Sunday, September 02, 2007

Is your liturgy boring?

In private, many Catholics admit what they feel week to week at Mass: boredom. This is rarely spoken about publicly because it implies a certain impiety. People figure that it is their fault. But priests feel it too. In fact, I would guess that this feeling is widely share than is usually admitted. And in one sense, it is a scandal. If we believe what the Church teaches, at Mass we are in the presence of a miracle. We enter into a heavenly space outside of time and physically and spiritually experience what is impossible outside of liturgy.

The problem of boredom stems from a liturgical trend that developed over the last several decades, the belief that the more accessible and plain the liturgy is, the more likely it is to reach people. Its sound and feel should be more like everyday life. But of course even on aesthetic grounds, this theory is exactly upside down. To entice us and draw us in, the liturgy should be radically unlike anything else that confronts us day to day. It should convey and communicate the mysteries in a special way.

In an effort to confront the problem of boredom, many parishes go in the opposite direction of where they should be going. They try to make it more like a splashy non-sacred events, such as a concert or a family reunion or a civic gathering. This never really works for Catholics in particular because we all know that this has no basis in our history or theology. Mass is not just a gathering around the table of the Lord. It is a procession out of time into eternity.

As an aside, those who have invest so heavily in this idea of "gathering" have done a grave disservice to the liturgy. We have hymnals by that name, and all sorts of people want us to call the introit or processional hymn the "gathering song." This is just plain wrong. We gather at a baseball game or for a staff meeting. Gathering is mundane and liturgy is anything but.

So what direction should we go toward convey the mysteries in a way that is truly fitting? Interesting sounds, smells, and visuals can make a huge difference. We don't encounter incense in the profane world. We don't see spectacular vestments. We don't hear plainsong and chant. We don't usually hear music that is "unplugged" and created by the human voice alone unaided by electronics.

One of the most effective means toward reintroducing the sacred is to sing what is otherwise usually treated as a pure text.

You can easily compare the difference. Read this text aloud: "Bless and approve our offering; make it acceptable to you, an offering in spirit and in truth. Let it become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ, your only Son, our Lord."

Now listen to this: here.

The sung prayer is not difficult. In fact, I've never known anyone who couldn't do that with a bit of practice. It is simple and beautiful, and very elegant, even noble. And what effect does that have on those present? It heightens attention. It causes you to listen more carefully. It conveys that sense that something very special and unusual is happening. The meaning of the words is no longer something you can just tune out. It doesn't wash over you as a non-event. You feel intrigued, engaged, drawn in. In a word, it abolishes boredom.

It is a first step, not the whole answer. But in my view, it is a essential step, something not to be reserved for Easter or Christmas but something to be heard every week or every day. For that matter, if the liturgy were sung this way--as the Church has long encouraged--Catholics would be more likely to invite their friends to Mass, and then those friends understand why you go week after week. They might not "get it" but they are clued in that Mass is momentous.

In this simple way, a sung Mass can make the difference between a dull liturgy and one that is infused with a sense of sacred. And there is only one person who can make it happen: the celebrant. The responsibility is on him.

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