Thursday, November 26, 2015

Restoring a Healthy Appetite for Beauty

A former mentor of mine, Dr. John Patrick, spent the better part of his career in the third world developing a protocol to rehabilitate starving children. Children would come to his clinic for treatment in advanced stages of starvation, with skin loose on bones and internal organs shutting down. Dr. Patrick developed a rehabilitation protocol which resulted in over 95% success, and it wasn’t complex, though it confounded the basic instincts of other doctors until that time. The principle is simple; instead of immediately stuffing these children full of nutrient rich solutions, feed them watery broth first. As the child regains appetite, add substance to the broth, but always allow the appetite to come first. When the appetite is fully engaged, then let the child eat as much as he wishes. Today Dr. John Patrick’s method is used throughout the world to save countless children’s lives.

As sacred musicians with a healthy appetite for tradition, high-quality music, and glorious liturgies, it is easy to see the situation in many parishes and fall into despair. As Dante wrote in the Inferno, canto 1, “I found myself obscured in a great forest, bewildered, and I knew [we] had lost the way.” How do we get back on track? How do we build great choirs again and bring back beauty into our liturgies?

It would be foolish to discount the support of a good pastor, the investment of a few key families and musicians, and even the beautiful buildings and legacies left by past generations. Hard work, too, has its place. Perhaps, however, we can take a lesson from Dr. Patrick’s method; the appetite does indeed matter. I do not mean to discourage you from singing complex chant or difficult sacred polyphony, however prudence may call for intermediate steps, for some education and guidance, before your parish has an appetite to take on the more musically difficult aspects of our tradition. Numerous resources are available through CMAA for all different levels of capability; we don't have to make stuff up on our own. The point is to do everything well, to follow the most authentic expression of the liturgy possible in our parishes, and meanwhile to enjoy doing it. Simplicity, elegance, confidence, and consistency are the best path forward, and engagement from the entire parish is key.

Even when a parish has achieved a high level of liturgy, musicians can burn out, relationships come unglued, and people get tired and age out. And so we must keep setting the hook, casting our nets, and setting out into the deep, using the richness of our tradition to reach into the depths of the human experience. The sacred liturgy makes present the Gospel, that good news which makes our souls new again. “I shall go in to the altar of God; to God, the joy of my youth.” Personal renewal, forgiveness, cleansing of the crud of the week, a renewed sense of purpose and Christian joy, and the real presence of Christ himself: these gifts of grace all provide a personal connection that keeps us coming back. Where there is perennial need due to the very terms of the human experience, there also is perennial appetite for God’s grace and renewal. This is a healthy appetite that we can foster and restore through beautiful liturgy and sacred music. Then the music is elevated and becomes a means to prayer, not an end in itself.

So I encourage you: keep your tools sharpened, keep teaching and encouraging, and always turn to the richest sources if you want renewal. Set high goals and achieve them together with as many people in your parish community as possible. And meanwhile, while you’re preparing the “feast,” don’t forget to pause for a few moments and eat!

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