Thursday, May 24, 2007

Guitars and Song on Ascension

I went to 10 pm mass at Newman Hall at Cal Berkeley this Sunday for the Feast of the Ascension. The break from my normal routine of Tridentine Latin Mass at St. Margaret Mary's was due to the fact that I ran the Bay to Breakers that morning and was busy Saturday evening so I missed the opportunity for a vigil mass as well.

I've gone to this mass a bunch of times on similar occasions when I was busy on Sunday mornings, and some of my community members like to go to this mass. I've often had mixed feelings about it. The church itself is rather Spartan and is in a massive concrete Soviet-style building. The priests are friendly enough and I like the darkness and candle-light. The one thing that consistently bothers me however is the music. It's strange because many of the hippie-style guitar songs I actually like because I grew up going to a church with music like that. Songs like "Eagle's Wings" do make me feel a bit warm and fuzzy inside. However sometimes I worry that the music is too distracting and the focus is not on the sacrifice of the mass. Sometimes it strikes me as more of a music service with readings and prayers sandwiched in. That was one of the reasons I got turned off to Novos Ordo and began attending the traditional mass: I felt that the Eucharist was more properly celebrated in the traditional mass.

Still a lot of questions have been buzzing through my mind regarding music and its place in the mass. I navigate a diverse array of churches between the Bay Area and New York and have seen all sorts of liturgical styles, from gospel music, hippie-guitar music, to Latin Gregorian chant and Russian Orthodox Slavonic. I have enjoyed aspects of all these styles. Still often I wonder if I should be more of a purist and be more wary of music that is used more for entertainment value than meditative/inspirational value.

Lately I've taken to singing in prayer on my own. I have found this can be very helpful for meditative prayer, particularly with the psalms. I can go as slow or fast as I like, picking a tone and rhythm appropriate to the theme of the psalm. Sometimes however, as in any prayer, I can lose focus and be distracted by the singing and lose sight of the lyrics. This is especially true if I am struggling with tune.

Recently I attended a Sacred Harp singing in Berkeley for my first time. It was amazing and I wanted so badly to join in, but I struggled so much to follow the music and my voice is terrible and I am tone-deaf. I could only squeek out a few words. I wish I could sing better, so that I could cultivate my talent for an art form like that. Ironically, my inability to sing has let me to discover the joys of private singing. My praise is for God's ears alone and I do not have to be ashamed of my voice as it is God's gift given for His glory, and I will use my little sound in the universe to honor God as best as I am able.

This is sort of a rambling post, but I was wondering what others thought, particularly about the place of music, instruments, and even dancing in the liturgy. I err on the side of tradition because I have seen so much experimentation go terribly badly and I am afraid to divest the mass of any of the dignity it warrants. Sometimes I think things like Sacred Harp are good for small group private worship, but don't belong in the Church. Sometimes I think even the organ should be left out and we should lift up only our voices. Other times I have enjoyed the organ and other instrumentation.

Any thoughts? What's a Catholic to think when every church seems to be inventing their own music style and just about every option from rock concert style teen life masses to Pre-Vatican liturgies are offered in the same area. Is it all harmless experimentation and should people be free to do whatever moves them, or should we stick to some more orthodox standard?

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