Posted tagged ‘liturgy’

Ritual for a feeling

July 14, 2008

Have any of you been following the Sally Quinn affair? I had not heard about it before – but I found my way to the Washington Post’s religion section “On Faith.” Almost all the panelists there are describing, defending, or otherwise commenting on fellow panelist and non-Catholic Sally Quinn and her reception of Holy Communion at Tim Russert’s funeral. Since I have not really followed it, nor do I want to make any snap judgements, I only want to focus on the piece “Rituals and the Modern Search for Meaning” by Rabbi Irwin Kula. (It’s the most interesting of the articles – the others are particularly disappointing, and I do feel entirely comfortable making that judgement.)

Rabbi Kula suggests the following:

For people like Sally Quinn, religious rituals and practices are, with the best of intention, resources that can be used to create personal meaning and connection independent of their metaphysical contexts and belief structures. They are personal tools of meaning that one can choose to use as one feels appropriate to deepen one’s own self awareness and one’s own capacity for compassion and empathy. Obviously, from a traditional perspective this transformation of ritual and practice into a personal resource disconnected from any specific religious authority and any particular historic community is offensive and threatening.

In essence, the Rabbi has identified a growing tendency outside of mainline religious beliefs whereby people ‘shop’ around for the rituals they like, regardless of their proper context, and take them for their own use because it makes them ‘feel better.’ There is perhaps more bitterness in that last sentence than I quite intend, but the main point is that the ritual or practice is divorced entirely of its intended meaning for the sole purpose of making the ‘celebrant’ feel better about his or herself. In the end, one is left with an empty ritual or a meaningless mantra to the cult of the individual.

I think this is a dangerous trend not just outside mainstream tradition, but even within Christianity. Oftentimes when the liturgy is debated, one hears arguments such as “it makes people feel more at home and in community” or “Joe and Mary Catholic couldn’t possibly understand the meaning of this or that phrase because it’s not in their everday speech.” Obviously in these instances, we’re not dealing with a usurped ritual, but we are talking about an emphasis on personal feeling. As humans, we do long for happiness, but as Christians we know that happiness is found only in God. The rituals we practice are intended to elevate our thoughts and lead us to God. And yes, in finding God we find happiness, but the ritual itself shouldn’t be centred on making one feel a transitory good feeling inside. 

If the ritual, or the liturgy in this case becomes focused on providing a fun musical concert, or an entertaining sermon, then we are left with an empty shell, devoid of its proper context and focus. Once the good feeling subsides, people are left trying new mantras or casting new spells. Simply put, it’s spiritual consumerism.

Another panelist, Susan K. Smith, who is a protestant pastor offers these absolute nuggets of wisdom in defending Sally Quinn (and attacking the Catholic Church):

A ritual that makes anyone feel ashamed or frightened or worried cannot be pleasing to God.

On the other hand, a ritual that invites anyone who wants to get close to God has to make God smile.

That’s cute, isn’t? Given these guidelines, there better not be any preaching against sin – cause that could be scary and give one a stomach ache. Here too we see this emphasis on feeling good at all costs. I’m certainly not saying that one shouldn’t be, as Jesus was, welcoming to the tax collector and the prostitute. But the purpose in welcoming them is, as Jesus said, for them to go and sin no more. We can’t offer a transitory good feeling; we need to point the penitent to the true happiness found in God. Any ritual that does not point to God, or one that is divorced from that context, is a meaningless mouthing of words aimed at the worship of self.



June 14, 2008

Ineffable \In*ef”fa*ble\, a. [L. ineffabilis: cf. F. ineffable.
See In- not, and Effable, Fame.]
Incapable of being expressed in words; unspeakable;
unutterable; indescribable; as, the ineffable joys of heaven.

(sourced from, Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

I’m at a loss for words…When I was growing up, it took some work to get a definition of a word you didn’t know. You had to pull that heavy dictionary off the dusty shelf and look it up. Incredibly tedious ;).

But now, you type in definition:ineffable into your Google search bar, and Voila! Instant knowledge. So is Bishop Trautman really saying that Joe and Mary Catholic aren’t web savvy? 🙂

See great coverage of the USCCB translation fiasco here (Fr. Z), here (Argent), and here (Amy Welborn).

(Also, see the great comment on the previous post – relating this to our Google influenced, tab-ridden, limited attention span world.)

One shade the more, one ray the less

April 30, 2008

The goal of the poet is to find all the right words, and the right number of words to convey the message such that an addition or deletion of a single word lessens the entire work. I won’t speak for novelists, but I would imagine if you could ask James Joyce, he would feel the same way with the possible exception that words could be expanded to include syllables and various mutterings.

And in music, consider the wonder expressed by the character Salieri in the play/film Amadeus: “And music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.”

As humans we long for that perfection, which ultimately can only be found in God. Music and poetry in their best forms, lead us to God as almost nothing else can.

This is why beautiful liturgy matters. 


Intro to the Introit

April 28, 2008

Some of you are undoubtedly already familiar with the Introit antiphon, but since we so rarely hear it in the Church in the US, I thought it deserved a post.

Almost every mass has a proper introit (meaning ‘entrance’) antiphon specified for it. Usually it ties into the readings for that mass, comes from the psalms, and it often sets a theme for the mass or the liturgical day. (For a fuller explanation and the nuances that I’m skipping over, see here)

In the United States, it has been almost entirely replaced by the entrance or gathering hymn, (such as, “We Gather Together”) which often has no specific bearing on the mass at hand, or relation to the Introit antiphon. But without the introit text, the mass loses something proper to it. 

Besides the Introit chants specified in the Graduale Romanum (the book that contains all the chants specific to indivdual masses of the year), there are modern, vernacular versions available. In fact, our parish has been using the introit antiphons throughout the Easter season (awesome!). And when our music director can’t use the introits, she tries to pick entrance hymns based on the introit for that Sunday.

For the finale of Intro to the Introit – here’s one of the most famous introits, that for a requiem mass, courtesy of Mozart and YouTube. Incidentally, the reason it’s called a requiem mass is precisely because the Introit begins with “Requiem aeternam”.

Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. Te decet hymnus Deus, in Sion, et tibi reddetur votum in Ierusalem. Exaudi orationem meam; ad te omnis caro veniet. Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. A hymn becomes you, O God, in Zion, and to you shall a vow be repaid in Jerusalem. Hear my prayer; to you shall all flesh come. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.

How to chant II

April 28, 2008

The reciting tone… In chant, particularly for psalms or any lengthy text set to chant (like scripture readings or prayers), you’ll encounter the reciting tone. It looks sort of like this: open neume.

This indicates that several words are sung at this same pitch, until you reach the inflection point. The inflection point is usually identified by italics. Let’s look at an example:

Psalm 148 - chant

Now – this is a setting I wrote, and it’s not particularly good, but it will at least suffice for this demonstration (and copyright purposes). Let’s ignore the antiphon for now, and just look at the second set of lines – starting with the text “Praise the Lord from the Hea-vens, praise Him in the heights.”

The reciting tone covers “Praise the Lord from the” – all these words are sung at that same pitch. The first syllable of Heavens is italicized and indicates when you change the pitch to the next note, or neume. The | indicates the change to a different phrase, which, though different notes, behaves the same way in that “praise him” is sung at the reciting pitch specified for that phrase, and “in” is the inflection point. Simple, eh?

Now usually the text isn’t written next to the music – you would see the musical phrases, followed by the text in its entirety (with italics to mark the inflection points, and * or / to indicate the transition to the next phrase). At the end of the line, you simply go back to the first phrase. (Or possibly go to the anitphon).

For examples of this, and for an easy introduction into group chanting – I highly recommend the Mundelein Psalter. It allows you to chant the daily office in English with simple style chants similar (though far better) to the example above.

N.B. The antiphon, while written in chant notation, probably isn’t truly in the gregorian style (it’s too much like a polyphonic melody). I wrote this for our nuptial mass, for which the closing hymn was “All creatures of our God and King.” I wanted the antiphon to echo that melody, particularly since the text of this psalm (and the psalms immediately surrounding it in the Book of Psalms) is influential to the text of the hymn.


How to chant

April 27, 2008

Are you Catholic? Do you know how to chant? What, they didn’t teach you in your local parish?

All Catholics should know how to chant – Vatican II says so! His Holiness Pope Paul VI (promulgator of the Ordinary Form) said so. Even the USCCB says so.

But where to start? The St. Cecilia Schola Cantorum web site has several resources. Start with An Idiot’s Guide to Square Notes – this will teach you how to read the special notation chant has, as well as give you a primer on Latin pronunciation. For the initial chants every Catholic should know, use the “said so” link above. And then – show your friends and parishioners.

Liturgy, Theatre, and the role of the director

April 26, 2008

I recently attended a performance of the Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe. Though Marlowe, unlike his contemporary, Will Shakespeare, has never been blessed with the accusation of being a recusant (unless of course you are one of the proponents of the theory that Marlowe was Shakespeare), Kit Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’ of blank verse stands on its own in terms of great poetry.

Upon opening the program, the theatre-goer was presented with two full pages, or four columns, of text explaining the director’s vision of the play. As if to make the play meaningful to the modern world, the director set the familiar tale of the proud scholar selling his soul to the devil in the world of Second Life. Now this piece is not to criticise the performance nor the direction – the sets were quite amazing and the play was fully immersed in the director’s vision, including a wonderful scene where the rest of the seven deadly sins are birthed from under the skirts of Pride. But the director felt the overwhelming necessity to reinvent the play and its presentation, suffocating the beauty and timelessness of the text. It wasn’t about making the play a pleasant, beautiful experience to watch, it was about hitting the viewer over the head with the director’s view of the drama.

Now the director is a fairly recent invention of the theatre, and while watching this play,  I couldn’t help but think about the connection of the role of the director in theatre, to modern ‘directors’ of liturgy. The director could be the liturgy committee, a liturgy consultant, or a master of ceremonies. Many of those (not all!) who insist on the notion of inculturation do so at a complete lack of respect for the ‘text’ and for the ‘audience.’

Let’s consider the communion antiphon “Taste and See.” I’ve heard a pseudo-jazzy version of this which is simply jarring whilst one is approaching the Lord in the Eucharist. Jazz is not bad in and of itself, the text for Taste and See is from Psalm 34, but the text is overwhelmed by music, which is wholly unsuited for that moment in the mass. A similar concept can explain the great distaste of many for re-sponsorial psalms. Gregorian chant, while certainly not the only suitable music for mass, elevates the text, and does not suffocate it.

In a ‘directed liturgy,’ innstead of the word of God, it’s about the music; instead of the timelessness of the celebration of the Eucharist, it’s about how liturgy has been presented. In short, it’s how the ‘director’ wants you to see his or her vision, instead of being about God.