Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Is an Aesthetic Experience Essential?

My fourteen-year-old son wants to be an attorney some day. He wants to wear a suit and tie and cufflinks and use his gift of gab to defend justice, individual freedom, and property rights. He's pretty passionate about it all, including the cufflinks.

Last fall I saw that a well-intended but Bible-based home school coop in our area was offering a course in formal logic using materials from Memoria Press. They offer solid courses in Latin, so I figured I would sign him up. I also happen to know the teacher and some of the other parents, and therefore didn't worry too much that class discussion would be a total disaster. And I was right--the course has turned out to be a good one.

About a week before classes were to begin, however, a slight to moderate panic began to creep in. If any one can hold is own in an argument, even before taking a course in formal logic, it is my son. But I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have him do a quick brush up on his apologetics—just in case. After all, he was one of only two Catholics signed up for the course. I wanted something accessible and not overly academic, but geared toward a defense of Catholic doctrine should an attack come from the thumpity thump of someone well versed in the language of King James.

He and I both decided to take on Scott Hahn's Reason to Believe. It was an accessible and engaging read, even for a teenager. Hahn knows the way other Christians and even non-believers argue and think. In stepwise fashion, he provides the reader with an explanation of how faith and reason work together to create the Catholic mindset. He returns to the Bible to trace the evolution of Catholic doctrine in a systematic way, and gives the would be apologist a toolbox filled with gadgets of all sorts—to fix or fill any leak or hole that might be found in a faulty argument.

The quick brush up was the right choice. Matters of belief have come up in class discussion, and my son has been able to use his own savvy, the tools gained in the course itself, and his knowledge of Catholic doctrine to keep both feet on the ground, not lose his composure, and defend his faith.

Now you might wonder why I'm bringing up this book in this forum. The book isn't about liturgy.

It's because there is something that Hahn says toward the beginning of the book, a simple line that has not left me since I read it. I am paraphrasing here, but he essentially says the following: not everyone appreciates an aesthetic experience. I have been mulling that over in my mind for months.

To most people, especially at Mass, music and the rest of the things that shape their experience there are, well, just there. People take for granted that a cantor will lead them in singing. They take for granted that a priest will know the words for the Consecration. They take for granted that holy water will be a part of the goings-on on Palm Sunday. They take for granted that all of the elements will be in place.

But here's my somewhat cynical take on things: The well choreographed details that add up to an aesthetic experience, and in the case of the Mass, exist to point toward the Sacrifice, if noticed at all, are only really noticed if they are especially dramatic, or different, or pleasing or displeasing to the palate. They are not typically noticed because of their integrity or complexity, much less their subtlety.

I must speak from my experience here. After years of training, trial and error, late night rehearsals and struggling to learn what the Church has asked of me, I have learned what most liturgical musicians learn along the way: perhaps ten percent of people on the pews notice anything about the music at all. Perhaps two percent would ever even think of commenting on what they've heard after Mass. And of this two percent, perhaps half of the people commenting (meaning one percent of all present) might have something to say about it beyond – "that was nice," or "that was too loud."

I don't take it personally. That is just human nature. People respond to their surroundings in predictable ways.

For most of them the music, and these other elements, are just there—a given. Like the clouds on a rainy day, the chlorine in a neighborhood swimming pool, or the smell of gasoline when you're filling up your car's gas tank. If these things are noticed at all, they are noticed because they are slightly more or slightly less pleasant than they were on any other non-notable day.

What would it take for people to take note of chlorine in the pool? Too little, perhaps, because that might mean they would contract a disease and become sick. A hurricane or tornado would bring attention to what is going on in the sky and might pose a threat to their vacation plans, or more seriously, the wellbeing of their families and homes.

What would it take to get people to notice what is going on at Mass? This is the question I am grappling with here. This is what the Church has been grappling with since the early centuries. Things go well for a while, and then something goes awry and people lose their focus. It is not a new problem.

One thing is for certain. Mass-goers today have not been trained to notice complexity. The best of them have been trained to listen to the Word (which is a good thing) and, thanks be to God, believe that Christ is truly present on the altar. That's a good start. But is it enough? If they aren't trained to notice more, to understand or appreciate complexity, is there much hope for a meaningful reform of the liturgy in its outward, artistic expression?

I want to disagree with Scott Hahn, but I'm afraid I can't. He has hit the nail on the head. He is right that some people (but I would go further and say many) do not appreciate it or do not feel the need for it. There is little hope for reform if this remains to be the case.

My sincere hope is that our efforts here and now will change the shape of liturgy in the coming years. I hope all discussions on forums such as this one will bear fruit for generations to come.

Of course it takes discussing, but it also takes doing. It takes your work and mine as musicians, artists, writers, architects, mothers, fathers, teachers, pastors—all of us in our different roles and in ways large and small—to work and pray and make it happen.

The dream of a full return to beautiful liturgy can only be realized when people have been touched to their core by a real life aesthetic experience. A truly aesthetic experience, at the same time complex and subtle, brings about fundamental spiritual change. People respond to their surroundings in predictable ways.

When the time comes that the people demand a beautiful Mass will mean that they have come to understand—at some level—that there is even more to the Mass than listening to the Word and receiving our Lord in the form of bread and wine. That it is the greatest thing they can ever hope to know on earth. Whether they realize cognitively that everything they see and hear points to the Sacrifice is secondary. And I think that's ok.

We can't say when this will happen. I'm not really a cynic. I choose to believe it will.

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