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August 24, 2006

Sacred music, part I

It has been observed that it is easier to bash on bad church music than to explain what should be and why.  At the risk of being really boring as well as imprecise, I will take a stab at it. 

In talking about a subject where people have greatly varying opinions it is worth starting out by defining terms so it is probably worth making sure what "sacred" is, and maybe even what "music" is.

Defining terms at the beginning of a discussion is good unless you know that people have already agreed to use them in a specified way.  This is not a nitpicky distinction.  Since most people, understandably, do not sit around thinking about the theory of church music, in many (or most) peoples' minds there is (I think) one major vague and ill-defined category, which ten or fifteen years ago might have been called the "hymn," but that word has been displaced.  When asked to define it, a common response might be "it's what we sing in church."  Clearly more precision is needed.

The first distinction I want to make is "sacred" vs. "profane."  Please for the moment put away your preconceptions of how you use these words in colloquial English speech and think of them in the way I specify. 

"Sacred" means sacer.  That means something that consecrated exclusively for divine use.  It has been removed from worldly use - sacer also means "doomed" - and devoted entirely to God.  Something that is sacred is holy, but not everything that is holy (sanctus), belonging to God or sharing in His attributes somehow, is sacred.  For instance, a layman living in the world is a holy person because he belongs to God and shares in God's holiness through grace, but a nun is a sacred person because she has been not only baptized but specially consecrated entirely and directly to God (anticipating on earth what will happen to both of them in heaven).  This series of musings is on things, not people, though; people are a special case.

The word "profane" in common speech is usually used in a bad sense, like "profanity," but please put those connotations aside and be prepared to use it in its older and more technical sense.  "Profane" means profanus, which means "before" or outside the 'fanum', the sanctuary or temple.  'Profanity' is profane because it is not proper to the sanctuary, but there are plenty of things that are perfectly good that are profane (in this technical sense) merely because they are not sacred.

So for a thought-experiment to practice with, a chalice and a coffee mug are both cups, but a chalice is a sacred cup and a coffee mug is a profane cup.  The chalice is consecrated to the use of holding the Precious Blood.  You would never drink Coca-Cola out of a chalice, would you?  It would be an outrage to do it!  It may even have to be reconsecrated or something.  Not that Coca-Cola is evil or worthless - it has its place.  But the chalice is for divine service only, and it isn't right to put it to profane use.  Likewise, it would be weird to drink the Precious Blood from the coffee mug.  It wouldn't be proper, would it?  It would be sort of like treating the Precious Blood as though it were just an ordinary drink.  You can maybe think of a situation where maybe there is a persecution going on so that it is dangerous for a priest to be caught with a chalice, and then he would have to resort to using an ordinary non-sacred cup because that's better than not saying Mass at all.  But that would be an extraordinary circumstance, not the ordinary.

So so far we have "sacred" and "profane."  Please bear with me for a few more subdivisions.  Suppose the coffee mug has a picture of Jesus on it.  Is it now a sacred coffee mug?  No.  But it does have a religious character which may be valuable (suppose that the picture reminded you to pray during your everyday activities).  So not everything religious is sacred.  So now we have sacred and profane, of which the latter is divided into religious and non-religious.  Of course, just because a work does not have an explicitly religious character is not saying that something is bad.  Take, for instance, Beethoven's 5th Symphony.

So the categories of things are:

  SACRED   |       PROFANE
  sacred     | profane, but with religious character
                |  profane, and not explicitly religious

I haven't even talked about music yet.  Sorry to be so long-winded, but I'm not anywhere near done yet.  There are all different types of music, so I think you can see where I am going with this. 

Posted by Thomas A. on August 24, 2006 at 11:43 AM | Permalink


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hi. I clicked on the link for the Gregorian Chant on Wiki. It says that Gregorian Chant is officially the most sacred music, or something like that. So I think you should bring that up (with source) at some point in your Sacred music postings. Definitions and stuff, you know.

Posted by: Tommy | Aug 25, 2006 4:56:47 PM

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