By Sam Keyes
Three times now in an introductory course on sacraments and liturgy, I’ve asked students to reflect on a playlist of Church music that I assembled for them. To do such a thing at all challenges many of their assumptions, making an implicit claim: that music is not a merely ornamental, optional aspect to Christian worship; that to understand liturgy and prayer we also need to engage with the Church’s tradition of song.
Perhaps there is a certain type of Anglican or Eastern Christian who understands these claims intuitively, but for many Christians in the Latin tradition (including Catholics and most Protestants), it’s a difficult pill to swallow. After all, isn’t the real substance of Christian worship just the encounter with God (whether we conceive of that in sacramental or psychological terms)? Aren’t other things, like music and architecture and incense, extraneous to what ultimately matters? If, as Catholics believe, Christ is really, truly, and substantially present on the altars of the Church, why should we fret if the music isn’t quite what we would like or is simply absent altogether?
These instincts aren’t wrong. I suspect in fact that they are experientially important to a great number of ordinary Catholics who have trained themselves over the last several decades to ignore bad music (or bad preaching, or ugly buildings) because, you know, Jesus is here. And they’re right: our Lord’s eucharistic presence and his gifts of grace do not cease to operate because we replaced choirs with operatic cantors singing songs that sounded good for maybe a week in 1972; they do not cease to be valid because a priest treats the Eucharist like kindergarten show-and-tell time. To put it very personally, it was only when I learned this lesson — when I finally learned to put aside my well-rehearsed and deeply-ingrained aesthetic and ritual snobbery — that I finally felt that absolute conscientious need to be in full communion with the See of Peter.
But we have perhaps taken the lesson too far. Surely that has been another temptation in Coronatide — to tell ourselves again that what we are missing isn’t really the integral substance of Christian faith and life. But I wonder if this too is a kind of self-deception (like my delusion that no one singing bad music could be truly Catholic). There is such a thing as whittling down the Christian life to such barebones essentials that we lose touch with the fullness of what we have been given. Even in the beginning, it has rarely (perhaps never) been merely the gospel proclamation that spreads the faith. It is the gospel proclaimed and lived in concrete terms, which does of course mean all the ethical and moral visibilities of Christian life, but also the saturation of the gospel into the full range of human experience.
In any case, when my students listen to the playlist, they have a series of predictable reactions. Some of them ooh and aah over the kind of traditional music that they love but rarely get to hear in Church. Some of them say that it’s not their cup of tea and they’d rather just listen to heavy metal, even if they wouldn’t want that in Church. What strikes me as most interesting though is the regular group of students who focus on a set of distinctions within the playlist for what they think is or is not appropriate for Mass.
So, for example, I’ll hear about how great Gregorian chant is (and I agree), and how certain kinds of simple polyphony are okay too, but other things — say, virtually any choral Magnificat written for the English prayer book tradition — are “distracting.” For some students, basically anything in English is distracting. For some, anything with organ is distracting. For others, it’s anything in Latin, anything with too many parts, anything that’s too noticeably beautiful, anything that’s too flawlessly performed and therefore more suitable to a concert. Perhaps the most commonly criticized piece on my list is Jonathan Dove’s anthem, “Seek Him that Maketh the Seven Stars,” one that I could honestly listen to all day. For 90 percent of my students, this piece sounds too showy, too exciting, too technically demanding — and yes, too “distracting.”
Here’s another version of that piece.
It turns out that, for many of these cradle Catholics, that which is ultimately appropriate for liturgy is what is not “distracting.” From what? Perhaps from the central action of the liturgy itself — the offering of the unbloody sacrifice. (Though, again, this doesn’t make as much sense if we’re talking about the divine office, which is a completely foreign experience for most of them.) But more and more, as I’ve given this assignment, I suspect that “distraction” means something fully subjective: it is distraction not from the ultimate purpose of the liturgy, but from the interior private devotion of the faithful. So a piece is “distracting,” and therefore inappropriate, if it draws attention away from one’s quiet contemplation of the divine mysteries. No wonder so many of my traditionally-minded students prefer Gregorian chant and Latin: rather than actively edifying or uplifting, it simply provides a kind of useful backdrop for what they perceive is the real action of the liturgy: their own internal devotion and conscious participation in the eucharistic sacrifice.
I ought to say at this point that I do agree that there are some kinds of performance that really do not belong in Catholic liturgy. Pope Benedict XVI sums up some of these problems nicely in his chapter on music in The Spirit of the Liturgy. Especially at the turn of the 20th century, it was important to distinguish liturgical music from the kind of popular entertainment found in Italian opera. It’s not a stretch to say that a several-minute virtuosic exposition of a single liturgical word — e.g. in the opening movement of Bach’s Magnificat — with full orchestral backdrop, is not especially suitable for the liturgy, however beautiful it may be in its own right.
Still, shouldn’t liturgy “distract” us in some ways? What is the purpose of a soaring gothic cathedral if not to distract us from earthly concerns and draw our hearts towards heaven? We can, of course, argue endlessly about various music styles and whether or not they accomplish this spiritual aim — such things will be inevitably contextual and difficult to define in absolute terms. But we ought to be wary of an approach to liturgical music that makes it merely ancillary to the “real” participation of interior contemplation. To music we can apply the same principle frequently used to explain ritual prayer: praying straight “from the heart” is of course good, but the heart needs to be properly formed. Extemporaneous and personal prayer has a kind of paradoxical relationship with the prescribed prayers of a particular ritual tradition: we can never really pray “from the heart” until the heart has become one with the Church; we can never become one with the Church if we do not offer our own hearts.
Just so in music. It is not enough that music provide a quiet background support for the real action happening in our heads. It is not enough that it bolster the feelings that we already feel. Sometimes it needs to bring us out of our heads. Sometimes it needs to make us feel new things. Perhaps this risks drawing attention to things like technical expertise — but this is a risk present everywhere (like in good preaching, good architecture, even good public reading of Scripture). It may be that once we let ourselves notice the technical brilliance of a musical performance, we can move on to why that performance is being offered, as well as the value of the music in itself.
Do we get “distracted” by a well-cooked supper because it somehow takes away from the delight of human fellowship? I don’t. I think it’s wonderful. Do we get “distracted” by a well-formed candelabrum? Maybe. But more likely we notice it and then recognize that it is a beautiful offering to the worship of God that is, in fact, our act worship. Participating in liturgy doesn’t mean that I have to do everything all by myself. Liturgy is a kind of concert effort. It’s not merely the collection of individual psychological efforts.
Praise God that a choir can sing a Palestrina Mass. Praise God that they can sing a delightfully joyful Magnificat. Praise God that the Church and her music can “distract” me from the cares of my own experience and draw me closer to the life of heaven.
The Rev. Dr. Sam Keyes is professor of theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, California and a transitional deacon in the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.