Blessing the city streets

In my last semester of theology school, I sat in a seminar between a Dominican deacon brother and Latin whiz who made a special point of showing up to my final exams to encourage me, and another Dominican deacon brother who wrote this important article, and the three of us competed with a very well-educated priest of the Diocese of Moscow. It was a terrifically enjoyable class, a dozen or so disciplined and smart characters working on ressourcement Thomism.

The Latin whiz, now a priest, sings in this interesting video, featuring a mystical hymn written by George Herbert and Ralph Vaughan Williams, two Anglicans, and set in New York City.

Having personally known Fr.’s kindness in many ways, it’s nice to see him expressing in music some of the spirituality that underlies his many fine qualities.

Nominalism, Obedience, and Sacred Music

One of the philosophical undergirdings of the Protestant Reformation was a theory called nominalism. According to nominalism, things do not belong to kinds of things. Each individual instance is its own selfstanding kind of being. No generalizations are truly valid.

If there are no generalizations, there are no general laws.

Religious obedience, under such a schema, would be somewhat whimsical. There are no real repercussions, and no real laws. Any monarchical superior is free to impose rules, not according to natural or divine or canon law, but according to himself and his own thoughts.

Under such a schema of obedience, real or assumed, a religious subject would probably feel free to ignore the superior.

It seems to me that nominalism is a current meta-conception in Western society, and that it affects liturgical music in two ways.

First, the experience of attending Mass can be whiplashingly random. In my immediate area, even after omitting those Sunday Masses planned for special groups of Catholics–children’s Masses, youth Masses, Gospel Masses, and Spanish Masses–the difference in musical styles is all over the map. Going from Mass to Mass on a Sunday is as random as opening the various doors of the theaters of a multiplex. The rules and guidelines for liturgical music over the centuries are among the most widely ignored rules in history, at last count exceeding even the blatantly disregarded laws against the rolling stop at a stop sign in Southern California.

Secondly, the vacuum formed by antinomianism–lawlessness–will not remain a vacuum. Laws will happen. Whether or not people profess nominalism, or its liturgical cousin, congregationalism, no one really, existentially, believes it. We all know we’re all alike. So a “new normal” will be promoted in place of the agreed upon, long-standing norms. This “new normal” goes far beyond the sort of lazy compromises that develop inevitably over time. It’s an imposed normal, a theoretically expressed normal–but one without a strong theoretical basis. It’s turtles all the way down, but it is incredibly dogmatic. We all know the rules. No Latin. No Gregorian chant. No propers. No polyphony. No ad orientem posture. No solemnity in processions. No altar rails. And definitely no kneeling for Communion. Not to mention the more ephemeral, politically-generated rules. We’ve seen wave after wave of these temporary “new normals,” usually found in the Social Concerns section of your favorite hymnal.

I think that since we’re going to have rules–liturgists are involved in a public work, after all, not just deciding for themselves whether or not to personally eat gluten-free–we should dig down past the turtles and make sure we’re on solid ground here. It takes no knowledge at all to simply wake up one morning, eat a good breakfast, and proclaim a new liturgical 10 commandments: Thou shalt build ugly churches, for example, or Thou shalt ignore 2 millennia of Catholic musical heritage and replace sacred music with inauthentic bluegrass. It takes a lot more study–and a lot more deep courage–for musicians, bishops, and publishers to cooperate on the all-important project of sacred music, the greatest of all the liturgical arts, and one of the vital structures of the New Evangelization.

An Advent Calendar of Hymn Tune Introits

Parishes that are interested in making a beginning with the Proper texts of the Mass, yet do not yet know where to begin, might be interested in this resource.
I’ve “translated” each of the daily Entrance Antiphons for the Masses of Advent into Long Meter hymn form, so that they may be sung to many familiar, common hymn tunes. Examples of tunes that would work well are the tunes for Jesus Shall Reign, or I Know that My Redeemer Lives, All People That on Earth Do Dwell, or Advent tunes such as the tune for Creator of the Stars of Night, or even O Come, O Come, Emanuel.
Parishes accustomed to singing an entrance hymn can easily substitute these antiphons for the Entrance hymn, or sing them before or after the Entrance Hymn on a Sunday, without needing special musical notation or rehearsal. Feel free to print off the image below on regular letter-sized paper and keep them in the pews or on a table for daily Mass. Then simply choose a tune that is familiar to the local parish, and begin singing the antiphon in this low-key, easy way.

Not Nostalgia

For better or worse, my car radio seems to be pretty much set on country these days. It’s a temporary phase, if past patterns hold true. I certainly don’t have country stations on Pandora, or country records on Spotify. It’s just a car radio thing for now.

Anyways, last night I heard two sort of country rock songs back to back that were so alike that at first I thought the DJ had repeated the first one by mistake. They were both about a guy, remembering back to a time when his life revolved around having a girl beside him in his truck by the river with the radio going, drinking beer. Those were the days. Remember when?

This kind of nostalgia is not, at all, what the current desire for more worthy liturgical music is all about. It’s not a longing for those childhood days of Gregorian chant that we remember. Couldn’t possibly be, because the highlight of childhood liturgical music  was If I Were a Butterfly and This Little Light of Mine.

What happens is this: a person begins to pray. As they pray, s/he looks for some resemblance of what happens at prayer time within the world of liturgy. This can be a tragically difficult search. How many children have been distracted away from the riches of contemplation by This Little Light of Mine?

As prayer advances, it becomes quieter. Scripture readings become shorter. There is less said, and more love.

The Reform of the Reform is not about the good old days of good old boys. It’s about prayer, and about making the Sunday Mass, which should be the high point of prayer, amenable to it.