One of my first classes at Conception Seminary College was taught by Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB. Abbot Marcel is known for his great devotion to the liturgy and I was happy to be able to take a course from him. I remember being somewhat confused, however, when he mentioned that Catholics are still in a struggle to create and to find good music for the celebration of liturgy. He spoke to us about the difficulties presented when searching for excellent music in English since the Second Vatican Council’s call for worship that is to be focused more on the vernacular. “What did he mean?” I thought to myself, “we have scores of good songs in English.” It has only been recently that I am beginning to understand what he was talking about.
The first time I remember actually thinking that perhaps there is something amiss with some of the music we currently use in the liturgy was at a meeting with several priests who would gather once a month for prayer and support of one another. Fr. Michael Cummins mentioned to us that he had been looking at the songs in one of the popular Catholic hymnals and had noticed how many songs referred primarily to us as the worshipping community and how few referred to God. His point was that our prayer is meant to be directed toward God, not toward ourselves. I had to admit it was a valid concern. I also had to slowly admit that much of my own criteria for whether or not a liturgical song was good had to do with how it made me feel emotionally. If it made me feel good, it was probably a good song. If it sounded old or like something we sang at mass when I was in elementary school, it wasn’t necessarily bad, but I didn’t like it as much. When the realization came that I was judging liturgical music in the same way I would normally judge secular music, I began to re-evaluate the songs we sing and came to the conclusion that it indeed does matter what we are singing during the liturgy. It expresses our prayer and theology as much as the prayers from the sacramentary, the biblical readings that are proclaimed, or the creed.
This leads me to the point of this blogpost and I must say that I hesitated to write this particular post as there are many in what have been sometimes called “the liturgical police” who take comments like these beyond constructive criticism and into the realm of anger and detraction. Knowing this is the case, I would like to ask the readers of this blog to please add your comments about your experience with music in the liturgy, both positive and negative, but to do so in the spirit of charity. The thing that prompted me to write on this topic was last Sunday’s celebration of the liturgy at St. Thomas. The opening hymn was Gather Us In, a song I have never been fond of, as it strikes me as neither particularly good or bad, but just bland. While singing it this time, however, one line jumped out at me and I have been thinking about it all week. The words we sang were,
Not in the dark of buildings confining,
Not in some heaven, light years away,
But here in this place the new light is shining,
Now is the Kingdom, now is the day.
I understand what is trying to be conveyed by these words, that the Kingdom of God is now and that it is present among us, but I really do believe that the words of the song fail to adequately convey this. We Christians believe that the Kingdom of God is among us and that we do not have to look beyond those gathered in worship each Sunday to find it, but we certainly don’t believe that heaven is “light years away”. The primary revelation of God for Christians is Christ Himself, who in His Incarnation unites heaven and earth. We believe that the Eucharist is also a wedding of heaven and earth, where the faithful on earth are connected to the faithful in heaven. We are not far from heaven when we gather for the celebration of the Eucharist, but closer than we can even imagine. Many times it seems that we easily forget what we claim to be doing when we gather for worship and who we are standing with. Yes, we are gathered with others from our community, but also with an army of angels, with saints who have gone before us, and with God Himself. Annie Dillard has a great description of the liturgy in her book, Holy The Firm:
I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.
I don’t believe that God is waiting to blast us to bits because He doesn’t like the music we sing. But I do think it is important for us to continually evaluate the words we use when we pray, making sure that they are consistent with our tradition and our beliefs. The music we use should be beautiful and reflect the wonder and awe we have when standing in God’s presence. My hope is that over time we can find and create music that will help us to worship more deeply so that we may draw even closer to God and to one another.