Anyone who knows me knows what my opinion of “praise music” – awful, worse than your boyfriend’s garage band in the 60s, etc., etc. And in 90% of the places this music appears and for 90% of its performers – at Mass, poorly rehearsed, over-amplified, with poor singers – that judgment holds. It lacks the depth of Taize or the complexity of Margaret Rizza in the realm of contemplative music. It is hopelessly adolescent. And I have a pretty good idea that most readers of this blog think that as well.
Now for the great exception that I experienced last weekend.
It was time for the annual March for Life in little St. Augustine, Florida. The evening before was a Holy Hour for Healing and Hope. And I only went because a friend I hadn’t seen in ages was going to be there. Exposition started. There was a Gospel reading and a quite good homily. Then there began a procession where people knelt at the Communion rail (yes, there is still one in this church) and the priest passed along with the monstrance and they were able to hold the humeral veil briefly while the priest prayed over them individually. And for many, this was deeply moving.
Out of nowhere in the back, this woman began to sing a cappella in one of the most lovely voices I’ve heard in years – a clean, supported straight tone – always right on the money and with a sure range that never wobbled or wavered. She continued singing for over an hour – mostly those simple praise refrains, sometimes with a good keyboardist, sometimes alone. And this singer “owned” this music – or better, the music “owned” her.
In this context, what I had always heard as banal bleating had a remarkable transformative power that matched the moment. I may never be so fortunate again, but it did give me a taste of what that music can be – in the right place with the right voice.
I may never hear anything quite like this again, but it also made me think about all of my snap judgments – and maybe I should think again.