Seems like we're having trouble with the post I did yesterday.  Here's a second attempt! 

I am a Vatican II baby.  Which is to say, my life of faith has been entirely under the aegis of the Vatican II reforms.   I grew up with the St. Louis Jesuits, with communion by the hand and under both species, with the English liturgy (did I hear that’s going out of style?).

One thing that means when I come to liturgy is that I look forward to music that encourages participation.  Don’t give me lots of Latin choir solos, Gregorian chant or, for that matter, slow, dour, dirge-like renditions. It’s hardly Amazing Grace if I feel bummed out singing it. 

Bottom line, I go in wanting to sing and sing out strong. 

So, you know how they say sometimes God gives you what you want so realize what you need… well, today I went to liturgy at a parish in the Los Angeles area.  Full congregation, everyone chatting before mass, lots of families, pastor walking up the aisle before Mass greeting people.  Great spirit.

But when it came to the music, I swear, if you had told me that the choir’s water bottles had been dosed with amphetamines, it would have made perfect sense. Imagine the energy (and even more the naivete) of the Partridge Family or the Brady Bunch – actually yes, imagine the Brady Bunch singing "It's a Sunshine Day", but then instrumentalized for Vegas (i.e BIG).  Everything extremely up tempo all throughout the Mass, choir members not only swaying but sort of dancing along at times, repeated calls to “clap along” and a soloist during the presentation of the gifts doing American Idol style trills. (Being in LA, I said a prayer that Simon Cowell might be in the congregation, and might an end to Miss “I want to be Mariah Carey but all I can really manage are the ‘trilling now’ hand gestures.”  My prayer was not answered.)

It was not, as they say, a buena vista.  Actually, it was a poster child for everything the organ and chant Catholics fear from the likes of me – jumbo jets of ALLELUIA, and very little “And let us pray”.

Now, as Jesuits like to recite when they are in complete and total disagreement with one another while having cocktails, and don’t wish to fight -- de gustibus non disputandum.  About matters of taste, there’s no arguing.  One man’s amphethamine-induced jamboree is another person’s holy moment.  (I guess.)

But it’s also true if you push too hard on any part of the liturgy, you really do risk taking the whole ship down.  So here, each time the music would end and a reading begin, it was as though all the heart and hope went out of the room.  And yet the readers were just fine; no Eeyores killing us softly with their tepid despair; they read as well as anyone in your parish or mine.   The problem was rather the context.  The music was SO BIG, so HAPPY!, the Scripture could not keep up.  No spiritual space had been created to listen, to receive. 

So here we are, supposedly coming to be touched by God, and believing that a significant element of that is the readings, and we’re so hyperstimulated, there’s no room for that to happen. 

As David Byrne once sang, “This is not my beautiful house.”  (And also, "How did I get here?")

So, pastors, liturgists, parishioners – if you have a similar experience of the readings not “landing”, you might check the broader context.  Does what precedes the readings actually create a space for people listen? Do you have some significant moment for silence (and, implicitly, settling in)?  And is your music in balance with everything else? 

It really was like this clip from the Brady Bunch Movie (and I'm the terrified guy who just wants to buy his umbrella).

Jim McDermott, S.J.

Comments

Gabriel McAuliffe | 9/15/2010 - 10:53am
Something really hit me with your description: "everyone chatting before mass"; this really sets up this type of liturgy.  Where is the quiet?  Complaints of "No spiritual space?"  Quiet really helps out a lot in that sphere. 

But chatting with one's neighbor inside of church seems to be a must.  What to do?  Cannot we be quiet together?  Isn't that what the parish hall is for?
Tamzin Simmons | 9/15/2010 - 6:56am
Great article and the Brady Bunch clip was a nice touch. I see what you mean: there has to be a balance somewhere. I think everyone would agree that the Mass should be beautiful (or rather aesthetically pleasing in a way that allows for appreciation of the beauty of the great self-giving love that God has for us). It's just a question of how those aesthetics manifest themselves. And the problem is not only that part of the liturgy might be emphasised at the expense of another but also that Catholics on all sides of the musical spectrum can get so worked up about their own aesthetic preferences being the most appropriate ones that the reason why we are at a celebration of the Mass in the first place can wind up being forgotten.  
Winifred Holloway | 9/14/2010 - 4:33pm
I feel your pain.  I haven't experienced a liturgy like the one you describe since the early 80's and it was only a few times.  Luckily, I'm in a parish ( for the last 9 years)where the music matches the scripture readings for the day, not only thematically, but in feeling.  My last parish where we suffered for many years with on again (good) and off again( really, really awful music) had to do with the skill level of the director and the musicians at the time.  They weren't trying for "big" music, they just couldn't sing or they banged away at the organ in the slowest tempo imaginable. Or they chose hymns that were too difficult for congregational singing. I too am a Vatican ll person. ( However, unlike you, I think Gregorian chant would be fabulous.)  We Catholics suffer in oh so many ways.  And this is a pity.  We are at odds over so many things in the Church and I like many others are trying to hang in there. The liturgy should offer us the sacred space that inspires us to stay united  spiritually.