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Saturday, June 1, 2013

"Liturgy" happens

Sometimes, the randomness of what happens at Mass on Sunday (or whenever) really gets to me, especially when it isn’t random, but perpetrated by people who should know better. But I think liturgy still happens. My friend Chris McConnell, who teaches liturgy and knows it way better than I do, gives me the impression that, while he also doesn’t suffer liturgical foolishness gladly, what happens in the prayer of the Church is not what’s supposed to happen according to the rubrics, but what actually does happen when the Church gathers: rubrics, brickbats, Rube Goldbergs, rhubarbs, and everything else that happens. This is consoling in a sense, and makes perfect theological sense. No matter how stupid, sinful, willful, arrogant, hurt, blubbering, or manipulative I am, I can’t stop God from being God. Because, I suppose, the heart of what happens in liturgy isn’t what we are doing, but what God is doing. We can pour the water out of ugly, misshapen vessels, as Francis Collins points out in his lovely book The Language of God, but the water itself is divine. I suppose I would be more restrictive than that in my analysis, and concur with “Music in Catholic Worship” that “good celebrations foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken and destroy it.” (par.6) But then we would get into the whole “good-bad” thing, and frankly, like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, I’m a little hazy on that. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

But stuff happens. Just a few examples of the kinds of things that can drive a guy crazy in my business. Once, on Trinity Sunday, a priest insisted that at the end of the homily, before the intercessions, a duet be sung at “his mass” from the musical Wicked, the song “For Good.” There’s the funeral where there are four or five eulogies, not including the eulogistic homily, where the liturgy explicitly forbids even ONE eulogy. There is the mass at a conference, at which the priest is a well-known author, who makes the sign of the cross at the beginning of the liturgy and includes the Blessed Mother in the Trinity. There’s the smaller stuff, too - clueless readers at weddings and funerals who chew gum while “proclaiming” the scripture, funerals which use gospel readings for all three readings (in the name of “compassion”), the priest who allows not one but two funeral masses on a holy day when these are expressly forbidden (again in the name of compassion, “how-dare-you”ing me for questioning his decision and authority in the matter). I’m not even surprised any more when a priest weaves his homiletic material into the Eucharistic prayer, as though what he thinks or has to say is more important than the ritual language of the Church.

I understand that there is no unanimity on this music business, and it can be a lonely job dedicating your life to worship music in a self-indulgent culture that is hell-bent on living in emotional adolescence. There are music directors out there who, with no other authority than their own choice, have decided that it’s all right to use music other than music written for prayer at sacramental celebrations. This isn’t news to you, I’m sure - you’ve certainly been to Catholic weddings where someone sings something from Phantom of the Opera, or Titanic, or the latest Faith Hill love ballad. The thing is, however you slice it, there’s no foundation for any of this in any of the liturgical documents we have. There’s no tradition of it in the Church. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon. It was probably born of the vacuum in the late 1960s through 1980 of music that fit the newly discovered meaning of the liturgy in the vernacular. It was possible, finally, for lay persons to feel something in the liturgy, love for other people, love for God, and yet there weren’t any musical ways to express this, so to fill the void we (yes, I) took music from Broadway or wherever we could find it that expressed some of these things. As the years progressed through the 80s and 90s, there was more and more liturgical music that gives us a much wider vocabulary with which to express human longing for God and true community in the rich variety of sacramental and non-sacramental moments of prayer.

Somewhere along the way, I made the decision to try and follow the rules, not rigidly, but confident that if the people I served as music and liturgy director could experience the variety and power of ritual music that I had experienced there would be no need for the perfectly good but geographically inappropriate music of the theater and pop concert in church. So over the last 19 plus years I’ve been at St. Anne’s, I’ve gently told four hundred or so brides about the fact that sacramental celebrations call for sacred music, I’ve created opportunities for them to hear more appropriate music, and, wouldn’t you know it? They bought it! And even though St. Fidgeta’s up the street and St. Cunnegunda’s downtown will play all the pop music they want, they still come to St. Anne’s and have liturgical music at their masses.

Let me be clear: I like Broadway music. I go to shows when I can, and listen to the scores just for the fun of it when I can’t. I just try to make the point that a ballad from Spring Awakening is no more appropriate in church than it would be to play “Ave Maria” for the couple’s first dance. When you put it like that, they seem to understand. The song from Wicked was done nicely by wonderful singers. But it doesn’t belong in the liturgy of Trinity Sunday, and doing it was pure clericalism, especially after I was so specific with this priest about why it was inappropriate and how I’ve told hundreds of brides “no” about the same thing.

In the late 60s and early 70s, when no one really knew any better, we did a lot of goofy things. In brief defense of those who do goofy things now and to put this whole thing in a context that maybe has a more global and eternity-relative view, those of us who did those things, many of us anyway, are no worse for the wear, and came around to seeing things differently, and are working toward creating good worship music for the liturgy. I can remember not just singing marginally religious folk must in those days (Day Is Done, Blowin’ in the Wind, Weave Me the Sunshine) we even sang Beatles songs with “fixed” lyrics (“And I Love Him”) and, yikes, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, as well as pop hits like Day by Day, Morning Has Broken, and O Happy Day. So I’m really trying here not to be too over the top. I had threatened, when in the struggle with this priest over the Wicked song, to just absent myself from the whole celebration, but eventually it just seemed like using a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito. It was wildly inappropriate, but it wasn’t the advent of the apocalypse.

I need to keep remembering that at its heart, liturgy is an expression not of anything we can give to God, because there’s nothing God needs that we have. Liturgy is more accurately an expression of what God gives to us, the human race, throughout all of history, made present in our lives in this time and place. The liturgy is Christ made present, and Christ takes all of us up, with all our sinfulness and duplicity and marginal efforts at justice and peacemaking, and carries them with himself to empty himself eternally in love of the Father, who empties himself eternally into Christ. United through baptism in the Holy Spirit of divine love, we become part of that cosmic act of agape, we’re swept into the paschal mystery of the divine life, not because we deserve it or because of anything we can do, but because God has called us to it in Christ.

Once, having lunch with Chris McConnell and Paul Ford on my lone trip to the august halls of St. John’s in Collegeville, we were railing and ranting about this and that aspect of liturgiology, affably exchanging points of view on initiation and confirmation and music and so on, making fun of all the right things, as we liturgists are wont to do. And these two lovely monks were sitting with us at the table, and when one of them spoke, he said something that I’ve found hard to forget, so I suspect that somehow I needed to hear it. He said something like, you have to be less concerned about the church you see now, because you’re too close to it, and it’s too easy to criticize. You have to love the church that you have, of which you are a part, and dream about the church that you want to see ten thousand years from now, and work toward that vision.

Ten thousand years! It’s a certainty that all too often I can’t see the forest of grace for the trees of human stupidity (I’ve got branches and beams in my eyes). All of that having been said, I think that it still matters what we do and don’t do in liturgy. I think it matters that we try to do the right thing, the focused thing, the thing that transcends our individual wants and needs and looks to the good of the whole. I think that ritual matters, that repeated behavior is formative, and so we should pay attention to the details. But the one thing that cannot be lost, should all ritual behavior pass away (and it surely will), is love. Not pandering, not doing whatever the other person wants just to make them shut up or feel better, but trying to be sure that the true good of the other person is put before our own need, even the need to be right. There it is again. It’s so (damned) easy to say, and so hard to do.

But that’s why we have the Eucharist and why we keep doing it - it’s a ritual that helps us rehearse loving, keeps it in front of our consciousness, judging our actions from day to day, week to week. That’s why it’s worth doing right, why we need to try to not add self-indulgent elements to it if can possibly avoid it. It’s about something more than a common meal - it’s about the kind of sharing of life that is so exposed and radically open that it can lead to death. But that death is only the beginning, it’s a part of the paschal mystery. I think, with the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ tomorrow, there will be more to say about that. For now, that’s enough. Keep reminding yourself to do the loving thing. Remind me, too.


  1. A huge "AMEN" to the whole post!! Thanks, Rory!!!

  2. The comment from the "mystery" monk says it all.

  3. I love the whole entry, Rory bust most especially the comment from the wise monk. I needed to hear that tonight!

  4. Finally catching up. This made me think of the quote from Daniel P. Moynihan:
    "You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts."