Category Archives: Religion

What Do We Say? What Do We Sing?

In the last week or so, I’ve seen tragedy up close and at a distance.  The latter was the dreadful killings in Aurora, Colorado.  The former was a memorial service for a 22-year-old who had committed suicide a week before graduation from college and with no prior indication of distress or depression.

What do we have to say in the face of the tragic and inexplicable?  These are moments for deep truth and deep ritual, not platitudes and syrupy hymns.  What did I hear at Sunday’s Mass about my fears and worries, about personal tragdy and cultural disintegration?  A homily where God was described as “a little night light to keep us from being frightened.”

Let’s take a hard look at the way we act in these moments and what we offer to the dead and the grieving.

What do our rituals say about what we profess to believe?  Are we more than puppies that fall asleep?  Do we live on somewhere other than in the memory of those who love us?  And what about those whom no one loved?  Is there a judgment or do we all head for our own personal versions of Valhalla?   We have over 2,000 years of Scripture, Church teachings, and music. Trite phrases and a four-hymn sandwich are thin gruel inded.

St. Ambrose Recommending the Psalms

“The Apostle admonishes women to be silent in church,

yet they do well to join in a psalm; this is gratifying for all ages and fitting for both sexes. 

 Old men ignore the stiffness of age to sing [a psalm], and melancholy veterans echo it in the joy of their hearts;

young men sing one without the bane of lust, as do adolescents without threat from their insecure age or the temptation of sensual pleasure;

 even young women sing psalms with no loss of wifely decency, and girls sing a hymn to God with sweet and supple voice

 while maintaining decorum and suffering no lapse of modesty. 

 Youth is eager to understand [a psalm], and the child who refuses to learn other things takes pleasure in contemplating it;

it is kind of play, productive of more learning than that which is dispensed with stern discipline.”

St. Ambrose, On Psalm 1



Dynamic or Dreary? What Brings Chant to Life?

Yesterday I listened to a recording of the monks of Glenstal Abbey singing the Lenten hymn Attende Domine.  It was a revelation!  Instead of the usual dirge-like style I associate with this hymn (well heck, it’s supposed to make you feel penitential, isn’t it?), there was a wonderful hopeful quality to the singing.  The chant rolled forward with assurance.  And thinking about it later, that seems quite right since we all know that Easter comes every year after Lent.

When people learn that I focus on chant, they often look stricken – as though I’d announced a chronic medical condition.  They murmur sympathetically that it’s dreary, gloomy, boring, slow, leaden, whiney, depressing.  You probably get the drift.  And as I hear chant in some churches that I visit in my travels, I understand where they’re coming from.  It sounds as though the singers are dragging themselves through the music, earnestly slogging from neume to neume.  There is an almost audible sigh of relief from the congregation when the suffering ends.

What’s missing?  Familiarity and love – that’s what! 

If the singers don’t really know the piece, they’re bogged down in simply securing the right notes, coordinating the words, and hoping for the best.  There is no space for communication with the Almighty in this process.  Everyone’s just “staying alive.”  Under-rehearsed singing is the enemy of beauty, confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about chant.  If a particular chant isn’t ready, don’t do it!  If it’s “feast-specific” and that means you’ll have to wait a year, then substitute something you can do well and wait. 

More importantly, it is love that brings the grace to chant.  Many people sing chant with a sense of duty or because they dislike contemporary church music.  Their chant may be well-rehearsed and accurate, but will it really live? 

Here’s an experiment. Find a single chant and fall in love with it.  With the text and the music. You may have to try a few to find the one for you.  And you may need only a phrase.   Roll around in it as a musical lectio. See what the chant can show you when it’s more than getting from beginning to end with a minimum of errors or exercising your powers of chant theory. 

Love makes music spring like a fountain from within the singer. Love knows the object of her song and moves eagerly to the encounter with the beloved.  Without love, there is no music – just organized sound.

(Where did I hear the recording from Glenstal Abbey?  Pray-As-You-Go  – the wonderful mp3 music, reading, and meditation brought to you by the English Jesuits.  An excellent way for the flighty and busy to turn commute time or early morning into something better than checking Facebook.) 






After the Colloquium, Now What?

This year’s annual CMAA Summer Colloquium was a wonderful range of experiences:  chant courses ranging for total beginners through advanced sessions on semiology, polyphonic choirs with offerings ranging from Lassus through Elgar, six splendid Masses in the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms, up to and including a Solemn High Mass for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul celebrated by Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth, Secretary of ICEL.  Not to mention some excellent homilies in the course of those liturgies. Along the way, there were other events – an organ crawl around Temple Square, a concert by the spectacular choir of trebles and men of the Cathedral of Madeleine, a Solemn Vespers in the Extraordinary Form,  lectures, dinners, and enough time to talk with old friends and meet new.  And the breathtakingly beautiful Cathedral of Madeleine was another star!

The resulting effect is a retreat cum conservatory workshop cum family reunion – with the charming exception that the “family” in question keeps growing.  Definitely a wonderful week – a week of promise, spiritual and musical exaltation, and singularly lacking in the rancor that can poison the sacred music world.

But then there’s always “coming home.”  Anyone who’s ever arrived back from a retreat filled with a zeal for sainthood, resolutions of charity and kindness, daily Mass attendance, etc. knows how easy it is to find yourself right back where you started.  A colloquium can engender the same discouragement – so many things to do, so much music to be revived and presented to generations that have never heard it, so many ways in which one’s own choir could shine brighter.  But then you bump into the old reality. Whether it’s a new coffee stain on the carpet or a lackluster liturgy, the effect can be quite discouraging.  The temptation to shrug my shoulders, sigh, and do nothing new is overwhelming.  My visions seem no more accessible than the angels on the vault of the Cathedral.

After all, many of us live surrounded by indifference.  Indifference is pernicious and ennervating. It is harder to resist than active hostility because there’s nothing to push back against.  Whether the indifference is to our faith, our vision of music and liturgy, our zeal to show beauty as a path to truth – it doesn’t matter.  Most people have nothing against your pursuing whatever crackpot scheme (in their view) you have in mind.  Just do it quietly, please.

Well, maybe not this year.  Sifting over the past week’s experiences, I think I shall isolate one single thing – one project, one piece, one arena, one “whatever” – and follow through.  Stay tuned.  And if you were there in Salt Lake City, I encourage you to join me in this endeavor.

Whitsunday Poem by Dom Mark Kirby, OSB

“Wait,” you exclaim, “that was last week!”  No matter – I just came across the poem today.  And the Holy Spirit is ever present.  Especially on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.

I dare to quote a bit here.  But promise me that you’ll follow the link – and also learn about the new monastery in Ireland. 

Today, even where there is nothing good
Goodness elects to dwell;
and where there is nothing holy
Holiness makes a tabernacle,
so that the broken, the sad, and the powerless
find their voices to sing: Alleluia!

Sacred Architecture Journal

If you’re interested in beauty, art, history, religion, or liturgy, you can’t not read this journal!  (I love that double negative construction I just used.)  Sacred Architecture is a fantastic read – at times heartening, at times sobering – and always intriguing.  Articles are accessible to the non-specialist and very well-referenced for those who wish to pursue any topic further.  Musicians tend only to pay attention to the space around them in order to complain about acoustics, lighting, or a lack of outlets. 

Well, the visual and the aural are not mutually exclusive. Their interplay in liturgy is the highest form of art and drama.  So why not add this dimension to your considerations?

It’s also fun to read!

While there is an archive of older articles, I encourage you to shell out the modest subscription price – that keeps the advertisers happy, encourages the editors, and, like it or not, shows that you think this is important.  At $9.95/year, it’s cheaper than lunch.

Ascension Thursday

Yes, my famous Pet Peeve was rattling in her cage this morning, tossing her water bowl in aggravation at the shifting of this solemnity.  Forty days, forty years, forty anything MEANS something.  Try Googling this and you’ll find lists of all the “40s” in the Bible.

And of course, the Pentecost novena (i.e., nine-day prayer) has become a seven-day prayer.  Not to mention the severing of the connection with the Jewish feast of Pentecost, commemorating the giving of the Law on Sinai 50 days after the Exodus.  (Connect the dots between the Exodus and the Resurrection.)

The faith is more than Sundays – if it’s 24/7/365, I think we can work something out for Thursdays.

Is Evangelization More Than a Word? Finding a Door to the Heart

Catholics hear regular calls to evangelize, to undertake the “New Evangelization,” to share the faith, especially during homilies.  And then what? 

Don’t worry, it will be back to business as usual in no time.  And sadly enough, in many parishes, “business” and “busyness” seem to be the main activities.  As staffing has grown, large churches function as small non-profits and bureaucracies full of meetings, planning, staff evaluations, and stewardship (aka fundraising).  The customer base is the pool of existing parishioners who are served offerings of volunteer opportunities, youth get-togethers, occasional educational events, in addition to the core work of the Roman Catholic Church which is preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments.  Sadly, the last two often seem to get the most perfunctory attention, with budgeting that focuses on bringing in the cheapest music, tiki-torch-like candles, and newsprint missals.

Yes, I know there are exceptions and I’m grateful for them.

But what about the world outside the door (or the parking lot, if you’re out in the burbs)?  If you knew nothing about the Catholic Church and wandered in on a Sunday, what would you see and hear?  Would it be beautiful?  Would it be compelling?  Would you know that this faith is the door to the only true happiness and to eternal life? Would it tell you that this is an institution founded by Christ Himself that has perdured through two millennia?  What would you see of the splendid art, music, and liturgy that centuries of faith created? Would you want to know more if you came knowing little or nothing at all? 

I’m not so sure.  How much of our time is spent in the proverbial “preaching to the choir”?  Or those who used to be in the choir?  While I applaud every outreach to disaffected Catholics, as a convert I think of all the people with whom I’ve worked and performed and studied who won’t give Christianity a first glance, let alone a second look.  They’re not going to listen to Catholic radio or watch EWTN.  We have to find another door into hearts and minds that have written off the Gospel as irrelevant and probably something that will ruin their lives.

It’s happening, but not inside the closed corporation that many parishes have become.  People like Barbara Nicolosi read the signs of the times and bring talent and high production values to their work.  As Dostoevsky said, “Beauty will save the world.”   He said that in a world where the Russian intelligentsia were happy to follow any ideology as long as it wasn’t Christianity. 

It’s time to say it again and to create and show the beauty that cannot fail to find a home in the human heart.  Excelsior!




The Last Divine Office – A Great Read

The Last Divine Office:  Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  Geoffrey Moorhouse takes on the dissolution of the monasteries of England through the prism of Durham Abbey.  (This just happens to be one of my favorite places in the world.)  If you were ever inclined to a moment’s sympathy for Henry VIII or Thomas Cromwell, you’ll be cured by the time you finish the book.  Rapacious, cruel, and thuggish are three words that come to mind.

Moorhouse also paints a fascinating picture of late medieval English religion, both the good and the bad points.  So it’s a nice book to put on your shelf with Eamon Duffy.  Not too long and hard to put down.  Highly recommended.

(Can you guess that I used to write library book reviews in another life?)