music wars

There`s a new column in our regional Catholic newspaper, The Prairie Messenger. `Mad Trad Corner` is written by Dorothy Cummings McLean about her passion for the Latin Mass and traditional devotions. The debut of the column caused quite a stir in this mostly liberal newspaper. I admire the editors of the PM for introducing us to her well written and often entertaining voice. But, it can also be a judgmental voice, as in her column of December 1st. In her enthusiastic promotion of Gregorian Chant, she wrote the following,

Now that I am married to a member of a church choir devoted to plainchant and traditional polyphony, I can laugh at the great contrast between the splendid music provided by St. Michael’s Choir School and the ragbag of folk tunes, pop songs and borrowings from the Protestant hymn tradition that characterized the parish churches of my youth. Never again will I wilt before the screeches of a cantor robbed of her Broadway dreams nor the bellows of a tenor under the impression that he is Pavarotti at the Met. I am free, free at last, from the tyranny of guitars, drums, clapping and the St. Louis Jesuits. Safe in the embrace of the extraordinary form of the mass, I can worship with the music prized by the Second Vatican Council.

Huh? I love guitars, drums, clapping and the St. Louis Jesuits….and the Monks of Weston Priory, David Haas, Marty Haugen, Carey Landry and many more! Their songs lift my spirits, bring fond memories of the past and inspiration for the present. And I love when a truly beautiful voice leads us in song. I marvel when gifts so freely given are freely shared for the glory of God and in the service of the community.

It’s an old and worn joke, “what’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?” The answer, “ you can negotiate with a terrorist.” There’s truth in the groaner. The ideological divide between Trads and Libs is glaringly present in the music wars. Why can’t we just get along? Why can’t we have the freedom to worship with the music that sends our spirits soaring, without saying it’s the only way, the best way, or most Catholic way? Beauty in music, as with all art, is in the eye of the beholder. As a mother of five, I`m forced to live with this fact. My family’s music tastes range from classical (me), to country, indie, old school rock, and even screamo punk.  (I count the invention of the iPod as one of God’s great blessings!)

I love Gregorian chant, but I also love being immersed in other cultures. I’ve been at a Kenyan mass so full of color, dance, rhythm, and glorious harmonies that it sent shivers down my spine and tears to my eyes. I’ve felt my whole body smile at the joyous songs and lilting melodies of Latin American liturgies. I’ve experienced the soul-lifting grace of a hula performed during a mass of Aloha in Hawai’ i. I’ve been in official masses in Rome where the grandness of the basilicas were matched by the grandness of sound pouring from choirs and orchestras.  The immensity of God is glorified in the diversity of worship styles of God’s people. It’s our smallness that tries to place and enforce liturgical boundaries. And, it’s a really small person that obsessively focuses on the rightness and wrongness of each detail in our worship.  But, that’s another rant waiting to be written!

And, what about those “worn-out warbles from Glory & Praise”? Many of these songs are scripturally based. This is what I admired the most about this genre of Catholic music. There is substance to the words, and a pleasant melody that you can carry in your head and heart. How many times have you heard a scripture passage and had a song come to your mind? Few of us bother to memorize scripture passages. But, we easily absorb songs and retrieve them in times of joy and sorrow. They become our prayer. As St. Augustine so wisely said, “a person who sings, prays twice”.