Thursday, June 23, 2016

Why We Do What We Do


Here at the 26th Annual Colloquium of the Church Music Association of America, at Masses, workshops, sessions, rehearsals, and plenary talks, the various speakers are quite literally “preaching to the choir.” Of course we’re all in it because we love excellent sacred liturgy in all its aspects: beautiful music, fine visual arts, reverent clergy, well-prepared servers, and resounding participation. In such circumstances, it’s easy to find support and encouragement for the often thankless work we do in our home parishes.

But one might ask, why do we do what we do? 
I once heard a little story, which I will re-tell here for the truth it illustrates. A pious little lady once came upon an old man working diligently in a beautiful perennial garden. “Why, isn’t God’s creation wonderful? Look at all of these flowers he created, with such variety and color. What a beautiful garden God made!” The old man responded, “You should have seen the garden when God had it all to himself… it was nothing but weeds!” Horticulture reveals the beauty of creation in greater variety and intensity.

As bearers of the image of God the Creator, and following Adam himself, our most basic vocation is to tend God's garden, to cultivate and create using the material and plot God has given us. As musicians, liturgists, pastors, and really as human beings, we’re given opportunity either to cultivate or neglect these little “gardens.” Our life's work is arranging the "plants" in a proper relationship with the sun and each other (Matthew 22:36-40).

Our “cultus” or "worship" stems from what we cultivate, from what we love most deeply. What we hold in highest esteem will, without a doubt, inform and direct our worship and our character. For this reason, we ought to cultivate "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, [whatever is] excellent or praiseworthy..." (Philippians 4:8).  Culture, a word very much related to "cultus," is not just what turns milk into cheese; it is the outworking of our mores and deepest values. Culture is the fruit of the things we cultivate. Culture in this sense is part of our conversion. Not to create, not to cultivate, not to care, not to "work at it," is a violation of the best and most fundamental aspect of our identity, the imago dei that we bear. Accordingly, worship requires the cultivation of the arts. We must not neglect the "garden" God his given us.

Speaking of our relationship to each other and to the "sun," Catholic culture, worship, and community, if they are truly rooted in the Incarnation, must maintain a healthy and sustaining relationship with our tradition, because we preach the life, death, and resurrection of the real, historical Jesus. There is one story of salvation and one Messiah, and he is the "root" (Rev. 22:16). The leaf can neither curse the branch, nor the trunk, nor the root. If it does, it will wither (John 15:6).

To claim that Catholics simply "got it dead wrong" for centuries until Martin Luther came along, or the Second Vatican Council came along, or Karl Rahner came along, or really any other person or movement came along, is to deny the ongoing and irrevocable action in every age of the Holy Spirit, the teacher Jesus promised would "lead us into all truth" (John 16:13). What hubris! Rather, there is no "new" and "old," no "hard break" with the past, but rather all things are made new for those who remain in Christ, who is the fullness of God's revelation (II Cor 5:17). And so our relationship with tradition must be healthy and sustaining, and our future must be understood in a hermeneutic of continuity with our past. It's never the root or the trunk that is pruned and tossed aside, but rather the withered branches which do not bear eternal fruit.

The crisis of liturgy and sacred music today is not a mere question of taste. It is the garden left untended. It is the withering leaf that cursed the branch. It is the lukewarm pablum, neither hot nor cold, which even God himself wants to spit from his mouth (Rev. 3:14-18).

The 26th CMAA Colloquium wins high marks for good taste; for loving, diligent, and scholarly renditions of sacred music in their proper liturgical context; and perhaps most interestingly for outsiders -- diversity. Musical selections range from medieval chants, Esquivel, Byrd, and Purcell to Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcellae; Sweelinck, Bach, and Lotti to Mozart's Sparrow Mass; Stanford, Franck, and Bruckner to new compositions by Frank La Rocca, not to mention numerous modern chant adaptations. New compositions written by participants are read and critiqued each day. The repertoire spans centuries and continents. Diversity is not only present in the repertoire, it is present in the participants. Men and women are equally represented; and numerous clergy and religious representing dozens of dioceses, monasteries, and congregations are participating alongside laypersons of all stripes. As a participant, the overwhelming feeling is, to quote Rosie the Riveter, "we can do it." Whether you are keen on simple or complex, easy or difficult, ancient or modern, beauty is within your reach. There are flowers that can bloom in your "garden" with just a little care and effort.

CMAA is growing and building a future on quality foundations. Young musicians and young priests from across the country and the world are majority of the attendees at this conference. The participants I met are quality people pursuing advanced degrees, working in growing parishes and cathedrals, and teaching in schools, colleges, seminaries, and universities. Look out! This is the future, folks; and this is why we do what we do. We love Sacred Music: we love our story, we love our God, and we love each other. Not to mention, it's fun! 

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