Friday, August 3, 2012

Is the Liturgy a Stage?


A text message arrived on my phone: “the end is near.”

I stared at it a few minutes and then texted back the only thing I could think to say: “Context?”

The message became more detailed. An older gentlemen whose Mass that my parish schola had contracted to sing was dying. Our schola needed to prepare.

Only then did I recall something I had forgotten about that dates back some six years ago. A gentleman in a neighboring town had attended the funeral of a friend. The music was the usual material we’ve come to expect from funerals. There was eulogy after eulogy. The priests wore white. People were encouraged to think of the deceased as being with God already. There was no chant. No Dies Irae. Nothing looked like a Catholic funeral as he understood it.

He thought to himself: I do not want this to happen when I die. So he contacted me, made up an extremely detailed list of do and don’ts for his own funeral, and had me sign the paper to guarantee that his own funeral would be thoroughly liturgical. He put it away among his things and made sure that his caretaker found it in the last hour.

Why would he do this? He would be dead, so what’s the point? He never put it this way but I suspect that he wanted to leave a gift of praise to God and a gift of beautiful liturgy to his family. I don’t think it was really about him. It was about God and others, very beautiful motivation.

A week later, we found ourselves in a peculiar situation. We don’t usually sing funerals. So we gathered for a just-in-case rehearsal, and took a very long time doing a crash course on all the chants of the purest form of Requiem Mass.

Three days later, he died. The funeral date was set. Then the call came from the Celebrant with news that I had not expected. This would be an Extraordinary Form high Mass. All along I had assumed this would be ordinary form. The change meant that the Gradual and Tract had to be sung as they appear in the liturgical books, and could not be replaced by the Responsorial Psalm and Alleluia verse. There would be the Responsory for incensing. The Sequence: required.

This meant more work for us. We cancelled regular rehearsal and gathered those who could come to the Requiem and got to work. Two hours later we had it mostly completed. This would have been an impossible task for a schola just starting out. We have been together for twelve years but, even so, it was not easy. We all felt that sense of being stretched to our limits.

The celebrant felt the same way. He has said the old form in a Low Mass context and some sung Masses but his experience is very limited. The servers were in a similar situation. It’s all new. I suspect that a high Requiem Mass has not been sung in the parish where the funeral is held in half a century, or, perhaps ever.

In some ways, this task is liturgically unnatural. Liturgy should be part of our lives. This level of work and struggle should not have to happen. We should know these chants as part of our apostolate. We should not have to be in a position to recreate anything. It should just happen. But, alas, we must accept the times in which we live and do the best we can. We’ve been given an amazing opportunity . We dare not let this slip by without doing everything we can do to let beauty live again in our liturgical lives.

I found myself thinking of the people in the pews. The deceased’s family is not Catholic. He is a convert in late age. The extended family is Baptist. The parish is a fine one but has no extraordinary form. The music is mixed, traditional in many ways but there is no singing of the Mass propers, no chant schola.

It is at the Requiem Mass where the difference between the two forms, as they emerge in real life, is most stark. The EF gives no choices. A high Mass is highly scripted. Our English motets are completely out of the question. There cannot be English adaptions of anything. The music is substantial and plentiful. The section of music between the readings consists of three separate and very long pieces of music, all sung in Latin, without instruments.

I’ve been wondering how it will come across. It is not likely that a single person attending this Mass will have ever experienced anything remotely like this. Most everyone will be lost the entire time. We could pass out hundreds of pages of guides and notes but it will not help. Nothing will be familiar to anyone there. There will be very little with which the people can connect or identify. It will last more than an hour but less than two, and people might leave mystified and probably a bit confused.

I’m not expecting anyone to walk away and say: wow, this was just fantastic!! I fully expect the results to be otherwise. I’m expecting grumbling and disappointment and disorientation. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. Maybe lives will be changed on the spot. But I doubt it. I suspect that most people will be confused and even a bit annoyed.

The question is: what makes a liturgy successful? And a deeper question: what is the standard by which we are measuring success? I suggest that in our times, it is nearly impossible to get away from the standard that is the worst possible standard: we tend to judge liturgy as if all the performers are on a stage performing for us. We want to entertain and be entertained. We want to “reach” people so they can have a emotionally satisfying experience, a rich and memorable encounter with something we define as meaningful. If that doesn’t happen, we are inclined to think we failed.

This Requiem we will soon sing challenges that idea in the most fundamental way. By standards of entertainment and staging, it will be a failure. But judged from the point of view of praise and prayer to God, matters change. In this sense, it will be absolutely perfect. The profundity will be lost on many if not most. I know this. I would love to be proven wrong but I suspect otherwise.

And yet: the encounter with the Divine should not produce obvious and expected results. To have something reach a part of our hearts and souls that the modern world leaves untouched is a remarkable thing. It brings about lasting change. It leaves us with memories that increase in significance over time. The graces are planted and multiply. As the years pass, the people present may eventually come to realize that in this experience, they were presented with a vision of timeless truth, and that they did not and could not recognize it at the time because it was unfamiliar and unrecognizable.

The extraordinary form does this. It is the liturgy for the long term, the liturgy that speaks to something that escapes our immediate cognition but penetrates to the part of ourselves we don’t often access or even think much about. It speaks a language we do not speak. It is a language that we are too often afraid even to hear. But we must and do in the context of facing that terrifying thing: the mortality of all living things and the immortality of our souls.

This is the truth of the liturgy. It has nothing to do with being on stage, and nothing to do with entertainment. Can we handle the truth? I do not know. The deceased in this case did a bold and generous thing. He made it impossible for all of us to turn away from it. May we face it, see and hear its beauty, and be transformed by it.