All posts by theart61_wp

Vocally Building Your Choir

If more choirmasters were honest with themselves, they would probably acknowledge that no more than 25 to 40 percent of their singers are actually leaders within their choirs. This is not meant to disparage the many fine choristers who dutifully rehearse and sing weekly, but to find ways to help each one become a leader in his own right, or at the very least, to become a little better this week than he was the last. Not only would this raise a choir’s general capabilities, but it would also build confidence and willingness in each singer. They will WANT to accomplish what you ask.

Over the next few weeks I want look at ways you can help your choir grow vocally, starting with breathing, but before I go any farther I would encourage you to take private voice lessons if you haven’t before. This is the best thing you can do vocally for your choir.

James Jordan, the well know choral clinician, is adamant that the best way to help your choir members grow vocally is to get them to be aware of what it is they are doing. This means the difference between each individual singer riding as a passenger in a school bus and being at the wheel of a racing car. You want your choir to be filled with drivers, not passengers, and this starts with singers being aware of the way their instrument works. The voice is a wind instrument, which makes breathing of paramount importance, but don’t fool yourself into thinking this is an overly technical process.

The incomparable William Finn, in his Art of the Choral Conductor (24-25), finds ridiculous the “innumerable monographs and dissertations [that] have been written on the alleged ‘art of breathing.'” Rather, the “average child and adult generally breathe correctly, otherwise the human race would long since have become extinct. But under the stress of self-consciousness, both children and adults are likely to show two faults: first, they raise the shoulders while inhaling; second, nervously or through inadvertence, they permit the breath to be exhaled too suddenly.” Your goal as a choir master is to teach your singers to breath as deeply as possible while the shoulders are down and relaxed. Ask each singer to lie flat on the floor and simply breathe (it is almost impossible to breath incorrectly in this position). As soon as each singer becomes aware of this natural state of breathing he can arise and apply the knowledge to singing while standing. You will need to practice this with your choir members for a number of weeks before it becomes second nature. Then you will have to hold them to it.

Another way singers experience proper breathing (especially if they would rather not lie on the floor) is to slowly breathe out until all air is spent and then relax the body. As the diaphragm returns to its normal position it will draw the breath deeply into the body, almost as if it were filling the stomach.

Once your singers become aware of breathing naturally, your task will be to connect that knowledge to the act of drawing breath and then releasing it slowly as they sing. Ask your singers to breath in deeply over the course of 4 counts and then slowly release the air for 8, 12, 16 or even 20 counts. Eventually they should release the air by humming and singing on neutral syllables, such as oo. Most singers will be able to sustain a note for 8 or 12 counts, but it will take practice before they can work up to 16 and 20 counts. The idea is to slowly release the air as opposed to allowing it to “fall” out.

Supposedly old Italian singing masters asked their students to sing in front of a mirror in a cold room. If the mirror fogged over, it meant the student was using too much air. Likewise, they would ask their pupils to sing in front of a lit candle. If the flame flickered during the aria, it meant the singer was releasing too much air. I have often asked singers to hold a finger in front of their mouths and pretend it was a candle and to imagine not allowing the flame to flicker as they sang. This has had a profound affect on their singing. It is important to note that pushing more air through the vocal apparatus does not mean louder singing, but husky singing, which is never pleasant in church music (or anywhere else).

I should also make a general note about singing posture. Ask your choir members to sing with an athletic posture; neither stiff like a soldier nor drooping like the slouch. Keep the feet slightly apart and under the shoulders with knees slightly bent and the head tall above the shoulders. Remember that good singing is 90 percent mental and encourage them to expand their awareness to other aspects of their singing. They will notice the difference in their sound and so will the congregation.

A Review of Fr. White’s Tools for Rebuilding

I recently finished reading Tools for Rebuilding, a well known book in U.S Catholic leadership circles written by Fr. Michael White, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in North Baltimore, and his assistant, Tom Corcoran. If you are unfamiliar with this work, it is the sequel to the book Rebuilt by the same authors, detailing the re invigoration of the Church of the Nativity over the course of Fr. White’s tenure. The parish’s story is well known among bishops, priests, directors of religious education, youth ministers and others who seek to spread the Gospel in an increasingly secularized society. The entire Rebuilt movement is spreading through workshops given across the county and via social media.

To be fair, I find much in the book worthy of reflection. Both Fr. White and Mr. Corcoran possess and promote a lively and orthodox Faith, which they refer to as “dynamic orthodoxy.” They took a failing parish and turned it around, tackling issues that many pastors and parish leaders might find overwhelming (only high school boys serves).

Many of the book’s 75 Tools (each is a chapter) embody common sense strategies for creating any healthy organization, and to be honest, parishes can learn a lot from them. Fr. White challenges his parishioners’ consumer mentalities. He welcomes newcomers, asks the newly arrived to get involved and challenges those involved to go deep into their faith.

Interestingly, he acknowledges the Eucharist to be the source and summit of the Church, channeling most of the parish’s energy into making the “weekend experience” the best the it possibly can, but here I feel his model runs out of steam. The Mass cannot be reduced to a “weekend experience.” This mentality focuses on the people being the primary end of worship as opposed to the Triune God. One finds this none too subtle ideology in the book’s focus on clean bathrooms over beautiful vestments, or “relevant” music (read pop music) over the Church’s music. This is really sad because it sets two objectively good things in opposition to each other instead of making them work side by side, another silliness of the modern age. Why shouldn’t a parish have beautiful vestments AND clean restrooms? Why can’t there be relevant music that is ALSO truly beautiful? Why can’t we worship God, build up the faithful AND welcome the newcomer (or the fallen away Catholic)? Why can’t we celebrate the Sacred Liturgy worthily AND build Christian fellowship?

I am truly edified by Fr. White’s work, but I do hope that his regard for the church growth movement doesn’t negate the Sacramental and supernatural nature of the Church. We need to present the Church in ALL of Her fullness.

Music in Catholic Schools

Last week Catholics across the fruited plain celebrated Catholic Schools Week, so I find it apropos to share some musings about music education in our parochial Schools–the good, the bad and the ugly, and offer a plan forward.

First, the Good. There are almost 2 million students served by Catholic schools across the US, making the Catholic school system the second largest educator of American students after public schools. The Church, therefore, exerts a large influence on a sizeable minority of US children and quite frankly usually educates them better than public schools. This means the Church possess a tool of immense value. From my own experience, I can say that Catholic education in our present day is far more Catholic in every way possible compared to when I attended (through the 90s and early 2000s). Schools possess a far superior Catholic identity with a greater focus on evangelizing than in my day (I know some of you are shaking your heads at this point in disbelief and I promise to address your concerns in a moment) due in no small part to a much healthier crop of bishops, priests, parents and young teachers who want the Faith to be taught in its fullness. I wish I could say the same for music education in our schools, but for a few exceptional pastors and teachers, it is rather abysmal. I must say that I find a greater number of parishes that believe in the power of music to evangelize young people, but I can’t say that they always act on this belief in a healthy way.

Second, the bad. Just because the situation one encounters in Catholic Schools today is much healthier now than it was 25 years ago, that doesn’t mean that it is anywhere near where it should be. The educational vineyard has suffered tremendously and it is going to take a very long time and even greater effort to repair the damage of the last 60 years. Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s pastors and teachers tried to all but destroy the Faith of average Catholics in the west, and now that they have largely succeeded, a much healthier crop of clergy and teachers find it daunting to overcome. More than half the families with children in Catholic Schools can’t even be bothered to take their children to Mass on Sunday, much less give witness to the Faith to their children. This means that even good Catholic schools struggle to fulfill their mission. As I mentioned above, Catholics are realizing how important music is to evangelization, but in general they view it as a manipulative tool used to get young people through the door (I realize they don’t think about it in this way). Basically, give them what they like to get them through the door the first time. If you are familiar with books and programs such as Rebuilt or Amazing Parish, they lean in this direction, while most schools and youth group programs rely on this model exclusively.

Finally, the ugly. What I find so distressing in all of this is that we have sold our educational birthright as Catholics for a tepid bowl of Dewey inspired porridge. The greatest educator in the history of the world is the Catholic Church and over the centuries She developed a model of education based on the liberal (free) arts, the trivium and the quadrivium, crowned by Theology, whose aim was nothing less than to form children to love and seek after truth and to realize that ultimately Truth is a person, the person of Jesus Christ. In this paradigm students move from the here and now to ultimate things, while our modern system of Catholic education tends to be a good public school with religion class thrown in. This system compartmentalizes education into separate and unrelated fields relegating religion to be “just another class.” Some children like math, some like spelling and some like religion. In the end, the general populace wants their children to receive high paying jobs and music doesn’t usually fit into that scheme. Education becomes something we consume instead of something that frees us and music is another consumable product the school provides if enough students and parents want it. There is no belief that some music is good and some is bad and that within these categories there are levels of goodness and badness. There is no concept of offering both God and our students the best of what we have. There is no idea of opening young people up to this great thing we call western civilization. Rather we produce what students and families prefer to consume. We give young people the kind of music we think they want at Mass and wonder why they don’t stick around (admittedly music is by no means the only problem). The Church and Her music become like clothes, just another consumable commodity–young people like them when they are in style, and feel good about them at the time, but soon they wear thin and are tossed in the wastebasket with yesterday’s refuse.

The questions remains, though, how do we move forward. I would suggest that we:

  1. Rediscover the purpose of a Catholic education (and it isn’t to be a better public school with a religion class tacked on) and be able to articulate it over and over.
  2. Rediscover that music has the power to train the heart to love what is good, and that we make the decision to give our students the very best of our musical patrimony.
  3. Devote a large amount of our music education program a program to teaching the music of the Church, one of our greatest treasures.
  4. Slowly introduce a diet of good music while reducing the dubious sort. (Richard Terry told the story of a pastor who changed the music at school Masses over the course of a generation and after that time the problem of music at Sunday Masses had taken care of itself.)
  5. For smaller parishes with limited resources, hire a competent musician who has a knack for teaching to run the parish music program and teach in the school. I personally know of pastors who have been very successful doing this.

If you are trying to move away from Praise and Worship, be sure to read Adam Barlett’s FOCUS on Beauty: The Liturgical Heart of Missionary Zeal. FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) is doing incredible work bringing young people to/back to the Faith and over the last 7-8 years they have made a seismic shift in the way they prepare music for Holy Mass.

Another invaluable tool is the National Catholic Education Association/Pueri Cantores list of Music for Catholic School Masses. Implementing this list of hymns and a beautiful setting of the Mass Ordinary in English would be a vast musical improvement for most parochial school Masses. If you school is ready to sing the Propers (you are blessed indeed!) Corpus Christi Watershed is more than happy to point you in the right direction.

Finally, I would encourage you to never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Lay people especially need to pray for and encourage their pastors and music teachers, but realize they may be constrained in what they can do because of either outside limitations or by internal ones such as limited funds or extreme pressure from small, but vocal minorities in the parish. If they are working toward the good, do everything you can to assist them. In short, keep up the good fight and keep moving forward!

Forward, Ever Forward!

Yesterday I had the immense privilege of attending the Kansas state Pro-Life Mass and Rally to mark with sadness the 45th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade and to pray for the continued conversion of our nation and for an end to the scourge of abortion in our land. As I looked around at the myriad faces of grade school and high school students present, it gave me cause to contemplate the other great holocaust plucking young men and women from our ranks, almost universal apostasy.

The fact that a third of my generation never made it out of the womb alive is  disgusting, but what of the others who received the chance at life? If the statistics are correct, almost 80 percent of Catholic youth leave the Church by the age of 23. I wonder how many of the youth I encountered yesterday will still be among the spiritually living a decade hence? The thought isn’t heart-warming. Sometimes it’s utterly unbearable.

I write, however, with a deeper purpose. I encounter so many faithful Catholic men and women, priests and religious, fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, not to mention a number of youth, who have grown complacent in the current situation, feeling helpless. They live in Faith, but without Hope. I grant that it is difficult to live the virtue of Hope surrounded by spiritual death and destruction on every side, and perhaps even harder when such evil emanates from those within the Church.

I am aware of the many readers here who work untiringly in the field of sacred music (and elsewhere), who wonder at times if their work matters, if their prayers are heard. To each of you I say continue living in Faith, praying for the virtue of Hope. Remind yourselves of the History of Salvation and the great love of God for His people. He will not abandon you or leave you orphaned. It seems impossible at times to remain calm in the barque of Peter as the winds rise and the waves buffet her about and the vessel fills with water. But Christ is still at the helm, the same yesterday, today and forever.

One day, God willing, when He calls you into the New and Eternal Jerusalem, you will discover the eternal consequences of the offering of your widow’s mite. You will be amazed at the countless number of souls who will have arrived safely upon that Shore because you pressed forward resolutely, not stopping to count the cost. Forward in Faith! Forward in Hope! Forward, ever Forward!

What if…

If only… At some point in every man’s life he mutters this phrase in a moment of  absolute frustration. If only… I have my own slew of such stories, many of which deal with a beautiful, but old colonial style home my wife and I purchased a number of years ago (if only the builders hadn’t planned the main gray water drain line to exit the house into the back yard, snake under the entire garage, enter our neighbor’s yard and then return back into our front yard to connect to the main sewer–who willingly creates problems like that?). As musicians, priests and liturgists each of us has similar stories he could tell about his own parish church and problems he deals with because the building wasn’t conceived through careful thought and planning. Following my article last week on the importance of the right sound quality in churches I thought long and hard about the various peoples and knowledge I would bring to the table if I were building an ideal Roman Catholic Church and would like to share that with you today. What follows is a short list of those people I feel should be involved in the planning of a church from the very beginning to ensure a worthy celebration of the Roman Rite in both of its forms. (I do not include obvious examples such as engineers, contractors, fund-raisers, etc., but confine myself to those with an obvious connection to the Sacred Liturgy.)

Priest: As obvious as this is and should be, I wonder if priests sometimes view their role in the church building process as more of parish CEO than as chief parish liturgist. As the one responsible for the celebration of the Sacraments and as the spiritual father of a vast family he is leading to Heaven (on whom the building will have an obvious impact) , he needs to have a clear vision of what a church building is. Obviously this won’t be the strength of every pastor, which is both natural and to be expected, but if he struggles in this area, he needs to find those who can help him.

Liturgist: I hesitate to include liturgists in this discussion, having had more trouble with them in my life than I care to recall. (I somewhat rue the fact that I have liturgist in my official parish title, but the Lord has a sense of humor.) However, there are some really good ones out there who understand the history of the Roman Rite and its liturgical requirements and they can offer insights that otherwise might never be thought of. Such a liturgist needs not only to understand the Roman Rite and its rich history, but needs to have a love and respect for that history, especially for both forms, as well as such things as ad orientem worship.

Organist/Choir Director: Again, I hesitate to add musicians to this list for the same reason I hesitate to add liturgists–too many of them disdain the Roman Rite’s liturgical patrimony, which bodes ill for any of our building projects. However, the importance of music in the celebration of the Roman Rite behooves a pastor to include a liturgical musician worthy of the name, and to do so from the very start. It goes without saying that a fine organ should be part of the project from the beginning and it is much easier to remove walls or add them before they are built rather than after. Many parishes won’t be able to afford a quality instrument until after the church is built, but it should be planned for from the very beginning. A quality acoustician (recommended by a organ company of high quality) goes without saying as well (refer to my article last week on this topic).

Liturgical Architect: It is imperative that a parish employ an architect steeped in the history of church architecture. This does NOT lock a parish into copying a specific style, nor does it preclude a genuine inculturation of local elements. Nevertheless, your parish will not succeed in building a church structure worthy to be called an icon of Heaven if you don’t have an architect who can embody some part of the glory of Heaven in stone, wood and glass. Duncan Stroik is well known for his ability to do this, but there are others as well.

The Way of Beauty: David Clayton’s book The Way of Beauty should be require reading as well as the basis for reflection and discussion for any church building committee. One must always keep in mind that the church building itself is a sacrament of Heaven and this book is the most complete, yet accessible work I have encountered that forms such an understanding in the reader.

Whether a Gothic cathedral in France, a rural Norman church in England or a Californian mission church, each one in its own way has the power to lift our eyes in contemplation of the New and Eternal Jerusalem. My prayer is that parishes recognize both the incredible potential and responsibility they possess in erecting such edifices.

Sound Does Matter

As we stand upon the threshold of a New Year, waves of joy and apprehension simultaneously flood my soul as I arrive, rested, back to work following a beautiful holiday vacation. Mind you, I don’t consider Christmas “done in” yet, nevertheless our new year of grace presents a time for fresh beginnings and in that vein I feel obligated to press for one particular New Year’s resolution from you and your music program—namely, switching from a predominantly fake system of amplification (that thing we call the microphone) to the beauty of natural resonance.

I confess an innate disgust for all things fake, but the microphone stands as a doubly dreaded foe due to my unfortunate lack of technical prowess. Perhaps it’s only my personal experience, but its use seems to fall into two camps in the Church. Ordinary Form parishes worship the microphone as the unum necessarium, the one thing necessary, to bring the Liturgy to life, while Extraordinary Form parishes tread upon the microphone as one attacks a venomous serpent. Thus I find the shear volume of the Ordinary Form parts my hair down the middle (but at least can hear the homily!) while the quiet of the Extraordinary Form graciously envelops me (even during the homily!). I realize this contemplative nature is due as much if not more to the very nature of the Extraordinary Form, but I wouldn’t mind a little updated amplification during the homily. It makes me feel unduly past my prime when my wife and I are forced to whisper back and forth throughout the 40 minute long sermon asking each other “what did he say?” Alas!

I will never forget about a decade ago entering the local church to pray and noticing that the pastor had a man from Bose Sound Systems on site testing new sound equipment. The priest read passages from Scripture as the technician experimented with various sounds levels and microphone positions, while the speakers, placed in the sanctuary facing the nave, produced such a loud cackle that I couldn’t even pull my thoughts together to pray. In a sense, I understood every word. As a matter of fact, I was beaten over the head by every one of them. Yet I had no space in which to contemplate the WORD because there was no silence, no quiet, no stillness. The pastor and I were friends, so he left the sanctuary to ask me what I thought. What ensued was a short conversation about the nature of the Sacred Liturgy and its twofold purpose of worship and sanctification. We spoke of the difference between the Catholic Mass and a Protestant worship service, the former by necessity sung as the Church’s eternal hymn of praise, while the latter is almost entirely spoken due to its over emphasis on the written word of God to the exclusion of the Word of God.

The sung Liturgy is much less attached to the microphone due to the repetitive nature of the Ordinary of the Mass and the natural resonance of the singing. Plus, the gift of silence offers one the priceless pearl of contemplation. Ask any mother what she would like after a day at home with the young ones and I guarantee you she won’t ask for more noise. Perhaps Christians share the same boat. They are simply tired of the noise.

I don’t know if my conversation with Father was the catalyst, but I noticed later that when the new sound system arrived, the speakers were mounted in numerous indirect locations to the congregation, replicating a pleasing and natural resonance. It was perfect!

On the other hand, most church musicians  follow the Rolling Stones amplification model of QUANTITY over quality. I watch in amusement as some church bands practically caress the microphones as they get tooled up (do I hear strains of Preciousssssss……) and later as they perform. Quite frankly it’s exhausting to listen to and practically douses any warm strains of congregational singing with the iciest of waters.

I felt somewhat vindicated recently when a good friend and far greater intellect (Dr. Kevin Vogt, Director of Music at St. Michael the Archangel in Leawood, KS) posted a New York Times article on Facebook entitled Dear Architects: Sound Matters—a wonderful read about acoustics and the forgotten ingredient in architecture–sound.

Vogt commented by way of a forward to the article that “while many people appreciate the beauty and reverence of our celebrations at St. Michael, many others feel it is lacking affective appeal. There are a lot of reasons why this might be, but those of us who experience and think about this every day believe that while our sound system is excellent, the scale of the room and the lack of early sound reflections make any unamplified sound very quiet and isolated…”

Chant and polyphony (and even congregational hymnody) developed before electrical amplification and I firmly believe that proper acoustics are essential to their success (I will spare you a long tangent about the overtone series). As Dr. Vogt recognizes, “As Catholics, we believe that Christ is truly present in the assembly of the baptized, when it prays and sing, and so the very sound of the Church praying and singing is ‘sacramental.'” The Church’s music loses much of its sacramental power when its natural voice is destroyed. Imagine the difference between chant sung in a carpeted bungalow as opposed to a Gothic cathedral (or even a humble country church from the 19th century for that matter).

Dear Architects: Sound Matters rightly makes the connection between sound (not just the amount, but the very quality of it) and the fittingness of a building (does it do what it is supposed to). For example, “an expensive, solid wood door sounds better than an inexpensive hollow one, partly because its heavy clunk reassures us that the door is a true barrier, corresponding to the task it serves.” In another place the author writes “If only subliminally, we also know, by contrast, when sound spoils architecture because it fails to correspond to funtion. The bygone Shea Stadium in Queens was joyless partly because the design of its low, wide semicircle dissipated the sound of a cheering crowd into Flushing Bay. Fenway Park in Boston is the reverse; it concentrates hometown joy.” Such a dichotomy is an apt description for many of our churches.

What good is it training choirs to praise God beautifully and to communicate the Gospel effectively if at the end of the day the congregation feels isolated by cold and emotionless music? I realize it is “right and just” to give God what He deserves whether people feel good about it or not, but in today’s climate the church musician is under fire from a thousand different voices shouting at him through more than microphones to be relevant. What musician would continue to offer such an invitation to serial martyrdom when no matter how well he does his job, the acoustical devil spits his work back in his face Sunday after Sunday. Maybe the first step is to slowly ween congregations from amplified sound (this Sunday perhaps), or if amplification is necessary, to convince one’s parish to invest in a high quality system that delivers necessary but understated amplification effectively. That would make a fantastic Resolution!

Of the Father’s Love Begotten…

I must confess that I don’t turn on the radio to listen to Christmas carols, as nothing puts me more out of the season’s spirit than listening to the likes of Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… These songsfor that is all they really arehave precious little to do with Christmas and certainly aren’t carols. They can’t even claim to be good ol’ honest secular carols like Jingle Bells and Deck the Halls.

Last year I regaled readers with a short history of the Christmas carol and provided ample encouragement to all families to once again take up the honorable tradition of caroling around the tree, or wherever best suits your family. I would echo that encouragement again this year, only more passionately. Your children’s view of the Incarnation will be influenced more than you could ever imagine by the Christmas music they listen to and sing, by the Christmas movies they watch, by the decorations you have in your household, by the general  way you celebrate the season and most importantly, by the way you and your spouse conduct yourselves (especially your prayer lives) throughout Christmastide. Christians must take a stand and take back the culture. Do at least one special thing together each of the twelve days of Christmas, even if it is something as simple as playing a game or drinking hot chocolate and eating Christmas cookies. At least a couple of those nights should involve extended family and friends. Here are a few of my family’s favorites:

  • Continuing our family’s routine of prayer even though we are with extended family
  • Caroling (that was a given)
  • Playing cards (about 4 hours worth last night)
  • Visiting, especially older relatives who live alone
  • Playing board games (unfortunately I am typing this as some family are on the other side of the table playing Connect Four)
  • Eating and drinking, and eating and drinking, and eating… did I mention eating? (fudge and English toffee accompanied by coffee with Bailey’s Irish Cream are my downfall)
  • Maintaining an attitude of wonder and awe at the Incarnation (it snowed this year on Christmas Eve and on St. Stephen’s Day, and for some reason every time I look out the window it reminds me of God’s gift of His Son)
  • Reading the fantastic books I received as Christmas gifts (David Clayton’s Way of Beauty, James Monti’s Sense of the Sacred, Sir Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People and Barry Singer’s Churchill Style: The Art of Being Winston Churchill

Some day I wouldn’t mind cooking up a good ol’ fashioned Christmas Ball, but ’til then have to content myself with adding a few pounds (or more than a few) in honor of our Lord’s birth. However you and yours decide to celebrate, I wish our readers a very blessed and Merry Christmas!

Your Family and Adventtide

In Nicholas Diat’s full length interview with Cardinal Sarah, God or Nothing, His Eminence echos a point frequently made by Pope Benedict throughout his life, namely that at the heart of the Christian Faith lies an Event, a Person–the Person of Jesus Christ. Our theology and philosophy, our doctrines and dogmas and even our morality are not the foundation of our Faith, but rather flow from Him who is our Rock. This encounter with Christ also lies at the very heart of the mysteries we celebrate during Advent and Christmas, the threefold coming of Christ in the Incarnation, in the life of Grace and finally at the end of time to “judge the living and the dead.” The Person of Jesus is the greatest gift you and your family can receive this year, and in that vein I would like to propose some helpful suggestions for preparing a place for Him to come and dwell:

  1. Finish your Christmas shopping (completely) before the first Sunday in Advent. Remove the consumerist culture from your family entirely by not having to partake in it during these four weeks. My wife and I have done this for the past two years and it has changed our family’s celebration of Advent and has drastically reduced our stress and strained relations between us. It forces us to make gift decisions quickly and it reduces the ridiculous amount of time we spend shopping to about a full Friday and Saturday. In some ways it becomes a game for us, a giant scavenger hunt to find out if we can slay the proverbial dragon again. Later my wife and I spend one or two evenings (after the children are snuggled in bed) during Advent sipping hot chocolate and eating cookies while we wrap gifts and talk.
  2. Your spiritual life comes first. If you spend titanic amounts of time in physical preparations for Christmas but can’t find 20 to 30 minutes for mental prayer each day, then you don’t have your priorities straight. Stop right now and change that. Also, make sure that every member of your family cleans his own stable before Christmas by making a good Confession and help your children to make a concrete spiritual and material resolution to carry out during Advent.
  3. The Advent wreath and dinner table. Create an Advent wreath and place it in the center of your dining room table where your family can gather each evening before supper to light the Advent wreath and eat together. As part of the ritual sing Advent hymns and talk about them with your children (t is amazing how much of our Faith can be passed on in a song). Remove the electronic devices and  spend at least 45 minutes together. Yes, your children will complain about sitting so long, but remember that you are the parent and you are forming your children.
  4. Set up your nativity scene throughout Advent. We have a Fontanini nativity scene that we have added pieces to every year so that it now sprawls all over the living room mantel, side tables and piano, and recreates the Little Town of Bethlehem. The pieces are made of resin so little hands can play with them and wee have statues of St. Joseph and our Blessed Mother with child riding on a donkey, which journey around the living room as they make their way toward the manger (the same goes for the Three Wise Men). Our children see the Christmas narrative unfolding in front of their eyes–their own daily meditation on the Christmas mysteries. We also have a handful of straw next to the stable and they are allowed to put a piece in every time they perform a good deed (yes, this gets messy!).
  5. Turn off the Television. There is no explanation needed. Simply fill the void with any number of family activities.
  6. Let the Sacred Liturgy be your guide. Allow the feasts and celebrations of the Church to guide your family celebrations, from reading the Sunday Gospels to celebrating the Feasts of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadelupe, Sts. Nicholas and Lucy and finally the O Antiphons.
  7. Go to Midnight Mass. Do not attend the Christmas Eve/Vigil Mass in an effort to put your obligation behind you because you have so much else you need to do. Think instead about attending Midnight Mass or one of the morning Masses and teach your children how important it is that Christ is at the center of your Christmas celebrations. I remember as a child each year returning home from Midnight Mass and standing around our outdoor manger scene, half frozen, singing Silent Night and placing Jesus in his crib.  Of course, our dad always read the Christmas story from St. Luke’s Gospel before we opened gifts.

At the heart of all of your preparations remember that your children need to see that for you everything takes second place to your relationship with Christ. Let that relationship be the foundation for everything you do to prepare for this Holy Season and you will receive the gift of a truly blessed Christmas!

Music and Evangelization

I feel blessed to belong to the Archdiocese of Kansas City (KS) where our shepherd, Archbishop Joseph Naumann takes his role with joyful seriousness. Over the past few years evangelization has been at the forefront of his activities, working to to cultivate in the faithful a love for proclaiming the Good News to a world desperately in need of that News. I have personally benefited from a number of these initiatives, especially the work of the Apostles of the Interior Life, who provide untold hours of spiritual direction, and the Little Brothers and Sisters of the Lamb, who provide for the materially poor not only with food, but with a beauty (Beauty) more satisfying than any earthly fare. As a matter of fact, His Excellency has more than once made the point that Beauty is an essential starting point for evangelization.

Nevertheless, I feel that the faithful in general (clergy or lay) have yet to discovere the deep connection between the Church’s Sacred worship and beauty and Her mission to evangelize–they don’t understand that the Sacred Liturgy provides the fuel for the Church’s evanglization efforts through the “right and just” worship of God, while at the same time forming the evangelizers themselves into the men and women God has called them to be. Too often there is a false dichotomy between those drawn to Beauty and those drawn to the outward efforts of evangelization (in much the same way that a false dichotomy has always existed between the contemplative and actives apostolates), which is why I was so excited to read Leah Sedlacek’s September 17th article for the Adoremus Bulletin entitled FOCUS on Beauty: the Liturgical Heart of Missionary Zeal.

Sedlacek’s article follows the story of how FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), arguably the largest and most effect group of Catholic missionaries on both secular and Catholic universities in the US today, has begun to bridge that gap through a renewed emphasis on beauty, especially within the Sacred Liturgy. FOCUS, with the help of Illuminare Publications and Adam Barlett, has been transitioning from a “singing at Mass” approach to a “singing THE Mass” approach to liturgical music and it is having a profound impact on the millennial students they work with (this doesn’t mean that they no longer use Praise and Worship, only that they don’t use it as a cheap substitute for what is authentic). The authoress, who heads FOCUS’s worship team, writes,

“We continue to take steps to follow more closely the vision and principles proposed by the Church. And we hope to equip our missionaries and staff with a deep liturgical formation and with resources to help them encounter the beauty of Jesus Christ in the liturgy, who is the source of all our efforts to evangelize on college campuses and in parishes.

It is an incredibly refreshing and dare I say beautiful movement within the Church today, one that I feel could be of invaluable help to those places making the transition to a more authentic celebration of the Church’s sacred worship.

The Problem of Acedia

For some time I have been engaged in the reading a truly great little work, one I would heartily recommend to every reader of this blog, The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times by Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B. I don’t intend to lecture you with a digested version of the book (which deals neither with the Sacred Liturgy nor with music), but to discuss one section in particular that speak to me as one who strives to “labor in the Lord’s vineyard.”

Following an exposition of the thought of the Fathers of the Church on Acedia (often translated todaymerely as Sloth), the author tackles the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas on Acedia. According to St. Thomas there are two definitions of Acedia: 1) a sadness about spiritual good and 2) the disgust with activity.

St. Thomas makes note of many ways in which the vice of Acedia might manifest itself in the Christian, but one way in particular strikes me as particularly insidious for the Church in our time, that of Pusillanimity, or smallness of soul. St. Thomas refers to this vice as a daughter of Acedia and lists it as one of the vices opposite the virtue of Magnanimity, or greatness of soul. Magnanimity is the virtue that allows man to perceive the greatnes of the God’s calling and to respond to this call.

Magnanimity is that virtue that spured the saints to tackle enormous and seemingly insurmountable problems. Magnanimity is the virtue that brought to fruition the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages and inspired men like St. Francis de Sales or St. Martin de Pores to work for the conversion of thousands of souls. Think of St. John Paul II who worked to defeat Communism or Pope Benedict, a seemingly introverted professor/pope, who inspired a generation of church musicians and reinvigorated the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. Think of Mother Teresa who worked with the poorest of the poor around the world or Mother Angelica, the cloistered nun who, probably more than any, brought the light of truth and the joy of the Gospel to generations ofspiritually suffocating Americans?

Pusillanimity, the vice opposed to Magnanimity, causes man to shrink back from the greatness of God’s call and to strive for what is merely comfortable and easily attainable. It is usually cloaked as false humility. Pusillanimity convinces the Christian that the Gospel is too hard. The Good News is meant more for cloistered convents and monasteries. Marriage is too hard, being a priest or religious is too hard. Being truthful, loyal, a good friend—these are too hard and therefore meant merely as ideals for the Christian to halfheartedly strive for.

We rarely speak of greatness in the Church anymore for fear of driving people away, yet look at all of the men who responded to the call of the priesthood because of the example of Pope St. John Paul II or how many women responded to work with the poorest of the poor with Mother Teresa because they saw in her the greatness to which they felt called.

Unfortunately, the Church, in Her humanness, is not overly welcoming of the those inspired by magnanimity at the moment. She seems stuck in the rut of minimalism, which Matthew Kelly describes as one of the three greatest problems afflicting the Church today. In this atmosphere, the professional musician is generally seen as an elitist or aesthete, the fop concerned with nothing more than producing refined music fit for the concert hall as opposed to one who is truly adept at his craft and who offers it in service back to Christ and His Church.

Of course, there is a remedy for this situation. The author of The Noonday Devil reminds us that according to St. Thomas and the Church Fathers the Incarnation is the ultimate remedy for Acedia and its many problems, including Pusillanimity. When man is tempted to despair in the face of his great calling, he should meditate upon the Incarnation and contemplate the fact that God “was willing to unite human nature to Himself personally” (St. Thomas, Summa contra Gentiles, quoted in The Noonday Devil) and will always be our “help and our shield.”