LISTENING AND LITURGY
Reverend Peter T. MacCarthy
Some twenty years ago a friend of mine observed that there was more liturgy
in a ballpark than in a church to-day. It is reminiscent of the imperial
amphitheatres of antiquity. Spectacles were calculated for the populace-
(S.P.Q.R. = )-to acclaim their gods, selves and
leaders with an unrestrained catharsis and spontaneity as death and
sacrifices displaced collective guilt through the of
established worship. Participation of this kind is vigorous exertion or
action rather than reflection. Called active, it is commonly understood as
doing or saying something, a.v. acting.
That Christians suffered for a transcendental faith was to be expected
because they were at variance with the . With a
alien to the pervailing mentality, they were rejected and even substituted
as vicarious victims of the game. Refusing to worship the established gods,
they became the reproach of men. Their God was a victim of Roman justice-
incomprehensible and mysterious.
The key to this contrast of liturgies may be explained by the fact that
"the image we form of God is a determining factor in the worship we offer
Him." Frank Sheed expressed it as: "your treatment of the thing depends on
your definition of it." What we express by word or action reveals our
basic thinking. How we think determines our behavior. Moreover, we project
ourselves through them even to the extent of exposing our attitudes towards
others. What we do or say is, therefore, obvious to God.
Awareness of the dynamic movement of the liturgy facilitates taking part in
it. Throughout both actions-the Word and the Eucharist-the priest, , is the facilitator of communion. At one time he speaks to
God for and with the people, at another he addresses the people of God.
Thus the action oscillates between the vertical and horizontal directions
of communication. Silence at intervals is in order. In this dynamism one
can discern the symbolism of the cross.
The purpose of the liturgy, then, is to manifest our perception of God and
our response to Him. It is theocentric rather than homocentric, revealing
the focus of one's love. God characteristically gives and man takes. Love,
though, is reciprocal. The Church under divine guidance has realized this
in the structure of the Mass. In the liturgy of the Word we speak to God
Who responds through scriptures and His priest. As we expect God to listen
to us, so we listen to Him. If we assume the courtesy of being heard, we
must tender the courtesy of listening attentively. This very dynamic
reveals our love. Both scriptures and homily should be received as
revelation from God activating deep reflective silence.
Impelled by contemplation, enriched by music, we are prompted to action
through the offertory of ourselves and gifts. Love of the Word of God thus
proclaimed by the Church suggests pertinent music to embellish the seeds
cast in the vineyard. Obviously the quality of the music reflects that of
the musician's gift.
In the liturgy of the Eucharist, then, we give to God in keeping with His
giving to us. "Surrender" expresses more accurately our sacrifices in union
with the Victim Christ, the Gift of the Father. So disposed, we are open to
the awe of the angels singing at the sight of such munificence to
men. Words fail us because the silence of heaven is too loud for us to
hear. The contrast between word and song insinuates a silent pause, however
The role of all-the communion of saints-in the sacrificial liturgy called
the "Mass" has been defined by the Church and reiterated as . It is to be -in spirit and in truth-by contrast with
merely . The discriminating factor lies in its facticity of realism
whereby there is harmony between word or action and truth: taking part
Thus it precludes mere verbalizing, shallowness or the superficiality of
mere spectators. is involvement with the investment
of one's self in the action: song, prayer, listening. It is rational and
volitional rather than emotional, affective rather than sentimental or
The emphasis to-day is on the person through bodily activity even to the
extent of hyperactivity by way of escape from silence because it is alien
and threatening to him. It isolates one from one's security in escape,
evokes confrontation and it requires discipline to be meaningful and
How does listening come into liturgy? After his experience of a "new Mass"
Andre Frossard commented to Pope John Paul II: "Holy Father, I'm not asking
for a return to the old Mass. I just feel that the new one isn't as
contemplative. It has much talk and a lot less mystery." To this the Holy
Father rejoined, "The Word is also a mystery."
Both men appear to illustrate different perspectives and approaches;
Frossard passive, the Holy Father active in the sense of . The
former seems to focus on conditions conducive to contemplation: silence,
tranquility and composure, while the Pope focuses on the object of
contemplation: the , the ultimate Word and expression of the Father.
The conditions are within our own power while the object is given through
The dispositions necessary for such prayer are: composure, tranquility and
. Summarily, composure is self-possession, the victory over
distractions and unrest. It is the vital dynamic unity of an individual who
could be distracted by the surroundings, tossed to and fro by the myriad
events of his life or debris floating in the space of memory.
It is not uncommon for one's attention to be broken into a multitude of
fragments by the variety of things, persons and events around him. His mind
is restless, his feelings seek objects that are constantly changing; his
desires reach out for one thing after another; his will is captured by a
thousand intentions, often conflicting. He is harried, torn, self-
contradictory. Composure works in the opposite direction, rescuing his
attention from the sundry objects holding it captive and restoring unity to
his mind. It frees him from its tempting claims and focuses it on one, the
Composure is more than freedom from scattered impressions and occupations.
It is something positive; it is life in its full depth and power. It may be
compared to respiration. It has two directions: inward and outward. Both
are vital; each is a part of this elementary function of life; neither is
all of it. The living organism that only inhaled, or exhaled, would soon
asphyxiate. Composure is man's mental "inhalation" by which, from deep
within, he collects his scattered self and returns to his center. Only
through such composure is he genuinely affected by what life brings him,
for he alone is awake, aware with the inner realization of the essential.
Only then is he free, open and accepting of the other in his words; only
then is he in communication. He is as absorbed as the audience listening to
Handel's or a Merton when he wrote: "the rain ceases,
and a bird's clear song suddenly announces the difference between heaven
. Man is related; he must relate or get lost in the isolation
of his nothingness. Existence itself relates him to God, his origin and the
reality of his image. Only in that Ocean of Tranquility can one realize
one's own tranquility: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."
"Love knows no fear" (1Jo).
Tranquility is freedom from disturbance, agitation. Despair, unbelief,
guilt, narcissism are so contrary to the good of human nature as to be
destructive and alienating one from "the other," God in particular. They
constitute barriers, obstacles to existential harmony. Reconciliation is a
pre-requisite (cf. Matt 5:24: "Leave your gift at the altar. . ."). The
serenity of a genuine penitent frees him to "approach the throne of grace"
without fear of rejection. The storms of evil are subject to the divine
command: "Be calm."
Those who acknowledge the Real Presence in the tabernacle can experience
tranquility through the awareness of the divine presence. Words are not
even necessary. The very fact of just being present can constitute prayer,
adoration and love.
. Noise is so prevalent in our society that some
people panic at its absence. For many silence is the absence of sound.
Negative as that may seem, there is also silence of a positive, rich
nature, prompting the question: did you ever listen to the silence?
(unabridged) states that to hear is to
"be made aware of by ear," whereas to listen is "to pay attention to
sound," "to hear with thoughtful attention." Thus it would seem that
hearing is a passive activity; the inevitable result of having the faculty
of hearing, a physiological phenomenon requiring little conscious effort on
the part of the hearer. One perceives the sound, though not necessarily the
depths, meanings and variables accompanying it. In other words, "hearing"
can be applied to the reception of sound ranging from the periphery of
consciousness to the total engagement of the person. Thus, it might be
conceived as a continuum with something like parataxic distortion on one
extreme and listening on the other.
Listening, then, is by contrast more active, implying attention, alertness
and consciousness, in fact the whole person. It would appear that there is
more to listening than might be evident so that examination of the spoken
word and the dispositions of the listener is in order for the believers
whose faith revolves so much around the art of listening. "Faith comes by
hearing" (Rom 10:17).
Both silence and listening require the discipline of attentiveness if one
is to relate , to receive, to discover and to increase. It is
prompted and intensified by interest. Interest is the expression of one's
reaction to the environment and consequently the ability to receive and to
give of one's self. It is the prelude to love.
. It is said that "sound is heard only in silence."
The greater the silence, the richer the word received. A word or sound is a
thing of mystery. It is so volatile that it vanishes almost on the lip, yet
so powerful that it decides fates and determines the meaning of existence.
Words come from within, rising as sounds fashioned by the organs of a man's
body, as expressions of his heart and spirit. He utters them, yet he does
not create them, for they already existed independently of him. One is
related to another; together they form the great unity of language.
The word or note written on paper is clearly a lifeless, inert, symbol with
no meaning or efficacy. It must be perceived by a mind which absorbs it,
and its significance, internalizes and personalizes it so that it becomes
part of him and thereby becomes dynamic. It is the person who gives it life
so that it becomes vibrant, deep, meaningful and expressive. Thus it
becomes the means, the medium whereby a person communicates himself because
those very words emanate from him and in a way are himself. Only words and
sounds formed by the human voice have the delicacy and power necessary to
stir the depths of emotion, the seat of the spirit, the full sensitiveness
of the mind.
The living word arranges itself onion-like in various layers. The outermost
is that of the simple communication, such as might be conveyed
artificially, symbolically or by some apparatus which reproduces human
speech. The syllables thus produced draw their significance from genuine
language but are superficial, often mechanical. Such a level of words is
not true speech: that is to be found in deeper layers. Rather, true speech
exists only in proportion to the amount of inner conviction carried over
from the speaker to that which is spoken. The more clearly his meaning is
embodied in intelligible sounds, and the more fully his heart is able to
express itself, the more truly does his speech become a living word.
. Since the word or sound is multidimensional and is an
expression of the person who embellishes it, it follows that hearing, too,
exists on many levels. The hearer, therefore, is in tune to the extent that
he chooses or has the dispositions for full reception of the communication
of the person speaking. One can be selective in listening, hearing only
those words that appeal to him, mean anything to him, or are consonant with
his own outlook and expectations. One can listen to those songs and
statement's desired, yet "tune out" advertisements and all other sounds
irrelevant. But selectivity in listening does not guarantee full reception
of the message or, for that matter, of the person who speaks.
Clearly, listening requires more. The reality of speech or music depends
upon the speaker's ability to speak and to be silent in turn. Silence and
speech belong together: they are interdependent. Silence is not the mere
absence of noise but something positive and full of life. It implies a
stillness, the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of
its hidden stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being "all there",
receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it. It
is not a superficial matter as it is when there is neither speaking nor
actions, but it is the repose of thoughts, feelings and heart as well as
the limbs. Genuine stillness permeates, spreading ever deeper through the
seemingly plumbless world within. It is something to be desired, learned,
striven for and achieved. Behind it lie meditativeness, reflectiveness and
attentiveness. It is no more compatible with disturbance than the
distraction of Claudius as he exclaimed:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below;
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
So much, then depends on the dispositions of the listener, his
receptiveness, and his openness. Egotism and preocupation with himself and
his affairs close him within himself so that he is unable to receive and
accept the other person's communicating himself through song or words.
Something more is required of the listener, something which he must desire
and of which he is capable: a being inwardly "present" listening from the
vital core of his being, unfolding himself to that which comes from beyond.
And all this is possible when he is inwardly still. In stillness alone can
he really hear, but stillness presupposes composure.
How then is listening liturgy? One's encounter in the liturgy is
essentially a harmonious blend of the living word and listening. The word
or thought as incarnated, personalized, by the speaker or singer is
released as living speech as he seeks that unity of persons called rapport.
In the liturgy listening and response constitute the very essence of
worship. Silence makes for "silent worship" and makes room for the "Word of
the Lord" so that prayer is listening rather than talking. We must listen
to ourselves as we pray, always conscious of the One Whom we address. God
permits self-centered prayer until we listen to ourselves and realize the
need to concede: "Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening."
Liturgy is communication, a two-way process. It involves direct and
indirect elements through audio and visual means. Words and gestures alone
do not necessarily relate because they can be meaningless ritual. The Lord
revealed this truth as He observed: "This people pay me lip service but
their heart is far from Me. They do Me empty service" (Matt 15:8).
God has difficulty getting through to us because we create a distance
between Him and us through self-preoccupation and sin-denied or admitted-
making us deaf to His Word. Distortion of His meaning by the Jerusalem
politicians led to rejection of Him.
Those who "read" for excitement, curiosity or novelty coursing over the
words and songs, seeking what fascinates, really portray . They have ears to hear but not to listen, unaware of the fact that
the scriptures were written to be heard, absorbed rather than read. We must
read the gospels with our ears, listening as have anawim in their poverty
and simplicity, open to the Word of God Himself beneath appearances. Their
purposeful genuflection, sign of the cross and demeanor reveal
. Pharisees and publicans, disciples and saints
exhibit levels and degrees of involvement in the re-enactment of the
passion, death and resurrection of the sacrificed Christ, too mysterious
While communication implies both transmitter and receiver, the focus of
their efforts must be Christ, the eternal Word. The depth of what is
conveyed devolves from their knowledge and love of Christ. He becomes real,
or present, to them according to their investment of self in Him. On the
other hand, the combination of sight, sound and action portrays the
sacraments but, devoid of reverence and advertance to reality, they are
mere ritual. Sincerity distinguishes a compliment from flattery.
The crisis of faith that distinguishes this age has tragically affected the
liturgy, the Church's gem and treasured gift. While there is a revival of
interest in scripture and spirituality one is led to inquire about their
origins. The passion for novelty, individualism and activism has produced
superficiality with disconcerting results. Why are tradition and antiquity
rejected when they have withstood the ravages of time, change, and culture?
Culture derives from , worship of the numinous. It reveals the
perspective of a society as being transcendent or immanent.
God has given man the ability to rise above himself and his world, the
vertical aspect of liturgy. The Church has always taught and fostered it,
for from it derives the awe, mystery and reverence which characterize true
religion. Sixty years ago Dietrich von Hildebrand explained the contrast
evident in "celebrations" to-day. Gone is the "spirit of in the
liturgy" which he defines as the "sense for the structure and the dramatic
rhythm of being" for "the stages of the inner development of a given
theme," organic in contrast to the mechanical and artificial.
Pre-reformation Christians found themselves by contemplating God while
subsequent generations seek God in man, the image. The reality is lost in a
collage of images and the cacophony of the age of communication.
Finally, we must ask the : to whom do we listen? Whom do we
believe? The still is: "This"-the Church-"is my beloved Son,
listen to Him."
1. Grossouw, W. K. .
2. Sheed, Frank. .
3. Frossard, Andre. .
4. von Hilderand, Dietrich. , p. 51.
5. Ibid., p. 115.
This article appeared in the Fall 1993 issue of "Sacred Music." Published
by the Church Music Association of America, 548 Lafond Avenue, St. Paul, MN