How to Read Liturgically

I’ve put off writing this column for years even though it addresses a point that is a major and persistent problem in liturgy. I’ve put off writing about it because the people I’m correcting here are following the rules they know and they are very well intended otherwise. They are giving their hearts to the cause. They know not what they do. Still, it is time to speak out.

The problem is the manner in which people read the scripture in liturgy. The instruction books that are published by the major houses warn against reading plainly and solemnly with a steady tone. These manual urge them to bring some personality to the task, to elevate the voice on the important parts, make the reading more life-like and vibrant, and even to make eye contact with the people in the pews. They want long pauses between sentences and for every sentence to come across like a major declaration that sears itself into the ears and minds of the listeners. They try to make the text reach us in a new way.

But that is not the result of this approach to reading. The sing-songy sound of a reader trying out communicative inflections on word after word ends up producing the exact opposite of its intention. Instead of conveying the meaning, the reader ends up conveying himself or herself. The words and meaning get lost in the inflection and the tonal dance. The lilting attempt to emphasize one thing in the text over another robs the listener of the ability to understand the text on his or her own. It turns out to be a major distraction from the whole point of the exercise. It denies the scripture an opportunity to speak in its own voice. Adding “eye contact” only makes it worse.

There are a number of ways to explain this. I would first make reference to a comment by Joseph Jungmann, from The Mass of the Roman Rite, as quoted by William Mahrt in The Musical Shape of the Liturgy. He describes how the words of scripture ought to be brought to the liturgy like jewels on a golden plate. When you are bringing such jewels, you walk steadily and with great discipline and dignity. You do not run, you do not perform tricks, and you do not attempt to bring your own personal drama to the task. You walk carefully and present the jewels on the gold plate in a way that does not distract from their inherent worth.

There are examples from the secular world. Consider professional readers for books on tape. They read in the clearest possible way and minimize the amount of vocal inflection that goes into the task. They try to disappear in their personalities so that the text itself can emerge. Also, professionals understand that the reader can naturally get tired of hearing one person talk so the goal is to reduce the personality as much as possible to make it easy for the listening to focus on the text.

The same should be true of reading the scripture in Mass, except that it should be done with even greater dignity and even less personality and vocal inflection.

Another hint comes from the history of the lessons in general. Historically, evidence indicates that the lessons were sung and not read — in keeping with the general observation that the spoken Mass we know it today or before the Council was an invention of the second millennium. The sung Mass was the norm for the first one thousand years.

And what happens when you sing? You follow a formula of notes. The notes indicate the sentence structure but do not change based on the content or meaning. The formula permits the content to ascend in importance. The reader himself or herself does not bring his or her own perception of what is important. The reader does not add personality or seek methods to convey some drama to the text. The singing alone prevents that from happening by practically eliminating the tendency of readers to lift and lower the voice based on subjective understanding.

The effects created by the singing of the text — that effervescence of tone and stability of purpose — should carry over to the reading of the text. Of course these days, readings are not typically sung, so we no longer have a model in mind. This is a tragic loss.

Nonetheless, a good and serious reader can bring that sense of allowing the text to emerge from the thicket of human personality by maintaining a steady pace and a steady tone throughout. Just as the singer brings nothing to the reading other than word accents and notes, the reader similarly should being nothing to the reading other than calm, stability, precision, solemnity, and clarity.

One should not use the opportunity to read a lesson as a chance to compose a symphonically dramatic poem. You are not on stage. This is a point that every reader should understand from experience. It applies even more to liturgy. The liturgy should be permitted to speak on its own without our having to make it speak by hurling it out there or gussying it up with all sorts of on-the-spot, made-up drama.

How does it happen that all the mainstream instructions on this point are essentially wrong? Well, it all comes down to the persistent and hyper-vogue of the cult of the community. Since it is believed that reaching the people is the number one and nearly only goal of liturgy, the instructions for reading are similar to those you get for music too. Grab people by their shirt collars. Get their attention. Make it real. Meet people where they are. It’s up to you to do this. You have to make this happen. Otherwise people will check out.

This entire approach is wrongheaded because it doubts the inherent power of the liturgical voice, which is not the same as the human voice. It is a divine voice to which we are called to submit. To believe that one must somehow jazz it up and make it real implies a core doubting of the merit of what is being sung and what is being read. It labors under the conviction that the liturgical voice does not exist unless we work to make it exist through our own talents and choices. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding that ends up exalting the human ego and personality over the words of the liturgy itself that have been handed on to us and form a divine voice in our midst.

I would love to see these poorly conceived instruction manuals tossed out. They are misleading thousands of well-intentioned people and creating pain in the pews rather than doing what the readers themselves believe they are doing, which is bringing the text of scripture to life. But I don’t believe they are going away soon anymore than we are soon going to get rid of the common habit of replacing Mass propers with non-liturgical songs. It thereby becomes important for pastors to re-train readers themselves to cut the drama and the failed attempt to infuse the text with new meaning. The word of God needs to be permitted to speak to us in the voice of the liturgy, not the voice and personality of the reader.