[The following are the program notes for First Vespers of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, to be celebrated Monday, December 31 at 5:15 p.m. We hope that many of you can join us and ring in the new year with this beautiful celebration!]
Articles tagged with liturgy
The concept of kingship, considered throughout history and in multiple cultural contexts, varies quite a bit. Contemporary Americans tend to equate kings with tyrannical figures wielding huge amounts of arbitrary governmental power, whether it be the power of taxation exercised unhappily by George III at the expense of the Colonies, or the power of complete policy control as brandished by the Sun King, Louis XIV (“I am the state,” “L’état, c’est moi,” was his memorable way of expressing it).
Monks in the modern world are daily confronted with incongruities. We dress in tunics and scapulars that were the workaday clothing of sixth-century peasants. We pray the Psalms, composed some three thousand years ago in a language that does not translate into contemporary idioms very well. Many of our customs date from the early Middle Ages (suddenly a controversial era!), presupposing a worldview that is unfathomable to many of our neighbors in Chicago.
Yesterday, I received an email from Jon Elfner, a friend of mine. The email read, in part:
[The following is from the program notes from our last celebration of Solemn Vespers.]
The Sixth Sunday of Easter is not the flashiest of liturgical events. We’re a good ways out from the euphoria of Easter, but not quite at the Ascension yet. It seems like a good time to step back at think about the liturgy in general.
Poetry tills and harvests in the fields of metaphor.
When Shakespeare’s Romeo muses, “Juliet is the sun,” he is not making a statement that is literally true. But it is true. How so? Oddly enough, answering this question involves us in more metaphorical speech.
“He did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid [Mark 9: 5].” With this little detail, Saint Mark reveals quite a bit about the character of Saint Peter and the human condition in general. Under normal circumstances, we are unprepared to behold the full glory of God, and when suddenly God’s grandeur “flame[s] out, like shining from shook foil,” it can be a terrifying, disorienting experience.
We have many testimonies of this encounter. One early, telling encounter was that of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was a priest and probably had entered God’s temple countless times to offer sacrifice. One day, he suddenly saw in reality what he had been celebrating in shadowy, symbolic ways. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up….And I said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips…for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts [Isaiah 6: 1, 5]!” Isaiah is rendered voluntarily speechless until his lips are cleansed by a coal from the altar.
Similarly, Saint Thomas Aquinas, toward the end of his earthly life, was celebrating the Eucharist as he had many times before. This time was different. Like Isaiah, he glimpsed something of the reality that he had celebrated in the half-veil of sacramental mystery. The author of the Summa Theologica, perhaps the greatest intellectual achievement of all time, wrote no more after this, leaving the Summa unfinished. “All that I have written seems as so much straw,” he confided to a friend.
Saint Peter suffers no such scruples. Beholding Christ transfigured, he was properly afraid. Not knowing what to say, however, he said whatever came to mind. In this, he seems to be of a kindred mindset to modern man. Is it not the case that our incessant talking, the swarming proliferation of words, is so much nervous chatter to cover over our anxiety and alienation? We hardly know what to say, yet we can’t stop talking. In our case, I suspect that silence doesn’t occur to us because our fear is not the result of an encounter with the living God, but with the dreadful possibility of His utter absence.
I began by saying that we are not normally prepared to meet God in the unmitigated power of His limitless Being. What the Transfiguration begins to teach us is that, under the dispensation of grace, in the afterglow of the Resurrection and Pentecost, we live under a “new normal.” We live in the in-between time, the time of the holy Liturgy, after the shadows of animal sacrifice but not yet at the full consummation of the world. The Kingdom of God is breaking into the world that itself is passing away. The baptized, as God’s adopted children, are being trained to “see [God] as He is [1 John 3: 2].” The training of our senses and their elevation to the spiritual realm takes place in the liturgy.
This past June, we were blessed to be able to unveil our two newest icons, the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, flanking the Mother of God and John the Baptist. Gradually, our sanctuary is being populated with the communion of the saints. Icons are not mere representations of model believers. The iconographer truly receives the image from the inbreaking realm of heaven. Iconography is, therefore, an ascetical craft, a discipline of visual listening and receptivity, a training of the interior vision to see beyond the sacramental into the reality of God’s holy court. At the same time, icons train the worshipper to attune his or her senses to this new reality. The icons are a central part of the liturgical act, and as conduits of grace, help to elevate the sense of sight to its proper spiritual register.
Similarly, sacred music is much more than pleasing ornamentation of holy words. As Kevin Allen and I have discussed at various time in our decade of collaboration, the composer of sacred music must, like the iconographer, exercise a discipline of spiritual listening. The aim is, through purification of hearing, to catch something of the overwhelming beauty of the perpetual song of heaven. At Solemn Vespers this coming Saturday evening (August 5, 5:15 p.m.), the First Vespers of the feast of the Transfiguration, Kevin and I humbly offer two new motets in this spirit. We pray that our double motet will be a similar conduit of grace, to prepare our hearts to hear God’s Word in its fullest transformative power.
Pray Tell Blog recently posted my review of Benedicta, a CD collection of Marian chants sung by the monks of Norcia. It’s really two reviews in one. One part of me admires the lovely singing, the warmth of tone, and the ringing intonation of the brothers’ voices. On this level, the recording stands up with the better chant recordings I’ve heard. The other part of me is uneasy, however, about some choices the monks made. Among these choices was their use of the “Solesmes method” of interpretation (which, as I understand, is no longer used even at Solesmes Abbey itself), which I identified as part and parcel of the larger problem of presenting the chants without context. The lone comment on the blog suggests that it shouldn’t matter whether the Solesmes method or some other approach is used. What matters is that the music is beautiful.
Even before reading the comment, I was puzzling over what I take to be the importance of getting past the Solesmes method. Is my position truly defensible? Or is it a personal preference? I believe that my position is rational, and therefore to be preferred to a ‘pre-rational’ assessment.
But defending my position will take some work. Let me give an example of the uphill battle we’re talking about here.
I was at a reception after Vespers recently, speaking with two members of our own Schola Laudis. I mentioned to them that one of the things driving my interest in chant and Renaissance music at the liturgy is that I was seeking a rational way to go forward with the composition of church music. I meant by this that we should have reasons for choosing one type of music over another. When it comes to church music, it seems that we are usually content with saying that we want music that is beautiful. Fair enough. Would it be too pedantic of me to ask why we consider some music to be beautiful and other music to be maudlin, ugly, or overly sentimental? Some people consider “Send in the Clowns” to be a beautiful song (me…not so much, though I get its appeal). I personally find the Prelude to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde to be quite beautiful, in its way. These are not, and should not (I think) be models for church music. Many people, on the other hand, find Gregorian chant dull, elitist, hard to understand, difficult to sing with any connection to one’s emotions, etc. Yet church documents make very clear that this style is the basis of our sacred music tradition.
Much of what we take to be beautiful depends on our cultural upbringing and, one hesitates to point it out, on our level of achievement in virtues like moderation, chastity, and humility. Lacking such virtues might lead us to prefer ecstatic music to sober music, manipulative music to ordered music, or simply music that we liked as children to music that adults tell us we’re supposed to like when our tastes develop a bit more.
Therefore, simply saying that music ought to be beautiful is not specific enough. Church music needs to be beautiful to certain types of persons. And those of us who are not yet those sorts of persons need to be able to make an act of faith that the beauty of such music will become more apparent as we grow in virtue and knowledge. Furthermore, I think that it is reasonable, based on experience, to hope that exposure to “virtuous” music will actually assist us in growing in virtue (this argument goes back at least to Plato, though it is much contested). We have more likely been exposed to the opposite phenomenon, someone descending into vice accompanied by depressing, libidinous, or cruel music.
What remains, then, is for me to explain why the approach taken by the Norcia monks is delightful on one level, but, in my opinion, does not quite approximate the beautiful in the fullest sense. Furthermore, I should be able to show that their recording falls somewhat (not entirely, mind you) short of what it could have been because of specific choices that they made: the use of the Solesmes method, and the somewhat random manner in which the chants were selected (random with regard to liturgical rationales). These proofs will have to wait for a later post.
Bonus tracks: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde…music that is not quite chaste, deliberately eliding tonal boundaries in a manner uncomfortably parallel to the elision of marital boundaries in Wagner’s personal life at the time of its composition. He was falling in love with Mathilde Wesendonck, and perhaps carrying on an affair with her. Wagner’s indiscretions resulted in his separation from his wife Minna.
Here’s my example of ‘ecstatic’ music, “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane, a piece not without its own kind of beauty and order, yet clearly not in any way a model for church music.
And surely you didn’t think I’d leave you without “Send in the Clowns…”
Reader Dave sent the following quote from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s book Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism. I find it interesting that he made the connection between liturgical strangeness and preparation. This is because, as anyone in formation in our monastery will tell you, I harp on the theme of preparation as integral to the spiritual and liturgical life. Schmemann:
We must realize first of all that preparation is a constant and essential aspect of the Church’s worship as a whole. It is impossible to enter into the spirit of the liturgy, to understand its meaning and truly to participate in it without first understanding that it is built primarily on the double rhythm of preparation and fulfillment, and that this rhythm is essential to the Church’s liturgy because it reveals and indeed fulfills the double nature and function of the Church herself.
On the one hand the Church herself is preparation: she “prepares” us for life eternal. Thus her function is to transform our whole life into preparation. By her preaching, doctrine and prayer she constantly reveals to us that the ultimate “value” which gives meaning and direction to our lives is at the “end,” is “to come,” is to be hoped for, expected, anticipated. And without this basic dimension of “preparation” there simply is no Christianity and no Church. Thus the liturgy of the Church is always and primarily a preparation: it always points and tends beyond itself, beyond the present, and its function is to make us enter into that preparation and thus transform our life by referring it to its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God.
Yet, on the other hand, the Church is also and essentially fulfillment. The events which gave her birth and which constitute the very source of her faith and life have taken place. Christ has come. In Him man was deified and has ascended to heaven. The Holy Spirit has come and His coming has inaugurated the Kingdom of God. Grace has been given and the Church truly is “heaven on earth,” for in her we have access to Christ’s table in His Kingdom. We have received the Holy Spirit and can partake, here and now, of the new life and be in communion with God.
One of the things we insist on when men enter our monastery is that they do lectio divina on the Propers of the Liturgy. Why? Because this becomes their personal (and our communal) preparation for the Divine Liturgy. Without this kind of intensive, and quite frankly often mundane, preparation, many aspects of the liturgy will simply go over our heads. This is not because the liturgy is too difficult, intellectual, or aesthetically elitist. It is because the liturgy comes to us from the future, from the end of time, from heaven, and we begin this encounter as persons in time and in the world. The liturgy is our training to be in the world but not of it, in time but eschatological, citizens of heaven still on pilgrimage.We will better realize the fulfillment of time and the cosmos to the extent that we prepare for the work of the liturgy. All of us are invited to do this, at whatever level is appropriate to our place in the Church, and we all benefit each other to the degree that we become new persons, that we “partake, here and now, of the new life.”