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“Breathing the Air of the Sacred”: Music and the Liturgy

The Church, acknowledging that man is not merely an intellectual being who can subsist on thoughts alone but a creature who approaches reality through his senses, has always emphasized the importance of incorporating sense-perceptible signs into her acts of worship. Even if we assent to supernatural truth sola fide, we do not engage with it solo intellectu.

As St. Thomas Aquinas explains in his treatise on the sacraments, Christ provided His Church with sensible signs of His abiding presence, conduits of grace through which the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of the faithful. Used in the proper way, these sacred signs—water, bread, wine, oil, words of absolution—not only represent the action of Christ, they effect His work because He works through them, they are the means by which He visits and sanctifies the believer. Because man is not a disembodied mind but an integral whole composed of body and soul, it is most fitting that God should bestow His gifts upon the faithful by elevating humble things of common experience into efficacious means of sanctification.

This sacramental transfiguration extends far beyond its own immediate sphere, as we can see in the rich heritage of the fine arts. What began as the glory of the pagan world—architecture, sculpture, painting, music—became, in the Church’s hands, the servants of divine mysteries, ministers of the unseen world, reflections of the beauty of God. The sacredness of the liturgy is adorned and elevated by the use of beautiful things: icons that seem to capture the timeless essence of sanctity, statues that remind us of the communion of saints and the purpose of our lives, stained-glass that depicts episodes from the Gospel and the history of the Church with an eloquence unrivaled by words. Contemplative plainchant, soaring polyphony, the majestic sound of the pipe organ—these, too, are no small part of the Church’s evangelization of the senses and imagination of man.

Abusus Non Tollit Usum

The fine arts have enjoyed a long but not always peaceful relationship with the worship of God. When fine art serves to enhance worship by focusing our minds on Him and His saints and angels, it deserves the greatest praise, but when it offers distractions and fascinations that detract from the central act of sacrifice and thanksgiving, it risks setting up itself as the reason for attending Mass. That this has often happened in the history of the Church should come as no surprise. To admire excessively the works of human hands is a perennial temptation, as the commandment against the worship of graven images bears witness.

As happens with all errors, the extreme of paying too much attention to artistic and cultural forms of expression can lead, by way of reaction, to the extreme of rejecting them entirely, under a false notion that men can worship God “more purely” if sensible signs—statuary, organ music, polyphony, stained glass, sacerdotal vestments, and the like—are removed from churches, wheedled down to a minimum, or uglified by aesthetic modernism.

The proposed remedy is far worse than the disease. To suppress the traditional liturgical arts or strip bare the sanctuary to “purify” or “simplify” it, as the Calvinists did in the sixteenth century or as modernists did in the twentieth, is not at all to improve worship, but rather, to make it no longer fit for the creatures of sight and hearing, flesh and blood, that we are—the creatures whom the Word became flesh to save.

The wave of banality and populism that has stormed Catholic churches for some half-a-century now is scarcely any better, one must admit, than getting rid of artwork altogether (indeed, I suspect more than a few of us would rather worship in silence in an empty barn than have to sit through what is dished out at St. Suburbia’s Catholic Community). To suppress the fine arts or to transform them into something flimsy and trite is to dishonor the precious gifts that God has given to mankind through centuries of vibrant Catholic devotion and genius.

Neglected Truths about Sacred Music

Experiences with many liturgies, some blessed and some regrettable, have afforded me much opportunity to think about these things. For the better part of thirty years I directed polyphonic choirs and chant scholas. The music we performed was, for the most part, from the Renaissance, that glorious flowering of Catholic artistic culture. Whenever we sang plainsong, we were drawing even more deeply from the historical and devotional fountains of the faith: a large number of the chants for the Roman Rite date back to the ninth and tenth centuries, when flourishing monasteries set the tone for European society at large.

My work with liturgical music brought home to me certain vital but nowadays neglected truths.

The first truth is that one does not “make music for the liturgy” or “fill in the empty spaces when the priest is busy.” One learns to let the liturgy itself, with its own spirit, its age-old prayers and profound gestures, shape and govern one’s choice of music; indeed, in the traditional worship of East and West, the music is more or less dictated by the rite.

The second truth I learned is more paradoxical: as its final end, liturgical music should have its own dying in mind. Of course I don’t mean the death of the music itself—far too much good music has been allowed to die out, to the inestimable disadvantage of the faithful. Rather, I have in mind the lesson Christ taught us: we must lose ourselves, forget ourselves, that we may be all the more attentive to Him, all the more willing to listen. In performing or in hearing music, many people experience a lifting of the soul to heavenly heights where the beauty and peace of God eternally reign. This self-transcendence in the presence of God is one of the aims of the sacred liturgy, and music is meant to aid us in raising our souls to Him—or better, in allowing Him to raise us up. The lesson we learn is one of self-forgetfulness or self-effacement, the humility of those who assist at the Holy Sacrifice: non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam: not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Thy name give glory. If the people are lifted up to meditation on divine things through our music, we musicians should thank God that they are no longer thinking of the melodies and the singers. “I must decrease, He must increase,” said John the Baptist, forgetting himself, guiding his followers to Jesus Christ. In that sense, music should die to itself.

In order to serve its purpose, music for the liturgy must breathe the air of the sacred. But what does that mean, in practice? It should not be raucous or assertive; it should not advertise its own cleverness or tunefulness. It should not be noisy—there is far too much noise in the world already, from airplanes to radio stations! At one extreme, some liturgical music is too operatic, as are many pieces written in the late Romantic period; at the other extreme, pieces fashioned in a “folk” or “popular” idiom are too cutesy and sing-songy.

The best qualities of sacred music have also been the most enduring in the history of the Church: pure melodies, tranquillity, modesty, prayerfulness. Are “music ministers” there to put on a show and to keep the people pleasantly occupied—or do they sing in order to elevate the devout soul to the worship of the Almighty? It belongs to the essence of true music ministry that it efface itself, leaving the limelight and receding into the walls, dissolving like incense. Only when the music is so apt for the liturgy that a congregation ceases to think about it as one would think of any secular art form or entertainment can the musicians assume their rightful place: servants to the common good of the parish, singing on behalf of the Church and by the authority of Christ.

Chant: Reasons for Its Neglect

The Church has always insisted, in official documents, that the beautiful ancient melodies known as Gregorian Chant be given foremost place in the liturgy—a place not to be compromised by other styles or types of music, even when they are worthy. Unfortunately, few seem ever to have heeded this wise commendation, which lost much of its force when Paul VI brazenly repudiated it.

There seem to be at least three reasons for this neglect of chant.

The first reason is a widespread loss of silence, sacrality, prayerfulness, in the celebration of the liturgy itself. Such a dramatic loss could only have taken place where people were already inured to the noisiness and profanity of our world, and no longer realized how great is our need for meditation and recollection if we are to pay honor to God and make strides in living out the Christian life. In such a situation, chant is a non-starter.

The second reason is more subtle and more perilous. In many respects, the way Catholics conceive of the Holy Mass has been gradually tainted by humanism. The focus shifts from the atoning sacrifice of Christ on Calvary to the “community gathered together to celebrate.” These two elements need not be in conflict, but given the modern tendency to emphasize the social side of Christian worship, there is a danger that the transcendent mysteries we re-enact may become peripheral, downplayed, even forgotten. The moment a liturgy ceases to be focused upon the Cross of Christ—the unbloody renewal of His Sacrifice on Calvary in the light of His resurrection and ascension—it also ceases to minister to the true spirituals needs of Christians: adoration, thanksgiving, penitence, and supplication.

A humanistic notion of the goal or focus of worship brings about a false sense of what congregational participation means. According to the view (seldom stated but often accepted) that man is the center of all things, the purpose of liturgy would be primarily to glorify and praise man, or to make him feel good about himself. Perhaps God would be invoked as an afterthought, but there is little room for God when men think so highly of themselves.

The believing Catholic stands at the pole opposite to the humanist: in humility, he knows that unless he communes with Christ, he shall have no life in him. As for community, he knows that whatever conduces to good prayer—prayer focused entirely on the divine Majesty and His angels and saints—brings about the fullest union of one Christian with another in their common purpose of knowing, loving, and serving God. Anything less is a sham.

The third reason stems from the foregoing reasons: many parish music directors are unaware of the rich heritage they neglect, or even take advantage of their position to create liturgical “experiences” wholly out of keeping with the faith of the Church. Whether out of dislike for an unfamiliar kind of music, or out of more dubious aims of “modernizing” parish life, such directors often fail to cultivate the talent and interest needed for preparing and executing chant, hymnody, or polyphony in a worthy manner.

If Pope Francis, Cardinal Cupich, and others wished to demonstrate that they actually care about improving the way the new Mass is celebrated, they would be banging the drum (so to speak) of sacred music week in, week out. But they do not, because their goal is the destruction of tradition, not its resurrection.

“I Didn’t Notice the Music”

Countless times over the years, I’ve heard comments like this after Mass, from people young and old: “The music was so beautiful—it really helped me to pray.” “That song brought tears to my eyes.” Or, from a visitor: “If only my parish back home would have music like the stuff you did today!” People who go to Mass to worship God are deeply grateful when the music focuses their hearts on Him and helps to prepare their souls for the sacred mysteries we celebrate.

But the comments I like best are those that, measured by the world’s standard, a performer would least want to hear: “I didn’t really notice the music, because I was so caught up in the beauty of the Mass.” “I was praying really intensely, and I think the chants and the rest of it sort of floated me along.”

If church musicians do their job well, their work will contribute to the good of the faithful gathered together for worship; they will not stand out like bling or artwork done in poor taste. If all of the elements that constitute our public worship were blended together properly, the music would assume its indispensable role—not as a center-stage attraction, much less an eye-rolling burden, but as one crucial piece of a complex ensemble of symbols: the vestments worn by the priest, the sweet smell of incense rising to God, luminous stained-glass windows depicting the life of Christ or the Saints, statuary to remind us of our older brothers and sisters in the Faith.

Each of these traditional elements carries with it both history and instruction, a link with the past and a strong reminder of who we are as Catholics, pilgrims of changeless faith in a world of constant change. The components of the Roman liturgy bear witness, in a tangible, accessible way, to the sublime truths we profess in our innermost souls.


Photo provided by the author.

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