Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Firm Foundation

I recently had the joy of reconnecting with a group of very close friends- a small, non-denominational house church community that my wife and I were a part of when we lived in Massachusetts. I've written about them before, in relation to how singing with this group influenced my thinking in regards to Gregorian Chant. The founding members of this community had grown up in the Church of Christ tradition, where unaccompanied congregational singing is the norm- one of the primary identifying aspects of their worship culture. Singing and praying with them, in their "native style," provided food for thought about issues like simplicity is music, the need for accompaniment, the nature of musical notation, and the degree to which traditions of musical practice shape and identify a religious tradition.

I could go on and on about the lessons learned and wisdom gained from my experience with this wonderful group of people (and I do have several article-seeds in my head already). But for right now I'd like to address how reconnecting with them this past weekend and singing with them again has brought to mind some thoughts regarding the transient nature of contemporary religious music, and the difficulty that this transience presents in the life of a modern Christian.

The music that we sang together as a group tended toward the "Praise and Worship" style (the CoC people call it "Devo music" as in "Devotional," and as opposed to traditional "hymns"). Songs like Greatest Commands, I am a Sheep, Hide Me Away, and so forth. There were also plenty of good-old traditional Protestant hymns and some old-timey Gospel songs. My wife and I taught the group some of the Catholic Folk songs we knew from growing up, and even a couple chant hymns that we happened to know. I even wrote a few songs. The specifics of all of this aren't all that relevant. The point is- we sang together. We became very close, like family in many ways. And the music we sang, and even the way we sang it, was unique to that time and place and situation.

I want to be clear about something before I go on here: I would not change anything at all about my time with this community, and (despite the typical opinion about the above-mentioned genres prevalent in this blog's readership, and also notwithstanding the point I'm about to make below) I found a great deal of depth and meaning in this group's music-making.

But here's the problem with that experience: it was transient, fleeting. Of course, all mortal things are. But, in reference to music, there is a specific problem created here. The musical experience of worshiping with that group does not exist anywhere else in the world. Any attempt to recreate it on purpose would be futile, resulting in a pale copy at best. All of us who were a part of that group will forever have an unfillable longing for what we experienced there.

We were all reminded of this when we were able to reconnect this past weekend. We talked, we prayed, and we sang. And then some of us got in airplanes and flew back to places like Texas and Arkansas, knowing it would be a long time (if ever) before we were all in the same room again.

And all of that is okay. We all need, at various times in our lives, to develop prayer-practices that speak to our needs, and to build communities that strengthen us for the Christian journey. We need to step outside our own traditions and see how other people have understood the Gospel. And we also need to know that our individual lives are fleeting, and that God calls us to mission, not to comfort.

Now I ask: what would happen if "regular Sunday worship" - that is, whatever the normative congregational gathering for a community (whether Roman Catholic Mass or Episcopal Eucharist or non-denominational sermon-and-sing-along) - what would happen if that service was replaced with this sort of build-as-you-go, community-specific worship and music?

I think that (apart from some grumbling curmudgeons like those of us who hang out at the Chant Cafe) it would look amazing... for a while. But what happens when the children who grow up there move away to other places? What happens when the demographic of the community shifts, and the style of music and liturgy changes as a result?

We don't have to wonder- we've all seen it happen. Kids move away and can't find a parish that "feels right," and eventually stop going altogether. Newly married couples from different communities, even with a shared denominational background, have a hard time finding a church they want to raise their children in. Long-time community members drift away as the liturgy drifts away from them. (If it gets really bad, some kids who grow up this way end up turning against the whole thing, and spend their adult lives promoting traditional sacred music on underground web logs.)

I've seen this in my own life and in the lives of other people who grew up in the same Folk Mass parish as I did. Most of the "contemporary" liturgies in that town have turned from Haas and Haugen to Protestant Praise & Worship (from Breaking Bread hymnals to Spirit & Song). I have literally heard people I grew up with lament the lack of "traditional Catholic songs," by which they mean "The Servant Song" or "You Are Mine."

Now, one would hope that someone's faith and religious identity would not be quite so tied up with preference and style. But we all know that isn't true. Even the people who claim to promote Traditional Sacred Music for "legitimate" reasons tend to have an underlying preference which makes it difficult for them to participate in completely valid but off-putting liturgical experiences. The fact of the matter is that, for many people, if they cannot find a way to experience liturgy in a way that connects with their aesthetic preferences, they simply will stop attending altogether.

This pastoral understanding of the intersection between people's liturgical desires and their need for the grace and formation provided by the traditions of the Church is one of the strongest arguments against an abrupt and unprepared shift from current common practice to a program of Traditional Sacred Music. But it is also one of the strongest arguments for moving toward one, however long and difficult the transition is. Only a widespread implementation of the Church's own native music can provide a solid-enough liturgical foundation for our increasingly mobile and rootless population.

When faith is difficult, when it is hard to see or feel the grace of God in life, or when the shenanigans of the Church's imperfect ministers makes the whole enterprise seem pointless, it is often the comfort and the familiarity of the music and the ritual that gives people something to hold on to while God works in their lives. If cultural trends cause parish music to change every few years, or even every generation, we are abandoning people to their own ability to remain steadfast in the faith- a feat worthy of sainthood, not a burden to be placed on every believer.

The spontaneously ordered, personalized prayer forms and musical styles that have come to dominate Christian music are not without value, and the human need for comfort and familiarity is not a trait to be scorned by serious-minded musicians. Indeed, it is precisely that need which should be a driving force in the spread of a Universal liturgical culture. And it is precisely the value found in personal expressions of faith that argues for giving these practices their own space and time, apart from the primary Sunday Liturgy.

Lay people need to be given the tools and the sense of permission needed to develop these prayer and worship experiences for themselves, instead of relying on Mass and professional ministers to provide it for them. This way, their prayer life can adapt to the changing circumstances of their life, and can move with them wherever they go. And at the same, we need to provide a firm foundation for faith- a Sanctuary against the ravages of a changing culture, a refuge wherein "Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young."