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September 06, 2006

Sacred Music, part VII

If you're not too tired of my rambling.  Last one, except for the other stuff I'll think of later.

If you read Cardinal Ratzinger's writing about the Mass and liturgy and stuff like that, perhaps you remember that he was concerned about a certain utilitarianist spirit regarding liturgy that he noticed in people.  A lot of people, whether on purpose or not, act like as long as they're doing Catholic liturgy, then how they do it is just a matter of what is the most convenient for them; that they ought to pragmatically "adapt" the celebration to the congregation in fairly fundamental ways.  In doing this, however, they lose sight of the truth that how we pray is vitally linked to what we believe, and so to our relationship with God.  If we have the habit of thinking of the sacred liturgy as something that exists at our convenience, that we can arbitrarily modify to suit our moods and whims, is it any wonder that so many people seem to think of religion, our relationship with God, that way?

Furthermore, this means treating the Mass as though it were just a party or celebration of human origin (which it is not).  Think about the way most people would choose music for Mass, and I bet it's basically the same way they would pick music for a party, only if that party was religion-themed: whether the people that are going to attend will find that it entertains them at the dull spots or livens up their mood.

I thought of some things G.K. Chesterton, that apostle of common sense to the modern man, wrote about the mistakes people tend to make about religion when they lack the guidance of the Church, and since we've covered how liturgy is linked to belief and music to liturgy, I think I can apply it to sacred music. 

He noted that people have a mood and then they want to fashion a creed to fit that mood.  So with sacred music, people have a mood and then they want church music that fits that mood.

He noted that people say they want a religion that is social when they would be social without it, and a religion that is practical when they would be practical without it (and so on).  So with sacred music, they want it to be primarily about them and what they're already like.

He observed that what we really need is not so much a religion that is right where we are right, but a religion that is "right where we are wrong."  So with the music of the Church's liturgy, we need not so much music that helps us with what we already have, that is, music that accurately expresses our moods and entertains us, but music that helps us with what we need - to ascend spiritually into contemplative prayer and participation in the heavenly liturgy.

So often people seem to think of the Mass as though it were some generic and neutral rag doll that one could with equal suitability dress in any sort of clothing.  Rather, the Mass has a character and purpose of its own, which forms the boundaries that attempts at legitimate inculturation must respect, and which should play a role in shaping the culture.  Some music fits with or is adaptable to that purpose and some works at cross-purposes (rather than the purposes of the Cross).  In trying to figure out what music might be appropriate for Mass, how often do people stop and think that there might be music that is <propria>, its own?

Music was never something foreign and extrinsic to the Mass; the reality of the situation is that music was not simply imported from the outside to fill a need - there is music that the faith of the New Testament developed over time for itself to be its appropriate expression - an incarnation, if you will.  The tradition of sacred chant that has been handed down to us from the Fathers of the Church is the heart of this.  As such it should find regular use in the celebration of the sacred liturgy instead of being allowed to fall into disuse. 

While the Church holds up her sacred chant as the "supreme model of sacred music" and the sacred polyphony that came out of the early modern period as well, it would be oversimplifying the Church's position to pretend that the Church holds only these two types as the only permissible sacred music, or that all sacred music must be mere imitation of one of these two types.  However, this does not mean that we can arbitrarily impose onto the liturgy whatever music tickles our ears (even if it's really good music). 

Cardinal Ratzinger, writing on sacred music, said that the beginning of sacred music must be founded in awe, receptivity, and humility that is prepared to serve - only by internalizing and living what the Church's liturgy is about can one even begin to create the music that belongs to it.  He goes on to say that in addition to this necessary beginning the Church puts up two "road signs."  First, the music must find "as a guide for its own message the inner orientation" of the great liturgical texts, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.  That is, the spirit of these prayers must be a guide for the spirit of the music.  Second, concrete examples of music that gets it right - Gregorian chant and Palestrina.

Posted by Thomas A. on September 6, 2006 at 04:58 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: Tommy | Sep 11, 2006 10:42:27 AM

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