Music and Liturgy

We have a new organist at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, where I teach RCIA and Adult Faith Formation.  One of the things Chris has done since his arrival is change the format of the worship aid that provides the music for Sunday Masses.

For the Voluntary he plays on the organ before and after the Mass each week, rather than simply identify the composer and name of the piece, Chris includes a brief explanation of the music.  For example, this past weekend, he opened with Herbert Howells’ Master Tallis’s Testament, and the aide included this:

Nineteenth-century English organist and composer Herbert Howells based this piece on a melody by Thomas Tallis, hence the reference to “Master Tallis,” in the title. That same melody is the basis for the choir’s anthem at the 11:00 mass.  Its somber, melancholy nature fits well with the text for the anthem, with the overall ethos of the season of Lent, and with the foreshadowing of Jesus’s death in today’s Gospel. Eventually the piece builds to a loud climax, which parallels the Second Reading’s description of Jesus offering “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” (Cf. Hebrews 5:7)  The quiet, plaintive end to the piece connects with Jesus’s humble acceptance of his fate.

Is any of this necessary?  No, of course not.  I can participate fully in the sacrifice of the Mass without reading any of it.

But we know that music has the ability to greatly enhance the worship experience.  And for me, reading the explanation beforehand allowed me to enter into Jesus’ experience as I listened to the piece – to feel both his “loud cries and tears” and his “humble acceptance.”  It was a wonderful preparation for entering into the Sacrifice of the Mass.


Music and the Camino

For the last two days, I’ve been listening to a CD by Oliver Schroer titled Camino, which was waiting for me when I arrived home, a gift from my friend Gene. Schroer walked the Camino during May and June of 2004, carrying his violin with him. In various churches, he stopped and played his violin, recording himself with equipment he also carried.

I’ve very much enjoyed listening to Schroer’s music both for itself and for its bringing to mind the ways music was part of my Camino. I thought of:

the children’s choir that sang at the very last Mass I attended in Spain, at a small church in Finisterre. The joyful beautiful voices of the children brought incredible life to the service. I felt that everyone in the church was engaged in a way I do not always experience at Mass.

the man I saw in the church in Astorga, who started singing a hymn in an almost empty church. His beautiful voice stopped everyone dead in their tracks. He explained that, where possible, he sings in every church he goes into, so that he can hear the sound of the church.

the sing-along at the monastery in which I stayed in Carrion. When we arrived, we were told that there was music as 6:00. Two local girls came in with their guitars and the sisters handed out sheets with lyrics of songs from multiple languages. We didn’t stop singing until a song in the language of every person there had been sung, an exercise that established a lovely sense of community.

the woman’s voice I heard as I stood in a field next to the shell of an old church. She stood at an open window singing into the building and her voice reverberated all around.

the young man from France, with his sweet singing voice, who serenaded us after dinner at the albergue in Herrerias, accompanying himself on a guitar.

and, although not with the same beauty as these others, I smile as I think of Damion and I raising our spirits during our 32 kilometer walk in pouring rain by belting out as many lines as we could remember of “Singin’ in the Rain.”

None of these will ever make it to a CD, but each of them, in their own way, enhanced my Camino experience.

The Weary World Rejoices

To us a child is born, to us a child is given! Christmas blessings to you all!

We all have our favorite Christmas songs. For as long as I can remember, mine has been O Holy Night, sung by Johnny Mathis. Doubtless no small part of that is that I associate (always have and always will) the song with my father – I can still, more than nine years after his death, close my eyes and see his face and hear his voice as he emphatically sang out with Johnny many times every Christmas season, “Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices…”

Some part is doubtless also the sweet sounds of Mathis’ voice, which I so love listening to.

But, in the final analysis, it is the words, words that express our joy this Christmas morning. In a world of sin, Jesus “appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

On this Christmas morning, with love and blessings, here is the song I love so much.

Update: Although I didn’t know it when I wrote my post this morning, the prelude to the 11:00 Mass we attended at Our Lady of Lourdes included Elena singing O Holy Night in French and English. Wonderful Christmas gift; hope my Dad in heaven enjoyed hearing his grandaughter singing a song he loved.


Last night I saw a fabulous performance of Handel’s Messiah. The Lawrence University Symphony Orcheestra, Viking Chorale, Cantala (the choir Elena sings in) and Concert Choirs all deserve congratulations for their tremendous work.

Although I’ve seen the Messiah performed on any number of occasions, it has always been during the Christmas season, which has become the traditional time for performing it. Last night I saw it almost at the same time as Handel’s first audience, who saw it first performed 11 days after Easter.

Seeing it like this during the Easter season was a very powerful experience. For me, it had something of the same flavor of the Easter Vigil, during which we hear readings that chronicle our salvation history. In the glow of the Easter season, I listened to the prophesy and realization of God’s plan of redemption through the coming of the Messiah (Part One of Handel’s work), the accomplishment of that redemption through Jesus death and resurrection (Part Two), and the hymn of thanksgiving at the final defeat of Death (Part Three). It is hard to describe – but there was a special beauty and power in hearing the story told yet again, coming so close on the heels of the Triduum and Vigil.

It is the tradition that audiences stand during the Hallelujah Chorus of the Messiah, and last night’s audience did not depart from the tradition. (The tradition reputedly dates to the first London performance of the work.) I don’t know why others in the audience stood. Probably many or most did just because they know it is the tradition. Probably some stood because they saw others doing it and figured they were supposed to.

I know why I stood. I stood to honor the King of Kings to whom my life belongs. I stood as an expression of joy at the resurrection. I stood in awe of what God has done and continues to do in the world. And I stood to express my embrace of the truth of the words of that chorus.

Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord,
and of His Christ;
and He shall reign for ever and ever.
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.

Using Art, Music and Poetry in Our Prayer

Yesterday was the second session of the four week fall series I’m giving at St. Edward’s parish on prayer. The idea of the series, which I’ve offered in different forms in the past, is to expose the participants to forms of prayer that might be new to them. Last week, I talked about Ignatian Contemplation and the participants spent the week, engaging in that form of prayer.

Our subject yesterday was praying with poetry, art and music. I spoke about the ability of these media to evoke an affective response in us that helps us deepen our appreciation of God’s unconditional and boundless love for us. After my talk, participants prayed with either a piece of poetry of an image from among those I provided.

During our sharing afterward, I was struck, as I always am during programs that address this subject, by the depth of the prayer experience of those who were there. For many, this was a new form of prayer. But all responded at a very deep level to the material they prayed with.

If you have not before used poetry, art or music as part of your prayer, I strongly encourage you to do so. Although I did not record my talk yesterday, I have previously posted both a podcast of a talk on this subject and some prayer material. You can find them here.

Beauty as a Way to God

Occasionally I give talks on praying with art, music and poetry. Each evokes an affective response in us that allows us to access God’s love in a deep way.

In a recent general audience Pope Benedict spoke on this theme in a way that expresses well my own experience of poetry and music and what I try to convey when speaking on this subject. He said

Perhaps it has happened to you at one time or another – before a sculpture, a painting, a few verses of poetry or a piece of music – to have experienced a deep emotion, a sense of joy, to have perceived clearly, that is, that before you there stood not only matter – a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, an ensemble of letters or a combination of sounds – but something far greater, something that “speaks,” something capable of touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul.

The Pope’s description of his reaction to a concert performance of Bach’s music resonated with me; there is something in a beautiful piece of music (or a poem or a painting) that causes our soul to exapnd, that “irresistibly expresses the presence of God’s truth.

The Pope urged his audience to “rediscover the importance of this way for prayer, for our living relationship with God.” Good advice to follow.

You can find a podcast of a talk I gave on this subject a couple of years ago here.

Laughing With

I saw a link on Facebook to a youtube video of an artist I was not familiar with singing a song I had never heard: Regina Spektor singing Laughing With. The lyrics of the verses speak of situations in which “no one laughs at God,” suggesting for example, that No one laughs at a hospital…or when they are starving or freezing….or when a doctor calls with bad news after a supposedly routine test…or when the airplane starts to shake uncontrollably…or when the cops come calling with bad news, etc.

The refrain is something of a contrast, telling us:

But God can be funny–
At a cocktail party when listening to a good God-themed joke, or
Or when the crazies say He hates us
And they get so red in the head you think they’re ‘bout to choke.
God can be funny,
When told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way,
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus.
God can be so hilarious.

The song ends by telling us: “No one’s laughing at God…No one’s laughing at God…No one’s laughing at God…We’re all laughing with God.

I think the verses of the song reflect real truth – calling to God is a frequent response to human pain and suffering. In those situations, many people who might do so otherwise, don’t tend to laugh and joke about whether God exists or worry about whatever their particular problem with God happens to be. Instead, for many, there is an instinctive cry to God for comfort and assistance.

But the refrain is what really draws me, because it reminds us that God has a sense of humor. God is happy to be with us in our need – comforting us and loving us and caring for us. But God also just likes to have a good time with us. God laughs with us and invites us to laugh with God.

You can watch the video of Lauging With here.


My friend Maria (the wonderful Catholic journalist and author, Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda), wrote to me after reading my blog post of yesterday. It was Maria who introduced me to Danielle Rose, sending me the 2-disk Mysteries, on which appears the song whose lyrics I talked about yesterday.

As Maria put it, Rose “gets” the miracle of the Eucharist – the real presence of Christ. I watched a powerful video yesterday afternoon in which Rose talks about what it means that Jesus is “really there…that it is really Him” in the Eucharist and about how we receive Jesus and each other when we receive the Eucharist. (The video is nine minutes long, but is worth listening to in its entirety. The depth of understanding and honesty in one so young is extraordinary.)

In the video, Rose observes, quite reasonably, that if we believe that it is “really Him” – if we really truly believe that it is really Jesus in the Eucharist, it changes everything. It has to.

In another of her songs, Reason to Believe, Rose proclaims what it means that we receive Christ in the Eucharist:

I become His hands,
I walk with His feet.
Transubstantiation must occur
with each person that I meet.
Thy kingdom come and live today in me.

Maria asked when she sent me these lyrics whether I had ever heard anyone speak of the transubstantiation in this manner. I had not, but it seems to me an awfully good way to talk about it.

Songs (and Gifts) of the Season

My daughter sings in several choirs.  Given the season, our weekend included four concerts.  Two featured solely youth choirs, one was a mix of adult and youth choirs, and last night’s was a performancy by the local Symphony Orchestra, which included a portion of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in which my daughter and another high school girl sang the echo to the soprano aria.

Although the repertoires included the likes of Silver Bells, Sleigh Bells and Deck the Halls, most of the music celebrated the impending arrival of Christ.  It was lovely…it was moving…it was prayer.   I listened to the young voices sing out their Gloria’s and their Allelulia’s and I watched the joy in their faces as they used their beautiful voices to give praise.  

Through it all, I gave thanks to God.  Thanks that I have a daughter with the gift of song.  Thanks that there is support in our community for choirs such as these to exist and to thrive.  Thanks that I have ears to hear and the ability to take the time to sit and listen.  And, then, as I listen to the words of the song, my heart fills with gratitude at the gift we receive by God’s birth into the world. 

One of  the songs the girls sang asks, what will I give the Christ child as a gift?  Ten days from Christmas, if we haven’t yet asked ourselves the question, now is a good time to reflect on: What gift will I offer as I kneel before the creche on Christmas morning?  What gift will I give in return for all the Lord has given me?

God Can Not Love More

One of the CDs in the player in my car contains a number of songs by Michael Card, whose music I enjoy a great deal.  His songs worship and glorify God in ways that touch me deeply and there is a beautiful sincerity to his lyrics and music.  The line in one of them (Chorus of Faith) that keeps running through my mind this morning is

He loves us with passion, without regret
He cannot love more and will not love less.

A beautiful statement of God’s overwhelming and limitless love for us. It simply is not possible for God to love us any more than He does – he already loves us fully, unconditionally and forever. He cannot love more and will not love us less: God will never give anything less than everything. This is something the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story in Luke’s Gospel could not grasp…that his father’s celebration of the younger son’s return took nothing away from the father’s love of the elder son…he already had it all.

Many of us struggle with some version of the elder brother’s difficulty. We have trouble really believing to the depth of our being the extent of God’s love for us. And so an important of our spiritual development is precisely growing in our acceptance of the amazing reality that God can not love more…and will not love less.