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A Problem with the Universal Prayer of the Church

“The Catholic liturgy is the supreme example of an objectively established rule of spiritual life. It has been able to develop… in every direction, and in accordance with all places, times, and types of human culture. Therefore it will be the best teacher of the via ordinaria–the regulation of the religious life in common, with, at the same time, a view to actual needs and requirements.” (R. Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy)

The great problem with the Universal Prayer of the Roman Catholic Church today is that for all practical purposes (speaking subjectively) it has ceased to be the Universal Prayer of the Roman Catholic Church. Those things that allowed the Mystical Body of Christ to worship as one family, transcending both the limitations of time and space, have been shoved aside if not outright discarded. It amazes me that within living memory the average Catholic could travel anywhere in the world in which the Latin Rite was celebrated, trusty hand missal in tow, and pray the Mass, even in foreign lands. The homily might have been in a different language or the Mass might have had a certain European, American, African or Asian feel, depending upon where one found oneself on Sunday morning, but the differences were rather minor–but no more.

Contrast this with the experience of typical Catholics today, who go to Mass in their  own state or country and wonder if they still inhabited the same planet, much less attend the same Mass. Anymore, the Holy Sacrifice has taken on the fluidity of one’s gender. What, you don’t like it? Just change it and make it whatever you want it to be! Admittedly, the experimentation is NOT what it was in the 70s, nevertheless, the mentality exists that the Sacred Liturgy can be adapted and personalized in an almost unlimited number of ways.

Our liturgical problem is really symptomatic of a much deeper problem, the loss of Faith in Christ and in His Church (really the two problems are deeply connected). Thankfully I meet more and more young people who are seriously embracing Faith in Christ and the Church. As they do so, they are discovering the great cultural riches of the Church, whether in Her Liturgy or prayer life, the lives of Her saints or in Her moral life. This group of people is by no means a majority, but it is a strong and vibrant minority. I also see holy priests coming from among them, and Deo gratias for that.

Young people today aren’t yearning for the ancient expressions of the Church’s liturgical life merely due to a distorted view of a supposedly golden former age, but because their very souls  and their humanity need these things to pray in the first place. Young people are mired in individualism and simply handing out more of it in the form of giving them “what they want” is not going to bring them to Christ. Rather, the answer lies in uniting them to the universal, to what is True, Beautiful and Good–to God; uniting them to the Church Militant, the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant. The Sacred Liturgy used to have the power to do this (again, subjectively speaking).

What follows is a very simplistic list, in no particular order, of some of the externals in the Church’s liturgical life that had the power to draw the believer out of his own little kingdom and into the universal family of the Church. Would that return sooner rather than later.

  1. The beauty of a common, sacral language. Whether you like to admit it or not, the Latin Rite was formed by the Latin Language, which provided a basis for communication for Catholics across the globe, and the loss of that language and the communication it allowed has proved a travesty. The fact that the majority of fathers at the Second Vatican Council could communicate with each other reasonably well, not withstanding such diverse backgrounds, was a minor miracle. Latin Rite Catholics could take part in the Mass or Divine Office wherever they found themselves and Latin provided the sacred vehicle for that prayer, removed from the vulgarities of everyday speech. Interestingly, the Latin, via beautiful translations, supported and shaped sacral speech in the vernacular. Now each Catholic is marooned on his own linguistical island, islands which tend to be culturally impoverished and bereft of any beauty. I chuckle when I pray the Gloria using inclusive language (peace to his people on earth) but then switch to “sexist” language in the Creed (and became man). Then there are the Responsorial Psalm antiphon translations, which don’t match the translations of the psalms themselves because each one was translated from different different versions of the scriptures. And these problems pale in comparison to the general tone of the English texts–common, common, common. One would think the translators despised beauty and poetry altogether, although what we currently have is infinitely superior to what we had 10 years ago.
  2. The priest visibly standing in the Sacred Liturgy in persona Christi. Quite frankly, it shouldn’t matter if the celebrant is “Faaaather Bowwwb.” or HE, the Cardinal Archbishop of such and such… They and their personalities shouldn’t matter–it is Christ Who matters. Why have we allowed the regrettable “tradition” of naming all of the participants in a particular “liturgy?” “…Our celebrant for this liturgy is Faaaaather Bowwwwb; our lectors are Mary Smith and Jane Thomas; our servers are Jane Smith, Lucy Jones and Samantha Jones; our Eucharistic Ministers are Helen Quick, Nancy Slow, Marcia High and Janet Low; our musicians are terrible, oh I mean Mary Right and Kenny Wrong; our ushers are ……….” (All joking aside, I have experienced this in real life.) On and on and on. I don’t know any of them, and quite frankly it wouldn’t matter if I did. It isn’t about the priest, the “ministers” or me–not in that sense. It is about God. The habit of naming everyone physically taking part in Mass belies the assumption that the priest is an MC whose job it is to stir up good vibes among those “assembled” instead of another Christ, offering Himself to the Father through the Holy Spirit. I can’t imagine Christ having worried about stirring up good vibes in the apostles at the Last Supper. Christ, as head of the Mystical Body of Christ, focused on the Father, which provides an excellent segue into plea for worshipping ad orientem. There is no reason for me to keep beating the horse here, but I firmly believe that the simple act of facing east would probably do more than anything in the Novus Ordo to reverse the travesty of Mass being about the priest and people rather than about God.
  3. A classical (and shared) view of what constitutes Christian architecture, art and music. In times past one could visit the city of Cincinnati or Tokyo, it wouldn’t matter, and make an educated guess at which buildings were Catholic Churches (or at least churches) and which ones weren’t. Christians shared a common symbolic language in their architecture and art. The same could be said for music, but in the rush to be relevant (to society, but not, ironically, to God) we have jettisoned much of what is beautiful in Catholicism and replaced it with what is fashionable.
  4. A rich life of piety and Christian Community. In former times, families came together daily to make the Morning Offering and to pray the Rosary, parishes hosted processions, novenas and May crownings, people sang hymns in their homes and young people formed dance bands and played for their friends on Saturday nights at the local barn or community hall. That is all gone now and we shove everything, even the Sacraments, from Weddings and Confirmations to Baptisms and Anointings, into the Mass. On the flip side, the Church has tried to make all devotions outside of Mass conform to the Liturgy of the Word, complete with readings and petitions. No wonder many cultural Catholics think the Mass is all that’s left, so they shove evening thing into it, from the band they formed to the pop music they like to the Sacraments and many other more or less important life events. The richness of the Divine Office (the other part of the Sacred Liturgy) and Benediction, which found a home in so many normal parishes prior to the 1960s have been forgotten. All this means that the Universal Prayer of the Church, Her Sacred Liturgy, must be adapted to every situation, whim or need of a particular church and its members. No wonder so many people leave Mass early. If you aren’t from such and such parish or if the menagerie of speakers who stroll into the sanctuary at the end of Mass to talk about this or that don’t touch on what’s important to you, why stay to the end for an extra 10 minutes of irrelevant community announcements.

I would like to end where I began, with Gaurdini. He writes “The primary and exclusive aim of the liturgy is not the expression of the individual’s reverence and worship for God. It is not even concerned with the awakening, formation, and sanctification of the individual soul as such. Nor does the onus of liturgical action and prayer rest with the individual. It does not even rest with the collective groups, composed of numerous individuals, who periodically achieve a limited and intermittent unity in their capacity as the congregation of a church. The liturgical entity consists rather of the united Body of the faithful as such–the Church–a body which infinitely outnumbers the mere congregation.

I don’t hope or even desire that every Mass be exactly the same, but I should be able to experience the reality of the Mystical Body of Christ instead of banging my individualism up against someone else’s. This is something I hope we can all pray for.

Photographs from First Mass of Deaconal Service

Thanks to a parishioner, Allan Goodman, I am able to share these beautiful photographs from Pentecost Sunday, 2018, when the Rev. Mr. Nicholas Ashmore served his first Mass as a Deacon. The MPHM Schola Cantorum was privileged to sing for the occasion.

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MPHM Schola Cantorum
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Singing the Sequence for Pentecost.
Chanting the Communion antiphon.
Chanting the Communion antiphon.
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Choristers receive Holy Communion.

 

This Sunday the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum, Gentlemen and Children of the Choir, begins the Choral Year!

Join the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum this Sunday for the 11:30 a.m. Holy Mass at Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Topeka as the choir begins the choral year with Scarlatti’s Exultate Deo and Elgar’s Ave verum corpus. In all that they do, may God be glorified!

Choral Music Lists (Autumn 2018)

 

Qui bene cantat bis orat–in Detroit!

To sing well is to pray twice. There is such musicality in the Latin original–Qui bene cantat… St. Augustine might not have said it, but he should have. If one takes the phrase “to sing well” both in a literal sense and in a spiritual sense, it then encompasses the vocation of the Christian, to praise God in the quiet of his heart and as well as in the actions of his life. It reminds me of the blessing given to cantors by decree of the Council of Carthage (c. 398 AD): Vide, ut quod ore cantas, corde credas, et quod corde credis, operibus comprobes (See that what thou singest with thy lips thou dost believe in thine heart, and that what thou believest in thine heart thou dost show forth in thy works).

To sing well is to pray twice. We have all heard the phrase bantered about by well meaning, but exasperated Christians, whether it comes from a pastor whose congregation won’t sing or a mother whose sons refuse to sway to the churchy tunes (perhaps in our secularized world most young people prefer not to pray, much less pray twice). Unfortunately the emphasis is always on the outward act of singing, with little attention given to the interior formation that must take place before the outward forms mean anything. Fortunately for the Church in America, the Archdiocese of Detroit recently announced a plan to cultivate the sweet vintage of sanctity (interior) and sacred music (exterior) via the creation of an archdiocesan choral foundation at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in the tradition of the English choir school. As I understand it, this is the fruition of a long held dream of Archbishop Vigneron and I firmly believe the Church in Michigan will be better for it.

Officially named the Cathedral Choir Academy of Detroit and open to students in grades 3-9, its mission is “to provide an experience in which choristers encounter Christ through sacred music, grow in faith and musical excellence, and give witness to the Word Incarnate.  The program is clearly rooted in faith formation and in step with the New Evangelization.” It is hoped that within five years the program will be expanded to serve youth in the first and second grades (pre-chorister music training) through high school. Susan Lindquist, a veteran music teacher in the archdiocese of Detroit will lead the program, working in concert with Cathedral Rector Fr. J. J. Mech and Cathedral Music Director, Joe Balistreri. I have been privileged to know Susan for a couple of years and can testify to her orthodox faith and love for sacred music as well as her ability to teach children and communicate the choir school’s mission and vision to others. Her enthusiasm really is quite infectious and it was through her that I learned one of my favorite phrases regarding the importance of teaching children good music… While it is true that children can produce beautiful music, it is more important that beautiful music can form beautiful children.

Susan took over the cathedral children’s choir last year, which until then had been somewhat of an ad hoc adventure with the emphasis on cute rather than beautiful, and grew the program to three times its size while expecting the choristers to hold their own alongside the cathedral’s fine adult choir. In its current form, the program consists of a training choir as well as a children’s choir, which sings once a month. This allows choristers to continue singing in their own parish choirs as well as at the cathedral. By partnering with children choir across the archdiocese the Cathedral Choir Academy hopes to share its work with individual parishes, fostering Faith and music in the youth. The Choir Academy has also entered into a partnership with the Sistine Chapel Choir, and while the particular details of that relationship are currently being hashed out, it shows the desire of Susan Lindquist and the entire cathedral community to fostering the Church’s musical heritage to a high degree, especially in the youth, and drawing them ever more closely to Christ.

Please join your prayers to mine for the success of this new venture, perhaps even offering up a Te Deum in the fullest sense of actual participation. Qui bene cantat bis orat.

 

 

Precious in the Eyes of the Lord is the Death of His Faithful Ones

Everyone experiences certain events throughout his life, ones which he remembers with incredible fondness and nostalgia, perhaps even with a bit of longing. Perhaps it is best that God created man to live in time, continually moving toward eternity, lest he become comfortable “here below” and fail to keep his eyes lifted heavenward. Nevertheless, certain moments in this valley of tears remind us to raise our eyes again to the Father Who loves us and to strive for Heaven with all of our being. These experiences provide strength for those who are persecuted—strength to remain faithful to their call. They also call the lost back to faithfulness. I am reminded of Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, where He gave His apostles a glimpse of His heavenly glory to fortify them against His coming Passion and to both comfort and challenge them after His Resurrection.

One such personal experience of mine took place at the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains on 2 January, 2016. The Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum was on pilgrimage to Rome and in that capacity sang for Sunday Mass in the basilica. It was early in the morning, perhaps too early for most Italians, and the sun had just burst forth along the horizon of a beautiful and crisp winter morning. The choristers had vested and made the short walk from the bus to the church. As choir director I really had no idea what to expect as we arrived. The sacristan motioned for the singers to proceed to the ancient choir stalls surrounding the altar and confessio, shortly after which, Holy Mass began. The Missa cum iubilo rolled down the nave and back again as the Eternal Sacrifice resounded about us. We sang in view of the creche, not far from the chains that held St. Peter both in Jerusalem and in Rome, ever watched over by Michaelangelo’s Moses. There we were in the Eternal City where St. Peter stood as pontifex between the Old and New Testaments, announcing the Kingdom of God to what was then the greatest kingdom mankind had ever known. Two thousand years later the great Roman Empire had been consigned to history, while the Church, ruled by the Lord of history, stretched across the entire globe as a sign to all people that God, in His Son, has redeemed mankind and opened again the gates of Heaven to all below. In our parish back home, the inquisitive sojourner in our Perpetual Adoration Chapel might have noticed inscribed around the monstrance the Latin phrase Ecce panis angelorum factus cibus viatorum (Behold the Bread of angels, made the food of travelers). There in the creche in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains was a small likeness the Infant-King, Who in that Mass became the Living Bread, the Holy Eucharist for each of us, food for us travelers. To this day everyone who traveled with the choir remembers this Mass as the crowning moment of the entire trip.

We have all encountered these moments that sustain us along our pilgrim way and I assume the same could be said of all the Holy Martyrs. I have often wondered what went through the heart and mind of the Maccabean mother, who, “being filled with wisdom: and joining a man’s heart to a woman’s thought” (2 Maccabees: 7:21) not only beheld, but counseled her seven sons to remain faithful to the God of their fathers and to the laws of Moses, even if when it meant torture and death at the hands of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Surely there were moments she remembered from her life that, along with her prayer and confidence in God, emboldened her to watch the deaths of her sons with every hope that their sacrifices would be rewarded in eternal life. I also imagine that her husband, who I assume was deceased by this point, inculcated a love for God and His Law in his family that helped sustain them as well. I am moved by this story every time I hear it and I pray that I might be given the grace to endure such a test if, God forbid, it should ever happen to me and my family.

Imagine my surprise this morning as I read through a portion of the Roman Martyrology to discover that in the old Roman Calendar both the Feast of St. Peter in Chains and the Feast of the Maccabean mother and her sons shared the same calendar day (tomorrow, 1 August) and that this family are traditionally thought to be buried in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains. How fitting it is that St. Peter in Chains, by no means the most beautiful and opulent in Rome, houses Michaelangelo’s Moses, a symbol of the Law to which this family was so faithful. It is a poignant reminder to me to constantly pray for the gift of fortitude. May we pray for such witnesses to be raised again in the western world, and we pray for the intercession of those Christians who have been martyred in various parts of the globe this century. May their prayers and example bring us to the Gates of Heaven and may Mary, Queen of all Martyrs, give each of us such strength and courage.

 

A Model for Parish Revitalization (NO)

Last week George Weigel released an article entitled A Pastor in Full honoring Fr. Jay Scott Newman of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, SC, a priest who has influenced Weigel greatly over the years and who recently celebrated the silver jubilee of his ordination. Weigel writes about Fr. Newman’s parish:

“I know of none better than St. Mary’s in Greenville, where the entire parish is, as Pope Francis urges, “permanently in mission,” empowered by biblically-rich preaching, nurtured by a beautiful and prayerful liturgy that embodies Vatican II’s liturgical reform at its finest, and led by a pastor who makes evangelization a priority.

Weigel even released his work Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church at St. Mary’s. I decided to pop over to the parish’s website and found the following from Fr. Newman. “Being Evangelical Catholics requires that we know the Gospel, believe the Gospel, live the Gospel, and share the Gospel with others, and this begins and ends for us in the sacred liturgy, the source and summit of the Church’s life.” This struct me because its wisdom flies in the face of the commonest forms of evangelization promoted in the Church today. Fr. Newman claims, and rightly so, that evangelization begins and returns in the Sacred Liturgy, where we find Christ Himself. I cannot stress how important this is. If we  truly seek to evangelize, we must first receive before we can give. It is in the Sacred Liturgy, especially in the Holy Eucharist, where we receive Christ and through this gift are able to transform the world.

I would encourage everyone to visit the parish website and to see what can be done in a parish. Especially pay attention to Fr. Newman’s page about Evangelical Catholicism. Please share this website with those pastors you know who truly pray and work for the building up of the Mystical Body of Christ. It is refreshing to see the Gospel put forth in all of its beauty and glory. Otherwise the faithful get this.

The Sung Canon

Throughout my life I have been spared the ghastliest of liturgical abuses and aberrations within Mass and in most cases I can even write that these celebrations were both valid and licit, yet like most of my generation, such liturgies left me wondering if there was more to my Catholic Faith. Thanks to the wonderful teaching and example of my parents, this was never of question of doubt in God, or in His Goodness, Truth or Beauty, mind you, but rather a series of questions beginning with whyWhy is the God of the universe, Whom I know to be all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving presented to me as an effeminate man who willingly sacrifices all of his Goodness, Truth and Beauty and real charity in order to be niceWhy is holiness, intimate friendship with God, sacrificed for those greater “virtues” of tolerance and nicenessWhy is Heaven, our glorious patria, our eternal homeland, made present in a veiled manner at every Holy Mass, presented as a place of niceness (which to a boy of 13 and 14 is code for BORING)? I still remember the first time my family attended a Mass in the Extraordinary Form my freshman year in high school. The music was of no particular quality and I couldn’t relate a word of Father’s homily any more, but I do specifically remember it being awe-some in the deepest sense of the word—the very opposite of BORING. The fact that I asked the aforementioned questions was a particular grace of God. Unfortunately most of my schoolmates experienced BORING and simply left the Church. They never knew there was more—infinitely more.

If we hope to address this particular problem in the Ordinary Form, short of returning wholesale to the Extraordinary Form (which is another topic all together), we must work to restore a sense of mystery, transcendence and awe to the Sacred Liturgy. Otherwise we run the risk of lying to the faithful in the pew about Who God is and what He has done fore us.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Sacred Music Colloquium last month and experience the Ordinary Form celebrated in continuity with the Church’s great liturgical tradition, devoid of the mundane and banal, which so often paralyze the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the faithful. One particularly poignant moment I recall took place during the Canon of the Mass on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, when the priest, facing ad orientem and devoid of any amplification, chanted the Canon of the Mass. I was immediately struck by the awe-someness of the moment and my soul was filled with peace as its usual restlessness and fight against the BORING was banished. I have often attended Mass in the Ordinary Form celebrated ad orientem but have still struggled with the constant talking on the part of the priest at the most intimate moment of Mass, especially when a microphone is involved. Yet chanted, the words of the Canon take flight as prayer as opposed to mere talking, and when sung without the aid of a microphone, the words almost force the person in the pew to listen more intently. Prayer becomes natural as God is brought to the fore.

Since the Canon cannot be recited “silently” in the Ordinary Form, I wonder if chanting it might be one answer to the lack of transcendence we often encounter within Mass. Perhaps those priests who have personally tried this might offer advice based upon their experiences. Regardless, continue to turn toward the Lord in your heart and wait for Him in the silence of your interior room.

Impressions from the CMAA Sacred Music Colloquium 2018

In Catholic circles we often joke that not even God Himself knows how much money the Jesuits really have, the truth of which I witnessed on parade at the beautiful Loyal University waterfront campus in Chicago, host for the CMAA’s 2018 Sacred Music Colloquium last week. I thought today I would share with readers some of my impressions of the wonderful events that took place.

Holiness and Friendship: Saints tend to come in batches, one friend encouraging another, which I found no less true for those I met at the Colloquium. Men and women, priests and religious from all backgrounds and walks of life (my roommate was a priest from Nigeria!), arrived in Chicago, but all were animated by the common goal of Heaven. All were striving for holiness, a witness so important for the world today. Pope Benedict once mentioned that Beauty, especially in the lives of the saints would convert the world, and I was both edified and encouraged by the desire for holiness I saw in so many at the colloquium. This naturally resulted in the deepening of old friendships and the creation of new, lasting friendships built on and in Christ—friendships that will endure.

Beauty and Transcendence: If the Holy Eucharist truly is the source and summit of our Catholic Faith and if all we do as Christians and as musicians comes from and returns to the God the Father, through Christ and in the Holy Spirit in the Sacred Liturgy, then our worship of almighty God is of primary and paramount importance, and so it follows that how we pray affects how we believe, and how we believe affects how we act. The beauty and solemnity in the way the priests celebrated the Holy Masses and the Divine Office spoke not only to a hermeneutic of continuity with all the Church has taught and professed throughout Her 2000 year history, but also spoke to what they themselves believed about God. I found this both inspiring and challenging.

As an aside, it always strikes me that the more we try to make the Mass understandable, the more we try to bring it down to the level of “common humanity,” the harder time I have remembering that God is all holy and all powerful and that He loves me with a love so  deep that He willingly endured His Passion and Death in order to open the gates of Heaven to me. The beauty and transcendence of the Sacred Liturgies at the Colloquium reminded me of just how all powerful God is and how much He must have loved mankind to willingly step down from His thrown, so to speak, and do what He did. When God is presented and worshipped as if He were a cross between Ralph Nader and Maya Angelou (I think these are Peter Kreeft’s words) prayer becomes difficult for me, but the Masses and Divine Office of the Colloquium truly flooded my soul with peace, and yet challenged me to confront my sinfulness and open myself to God’s healing and Almighty Hand.

Awe for the Workers in God’s Vineyard: I was truly edified by those who work so hard in the field of Sacred Music. I met men and women who chose to attend the Colloquium because they wanted to learn how to make this music in order to transform their parishes and they realized the task fell to them alone to make that happen. I was also surprised and edified at the number of young men and women who are entering the field of Sacred Music professionally and who desire to be supremely competent in their craft. As we know, there is often a false dichotomy presented in the Church today between the professional musician and the faithful disciple, and many participants I met were living proof that professional competency and discipleship are both possible and necessary.

Hope: I realize there is a lot of confusion in the Church today, most of it self-inflicted, and while it is easy to become discouraged, don’t despair. I see so many reasons to hope for the future. At the same time, the musicians I met realized that this hope must be grounded in a healthy acknowledgment that the survival and ultimate flourishing of the Faith in the western world is by no means assured, only possible if we continue to pray and work and spend our lives in the service of God’s Holy Will for each of us. There is a healthy dose of very potent leaven in the world today, but it is up to us to kneed the dough and and bring to fruition the bread that God desires. Of course, this is only possible if we are grounded deeply in prayer, especially in the prayer of the Sacred Liturgy.

Fun: I confess wholeheartedly to being a musical geek and that the most fun I had at the Colloquium was on the last day when a number of folks had already left and the choirs needed extra male singers to fill the choral ranks. Mass was celebrated in the Extraordinary Form for the Commemoration of St. Paul and the choirs sang Palestrina’s Missa Aeteran Christi munera. I had never sung this Mass before, which meant sight-singing with no chance of a “do-over.” Scott Turkington joined the choir to my left and Peter Carter of St. John the Baptist Latin Mass Community joined to my right and the sound was glorious! I could have done that all day.

If you have never been I strongly encourage you to do so—you won’t regret it.

 

The Beauty of Dance

“So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obededom to the city of David with rejoicing… and David danced before the Lord with all his might.” II Samuel 6

I am amazed by the somewhat random and seemingly disconnected memories I tend to recall from childhood. For example, I could take you to the very spot, only blocks from Kansas’ only minor basilica, where I first realized at the age of 12 that one day I would die and that this life would pass by faster than I could possibly imagine. I can also vividly recall my parents playing polkas and waltzes on the piano and accordion after supper when we were very young, or dad and mom changing our vacation plans in Yellowstone National Park one year in order to make a 3 hour pilgrimage to attend the nearest Mass in next door Idaho for the Feast of the Assumption. I especially remember my father, who lacking any ego whatsoever was probably the man most comfortable in his own skin whom I have ever met. In particular, I recall one evening when he and my mother arrived home early from a presentation of of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker at St. Louis’ Fox Theatre. Dad’s workplace had provided the tickets as a Christmas gift and as those tickets provided my parents with a night away from us, they dutifully went. Being the eldest, I was put in charge in their absence, and somewhat surprised when they came home early. The house hadn’t burned and no one had died, so I asked mom what had happened. She smiled and said that dad had had enough of men in tights prancing around the stage for one evening. I couldn’t get that image out of my head years later when I attended The Nutcracker for the first time, although I enjoyed it as much as my father had disliked it.

I wonder what my father would have thought of liturgical dance, although I might hazard a guess, but thankfully he was spared the spectacle. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for myself since liturgical aberrations seem to find me wherever I am, but two instances in particular are worth mentioning here. The first took place at a talk given by a Dominican priest who was indistinguishable from the rest of us in his green pants and polo shirt, which were my first clues that the morning might prove interesting. Later, when a sexagenarian Benedictine sister in a floor length leotard, appropriately contrasted in color to her silvery hair, began dancing about the room sprinkling us (and the priest) with holy water, I judiciously held my laughter, as well as my contempt for the one who had forced my participation in the travesty.

My second memorable encounter with liturgical dance, albeit in secular surroundings, took place in graduate school, where a number of us were deemed unduly inexperienced in this particular liturgical art and made to overcome the deficiency. One of the young ladies in the class was organist at a local Latin Mass parish, and if Chesterton was correct to remark that “angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly,” she must have roared with laughter on the inside, because she made a glorious spectacle twirling her skirts into the air. Of course, harrowing trials are often the cause of deepened friendships among comrades, and she and I have remained good friend to this day. My wife and I were privileged when she and her husband asked us to be godparents for one of their daughters and I can write in all truth that we were not made to dance like harts in search of the proverbial water brooks as we made our way to the Font of Life on that happy day.

While I don’t pretend to love liturgical dance, I do love to pretend that I dance well and my wife and I go for the occasional twirl every now and again, for dance is a beautiful thing. President Washington considered himself to be little in the way of a musician, yet a master on the dance floor. He must have seen the beauty in it, too. A number of years ago a friend of mine married a young woman from Austria, whose family attended the wedding clad in the very best of their national costumes and readily took themselves to the dance floor. I will never forget the mother of the bride dancing the Viennese waltz. I stopped my own feeble attempts and stared at the sheer beauty of it, so simple and yet so elegant. There shall surely be dancing in Heaven.

I mention this because last Sunday most parishes in our nation celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi, and I was struck again by the fact that Catholics, contrary to popular belief, really do have the most beautiful of what one might call sacred dance within the liturgy. Saturday morning I spent an hour and a half with eight altar boys rehearsing the steps of the procession and Benediction, whose intricate and graceful movements are but a shadow of the eternal dance we all hope to share in one day. At every moment, but I think especially on Corpus Christi, Christ issues His invitation to each soul to join Him, to take His hand to be lead by grace and to unite every step to Him Who is life itself. In order to follow His lead, we have to fasten our eyes and hearts upon Him, doing whatever He asks. This sacred dance is as far removed from “liturgical dance” as the waltz is from any form of what passes for dancing in most high schools and colleges today. Nevertheless, a dance it is. May we all accept the invitation of Christ to join Him, to be taken by Him, to love Him and be loved by Him in the Holy Eucharist, futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur. Alleluia.

A Response

Recently a friend and priest commented to me that he felt some seminarians and young priests were far too focused on the exterior details of the Sacred Liturgy, ultimately missing Christ in the celebration of the Sacraments (personally, I think his comments were directed more to me than to certain seminarians). To be fair, he is a very good priest with a heart after the Heart of Christ, one who both believes and practices an orthodox Faith (and celebrates the Liturgy beautifully and reverently) and believes these things are essential to the mission of the Church, which seeks “to baptize all nations.” Nevertheless, I want to address this somewhat common, if negative, assumption about younger Catholics, whether clerical or lay, based on my experience working for the Church.

First, as a church musician and liturgist, my job IS to be concerned with the Sacred Liturgy. It would be a dereliction of my duties were I not. Can you imagine engaging someone to teach your children who didn’t have any interest in them? It’s a comical thought.

Second, I find that those who make such an accusation usually don’t understand the connection between cult and culture, that how we pray determines what we believe, and that what we believe determines where we focus our lives. Perhaps a homely analogy will demonstrate my point.

My wife and I love our children dearly and work to create strong familial bonds that will help us in our work to form virtuous children who will one day arrive at Heaven’s shore (and take care of us in our dotage!), and nowhere does this happen more than at the dining room table. Early on, my wife and I realized that the majority of our human and Christian formation came to us through our parents as we sat down each night to supper, so we decided to give our children the same gift. Like so many other things, though, the devil has been in the details and we have had to pay attention to these details along the way, while  not losing focus on the end goal.

When we moved into our house 5 years ago, we found that our dining room was the most uninspiring room in the whole house. It was rather depressing. We still sat down every night to supper and spent quality time together, but it wasn’t until we gave the room a new coat of paint, nice window treatments and hung quality pictures on the walls that we found we couldn’t wait to spend time it that room. Supper hadn’t changed; we didn’t love our children more (at least not for that reason); but we anticipated our time together more.

The next addition was a new (at least to us) dining room table. Our home is an 80+ year old colonial and I had always dreamed of beautiful Georgian table as the final touch in the room, but knew I could never justify what would amount to half a year of college tuition to pay for such an heirloom. God, however, in His eternal sense of humor inadvertently brought my attention to such a table and chairs for 10 in solid mahogany and brass on Craigslist for a fraction of the cost. As I paid for the table, I wondered if the inlaid table top would survive our boys, who had the unfortunate habit of dragging the points of their silverware across the table. We purchased place mats for everyone and instituted a policy that one’s plate, cup and silverware always had to stay on the place mat and that everyone had to stay in his chair until were finished.

We also had to fix the problem of our children starting to eat before we got to the table, so we taught them to stand behind their chairs until we had prayed. Only then would we ALL sit down. As the final touch, we decided that on Sundays and feast days we would pull out the wedding china and my grandmother’s wedding silver to give the day a real specialness.

My wife and I often comment that supper is our favorite time of the day. We ask each of our children to tell us what their greatest joy of the day was as well as their greatest sorrow and we sometimes read a short biography of the day’s saint. We find that supper is where we have really grown as a family and where we have learned so much about our children. It is also where we talk intentionally about our Faith with our children. This is our evangelization time, if you will. Some people might acuse my wife and I of focusing too much on the details to the detriment of letting our children be kids by trying to recreate long gone social customs or pretending that we are somehow higher on the social ladder than other people, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are resigned to the fact that wedding china will break (and has broken) and that milk will continue to spill from precariously stemmed glassware. They are, after all, just things, but they are sacramentals in the sense that they speak to us about the beauty of the vocation of a Christian family and they reinforce in us the desire to become the family God has called us to be.

Some time ago we spent a few days with extended family who regularly passed out paper plates to everyone in an effort to keep things easy. The table was usually half full of groceries or toys that had to be pushed aside, and which caused people to eat all over the house.  My wife commented later that she missed getting to spend quality time at the table with everyone and I couldn’t have agreed more.

In the same way, I focus on beauty in the externals of liturgy and music not because I worship them, but because I love God and He is worth it. Every so often (although not nearly enough) I get flowers for my wife and my naturally frugal mind always cringes at the cost, but I am amazed how such a simple gesture brighten’s my wife’s entire day and I find that by “wasting” my money on her, I find freedom and joy. To be honest, focusing on the external aspects of liturgy engages very little of my day. Even at home I don’t sit around talking to my family about liturgy. We pray together and pass on the Faith to our children, but I can’t remember that I have ever engaged my children in a discussion about the aesthetics of the liturgy, even on their own level.

I am sure that there are those seminarians and priests and laymen who are too focused on the externals of liturgy, but don’t forget they exist on both sides of the liturgical divide. I would venture to say that in the past 50 years there have been more than a fair share of priests and seminarians who were overly focused on the liturgy in an effort to destroy all that was holy and good, including Faith in Christ. Perhaps the supposed over emphasis on the Liturgy among younger Catholics today is just a response to its devaluation since the 1960s. I have said it before and will say it again: if the Sacred Liturgy is where we meet the Lord, then there you will find me.