Search This Blog

Friday, October 12, 2018

The words

I generally prepare the music for our Sunday worship 4-6 weeks in advance, not being like my show-off colleagues who have spread-sheeted their entire 2019 music lists and organized their choir rehearsals through the end of next November. Suum cuique, I reckon, but I don't do anything that far in advance. Last Sunday was the 27th Sunday Ordinary Time, year B, and the liturgy of the word brought us to the gospel about divorce and children that makes (and ought to make) homilists sweat their preparation and squirm their delivery. For the closing song (it could have been the opening song, but we went with something else) I chose to use Lori True's setting of Shirley Erena Murray's cogent hymn text, "A Place at the Table." I had chosen it for its first three stanzas in particular, the first of which announces a hope "for everyone born" there is a place with "clean water and bread,/ A shelter, a space, a safe place for growing," and stanzas two and three speak directly to the "place at the table" for women and men and then children and older people. See for yourself:
For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star overhead,
                and God will delight when we are creators
                of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
                yes, God will delight when we are creators
                of justice, justice and joy!
For woman and man, a place at the table,
revising the roles, deciding the share,
with wisdom and grace, dividing the power,
for woman and man, a system that's fair,
                and God will delight ...
For young and for old, a place at the table,
a voice to be heard, a part in the song,
the hands of a child in hands that are wrinkled,
for young and for old, the right to belong,
                and God will delight ...
© 1998, Hope Publishing Co.

That, all by itself, was wonderful. We don't make a big deal of people staying for the final song. I can't bring myself to ask people to do something that's not part of the rite if they don't want to, but I also don't see any harm in going out singing for those who want to do that. We rarely sing all the verses of the closing song, because even our most avidly musical presiders only stay for a stanza or two, and their departure is a signal to everyone that breakfast (or lunch, or dinner) is just a few minutes away if we can just get to the parking lot and out of here before a stupid Canadian train blocks all the egresses.

But Sunday was also the day after the U.S. Senate voted to affirm the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice to the horror of many and certainly to everyone a source of immense unease after the televised hearings regarding his suitability. Everyone in that church was, in one way or another, impacted spiritually by what happened, and almost nothing was said about it. But what if we had sung verse four of "A Place at the Table," as it occurred to me Sunday morning?
For just and unjust, a place at the table,
abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
in anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy,
for just and unjust, a new way to live,
                and God will delight when we are creators
                of justice and joy, compassion and peace...
Bob Batastini, one of the founding fathers of GIA, has often reminded us that the Roman liturgy is not really hymn-friendly. The liturgy has its own rhythm, perhaps can be envisioned as a series of processions, each of which (excepting the final one) is accompanied by a prescribed text from scripture, or lends itself to responsorial singing with flexible length to accommodate the vagaries of real life. Other music of the Mass is set to specific liturgical texts as well. We might almost say that, most of the time, the only accommodation the Mass makes to hymn singing might be at the entrance chant (i.e., song), and a closing song, if we choose to add one, or instead use a hymn of thanksgiving at the end of communion. Even in those cases, we music directors (and, let's face it, composers of hymn texts and hymns) find ourselves in, let's call it, "creative tension" with both presiders and our assemblies, some of whom, let's face it, are more concerned with the clock than with the logical flow of the hymn text, which may take all five or six verses to unfold. Or eight, say, in the case of "For All the Saints," or ten, in the case of "Hail Thee, Festival Day." I mean, even music-lover Pope Benedict XVI interceded for those who are unmoved spiritually by our musical virtuosity, no matter how moved we ourselves might be moved by it!

It can be hard to make cuts to hymn verses once a person has experienced the joy of the flow of the text composer's idea. But we learn to do it (or inure ourselves to doing it) as we do our job. As a songwriter myself, I have spent years not singing my song "I Am for You" at Mass because I just don't like singing it when it's not possible to sing all five verses. But more recently I've decided, "Well, maybe it's just me; and for crying out loud, I even cut out verses of 'It Came Upon the Midnight Clear' when I have to."

It comes down to one of the adages which I have discerned later in life and which I have come to live by: nothing we do has to be perfect in order to be good. (The other is: don't think that just because it's the best I can do that it's good—or even that it isn't bad.) St. Augustine said something like this: "Don't let perfectionism get in the way of doing good." When we look at the bigger picture, we're not really capable of having a "perfect liturgy" anyway, and not least because not a soul in the worship space is perfect in any way. Our outside life isn't perfect. Our unchurched selves aren't full gospel lives. I guess it's good for us to want to do the best we can, and not cut corners for our own convenience, but hospitality and love actually should preclude us from forcing everyone to endure our own tolerance (or delight, or passion) for long hymns. Over time we can get all those verses in. We can keep encouraging people to read the whole text sometime, even pointing it out in the worship aid, but we don't really need to do all the verses all the time.

The example of last Sunday shows how this can happen. Even though the first three stanzas of "A Place at the Table" jump out at one in the light of the Gospel that was read, the fourth stanza, one that I didn't plan, jumps out at us in the light of what we might call the "word-made-flesh" in the happenings of our country during the preceding weeks. In this case, I decided not to follow my instinct. We didn't sing verse four. First of all, not many folks stay for even three verses at most masses, and second of all, I wasn't sure that anyone besides me would make the connection. So, my bad. If I were in a Presbyterian or Methodist church, I wouldn't have had to make any decision. We just sing all the verses, and nobody goes anywhere. We make choices, right?

I don't know the secret of writing a text that grips peoples' imagination with its ability to point us toward our out-of-church experience and gather it all in with our Sunday experience. I try. I've come at the liturgical music writing career through my love of words and theology. I only write a song when I think I have something to say that hasn't been said, or hasn't been said in a way that I think is important, or maybe hasn't been expressed musically in a certain way. Really, it's the words for me. Almost everyone I know can write musical circles around me. But then I get to the end of writing a song that I think I've done a really good job on, and release it into the world full of hope and good will. I come back to the same song a few years later, and I think, "Good heavens. It sounds just the same as every other religious song. I thought it was unique, but it's barely discernible from anything else out there." I'm not sure exactly how that happens, but happen it does.

Most recently, I wrote a song for the Vincentian (Congregation of the Mission) double centenary, sung at a Mass held at the Old Cathedral near the arch in St. Louis, with a lot of Vincentians from around the country, and some, like the current Superior General, from outside of the country. I had written the song for the entrance, which of course was sort of risky, since you really do want to start a liturgy with something that everyone can sink their teeth into. At the same time, I wanted to make it unique and fitting for the event itself (click back a couple of blog posts to see more on this in my post "The Vincentians and I" from about 9/13/18, or just click here.) As I mentioned there, the Vincentians I know and the Daughters of Charity are some really enthusiastic people, and they have been formed to love good liturgy and music, and they know their musical role. In this case, they were led by a wonderful blended choir from the two Vincentian parishes in the area, St. Vincent de Paul downtown, and St. Catherine Labouré, in Sappington (south county).

What happened was lovely. I had crafted the song so that there were four stanzas in a kind of hymn form that we just started singing, and people joined in as they got the tune. Again, with so homogeneous a congregation, this worked great and folks were really singing by the third or fourth stanza. But I had a failsafe: an eight bar ostinato that we saved for the procession itself. In order to prepare participation on this, I included the ostinato melody in an interlude between the hymn stanzas. By the time the cantor and choir intoned the ostinato, everyone knew exactly what was going on, and we were able to terrace in harmony, instruments, and descants until the gathering ended with an a cappella rendering of the ostinato: I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I hoped, the one who wrote the text, that by this time people would understand that "I" and "you" in the text was anybody, was Christ, was the God of the Jewish bible, was every one of us. We are all both "I" and "you" because we were created that way.

But it's just a song. I'm not even sure if anyone "got" what I was trying to do, or if the text just maybe rang true because it was full of scriptural and Vincentian references. Or not at all! But in the moment of the liturgy, it seemed to ring true. More importantly, the truth of it sprang from the lived experience of the people in that room. My Vincentian friends know that we go to the poor to find God. And when you start from the experience and then go to the song (rather than trying to craft a song or a liturgy to substitute for the experience), that's what happens. Whether the song survives the liturgical experience is pretty irrelevant, as terrible as that is to have to admit. What matters is that  people are living I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

There's no question that a song is a thing of power. It can shape faith or shake faith. The words we use and the music we use have power in them, and what we have to keep remembering is that power in the community of Christ is something different from power as we're used to understanding it. Power in the Christian enclave is service. The strongest power is agape, complete self-gift. I have enough self-knowledge to know that I am not capable of that, and as far as I can tell, won't ever be. So I launch a song and hope that another wind, another breath, will carry it where it needs to go. I hope that ecclesia supplet, that Christ will take my weakness and make some strength out of it. Most of all, I hope that "the words" keep becoming flesh, and that my own flesh and breath will fashion worthy (and not just wordy) words! I want to cling to the conviction that, yes, liturgy, and liturgical music, are important. But the other 167 hours of the week are important too, and for liturgy to be a genuine sign of our lives it has to reflect the change we make in the world, in ourselves, for that outside-the-walls time. Life is important, sharing that life in love is most important of all.

I'm certainly grateful for all my colleagues who do this work, and also for all those who have gone before us and taught us how to write songs and lyrics by leaving some amazing work behind them through the centuries. Millennia, really. In the words of Sunday's responsorial psalm (Psalm 90):

"May the favor of the Lord our God be ours.
Prosper the work of our hands!
Prosper the work of our hands!"