Sunday, July 29, 2007

Musicians:Think and Pray Before You Strum

I first read this story as just another news account about how a contemporary band invaded a suffering parish, thrilling some and maddening others, and so what?, it's an old story.

"We wanted to engage people in a different way, to teach people how to pray in a different way," Tidaback said. "We put a different edge not just to Mass, but to the sets we do before Mass. We even do traditional Mass songs, but we put a different spin on them, make them more up-tempo and more contemporary with what's going on in the world today."

But somehow the article keeps haunting me. These kids in Chicago are clearly well intended and they are probably competent musicians. They are seeking to praise God, inspire a living faith, and want to share their gifts. They acknowledge that the liturgy should not be a performance venue and are doing their best to make a contribution.

But here is the problem. What they are doing in playing jazz and rock, doing full "sets" before Mass, pounding and strumming away to the beat during Mass, is--let's not mince words--utterly and completely incompatible with the liturgical sensibility of the Roman Rite, and it is thereby destructive of all the aims they believe they are seeking.

I'm guessing that no one has set these people down to explain to this to them. They haven't read about the place of chant and they know none. They haven't read anything by the Pope. They have probably never been to a compelling liturgy that uses plainsong or the music of the Church. But I'm not sure that this is an excuse. If they are going to dare to make noise of any sort during Mass, they have a positive obligation to, as John Paul II urged, examine their consciences to see whether they are really submitting to the liturgical structure or trying to reinvent it to suit their own aims.

For many musicians, and artists generally, the liturgy provides a terrible temptation to use in order to satisfy the ego. It comes with a ready-made, captive audience. The liturgy is important to people so simply putting one's art on display infuses the artist with a sense of his or her own accomplishment and importance. If you don't get paid to play, you can always pat yourself on the back for using your gifts in the service of others -- and oh how generous you must be.

If what you seek is to make the liturgy as fun and entertaining as a hotel bar or pregame pep rally, there are always opportunities to do so, since the liturgy is not this way. Mass is not and cannot be "what's going on in the world today"; it is rather a foretaste of Heaven.

It is to deter such attempts to make the liturgy conform to the world that the liturgy is a not an improvisation on a theme about God but rather a precise and prescribed unity of music, text, and rubrics that permits us to participate in the prayer of the ages--a gift from God to us--toward the aim of gaining grace.

Don't imagine for an instant that the earliest Christians would have put up with the worldly approach to music at Mass. They avoided anything that smacked of pagan music, even to the point of completely eschewing metered music. They probably went too far in this respect but the impulse is a good one. Liturgy points up and beyond; it should never seek to replicate the sound and feel of a secular venue.

If a musician does not know the basic chant hymnody of the Church, if the Gregorian Missal looks like gibberish, if he or she does not know the difference between the ordinary and the propers, this person has no business planning for the next liturgy. And let us say it again: the Roman Rite has its own music built in, as it were, to serve as an ideal and focal point for our artistic endeavors. We must submit to this ideal. We must bury the ego. We must stop speaking so that God can speak to us. If we are unwilling, we should take our talents elsewhere.

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