Reflections on Sacred Music and the Liturgy

Author: Peter A. Kwasniewski

Reflections on Sacred Music and the Liturgy

by Peter A. Kwasniewski

The Church, acknowledging that man is not merely an intellectual being who can subsist on thoughts alone but a creature who approaches reality through his senses, has always emphasized the importance of incorporating sensible signs into her acts of worship. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains in his treatise on the sacraments, Christ provided His Church with sensible signs of His abiding presence, conduits of grace through which the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of the faithful. Used in the proper way, these sacred signs -water, bread, wine, oil, words of absolution-not only represent the action of Christ, they His work because He works through them, they are the means by which He visits and sanctifies the believer. Because man is not a disembodied mind but an integral whole composed of body and soul, it is most fitting that God should bestow His gifts upon the faithful by elevating humble things of common experience into efficacious means of sanctification, so that the ordinary can be rendered extraordinary and our world can be permeated with signs of God's love.

The Church and the Fine Arts

Nowhere is this transformation more evident than in the rich heritage of the fine arts, whose history cannot be told without including a preeminent place for the Church and her patronage. What began as the glory of the pagan world-architecture, sculpture, painting, music-became in her hands the servants of the divine mysteries, ministers of the unseen world and dim reflections of the beauty of God. The sacredness of the liturgy is adorned and elevated by the use of beautiful things: icons that seem to capture the timeless essence of sanctity, statues that remind us of the communion of saints and the purpose of our lives, stained-glass that depicts episodes from the Gospel and the history of the Church with an eloquence unrivaled by words. Contemplative plainchant, soaring polyphony, the majestic sound of the pipe organ-these too are no small part of the Church's sacred worship and noble patrimony.

As a result of experiences with various liturgies, some blessed and some regrettable, I have had much opportunity to think about these things, particularly sacred music. During the past six years, I have directed choirs for singing four part music and scholas for singing Gregorian chant or plainsong. The music I choose to perform, often at the request of others, is, in most cases, hundreds of years old: motets from the Renaissance, that glorious flowering of Catholic culture, and from the Baroque and Classical periods. Whenever we sing plainsong, we are drawing even more deeply from the historical and devotional fountains of our faith: a large number of the chants for the Roman Rite date back to the ninth and tenth centuries, when monasteries were flourishing in Europe and set the tone for society at large.

Some Neglected Truths

From the time I began directing liturgical music, certain vital but nowadays neglected truths have become clearer to me. The first truth is that one does not "make music for the liturgy" or "fill in the empty spaces when the priest is busy." One lets the liturgy itself, with its own rich spirit, its age-old prayers and profound gestures, shape and govern one's choice of music. The second truth I have learned is more paradoxical: as its final end, liturgical music should have its own dying in mind. Of course I do not mean the death of the music itself-far too much good music has been allowed to die out, to the inestimable disadvantage of the faithful. Rather, I have in mind the important lesson Christ came to teach us: we must lose ourselves, forget ourselves, that we may be all the more attentive to Him, all the more willing to .

In performing or in hearing music, many people experience a momentary uplifting of the soul to heavenly heights where the beauty and peace of God eternally reign. This transcendence of self is one of the aims of the sacred liturgy, and music is certainly meant to aid us in raising our souls to God-or better, allowing Him to raise us. The lesson we should learn is one of self-forgetfulness, self-effacement, the humility of those who reverently assist at the Holy Sacrifice: : not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Thy name give glory. If all the people were lifted to meditation on divine things because our music gave wings to their souls, then we musicians should thank God that they are no longer thinking of the melodies and the singers. "I must decrease, He must increase," said John the Baptist, forgetting himself, guiding his followers solely to Jesus Christ.

Music for the liturgy, therefore, must breathe the air of the sacred. It should not be raucous or assertive; it should not advertise its own cleverness or tunefulness. It should not be noisy-there is far too much noise in the world already, from airplanes to radio stations! The best qualities of sacred music have also been the most enduring in the history of the Church: pure melodies, tranquillity, modesty, reverence. On one extreme, some liturgical music is too operatic, as are many pieces written in the late Romantic period; at the other extreme, pieces fashioned in a "folk" idiom are too cute and sing-songy. The moment that people become with the music whether in singing it with gusto or hearing it performed by a choir-the music ministry has, in a very important sense, failed in its purpose.

The fine arts have enjoyed a long but not always peaceful relationship with the worship of God. When fine art serves to enhance worship by focusing our minds on the sacred, it deserves the greatest praise, but when it offers distractions and fascinations that detract from the central act of sacrifice and thanksgiving, it has essentially set up as the liturgy, as the reason for attending Mass. That this has often happened in the history of the Church should come as no surprise. To admire excessively the works of human hands is a perennial temptation,- as the commandment in the Decalogue against the worship of graven images bears witness. The ancient peoples who dwelled in the lands surrounding the Hebrews seemed to have had an inordinate appetite for superstitions revolving around talismans and idols. In our own times, when so many lack faith in Jesus Christ, we have witnessed the revival of such superstitions among devotees of the so-called New Age.

As happens with all errors, however, the extreme of paying too much attention to artistic and cultural forms of expression can lead, by way of reaction, to the extreme of rejecting them entirely, under a false notion that men can worship God "more purely" if sensible signs-statuary, organ music, polyphony, stained glass, sacerdotal vestments, and the like - are removed from churches, wheedled down to a minimum, or uglified by aesthetic modernism. Nowhere is it more true that the proposed remedy proves far worse than the disease. To suppress the traditional liturgical arts or strip bare the sanctuary to "purify" or "simplify" it, as the Calvinists did in the sixteenth century, is not at all to improve worship, but rather, to attempt to make it for incorporeal spirits and not for creatures of sight and hearing, flesh and blood, as we truly are. The wave of banality and populism that has stormed Catholic churches for some thirty years now is scarcely better, one must admit, than getting rid of artwork altogether. To suppress the fine arts or to transform them into something flimsy and trite is to dishonor the precious gifts that God has given to mankind through centuries of vibrant Catholic devotion.

Gregorian Chant

The Church has always insisted that the beautiful ancient melodies known as Gregorian Chant be given a place of honor in the liturgy, a place not to be compromised by other styles or types of music. Unfortunately, few seem to heed this wise commendation.

There seem to be at least three reasons for this neglect. The first is a widespread loss of silence, sacredness, prayerfulness, in the celebration of the liturgy itself. Such a dramatic loss could only have taken place where people were already inured to the noisiness and profanity of our world, and no longer realized how great is our need for meditation and recollection if we are to pay honor to God and make strides in living out the Christian life.

The second reason is more subtle and more perilous. In many respects, the way Catholics conceive of the Holy Mass has been gradually tainted by humanism. The focus shifts from the atoning sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, to the "community gathered together to celebrate." These two elements need not be in conflict, of course, but given the contemporary tendency to emphasize the social side of Christian worship, there may well be a danger that the transcendent mysteries we re-enact may become peripheral, downplayed, and even forgotten. The moment a liturgy ceases to be focused upon the Cross of Christ, the unbloody renewal of His Sacrifice on Calvary and the commemoration of His Resurrection and Ascension, it also ceases to minister to the true spiritual needs of Christians: adoration, thanksgiving, penitence, and supplication.

A humanistic notion of the goal or focus of worship brings about a false sense of what congregational participation means. According to the view (seldom stated but often accepted) that man is at the center of all things, the purpose of liturgy would be primarily to glorify and praise man, or to make him feel good about himself. Perhaps God would be invoked as an afterthought, as a vindication of our instinct to self-worship; but there is no room for God when men think so highly of their own innate goodness. One often notices this strain of thinking in sermons preached at weddings and funerals; judging from what is said, one would think that every marriage begins in the bloom of virtue, and every life ends in the odor of sanctity.

The creed of a humanist has two articles: men are naturally good; as a result, men need no Savior to rescue them, no authoritative Church to guide them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Men are weak sinners, and without Jesus Christ and His Church, there is no hope of their improvement and salvation. The Christian, who stands at the pole opposite to the humanist, knows that unless he eats the body and drinks the blood of Christ, he shall have no life in him. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is man's communion with God, the focus of all his aspirations and longings.

Thus, if we look at what the liturgy truly is, we shall see that the gathering of the community is a precondition for, but not the summit of, our worship. God is the object, not man; the Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life." Prayer, most especially our participation in Christ's sacrifice, is the highest form of community action. Whatever conduces to good prayer, prayer focused entirely on the divine Majesty and His angels and saints, brings about by its very nature the fullest union of one Christian with another in their common purpose of knowing, loving, and serving God.

Finally, as a result of the strong influences mentioned above, I believe that many parish music directors are either unaware of the rich heritage they neglect, or are taking advantage of their position to create liturgical "experiences" wholly out of keeping with the faith of the Church. Whether out of dislike for an unfamiliar kind of music, or out of more dubious aims of "modernizing" parish life, such directors often fail to cultivate the talent and interest needed for preparing and executing chant, hymnody, or polyphony in a worthy manner.

More Than a 'Get-Together.

These reflections on sacred music lead inevitably to more general ones about the state of the liturgy today. Let us consider for a moment the way in which anti-traditional tendencies, whose bitter fruits we are now reaping, affect the priest's role in the parish and the priest's perception of the duty and office belonging to him. There can be no doubt that priests ought, like Christ, to be shepherds, teachers, and rulers; for there is no doubt that people need to be shepherded, taught, and ruled. The false conception of liturgy as a "get-together," however, devalues the priest, turning him into a mere "facilitator" of miscellaneous activities scheduled for a Sunday morning. There is no reason why any other person could not "facilitate" those same simple tasks: all it takes is one who can read whatever is printed on a page stuck into a binder. When mystery and the adoration of God recede into the background, when the doctrine of Christ and His Church receives scarcely a moment's attention, the priest loses his reason for being. If men are not sinners, how could they stand in need of sacramental confession? No wonder Reverend Father feels that his days are humdrum. He is no longer governing and healing souls.

A similar problem arises with music ministers. Are they there to put on a show and to keep the people pleasantly occupied or do they sing in order to elevate the devout soul to the worship of the Almighty? As I suggested earlier, part of the essence of true music ministry is that it consciously seek to itself, to leave the limelight and recede into the walls, so to speak. Only when the congregation ceases to think about the music as one would think in general of any secularized art, can the musicians assume their rightful place: servants to the common good of the parish.

It would be impossible for me to count the number of times I have heard glowing comments after Mass from people young and elderly: "Your music was beautiful-it really helped me to pray, that old song brought tears to my eyes." People who go to Mass to worship God are deeply grateful when the music focuses their hearts on Him and helps to prepare their souls for the sacred mysteries we celebrate. But the comments I like best are those that, measured by the world's standard, one would least want to hear: "I didn't really notice the music, because I was so caught up in the beauty of the liturgy." If church musicians do their job well, their ministry will contribute to the good of the entire community gathered together for worship; they will not stand out like glittering jewelry or artwork done in poor taste.

If all of the elements that constitute our public worship were blended together properly, then the music would assume its indispensable role, not as a center-stage attraction, but as one important member of a complex ensemble of symbols: the vestments worn by the priest, the sweet smell of incense rising to God, luminous stained-glass windows depicting the life of Christ or the Saints, statuary to remind us of our forefathers in faith. Each of these traditional elements carries with it both history and instruction, a link with the past and a strong reminder of who we are as Catholics, pilgrims of changeless faith in a world of constant change. The components of the Roman liturgy are meant to bear witness, in a tangible, accessible way, to the sublime truths we profess in our innermost souls.

Peter A. Kwasniewski is studying for a Doctorate in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America, concentrating on medieval philosophy. He directs a men's choir and schola at Old St. John's in Silver Spring, Maryland.

This article was taken from the May/June 1996 issue of "The Catholic Faith". Published bi-monthly for 24.95 a year by Ignatius Press. To subscribe, call: 1-800-651-1531 or write: The Catholic Faith, P.O. Box 160, Snohomish, WA 98291-0160.