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August 27, 2006

Sacred Music, Part III

Sacred and profane - what is right?

In the early Church, there was a well-developed tradition of sacred music because it had developed out of the Old Testament tradition.  The Psalms are a prime example.  They are sacred texts, with an associated style of sacred music.  It is not that you were forbidden to sing Psalms outside of the actual liturgy (the Mass and the Hours); of course you can sing them on your own to praise God, but what aroused the ire of the Church Fathers (and rightly so) was using them for a profane purpose.  For instance, there was a problem that people would sing them for the amusement of the pagans.  Not to get pagans to pray to God, but basically to entertain them or gratify their curiosity.  This is problematic, because it is putting a sacred thing to profane use.  There is a Psalm about this.  Remember - "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, it was there that we hung up our harps.  For it was there that they asked us for joy, our captors for songs.  O how could we sing the songs of the Lord in an alien land?"  The Psalms are not to entertain the Babylonians, they are to praise God in an act of religion.  That is sacred music.

But although the secular and the profane are distinct, they do not exist in isolation from each other.  The barrier between them is not impermeable, and with good reason.  It is not as though we are religious only in church and totally worldly at all other times; rather, power flows out from the sacred to give life to the rest.  Think about the end of the Mass, when we are given the comission, "ite, missa est," to conform the world to Christ.  This outflowing can be seen in an artistic fashion in music - the more you know about sacred chant, the more you realize how profoundly Western music has been shaped by Gregorian music, in everything from the system of notation to the scales used to construct the music.  You can see it in literature, where biblical themes, language, and allusions inform writing, and in painting and other art forms.  The process can even legitimately go the other way - something sufficiently noble and suitable can acquire sacred usage over time - as with the Latin and Greek languages, the sacred vestments of priests, genuflection, organ music, sacred polyphony, etc, but the two processes are not exactly symmetrical.

Why should the sacred flow out to inform the rest?  Look at Catholic understanding of heaven.  What heaven is is the heavenly liturgy - the communal, corporate, public, supreme act of worship of God.  It is different from liturgy here on earth because on earth liturgy is accomplished through signs - including signs intrinsically efficacious in conferring grace and accomplishing what they signify - but veiled under signs nonetheless, while in heaven it will be by direct and unmediated union with God (so you don't have to worry that it will be boring, uninteresting, or difficult to understand). 

Our life is supposed to be a progression of developing towards and preparing ourselves for heaven.  We start out with zero; then we're baptized.  There's Sunday Mass, of course, but as you progress you can add more and more.  Daily Mass extends the sacred liturgy through the week.  The Liturgy of the Hours (the Divine Office) extends the liturgy through the day. 

Heaven is heaven; we will run and not grow weary, and God will be all in all, but on earth we can't possibly do liturgy 24/7.  Even if you wanted to, you have to admit it's unrealistic.  There's sleeping, and eating food for the maintainance of your body (not just the Eucharist), and obtaining food and shelter somehow, and having marital relations, and sport and recreation, and other things that may be necessary to one's state in life, and which are good in themselves, and which are holy and pleasing to God because they use His creation rightly, which honors Him, but that are nevertheless realities of this passing world and are not proper to the sanctuary.

Thus the sacred has its place, and the non-sacred has its place; sacred music has its place, and music that is not sacred has its place as well.  I'm treating of this because in conversation about this, when this distinction is made, many people get emotional about it and act like I'm attacking the music the music they like for being "not good enough" for church or something along those lines.  So I'm explaining.

P.S. I'll get to the part about specific genres of music soon enough, including Gregorian and other sacred plainchant.  It's nice to see that people are reading with interest.

Posted by Thomas A. on August 27, 2006 at 12:07 AM | Permalink


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'many people get emotional about it and act like I'm attacking the music the music they like for being "not good enough" for church or something along those lines.'

Nice comment.

And so true. I am a Catholic High School Teacher with a Liturgical focus to my work. There is a current debate in the RE faculty about bringing 'U2 songs and songs the kids know and like' into the Mass as liturgical music. [!]

I have been trying to think about how I could counter this line of thinking in a pastoral and effective way...your words are helpful in me moving towards this.


Posted by: Matt Reiner | Aug 27, 2006 8:40:38 AM

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