Monday, September 24, 2012

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Yesterday, I found myself at a Mass caught in the clutches of a sort of pop music "choir." The guitars, tambourines, mics, and bee-boppy quality of the repertoire destroyed all meditation and recollection.  I couldn't look at the priest through most of the Mass, because he was on the verge of dancing to the beat.  Despite the presence of a perfectly good choir loft, the oversized group and their many accoutrements were parked next to the altar.  The sight of even the best-behaved musicians next to the altar is a major distraction; even more so when they are dancing around and/or dressed outlandishly or immodestly.

Yet, for some reason, this circus is still considered by many to be preferable to sacred chant, in Latin (I don't think chant and English are a good fit), sung from the choir loft, or at least from the back of the church.  I never cease to be amazed at the visceral hatred of and prejudice against sacred chant -- all of a piece with the irrational hatred of the Extraordinary Form Mass, often on the part of people who have either never attended one or only remember it as a distant childhood memory. I guess the problem with chant is (a) it takes effort, talent and discipline to master; (b) it suffers no mediocrity; (c) one cannot imprint one's own idiosynchratic stamp on it. 

But the reality is that there is true freedom in chant. Once I have mastered a piece of chant, singing it makes me feel as though I am soaring. Not being metrical, it is free of time, which is a prison; it is thus, in its own way, a little taste of eternity, which is beyond time.  Which, maybe, come to think of it, is part of the problem with chant: (d) it embodies too much freedom, the unbearable lightness of being.  That's a threat to our taskmasters, the liberals in both the religious and political spheres, who live in dread lest we develop a taste for true freedom, as in the freedom of the sons of God.  

So now would be a good time to dig through our old trunks and pull out the much ballyhooed non-conformity of our youth.  Remember that?  Now we can press it into the service of something really worthwhile.  Try chant.  Get used to singing it, or at least listening to it, and you find that it quite puts the lie to the idea that it and other aspects of traditional worship represent repression and hide-bound uptightness.  On the contrary, it opens our eyes to the difference between the banal and the transcendent.  The discipline of chant is itself freeing: one is only free to create or convey beauty with discipline, because true beauty must be orderly, as Truth is orderly.  Freedom without order is really chaos, and chaos is another prison, the prison of ugliness and insecurity.  That is what we have had in our worship for far too long, and our faith has suffered on account of it.  We no longer recognize chaos for what it is, and we fail to embrace Truth and Beauty, which, as Keats said, are the same.

We need to break out of this prison.  But when we've grown up not knowing anything else, it's hard.  Freedom is dangerous and frightening in our increasingly regimented, collectivist, atheistic age.  Yet we have the tools we need to make our escape, if we just use them.  Consistent exposure to sacred chant and traditional worship are the files that Pope Benedict has baked into the cakes of Summorum Pontificum and Universae Ecclesiae and smuggled to us in our cells.


  1. Thank you, Anita! Great post! I remember chant from my childhood.
    I had a somewhat similarly awful experience Sunday night when, after Mass and before the final blessing, Father called attention to two women who helped with the liturgy, and encouraged (and got) applause for them. Today I called the parish and asked who's the guy who said Mass last night? and was told that's the new pastor. All I could say was "Oy."

  2. Well, to sit through that lot definitely makes you a candidate for canonisation!
    But, thank you for this post I found it very inspirational.

  3. You're a stronger woman than moi. I leave if that sort of thing is going on. It drives me so bats, I can think of no reason to stay. I get so distracted that I'm in no position to receive Holy Communion.

    The difference between our local FSSP parish and the NO parishes is striking.

  4. Paul: thanks for the link. I have that one on my reading list. There are some parish music directors who are going to be in Purgatory until the end of time.

    Bob: I am very familiar with that sinking feeling summed up in the one little syllable "oy."

    Richard: don't mark me down for canonization yet. You don't know the dispositions that imbroglio aroused in me!

    Adrienne: I couldn't leave. There was no place better to go. All the local parishes are at least that bad, some worse. Only the Sunday obligation kept me there.

  5. Anita,

    Reading your post, I thought "why doesn't she just go to the FSSP? There's an apostolate in her diocese. After all, I drive 40 miles one way to my Fraternity parish."

    Then I looked at the map.

    Apparently Idaho dioceses are just a tad bigger than Pennsylvania dioceses!

  6. Jon, the Diocese of Boise comprises the entire state of Idaho. There is one (1) FSSP parish in the whole state, and it is 300 miles away. There used to be a TLM 50 miles away on the eastern edge of the neighboring Diocese of Baker, to which I would travel 2-3 times a week, until the priest was transferred.

    Trust me, I'd go to the TLM exclusively if I had that option.