Friday, August 05, 2016

Tempo: What's the right pace for liturgy?

We’ve all been there, in those academic lectures that turn into unattended monologues, peppered with dust motes and baked in slow afternoon light. The head bobs, and water leaks from the eyes into the nose, precipitating a yawn. Doodling, stretching, and blinking commence in a desperate attempt to fight the obvious truth: this. is. boring.

Tempo and pacing are crucial parts of the success of any endeavor, and especially the liturgical arts, music, and education. The speed of delivery, the space between events and ideas, and the overall energy of one’s demeanor form a significant part of the tone of one’s message. Fish bite when the lure is in motion. 
Because every word or concept is not equally significant, experienced teachers maximize their effectiveness by establishing habits. Students learn a routine approach to learning, not just the content at hand. Teachers return and collect papers quickly in an orderly, efficient way; class begins with familiar patterns; and in general students learn how to fit into a healthy classroom order. Teachers establish these classroom “habits” to give maximum time and focus on the content itself. All of this falls under the general heading of “classroom management.” 
The data show that teachers with effective classroom management generally have fewer discipline problems, higher scoring students, and better overall morale in their classrooms. Students often recall that perhaps these teachers were not their favorite at the outset, but that as the academic year continued and the habits were formed, the teacher’s style “grew on them” and outpaced other teachers. As Maria Montessori would confirm, learning is always maximized in an orderly environment. 
Liturgy is education. 
An effective liturgist will establish exactly the right pace and habits in order to focus on the content itself. Conservatives often say “reverence takes time.” This is a fair statement, a worthy maxim, and a good drumbeat to rally fellow conservatives against Fr. Hasty Minute-Mass. But the tendency here is toward being slow, which may not be the most effective or appropriate tempo. The adage “festina lente” or “make haste slowly” conveys prudence, however quickness can convey strength, enthusiasm, and engagement. Just because something is slow, doesn't mean it is rich and reverent. Slow liturgy might even be boring and anemic. So the question remains, “What pace makes an effective liturgy?”
Current educational research suggests there can be multiple "speeds" in one classroom. The traditional mass allowed for flexible pace and tempo in various parts of the liturgy, because the priest, choir, and faithful could occupy themselves in their own tasks without remaining necessarily in lockstep with each other. Similarly, effective liturgists today allow for a similar flexibility in the tempo; if the altar is delayed, the organist plays; if the choir is still singing, the priest slows his pace to wait for them to catch up. All things to be done are done well and given their proper amount of time, which may be a few moments or a few minutes.

Nonetheless, impatience has no place in the liturgy. An effective liturgist never “twiddles his thumbs” while waiting. Let me provide a key example: It is not uncommon in many parishes for the opening procession to reach the sanctuary before the organist has finished the introduction to the opening hymn. Having arrived at the altar, the priest sits there and looks at everyone, as they look at him; and together they glare and wait for those annoying few people to stop singing verses one and two, so that Mass can begin… forget about singing verses three and four! If we wonder why people don't sing, it may have nothing to do with the song selections, the music, or the musicians-- and it may have everything to do with the pastor and the altar servers. 
Ironically, the things that consume the most time are generally non-liturgical additions. A dear friend and musical colleague once recalled a Lutheran pastor requesting faster hymns and fewer verses, all because there wasn’t enough time and the liturgy was running too long. N.B. This pastor had been a nurse in a previous career, and narrated every detail of the liturgy as if she were about to administer a big, painful shot to a child: “Now I’m going to read the first paragraph, and then I’ll invite you all to read the next paragraph, and then we’ll all read the third paragraph together. Does everyone understand? Did everyone hear me? Okay, let’s go.” Leaving aside the obnoxious pedantry of this pastor’s approach, her silly little narrations added 35 minutes to the liturgy each week, and parishioners dropped like flies. Skipping hymn verses was not the solution. 
People want to sing. They want content. They don’t want drivel and narration. They don’t want the same pithy community organizing each week. It wears thin and distracts from the content people crave. Focusing on the content requires obedience to the liturgy. All analogous educational research suggests that an ordered “liturgical” environment fosters greater learning and participation. 
And so I return to the opening paragraph: tempo is critical for the success of the content. Keep the pace and allow all things their proper time. Our liturgy is ordered toward understanding and efficiency. If something is worth doing, yes—to quote G.K. Chesterton—it’s worth doing badly. But it’s even more worthwhile when done well. The most effective way to do the liturgy, is to do it as written: with simplicity, obedience, and excellence... and the proper pace. 

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