Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with my new favourite artist, Jim Janknegt. I asked about his favourite artists, and he mentioned Paul Cézanne. He was surprised, he said, to learn that Cézanne was Catholic. How did he know? Because in his notebooks, the artist complained about the music at Mass.
Going to Mass is a strong clue that a fellow is Catholic; but complaining about the music is incontrovertible proof. It’s the one thing that brings us all together, wherever we may be. One universal church, united in faith and bound together by a common complaint: The music stinks! If you think I’m singing this, you’ve got another think coming! Amen.
Maybe your church is different, but in all my life, I’ve found something to dislike about the music at Mass. When I was little, the freshly post-conciliar church was still struggling in the smothering arms of liturgical silliness, and the music followed suit (a clown suit, to be specific). Then there was the priest who seemed to be trying to swallow the microphone; the warbling cantor who thought she was a soprano despite all evidence; the crazy Poles with their hymns that sounded good, only they didn’t have any vowels in them; and then of course the banjos. Oh, my lord, the banjos.
I’d join in singing when my favourites turned up, but most of the time, I abstained. For decades, I have deliberately cultivated good musical taste, and I just didn’t think it honoured God to serenade Him with auditory slop.
A while back, I started reading my kids a page or two every night from The How-To Book of the Mass by Michael Dubruiel. It’s not heavy theology, and the writing is sometimes awkward, but almost every page offers something arresting and useful. The book brings the reader, step by step, through the liturgy, gives us bits of history, defines terms, explains prayers and gestures, and gives practical help to focus our minds and hearts on the worship of God.
In “How to Celebrate the Opening Rites,” Dubruiel says,
We have arrived as individuals, and indeed up to this point we have prayed as individuals. All of our thoughts and prayers have been between God and us. But the Mass is a communal prayer, so to help us join with the others who are gathered as the Body of Christ in the Church, we now sing together.
“Yeah, yeah,” I thought. Together-together-together, whatever. He continues:
Truly worshiping God requires the death of our ego. Jesus said that no one could be His disciple unless they took up their cross and denied their very self and followed Him.
Ohhh, I’m not sure I like where this is going . . .
Unfortunately, many of us fail to deny ourselves at this crucial moment of the Mass, refusing to join in the singing of the opening hymn.
We may have our reasons. We can’t carry a note (then sing quietly), or we don’t like the song (the die to yourself and sing it anyway). There is no greater obstacle to an experience of God than our refusal to die to ourselves.
Well, good grief. I could’t come up with a single argument against that, cultivated musical taste or no. I was, as my protestant friends say, convicted in my heart. After I read that passage aloud, I told the kids, “Okay, that’s it! We’re all singing everything from now on.”
And we have done so. It hasn’t killed us. Has it made a difference?
It really has. There isn’t any way we can adequately prepare ourselves for the unthinkable mystery of what is about to happen at the Mass; but at least we ought to try. An excellent way to get ready to worship God is to remind ourselves, “This isn’t about me.”
The Mass is where we routinely belly up to the altar and expect the eternal Word, who always has been and always will be, to compel Himself to become a thin, flat wafer that dissolves in our mouth and becomes part of our body. That is going to happen. We are going to commemorate the event that tore the temple veil in two, that caused the earth to groan and crack and Satan to scream in outrage. We are going to accept eternal life.
But we won’t sing. Why? Because it’s a dumb hymn, and we’re just not gonna do it. The song isn’t to our liking. We’re gonna stand there with our lips pursed and our arms folded, rolling our eyes because the chord progression is trite and the chorus does not please us.
As if folded arms, pursed lips, and rolling eyes please God any better. Remember, that’s why we’re there: To please God, to worship God, to accept the gift of God so as to become closer to Him. Ain’t gonna happen if we start the hour off by refusing to make even the very tiny sacrifice of singing when we don’t feel like singing.
Occasionally, we will run across a hymn that is actually heretical. There, I draw the line! Dying to self does not include claiming, for instance, that “We rise again from ashes to create ourselves anew.” Nope, that is not a thing that happens. I can’t quite bring myself to implore God to deliver us from “Dogmas that obscure [His] plan.” And when I hear the congregation floating the idea that “You and I are the bread of life,” I must demur. I myself am Simcha Fisher, and so far, I have not actually fed all of humanity with my literal body and blood, thus securing a place in Heaven for them, so. Some songs, I sit out.
But if the hymn is simply coy, or sentimental, or dopey, or bland? I make up for it with enthusiasm, and I do it because it’s not about me. By gosh, I’m getting myself ready to receive Jesus Christ, and if I can’t get over myself long enough to make it through a verse or two of Eagle’s Wings, then maybe I should just leave this Church that is about Christ, and start my own church that is about me.