assembly make present that communion of persons, all praying ecclesially with the voice of the Church. Chanting the prayer of the Church together leads to a uniformity without homogenization, a unity without loss of identity – each unique voice aids the others in a common song of praise. Even when chanted alone, the prayer of the liturgy is united with the prayers of all the faithful from the rising of the sun to its setting, stretching throughout space and time.

Disposui
16th Century Chant Manuscript – Psalm 89: “I have made a covenant with my elect: I have sworn to David my servant. Alleluia.”

Silence: Chant begins and ends with silence: “the context of liturgical chant is, before and after anything else, silence. It originates, with the word, in silence. Like the Word, it ‘springs from the silence’” (Ibid., 20). More than merely assisting prayer, chant is prayer. In fact, chant is a participation in the highest prayer of Christ’s mediation to the Father. As such, chant should not feel rushed or busy, but must rather be irrigated with silence. The pockets of silence are little Mount Horebs wherein we hear the “still small voice” of God (1 Kg 19:12). This prayer does not need musical instruments filling in the gaps of singing and supporting the sound of the human voice with additional melodic layers. Rather, in liturgical chant, the exposed and vulnerable human person encounters the Father most authentically in silence.

What Next?

In chant, the human voice alone carries the word and expresses the fullness of the human person – body and soul. Chanting the text without accompaniment, one’s voice, one’s prayer – one’s whole person – is exposed to God. Chant is thus a full, conscious, and active participation in the prayer of the Church in the liturgy.

As the Church spread throughout Europe and the influence of paganism began to wane, musical instruments lost their negative associations. No longer seen as “the devil’s heap of garbage,” the Church began to reintroduce instruments into worship. With a little help from Charlemagne, the pipe organ became a prominent feature of medieval churches. As a “breathing” machine operated by bellows, the pipe organ was seen as an appropriate mechanical approximation of the human voice.

Vouet,_Simon_-_Saint_Cecilia_-_c._1626
St. Cecilia (d. 230) anachronistically depicted playing the organ

But before the organ became a staple of church construction, the initial vacuum created by the Church Fathers’ opposition to musical instruments was filled by a theology of the unaccompanied human voice. Even though the Church no longer fears a connection to pagan worship, it was that initial aversion that occasioned the development of a robust theology of the unaccompanied voice – a theology whose praises are often unsung.

Such a theology became the basis for the great depositum orandi – deposit of prayer (to coin a phrase) – in Gregorian Chant. To this day, Gregorian chant is still “specially suited to the Roman liturgy” and “should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116).

Like the Early Church, the negative cultural associations of some contemporary genres of music ought to be taken into account in developing liturgical music fitted for the worship of the Father through, with, and in the incarnate Son. But more importantly, we ought not to turn our back on the larger theology of chant rooted in the Incarnation.

 

Post by: Deacon Peter Gruber, C.O.

 

Main image: The Worcester Psalter
The Initial of Psalm 97

Why is only this called Praise and Worship?

Deep in the silence of the Roman catacombs, a dim light grows brighter from around the corner as several torchbearers approach. There is urgency in their demeanor, but there is also a peacefulness. As they turn into the long, narrow corridor, the figure of an emaciated but sturdy pontiff can be seen slowly making his way behind them in full vesture. He is preparing to celebrate Mass over the tomb of one of his favorite martyrs, but he is trying to escape the notice of the emperor’s soldiers above. He turns to one of his deacons: “We’ll keep the volume on the amps down this evening, but I think we can still use the drum set.” The little group starts their liturgy to a hushed rendition of “Gather Us In.”

Suddenly, several of the emperor’s guard are heard rushing down from above! But the worship leaders will not be deterred, singing all the louder, “Gather us in, the rich and the haughty, gather us in, the proud and the strong…” The men get closer and closer. “Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away…”

You decide what happens next: Are the soldiers so touched by the devotion and beauty of what they encounter that they are miraculously converted, or is this pope martyred for having terrible taste in music?

This is a ridiculous example meant to illumine a serious problem… The crisis of liturgical music, and even more broadly, the crisis of Christian music today in general.

Before we get into it, can we atone for the sins of the video above with a sample of something that won’t offend our sensibilities and is possibly similar (albeit very distantly) to what might have actually been sung in such a setting?

Ahh. That’s better.

We can realize the disparity in the dignity of the two pieces. We laugh at the thought of acoustic guitar accompanying someone like Pope St. Sixtus II, whose mere memory emboldens faith and charity. But when we imagine him being surrounded with this wonderful a capella piece performed by Ensemble Organum, it moves the mind to another world – we sense that this chant has a gravity and that anything done while it is sung is at least similarly serious. (And yes, it is a capella… The deep tones are droning.)

You will no doubt agree that this music is ordered to the praise and worship of God. Why then, does “Praise and Worship” refer to a class of music with such vast differences, like “Gather Us In,” (which, to be honest, is really more like a hymn than real P&W) or the stuff you would hear on the local Christian music radio station?

It starts in the same time and place that many other important things began to be destroyed: the late 1960’s in California. Coming on the heels of the secular music revolution going on at that time, “Jesus music” made its debut. A small group of hippies figured out that “free love” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and starting becoming “born-again” Christians. Then they simply incorporated biblical messages into the music they were already playing in the back of the van and on the street corner. The growing popularity of the music of the ecumenical Taizé community in France also had some influence over the new genre, which is not so bad in itself, but when combined with 70’s guitar gets a little strange.

Credit needs to be given for the desire to leave a terrible way of life and to embrace and share the Christian faith. But if you are listening from far away, you ought to be able to tell whether a song is more likely to be about the Incarnation or about dropping acid. It is fundamentally a problem of proportion between means and ends. (This will be explored in other posts.)

The novelty of such a strange mix took off, and it turned into a bona fide industry within a few years. Soon it became “contemporary Christian music,” even having its very own magazine.

This all of course also conveniently followed the Council, which had set the stage for a plethora of misguided innovations.

So whence did the name “praise and worship” come? Perhaps there was some event or concert that first popularized the phrase, or maybe some big producer started talking about the music in that way. But that it has become accepted terminology – over and against Mozart – is surely more than hearing other people use the term. There must have been some kind of large-scale interior breakdown of the sense of latria (adoration) in order to identify praising and worshiping with only a specific kind of Christian music, and music of dubious liturgical quality at that. It would seem that the Church of What’s Happening Now deemed its music to be superior to all that had gone before, and thus gave it the truly dignified title of “praise and worship” – as if it were the first time music had ever been used for such things… And this is to make no mention of the often self-centered lyrics that sort of miss the point of praise and worship to begin with. (This one might be the worst.) If the songs you sing at church use personal pronouns more than “You,” “God,” “Christ,” etc., then there might be a problem.

Maybe this theory is a little “out there.” But then again, the 70’s were “out there” too.

How is this for a thought: if it isn’t praising God, or aiding in the worship of Him, then it really isn’t Christian music at all. It might be about Christian themes, it might be done by people who are not afraid to say they are Christians, etc. But if we really want to bestow the name “Christian” onto something, it had better be ordered toward Christ. We should remind ourselves how seriously St. Ignatius of Antioch took that title.

There’s no easy solution to this. But let it be known that the official stance of CRM is that all Christian music is also Praise and Worship music. Maybe introducing this idea in our parishes and schools could help recall to mind the truth of the matter and tone down some of the craziness.

 

Main image credit: http://www.confrontmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/crowd2.jpg

Contemporary Showcase: Extraordinary Music Workshop, Krakow, Poland

Folks, if you want an example of how to revive church music, look no further. (Seriously, watch the whole thing.)

The Extraordinary Music Workshoprun by the Polish Dominican Liturgical Centre, has got it all: devout youth, a rich expression of a deep cultural patrimony, excellent instruction, tons of energy…

It makes for a great time and great liturgical music, from what the trailer shows.

THIS IS EXACTLY THE KIND OF THING WE NEED MORE OF. Hopefully they will consider doing it every year, or even establishing a full conservatory. Maybe this year’s World Youth Day, which is being held in Krakow, will bring the grace to inspire such an endeavor.

 

Main image: By FotoCavallo – http://www.flickr.com/photos/cecphotography/6281990824/, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17653028