What I’ve Learned in 12 Years

I sang at Mass this morning with one other person, and the experience really had me reflecting on what I’ve learned over the last 12 years. Essentially my opinions on how to achieve something beautiful in liturgy have been turned inside out and upside down. All the things I thought were true are not true, and the things that are true have come as a surprise. But this realization has taken me so long to finally cohere that I’ve not be entirely prepared to spell it out as simply as I will now.

In short, when I first entered this world, I thought that good Church music consistent of many singers singing hard music of mostly a polyphonic nature and entirely in Latin. This was all I dreamed about and our choir actually achieved this goal over time. It was difficult and heart rendering and exhausting — and then just a bit disappointing because I felt that the cost of doing all of this was way higher than the perceived benefit from the congregation and the celebrates. I had accept this model almost as a matter of faith. But my parish is a normal parish of Catholics in the real world, without a single parishioner that shared my imaginary utopia. I had to slowly work myself out of it.

Today, we sang almost entirely English propers all chanted, one piece in Latin, one hymn, no instruments, no microphones. The response was comfort, love, appreciation, and we both had the sense that something wonderful had happened. The music was very simple. We made no mistakes. We were not nervous. It was clear, solemn, pretty, comprehensible, suitable, right.

It was then that I realized that I had been wrong. I had flipped the priorities. If you can do a chanted Mass without wild personal drama, with a handful of singers, without a vast amount of rehearsal time, with a smile and gladness of heart, you have achieved all things. Everything else you do is wonderful but not necessary. What’s necessary is the simplest thing you can imagine. That’s what connects and makes sense. That’s what’s liturgical at its foundation.

To be fair, 12 years ago, the resources we used this morning did not exist. We had to commission them. Now we have Oost-Zinner Pslams, Bartlett propers, the Missal chants, editions of chant with Psalms. That’s about four books — four treasures that are relatively new in the postconciliar era. These resources should have been around 40 years ago. No looking back. They are here now and they are a godsend.

Now we have a sustainable model that requires very few resources in terms of time and money. It can be accomplished by nearly anyone at the parish level.

My satisfaction about this is very high indeed.

Before my father died, he gave me three pieces of advice stemming from his years as a church musician. He said: 1) always be genuinely grateful for everyone’s efforts in the choir and impose no guilt on people for coming and going, 2) never try to enforce attendance because it doesn’t work, and 3) never try to build a program but rather be glad to maintain consistency. His point was to simplify, be humble, be pleased with what you can do, be glad for the opportunity, and just be glad it happens when it happens, which, we can hope, it happens every week.

To me this is beautiful — and far cry from the Renaissance extravaganza I imagined at the outset. He was right. I know this now.

As you might know, I’m deeply involved in a new start up company that has taken over every waking minute, leaving very little time for this avocation of liturgical music. I hope to return to it someday but this is not the day. I look back at all the time and the writing and the labor and the energy and have a sense of profound satisfaction. What’s left today is continued work, inspiration, application, and that most normal of tasks of just singing with love and affection for the art and its divine meaning.

Thank you all for all that you do to make the world a more beautiful place, a place that allows us to dream of eternity.