Search This Blog

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Participation as Sacrament, Part 1

This short series of posts will be a recreation of the lecture I gave on November 23, 2017, at Kings College, University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, the annual Christ the King Lecture in the Veritas series. Rather than put it all in one post, I'll divide it up for easier reading. The title of the lecture as advertised was, "Participation: It's Kind of a Religion with Me." 

I began the talk by quickly teaching and singing (in parts) with the attendees "Uyai Mose," the Zimbabwean praise song by Alexander Gondo, collected and arranged by John Bell. I taught it by rote to give anyone who was not someone who regularly sang in choir or even in church a chance to do so, in the hope that it would give a glimpse forward toward what I wanted to say. Here's the rest of the talk.

Part One -- Singing as a Sacrament

Thank you to the University of Western Ontario, Christ the King College, and all the people who
have been working to see this night would happen since last fall: Fr. Michael Bechard, Melissa Nichols, and Deacon Jim Donovan Panchaud. Thank you for holding my hand across the 49th parallel to bring us to this night.

I got the idea for the title of this talk from a documentary on the life and career of Pete Seeger called “The Power of Song.” It was part of PBS’s series called “American Masters,” and was eye-opening as to the vocation of this man who traveled the countries of the world like a bee going to flowers, dropping off songs here and picking up songs there, cross-pollinating the world with music and with the experience of singing other people’s music together. While he was not alone in this endeavor, we owe to Pete Seeger the popularity of South African songs like “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)” and the Cuban “Guantanamera,” as well as the once-ubiquitous folk mass song from the African Gullah spiritual of southeastern American slaves, "Kumbaya." He said, as part of an interview in The Power of Song, “I've never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in – as a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it's kind of a religion with me. Participation. That's what's going to save the human race.” More recently, John Bell, the minister of the Church of Scotland whose home base is the Iona Community, has done much the same kind of work as a musician in churches around the world, bringing congregational singing to congregations on every continent while collecting hymns from them and making those available as well around the world, like the song we just sang, the Zimbabwean song in Shona, "Uyai Mose."

I have a simple thesis I’d like to explore with you tonight, and that is this: that participation in worship, particularly participation in singing, has so much in common with sacraments that it can be described as sacramental. In fact, Roman Catholic documents on liturgy describe music as “integral” to liturgy, and I take that to mean, in its Latinate sense, that it is part of the “whole” of liturgy, that without it, liturgical worship is something less than complete. I would like to lay out a few pieces of that thesis in the context of my own life as a songwriter and musician for the church, because that’s all I have to talk about. (Footnote: my name and “lecture” have never before appeared in the same sentence except ironically, or when my wife says, "Rory Cooney, don't you lecture me." I actually asked my hosts if they had the right person. There’s another Rory Cooney who is well known in the field of veterinary medical biology, especially Irish cattle. I thought they meant to call him.) So I just want to talk about the experience of growing up singing in church before the 2nd Vatican Council, then discovering the liturgical reform while spending a few unenlightened years in the seminary (Footnote: actually eight years, high school, novitiate, and three years of college—I made a hasty departure shortly after they explained to us what celibacy was), and finally coming to embrace songwriting and participation in liturgy as a vocation.

After a little bit of that, I’d like to explore with you a few examples from my own writing to demonstrate the dynamic I’m talking about, that is, how does worship music and participation in singing specifically get us to behave in sacramental ways? Then I’ll make a few closing remarks on the wider meaning of sacramental, that is, how these sacramental actions point us not to the church but to the project God is bringing about in the world, what Jesus called the “kingdom” or reign of God, though those words don’t do the reality justice, and may in fact hide more information than they reveal, even lead us astray a little. I think i can make myself clearer as we go along, but one thing at a time.

So what do I mean by a sacrament? Well, sacrament is a religious word for a specific kind of symbol. We talk about sacraments as being symbolic actions that represent invisible realities, actions that in some way have their origins in the actions of Jesus, and thus represent the work of God in the world. But these signs are more than representational signs, like a stop sign or an “open” sign. Neither accomplishes anything - a stop sign doesn’t make us stop; a sing may say “open” and the store may in fact be closed. but liturgical signs, or sacraments, rehearse us to act in ways that not only represent and remember the actions of Jesus, but in some unseen and yet real way “effect what they signify.” In other words, communal singing in liturgy, in its many forms, really does do something other than organize sound. It also does something more than actually get us out of ourselves, more than get us to do something together, usually without fighting (much). It does something more than help us experience ourselves as part of a whole that is greater than ourselves, and greater than the sum of its parts. Because by doing all of those things and more, singing allows us to participate in God’s work of transforming the world. Through a strategy of labor, discipline, shared breath, listening, and a lot of joy, singing together is a pathway of deliverance from the isolation that keeps us apart and the idol of specialization that makes us think we’re not good enough to sing, we don’t have a singing voice, and that only professionals should be allowed to join in the song.

Ultimately, this is borne out in the witness of the prophets who assure us that the noise we make in the temple is cacophony anyway unless we’re making noise in the streets, in the markets, and in the courts on behalf of those who are powerless. The Amos and Isaiah don’t say, “Stop singing” - they say that the singing, incense, and all the praying and reading we do together don’t amount to anything unless we’re committed to solidarity with the cry of the poor. "It is mercy I desire," says the Lord, "not sacrifice." The demand of a sacramental theology in Christian life is that we never lose sight of that aspect of what we’re up to: we’re not in it for the fun, it’s not our game. We’re called to participation in God’s project, and if we’re going to “hallow thy name,” worship the God of Jesus, through him, with him, and in him,  in union with the Holy Spirit, we’d better not forget who this God is. God does not need or want flattery, no matter how artful and sensually beautiful, from sycophants. God wants actors on behalf of the underprivileged, collaborators for the stateless, homeless, and forgotten. God lets us use a bath, a meal, and community song to form us and get us there and sustain us. But it’s all of a piece. Like love and marriage in the old song, you can’t have one without the other.

Let me come back to this at the end of this talk, but let’s spend a little time singing through some music, and let me tell you how this all came to be in my life.

I’m 65 - grew up going to Catholic grammar school in the early 1960s. The CSL was promulgated when I was in 6th grade. I sang in boys choir and mixed choir – with men, that is – and learned the chant masses along with simple 2 part polyphony that came from the old hymnals like the St. Basil and St. Gregory hymnals. In minor seminary between 1965-1969 in the conservative archdiocese of Los Angeles, hardly friendly to the liturgical changes, we sang chant, organ masses like those of Noel Goemanne and John Lee. But we also started to sing music out of the “Peoples Mass Book,” music by Stephen Somerville and Omer Westendorf and of course Lucien Deiss. And we started singing popular songs with changed words, like “And I Love Him,” about Jesus, and others. Being in the Vincentian community, the community of Hannibale Bugnini, we had some freedom from local ordinaries, even Cardinals, which also suited us well when I went to seminary college in Missouri, where the ordinary was John Carberry.

I tell you all of this because i think my experiences skirting the borders of musical orthopraxis and heteropraxis is a pretty common story. Somewhere along the line, I think it was my association with the Composers Forum for Catholic Worship beginning in about 1970 or 1971 when I began to realize that it was really all right to reimagine the music of the psalms and liturgy in musical idioms that my comrades and I were familiar with, and I began doing so with a few others in my class, informally critiquing one another and learning our craft by the success and failure of our work.

But keep trying to see all of this in terms of eliciting participation. The rubric for liturgical reform Sacrosanctum Concilium was actuosa participatio, translated as “active participation,” or as the whole phrase “full, conscious, active participation.” Whether it was introducing songs people knew that “sounded religious” without even being written as sacred music, for instance, “Blowing in the Wind,” Bob Dylan’s civil rights anthem, or “Day by Day” from Godspell, a theater piece based on a prayer by St. Richard of Chichester, or my rewriting of words to the Carpenters’ song “Crescent Noon” to a text about salvation history, all of it was in service of an urge, a momentum, a desire that we all felt was instilled in us by the Holy Spirit to sing together, and invite others into the song. Of course we made a lot of mistakes along the way in our ardor and enthusiasm, but we found our way.
that emerged from

Part Two: Who sings, and how?