Friday, July 08, 2016

Cheerfulness and the Art of the Gospel

Alleluia and Jubilus from St. Gall Cantatorium
Truly beautiful music, art, and poetry are all born out of divine inspiration; Plato concludes so much in his dialogue Ion. One would think, therefore, that they would participate in the same freedom and liberating power we associate with the transcendent  truth of the Gospel.  Ironically, however, sacred art and music are among the most bitterly argued topics in Catholicism today.

Gregorian Chant, for example, historically hailed as the most universal music of the Church, is today a shibboleth, a marker of being one of “those” folks. P.S. Shh! I am one of “those” folks. I can smile and say that I actually like the stuff. I like a good steak and a glass of red wine, too. But is it possible to present our artistic and musical “sacrifice of praise” to God without simultaneously taking part in the political infighting that so often surrounds it? Is it possible to offer our art to God and leave it at that? I think it is. The solution is simple and twofold:

Cheerfulness is the first key. “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (II Corinthians 9:7). Even though our artistic talents are offered for the edification of the community, we artists are serving God first and not the community (Col. 3:23). Cheerfulness, then, is the key to unlock generosity and long-term happiness. If each week we feel like we’re tossing our pearls before swine, it won’t be long before our art loses its wings. If instead we bear in mind that “everything you have given me is a gift from you” (John 17:7), we are happy to be generous and invest the work necessary for success. And speaking of disagreements that inevitably arise, note that it’s a lot more difficult to argue with a cheerful person who enjoys his work and does it well.
The second key is to allow the music and art to speak for itself. If it is truly transcendent, it will work. All human beings have an appetite for truth, goodness, and beauty. Cultivate the appetite first, and then provide the remedy. Hunger is the best spice. There’s nothing worse than a prickly, doctrinaire approach to sacred arts... “You must like this music because this Church document says it’s beautiful, and if you don’t like it, your soul must be corrupt.” Thank God this sort of person isn’t working in marketing or sales, because he would go hungry. No, I do this music because it is beautiful, and I am sharing it with you as a gift, just as it was shared with me. Isn't it great? I can show you how to sing it, too, if you come to our choir rehearsal this Thursday night! 
Granted, we artists and musicians sometimes have to defend what we’re doing with recourse to various Church documents, but beauty doesn’t operate best through force or lengthy explanation. In no way would I wish to throw shade on the important scholarly work that provides foundation and support for the artistic work we do. Far from it! Rather, I wish to defend the right of our sacred arts to contribute to the liturgy in their own voice. The implication here is quite simple: less talk, more doing. We can do it. Get hopping! Make that beautiful music and art as a gift to God, as cheerful appreciation for the gift of God that it is.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: