Sunday, June 08, 2008

In praise of newbies

This past weekend it was my great pleasure to introduce many people at a workshop to Gregorian chant. Call it a superstition if you want but the tradition is to start such gatherings with Veni Creator Spiritus.

This hymn is especially important in my own life because so many years of Pentecost came and went when it was not heard in my own parish. So after some introductory remarks about how to read chant and some small drills, we turned to Veni Creator in the Parish Book of Chant, and we sang every verse.

Somehow I always end up fighting back tears when this song is sung -- it always seems like such a blessing, such a miracle, to actually hear it as if it is a physical thing, the Holy Spirit truly present among us in the form of an arrangement of notes and words that have part of the hearts of Christian believers all over the world and for so long -- just a few notes to connect us in a mystical way to the universal faith, just a few notes to transcend time and place and remind us that this world is a passing thing and that our ultimately reality extends beyond the years that we know into this realm that we know now only in the abstract in our daily lives, and one we miraculously taste and see in the Eucharist, a realm of eternity that knows no time.

How many people have never sung this, have never heard this? At this workshop, I asked for a show of hands. It was more than half. More than half had never heard this, never sung this. These few moments when they sang it for the first time were more spectacular then they knew. They sang a song that saints and martyrs have long sung. It is from the 8th century? Perhaps. Perhaps earlier. With this one action that took only a few minutes they became the echo of vast amounts of Christian experience, singing yet another verse in honor of the Holy Spirit in a song that began with creation and will extend to the end of time.

What if they had never sung this? What if no one sung this anymore? Wouldn't we lose something glorious that is central to the idea of a living faith? Certainly. So it strikes me that if the conference ended with only the experience of this moment, it would have been worth it.

It is a common attitude of novices to the chant that they feel a sense of fear or intimidation, and it is also common among those who know something about the Church's music to take some pride in their knowledge. Neither attitude is merited. All of us as Catholic musicians are on a continuum of ignorance at some level. I feel that way constantly. Even such masters as Mary Berry did too. No matter how much I study and how much I learn, there is always so much more to know. It's not just the case that there is always someone else who knows more than we (I) do. It is even more profound than that. In a lifetime we can only know a fraction of what our tradition "knows" in that higher sense.

This is why it makes sense that that people who are studying the Graduale and singing chant have deep affection for those who have not yet discovered these riches but are on their way. It's because we all know that we are all on a journey to the ideal -- an ideal we can never accomplish with perfection in our lifetimes but one which inspires us all in the direction we should be moving -- and that direction is always toward Heaven, toward that liturgical time when time and eternity meet and touch. Music is an essential part of that travel to the transcendent, and we are all so privileged as musicians to take some part in this.

What the Church teaches is that regardless of circumstances--all else being equal--the Gregorian chant has pride of place in the Roman Rite precisely because it is the sung version of the Roman Rite. Here is the normative standard to which we, as Catholic musicians, should aspire.

On the week following Easter Sunday--the day on which we celebrate the fulfillment of the entire drama of the life of Christ--we sing songs that celebrate those who are entirely new to the faith. These days, in a different context, they are called newbies. So it is with the chant. The more we learn, the more we discover, the more we appreciate and are inspired by those who are just now at the first stages of knowing. May they never feel shy or intimated, and may we never contribute to making them feel that way, but rather find ways of drawing them ever closer to the ideal.

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