Risking the Wrath of Khan – Rethinking Praise Music in the Right Place

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. 

18 Replies to “Risking the Wrath of Khan – Rethinking Praise Music in the Right Place”

  1. Looks like a case of extreme talent overcoming mediocre material.

    It would have been nice to introduce yourself, saying, "Hi, I'm Mary Jane. You rocked that. Can I introduce you to 'Words With Wings'? [or some other fun CMAA title]. This is the next level for you; you won't need that OCP rubbish beyond that."

    But that's just speculation.

    You encountered an extreme talent. The problem is the mediocrities singing mediocre material. The hard work is the replacement of the mediocre material.

  2. Excellent point. You nailed it. For example, even the Mass of Cremation (oops, "Creation") sounds much better when performed with organ and a good choir but, ultimately, why? Why the good performers of mediocre material? Why not go a step further and have good material as well?

  3. I could sing the "beer barrell polka" with beauty and style, but it still wouldn't be suitable for the Mass.

  4. One must also remember–even if you have extreme talent, the clergy and congregation don't always allow anything other than "mediocre material". Ultimately, one has to do the best with what you've got. Brick by brick!

  5. I agree with the brick by brick remark. I have a lot of friends in the charismatic renewal – solid Catholics who are faithful to the Magisterium. Naturally they are disposed to P&W music, and have zero understanding of its inadequacy in the Mass.

    However, compared to the Dan Schtte/Marty Haugan/Dan Haas pablum performed at my parish, P&W would be a huge improvement, if for no other reason that the lyrics are decidedly NOT self-worshipping. Rather, they clearly are focused on worship of none other than God – every word of it. This isn't going to happen, but I would welcome it as an opportunity to raise the parish to a relatively higher level worship.

    I've been slowly working on a couple of my charismatic friends by taking them to Solemn High Mass on feast days at a local Ordinariate Church, where so far they've heard Palestrina, Byrd, and De Victoria. To say they are stunned by its beauty is an understatement, but also they recognize how such music is a magnificent spiritual aid to entering more deeply into the Mass.

  6. In my opinion, an effort to build bridges into communities of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) by drawing these folks into the level of worship involved with traditional sacred musci will – with patience – be amply rewarded. Most of these folks have had zero exposure to anything other than P&W or Gather In music, which they tolerate but don't prefer. They are also more disposed than most Catholics to respond favorably to settings where reverence, majesty, and a sense of the sacred are palpable – if only others in the know would take the time to build inroads and gently bring them into a heart-changing experience.

  7. My friends are not instant converts, to be sure. To that end I bestowed a few CD gifts for Christmas so they can continue to listen to Byrd & Palestrina (with Allegri's Miserere thrown in). I think omakate is on to something. You get nowhere telling people their preferred form of worship music is awful. You have to instead show them what they're missing, and work to bring along those who respond favorably.

    I will say this for CCR folks. Members of the CCR community are far more likely to appreciate a worship setting which provides reverence, majesty, awe, transcendence, and a powerful sense of the sacred than most progressive and many conservative Catholics ever will, They've just rarely if ever experienced it.

  8. Often arguments, no matter how polite, don't work in these matters I have found. The best 'argument' for beauty is beauty itself. Keep doing what you are doing (i.e. taking such friends to Solemn High Masses). God bless you!

  9. Many good points. And yes, I did introduce myself to the singer afterwards, complimented her and the accompanist, and gave her my card – inviting her into a conversation about sacred music. Note the word "inviting."

    Of course, this music isn't suitable for Mass, no matter how well it is sung. And you should remember that my posting did not report on a Mass but a Holy Hour.

  10. I was going to point out the same, that you mentioned Holy Hour NOT Mass. WIth this in mind, that it was not Divine Liturgy or Mass, it was a devotion. Part of the problem with the current situation is that most public devotional practices have vanished from the scene and there is no longer any venue for the more simple expression of the faith by the faithful. Those things have been relegated, just like religion, to the private, personal closet of the faithful.

    As the Liturgy itself is a window into heaven and its demands are that of eternal transcendence, the Holy Hour and other such public devotional practices are the place for such music. Embodied faith usually wil break out in other kinds of culturally artistic ways – the P&W kinds of music, such as you described in the hands (voice) of someone who can command their instrument is much like folk art. Are we to say then, that the people's heartfelt response to the presence of God in their midst must conform to Liturgical standards all the time?

    While it is not necessarily my preferred cup of tea, it serves a valuable encultured expression of the faith of the people. There are formal expressions of love and then there are the more spontaneous, childlike expressions of love. I would imagine that Michelangelo's mother would have appreciated his early attempts at art and not refused them because he was not a master of his craft.

    Thank you for clarifying that this was a public devotion and not a carefully crafted Liturgy.

  11. Yes, that is definitely a point. Making the distinction between music for devotion and music for liturgy would go a long way to helping to bridge this gap in understanding the place of music in the context of the Mass. We've got a long way to go on this and, at least in my area, there's progress. Slow. Hard won. But progress all the same.

  12. I had the great pleasure of being present at that Holy Hour. It was indeed beautiful and unexpected. Thank you for your article!

  13. I think Archbishop Sample's letter to the Diocese of Marquette is a great place to start. Especially important, I think, is thanking them for their service and apologizing that they were lead astray–that it is not their fault that what they were told to sing is in no way what the liturgy demands.

  14. Thanks. I continue to invite them because their hearts have been touched by the music of angels. I'm hopeful that between acceptance of my invitations and listening to the CDs I gave them they will grow more attached to sacred music than to P&W – not that I think they'll give it up for use outside Mass.

    This is a process, and patience and the Lord Himself are my guides.

    Please include my efforts in your prayers. I really love my friends, and I see their receptiveness to the reverent and the sacred in their hearts. They really don't know any better, but naturally I can't ever say that to them.

  15. Thanks for that idea. I have been thinking of the introduction of the TLM and related music to the CCR as a needed maturation of that community, who largely are unaware that they might respond so well to mystery, majesty, and authentic reverence and sacredness. It so happens I am very good friends with a married couple who are extremely well-connected to many CCR groups in my area, so they would be an excellent place to begin.

    Thanks again.

  16. But this is a major problem, since many think it quite appropriate to mix the elements of devotion and liturgy. As others have said, the best argument for beauty is beauty–the exemplification of the very best of liturgical music.

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