Friday, October 14, 2016

Musical preaching

I love music. There are a few genres I do not understand or appreciate and pretty much everything out of the 80's has some negative association and so I cannot judge it fairly. But my music taste are pretty diverse.

I like the greats. Palestrina and Josquin. Mozart. I like folk. I like some pop and some country. I like some metal. I like to unwind with loud music turned up (and the curtains closed,) singing and dancing and cooking alone in my kitchen.

One of my pet peeves is when people tell me they like to listen to classical music because it is relaxing. Some of it is, of course. But some of it is wild and chaotic. Some of it is angry or dark. Some of it is sweetly romantic. Some of it is seductive. If I can listen to it while I am going to sleep, it is not good music. Or anyway, it is not to my taste.

I am very emotional about music. I let it affect me. What I want in music is to be taken in. I want to feel. I want to be engaged. Music reaches emotions which are hard to express. Sicut Cervus was not the first piece of music I loved, but it was the first time I gave thought to why I loved it so much. "As the deer longs for water, so my soul longs for you, my God." You can hear all of it. The deer and the water. And the longing. Such a longing. Especially in those opening tenor notes. It is stunning. Palestrina is a genius.

But all my favorites are affective. Bach can make piety exciting. Some pieces, like The Trout by Schubert, give me the same sense of calm as enjoying alone time in nature. Pete Seeger and his proteges stroke my inner social justice warrior. Irish music is fun; rollicking along, but with glimpses of a painful story and an incredible storyteller.

"When you sing, you pray twice."

When it comes to Church music, I have very strong opinions. Liturgical Music can be risky. If we agree that music inspires and elicits something real but hard to grab, we open it up to criticism. Is it emotional? Is the emotion appropriate? What should we be feeling during Mass? Or is it simply enough that the words be theologically sound?

Mass is a sacrifice, but it is a celebration! You are in the presence of the Lord and King, who taught you to pray by calling him Father. It is sacred, but it is also home. What should you be feeling? Awe? Comfort? Sorrow? Joy? Wonder? Liturgical music has the tall task of inspiring what is appropriate even when what is appropriate is paradoxical.

Music shouldn't just carry words, it should inform them. Elevate them. Give them a story or a perspective. Chant, echoing down the halls of history but endlessly present and always appropriate, preaches about inerrant theology. The swinging lilt of a traditional Irish hymn setting is warm and welcoming and very real. An early American march with a rigid building block time signature focuses fellowship and structure; this is who we are and this is what we are doing. The words and the sound echo and reinforce each other.

I am not a snob. I like it all. I like the organ at the shrine and the guitars at the teen mass. So long as the music brings something to the table, I like it. I think that most criticism of contemporary music are strange. What makes a three hundred year old song better than a thirty year old song? In the context of a two thousand year history, the three hundred year old song can't even claim age.

There is a lot of criticism of contemporary Christian music. Critics hear emotionalism or protestantism or happyhappyjoyjoy saccharine. They hear a bounce, empty of theology and covered with syrupy prosperity creed. It is more than an aesthetic preference. It is an aesthetic judgment. Mass is not a pop concert. It is not a sentimental appeal. If you are moved to tap your foot, is the music inappropriate? I hear the frustration, but I don't know where to draw lines.

One of the deepest musical experiences I've had was when an African American choir visited our parish. It was incredible. The layered rhythms and harmonies pushed back against overt and lingering dissonances. It preached pain, but joy too. That music explained joy in sacrificial suffering in a way no words possibly could. I was moved. If you are ever struggling with the concept of celebrating a sacrifice, I cannot recommend this experience highly enough.

Toe tapping is not the problem. Maybe entertainment is. That criticism can apply to any type of music. The job of the cantor is to lead a prayer, not to amuse you during the boring bits, which is good since we cannot all be amused by the same things. Does that mean that if you are entertained the cantor has done something terrible? That seems silly and also makes a hard task impossible.

If sentimental music is not the problem, maybe sentimentality is. The Mass is divine, but it is also human. We are the body. The Church. The people. Through the sacraments, our Lord comes to us, truly, physically and spiritually. We need that. The humanness. He designed us that way. Feelings are part of who we are and not a bad part. We shouldn't shut out out feelings, but we shouldn't let them lead either. They are unreliable and moveable. Appeals to feelings primarily can be misleading. A good artist can make you feel all kinds of emotions. Emotions can wrap untruth in the most delightful packaging.

What we need in liturgical music is pretty straightforward.

Music should be is interesting, but singable. It should be either very old or very new or possibly somewhere in between, but it must not be antiquated or voguish. It should be beautiful, but not entertaining. Well lead, but not performed. Appropriate to the mood of the Mass which is conflicting. It has to be culturally appropriate to a universal church. It should be theologically sound, even the moody bits which can't easily be parsed. We want it to sound good whether or not there is participation from the congregation, but we don't want the congregation drowned out by a blaring sound system. It should elevate, not overshadow. Why can't the music leaders get it right? It seems easy enough.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Mary, my mother, pray for me

My youngest daughter is three. She is a clever thing. You know the game that kids play when they don't want to go to bed? "Mommy! I need a drink! Mommy! I forgot to brush my teeth! Mommy, can you tuck me in? Mommy! I am scared! Mommy..."

Of course you do.  Everyone knows that game. My Becca is particularly good at the game. She usually wins. She climbs into my bed and looks into my eyes, with a three year old's piety and barely whispers, "Mommy, can we just say the rosary please?"

What can I say? I have mixed feeling because I do not love that she is clearly just using the rosary as a particularly effective excuse to stay up late. It that prayer? Can it be?

But I think of my heavenly mother. I think she would indulge the request joyfully, even in the knowledge of imperfect motives. Prayer does not have to be perfect. It rarely is. That is one of the things I love about the rosary. It helps my imperfect prayer life.

I didn't think I had any particular devotion to the rosary until about five years ago. Five years ago, my daughter was in the NICU. Because of her genetic condition, her fingers were fused together. The rosary was a detail of a very difficult time. We had an army of people praying for us and we truly felt God's presence. I cannot describe the calmness or the goodness that we knew, but it was nothing short of miraculous. God was with us in a powerful and peaceful way. People sent prayer cards and Mass cards and relics. We pinned the relics to her pillow. She was intubated, so she was sedated and not moving around a lot. We had those CDs you can find in the backs of Churches, theologians teaching on so many subjects. We used the Magnificat for daily meditation and prayer.

But the rosary was special. My mom gave me her mother's rosary while we were in the NICU. It had smooth beads and it was light. It felt easy in easy in my hands. The beads were small and oblong. The beads fit in Sarah's tiny rosebud hands.

Rosebud. That is the term the doctors used. If you put the tips of all your fingers together your hand forms the shape which can be imagined as a rosebud. That is how her fingers were fused.

I worried about her hands. Children learn by touch. One of the hardest things (there were many) during that time was well-intentioned people demanding that I think about her hands. I knew it was important. I didn't need extra layers of guilt. It plagued my mind even without their concerned advice. People want to help. I guess they thought that this important thing might fall through the cracks in the face of other major concerns. The doctors were concerned about her heart, her brain, her kidneys, her liver, and her lungs. I was worried about those things too, but I am her mom. I was worried about everything. I did not want her earliest sense memories to be sterile and cold. I played music. I sang. I learned infant massage. Touch matters. I fretted about her hands. Her touch. She needed sensory input which would normally just happen. I had to put things in her hands. Nothing fit. I had to be careful not to poke or pinch. Grandmom's rosary beads fit. It was almost a perfect fit, as though that rosary had been made for just that purpose. The small brown beads tucked easily into her hand and she could squeeze. She could feel.

I imagined that she was holding my grandmother's hand.

That rosary gave me comfort. Maybe I was using it as something of a talisman. I wondered, is that bad? I think my Mother in Heaven wouldn't think so. I think she dotes on us and loves us. I think that she was there loving me as I reached out to her imperfectly. Poorly, even. But she heard.

That experience made me feel a certain way toward the rosary as a devotion which I had not felt before. But it wasn't the first time the rosary affected me in a long acting way. When I was a teenager I wasn't sure what I believed. I challenged God and my parents and my educators to prove or at least carefully defend various truths. Mom handled my pushing with a gentle wisdom which she lived and showed by example. Dad handled my pushing with clear and articulate answers.

Cathy was my youth group leader. She handled my pushing entirely indirectly. Together we went to the abortion clinics every week and we prayed the rosary. I wasn't sure if I was Catholic, but the words weren't empty. They were a unified, meditative plea to God for help. I never questioned that he heard. I never questioned that he acted in ways I couldn't see. It wasn't that she avoided my questions, it was simply that the questions and answers were secondary and we both knew it. What we were doing mattered. I rattled off the words. Rote prayer. What about that? My prayer was a repetition of Catholic belief which I was not sure I held. Was that bad?

I don't think Mary thought so. I think she heard my argumentative teen concerns for what they were and stuck by me. I believe she prayed with us and cried with us. I think God heard my imperfect prayer.

I give Mary a lot of credit, I guess. Mary is a mom. She knows. She is listening. She gets it and she hears our pleas in the best possible way. When she prays with us and for us, part of the grace of the experience is that she closes a gap between our imperfect prayer and the deepest pulls of our heart. She brings us to her son, our Lord who perfects us.

The rosary is her gift. For rosebud fingers and challenging teenagers and impious children, the rosary is a lifeline. It is words, when you don't have words. It is meditative and emotional. Joyful and sorrowful, glorious and luminous. The rosary is a loving gift from a mother to her children who are imperfect people likely to mess up everything. 

Church Militant

Proud she stands with her tearful eye on the battle,
her knee falls on the ground
in humble adoration.

She hears the voice of her beloved
and arms herself.
Girded in Truth!
Clothed with righteousness!
Readiness! Faith! Salvation!

Arm yourselves, but be shattered! Arm yourselves, but be shattered.

Agonized and weary
her soldiers lament and
celebrate martyrs.

Glorious. Victorious. Jubilant.
But they did not understand and they were afraid to ask.

Soldiers serving the King. The servant.
“Master, are you going to wash my feet?”

Lord. Your soldiers are ready. Confident. Empowered.
Lead us in battle.
Lead us to battle.
Lead us

She hears the voice of her beloved:
Feed the hungry. Welcome the stranger. Clothe the naked. Care for the sick. Visit the prisoner.

She kneels in dust. She is dust.
But formed. Awakened. Loved.

Proud she stands with her tearful eye on triumph,
her knee falls on the ground
in humble adoration:

Take up your cross.