At a Jewish home for the elderly in Washington, D.C., a dozen residents with dementia gathered for their weekly rhythm exercises. The therapist directed each member to bang out numbers and shake maracas to the tune of Yankee Doodle. Some who seemed otherwise non compis mentis could nonetheless tap perfectly on cue. Alzheimer’s researchers report that patients unable to speak can sing childhood melodies. So far, neuroscience can’t explain this, but some experts think the brain’s receptors for music and rhythm are spared the ravages of senility. The point is this: music communicates with us on a level beyond our verbal understanding, on a different circuit than mere speech. Why shouldn’t we sing the Mass?
The current preference for spoken liturgy flies in the face of Judeo-Christian heritage over time. Sung liturgy was the norm in the undivided church for many centuries in both Eastern and Western Catholic traditions; in the Eastern Church, it still is. But today, in most churches of the Western Catholic tradition (Old Catholic, Anglican and Roman) the priest doesn’t sing. Liturgy has become, “words, words, and more words,” to quote ex-Roman, now Episcopal priest, Matthew Fox.
I know the power of music firsthand. By way of personal background, I sang in church choirs 51 years before I was ordained. I studied piano and organ as a child, and am self-taught as a composer. For me, music is a substantial and necessary part of my faith experience.
Our Sunday Mass at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community in Palm Springs, California is exactly that: Sung Mass. I sing all the Presider parts, including the Opening Acclamation, Opening Collect, the Concluding Collect to the Prayers of the People, Prayer Over the Offering, the Preface Dialogue and Preface, the entire Eucharistic Prayer, the Embolism in the Our Father, the Peace Prayer and Dialogue, the Invitation to Communion, and Post Communion Collect. My wife, who is the Parish Deacon, chants the Gospel, the Prayers of the People, and the Dismissal. The congregation participates in hymns, sung responses, and the Our Father. The setting of the Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Santus, and Agnus Dei) that we use most of the year is one I composed. Our hymns and songs reflect all periods and styles of music, including Gregorian chant, Bach and other Baroque composers, Mozart and the Classical era, Victorian hymns, Afro-American Gospel-style, Saint Louis Jesuits, and Weston Priory, among many others. Our principal sources are the OCP Breaking Bread Missal, the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and the Gather Hymnal from GIA.
St. Augustine tells us in his Dissertation on the Psalms, “to sing is to pray twice.” Augustine correctly recognized the empathetic chord between music and the human soul. References to singing for God appear in the Jewish scriptures. Nehemiah and Ezra contain numerous references to singers in their descriptions of the temple restored for worship after the Jewish people returned to their land after the Babylonian exile. The psalms are replete with references to song in worship: “It is a good thing to give thanks to the LORD, and to sing praises to your Name, O Most High” (92:1) “Come, let us sing to the LORD” (95:1); “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the whole earth Sing to the LORD and bless his Name” (96:1-2); “Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things” (98:1) “Be joyful in the LORD, all you lands; serve the LORD with gladness and come before his presence with a song” (100:1) “I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being “(104:34). In the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles tells us at 2:46, “Song is the singing of the heart’s joy,” should not the clergy and people joyously sing the Mass? After all, the gospels themselves are replete with songs. The first chapter of Luke contains the “Song of Mary,” commonly known as the Magnificat, and the Song of Zechariah, commonly called the Benedictus. In the second chapter, the multitude of the heavenly host sings, “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace on earth to people of goodwill.” In the third chapter, we find the Song of Simeon, usually known as the Nunc Dimmitis. The Gospel of John begins with a hymn-like prologue symbolically recounting the Incarnation. Revelation has the elders singing a new song before the Lamb, and the Apostle Paul summons the faithful to ‘teach and admonish one another … by grace singing in your hearts to the Lord’ … and “making melody to the Lord with all your heart” ((Rev. 4:9; 14:3, 15:3; Col. 3:16 and Eph 5:19).
Among protestants, none other than Martin Luther himself recognized the importance of music in the liturgy. Gregorian chant influenced Luther’s music. He loved the Latin hymns and revised many of them. Although he attacked what he saw as “impurities” of the Roman Church, he continued his high regard for its musical traditions. Luther intended to retain and expand upon a tradition that was already in existence, rather than to destroy musical and liturgical practices wholesale. For example, Luther specified the chanting of the Gospel in a unique way based on the Gregorian model for chanting the Passion Story: for the Evangelist, the note A; for Christ, the note F; and for everyone else, the note C. Why would Luther want the Gospel sung? An old Anglican collect exhorts us to, “read mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the scriptures. The words we sing in church are not meant to enter one ear and leave the other. They are supposed to sink into our brain. When I hear sung reading, it is burned into my mind with far greater force than if it were merely read to me. This is not surprising. Music plays an invaluable role in education. According to the National Education Society for Young Children,
“Music is a great way to engage young children because it is a natural and enjoyable part of their everyday lives. Children hear music or sing while watching television, riding in the car, at school, and as part of bedtime rituals… Music is a socially engaging way to learn, and especially appropriate for the developmental levels of young children. Many young children learn to recite the alphabet by singing the ABCs, and educational television programs for young children, such as Sesame Street, use a lot of music in their programming. Researchers have found that music can help children learn multiplication tables and improve early literacy skills. Many adults still remember lessons connected to music from their childhood.”
The Matthean gospel tell us, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “ (Matt. 18:3-4). To truly “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Gospel of Jesus, we must allow scripture to touch our souls, not just hear the words. We must listen to the singing of the gospel with the innocence and openness of children learning the alphabet and remembering it. Surely the Mass is as important as the alphabet?
In the modern Roman Church, however, chanting is not the usual practice as demonstrated on EWTN, where their clergy chant little, if at all. Clergy, however, sometimes formulate their liturgical practices to please people like the disgruntled middle-aged, parishioner at a suburban parish who complained that chanting the Gospel was not to his liking because, as he told the priest, “I didn’t get anything out of that.” The person who said that was no doubt was raised during the ascendancy of passive entertainment as the chief American past time: movies, television, radio, recorded music, spectator sports, and similar experiences. One goes to these events to be entertained, to watch, to live vicariously through actors, actresses and professional athletes. We do this in lieu of participation: amateur home movie making is not our number one cottage industry; community neighborhood theatres starring ordinary butchers, bakers and candlestick makers acting for a hobby is but a thespian dream; sandlot baseball is for the twelve-and-under set; in general, we look to others to entertain us rather than savor the intrinsic benefits of engaging in our favorite arts and sports ourselves. In the twenty-first century our choices now include the Internet, where we can listen to music, watch movies and sports. Technology further facilitates our consumption of passive entertainment through movies recorded on DVD and, that ultimate symbol of consumer choice, the remote control: if we don’t like what’s playing we simply change the channel, just like the middle-aged man who changed churches.
Hence, it is not surprising that consumerism has made its way into church. We Catholic who emphasize liturgy are as guilty as Hollywood in seeking to passively entertain: some churches stage a show for the supposed spiritual edification of the faithful in lieu of the active involvement of the assembly in worship. They seek to have professionals anger, awe, titillate, tickle and comfort us, rather than actively achieve the same feelings from endeavors in which they participate. That, however is not liturgy. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “liturgy” is derived from a Greek word which combines two other Greek words, one for “work” and the other for “people,” hardly a consumerist concept. Church music, at its best, is not a performance by clergy and musical professionals, but active participation by all members of the assembly. We have a professional pianist and cantor to lead us, but we expect everyone to participate, and to that end, we provide everyone with a comprehensive Service Booklet that contains all the words of the service, including the readings, and all the music sung by the congregation. The Presider, Deacon, and Cantor have additional music for their parts.
Music, with its tools of melody, rhythm, harmony and timbre, communicates emotions in a way mere words cannot. At the primordial level, faith is an emotional response to the world, not an intellectual one. It is an encounter between the soul and the universe that is way beyond anything that can be expressed in words alone. Our hearts and souls are what interact with God. Hence, when the liturgy is sung rather than spoken, we not only hear it with our ears, but feel it within us, and it becomes part of us. Unlike spoken words, music connects with us on a subconscious level. To imbibe music into our consciousness requires us to let go of our conscious selves and interact with God’s word beyond the level of our brains, deeply into our souls. When we sing, we connect with God in a strong and deep way like nothing else, as we experience a purposeful penetration into our conscience that leads to a warm and close relationship with a God who surrounds and loves us.