Music to elevate the soul

Courtesy of an iTunes gift card won at a Christmas white elephant gift exchange, I recently purchased the soundtrack to the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim video game. With 53 tracks, it clocks in at about 3 1/3 hours of music, only one track of which is actual singing. That song alone (covered wonderfully by Peter Hollens) is simply amazing.

The story behind the creation of the soundtrack for the game is fascinating. Jeremy Soule, the composer, put together a choir of 30 people and recorded it three times to create a 90 voice song. The lyrics were written to convey an epic story, the sound designed around a mythos built over several generations of the series, and style built to invoke the common aspiration to be heroic. The result is a song that captures the imagination – evidenced by the many covers of the song (do a Google video search for Dragonborn Skyrim theme).

Movies have been investing heavily in music since the advent of synchronized recorded sound in the mid-1930s. Music didn’t have to be provided on-site – a limitation that kept movies from having the grand sound tracks to which we’ve become accustomed.

There are a great many movies that have music worth revisiting, but none from recent history stands out in my mind more than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The scores for all three movies were composed by Howard Shore, for which he won three Academy Awards, two Oscars, two Golden Globes, and four Grammys. There are other awards too, but after 10 pages of scrolling down I decided to stick with the ones most of us will recognize!

What is extraordinary about the Lord of the Rings music is how expertly Shore took the text of a 3-volume work and crafted music to match the characters, races, scenes, and stories throughout. No one who hears ‘Concerning Hobbits‘ would confuse the theme therein with the elven theme present in ‘Lothlorien‘. And who can forget the heart-rending scene of Denethor sending Faramir on a suicide run, closely followed up by Faramir’s sacrifice, intercut with Pippin’s song.

Whether it is the instruments (that soulful pipe!) or the voice of Billy Boyd (yes, the actor really sang that song), the music serves well it’s purpose of pointing the viewer back to the story being conveyed.

Television too has taken advantage of the power of music, though not always with the scale (or budget!) of a AAA video game or epic movie. But one doesn’t have to look far to find amazing music, and one of my favorites comes out of an anime inspired by the popular manga Fullmetal Alchemist. All of the music (including that from the movie), is striking – but the theme song, ‘Bratja’ or ‘Brothers’.

Though the anime and the manga it is based on are both based on Japanese culture and values, the theme song is written in Russian and performed by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. Other music in the soundtrack – each track tailored to various characters, locations, or themes – includes varied instruments, voices, and styles. The Warsaw Philharmonic makes at least one appearance!

All of this points to the great talent and skill that goes into telling a story, drawing us into the narrative, and helping us to participate in adventure – even though we have perhaps the most passive of all roles: simply watching and listening!

Regretfully, I find myself irritated in the face of all of this – because it is entirely possible for me to be driving to Mass and listen to one of these amazing pieces, this music that has been thoughtfully composed, is textually relevant to its setting, and performed with care…..and then to re-present the sacrifice of Christ on the cross while being serenaded by ‘King of Glory‘ or ‘Rain Down‘.

Surely this is not the height of music after 2000 years of tradition! How can the greatest story ever told, the epic tale of salvation beginning from the creation of mankind and culminating in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ our Saviour, have been reduced to such camp?

The reality is that amazing music in fact exists – one of my favorites being the Exsultet, the Easter Proclamation. Sung only on the Easter Vigil Mass, proclaimed by a deacon, the priest, or a cantor, the work of God from Genesis to today is proclaimed in a chant that has been passed down for hundreds of years. Like so many, I only fairly recently discovered the existence of this chant. As a newly ordained deacon the local pastor asked me to chant this thing called the ‘Exsultet’ – to which I responded ‘the what?’. What a glorious discovery, and a delight to sing!

Despite the fact that very few, if any of us, would put up with it in our entertainment, so many of us have settled for mediocre and even insultingly poor music in the moment where heaven and earth come together.

We’re long overdue for a renaissance of music in our parishes. The tradition is there! There are beautiful, complicated, soaring chants like the Exsultet. There are simple psalm tones that people of any skill level can learn and apply to prayer & worship. The ICEL Mass parts are available for any priest to learn & sing, as well as the ICEL Chant Mass parts for the faithful (the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Memorial Acclamation, Amen, the Our Father and Agnus Dei, to name a few).

What does it take to elevate our music? Willing hearts, for one. There are very few priests who would assert that they are satisfied with music at their parishes. But of the three untouchable m’s of parish life (that’s music, Mass times, and money), change in music always elicits a swift and powerful response – the loudest voices often being those against any movement from the banal and boring.

Never underestimate the power of a few supportive voices, of even a small group of parishioners who are willing not only to say the kind word that a priest needs to hear, but who are willing to dedicate time and effort to bring about change. Who of us wouldn’t like to have our hearts stirred at the sound of Mass, to hear the voices of not 30 or 90, but hundreds of parishioners joining to sing the story of Christ?

It starts with you and me, learning the music of our faith and introducing it to our fellow Catholics. Now is the time to embrace anew sacred music, so that we may be lifted up – and honor Him who was lifted up for us.

Holy Desire, holy prayer

This was something I needed to read recently. Perhaps it will be consoling to you as well. Blessings as we enter the octave before Christmas.


From a discourse on the Psalms by Saint Augustine, Bishop
The desire of your heart constitutes your prayer

In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. There is a hidden anguish which is inaudible to men. Yet when a man’s heart is so taken up with some particular concern that the hurt inside finds vocal expression, one looks for the reason. And one will say to oneself: perhaps this is what causes his anguish, or perhaps such and such had happened to him. But who can be certain of the cause except God, who hears and sees his anguish? Therefore the psalmist says: In the anguish of my heart I groaned aloud. For if men hear at all, they usually hear only bodily groaning and know nothing of the anguish of the heart from which it issues.

Who then knows the cause of man’s groaning? All my desire is before you. No, it is not open before other men, for they cannot understand the heart; but before you is all my desire. If your desire lies open to him who is your Father and who sees in secret, he will answer you.

For the desire of your heart is itself your prayer. And if the desire is constant, so is your prayer. The Apostle Paul had a purpose in saying: Pray without ceasing. Are we then ceaselessly to bend our knees, to lie prostrate, or to lift up our hands? Is this what is meant in saying: Pray without ceasing? Even if we admit that we pray in this fashion, I do not believe that we can do so all the time.

Yet there is another, interior kind of prayer without ceasing, namely, the desire of the heart. Whatever else you may be doing, if you but fix your desire on God’s Sabbath rest, your prayer will be ceaseless. therefore, if you wish to pray without ceasing, do not cease to desire.

The constancy of your desire will itself be the ceaseless voice of your prayer. And that voice of your prayer will be silent only when your love ceases. For who are silent? Those of whom it is said: Because evil has abounded, the love of many will grow cold.

The chilling of love means that the heart is silent; while burning love is the outcry of the heart. If your love is without ceasing, you are crying out always; if you always cry out, you are always desiring; and if you desire, you are calling to mind your eternal rest in the Lord.

And all my desire is before you. What if the desire of our heart is before him, but not our groaning? But how is that possible, since the groaning is the voice of our desire? And therefore it is said: My groaning is not concealed from you. It may be concealed from men, but it is not concealed from you. Sometimes God’s servant seems to be saying in his humility: My anguish is not concealed from you. At other times he seems to be laughing. Does that mean that the desire of his heart has died within him? If the desire is there, then the groaning is there as well. Even if men fail to hear it. it never ceases to sound in the hearing of God.

Mass, ad orientem

On the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) this year, I decided to celebrate all the Sunday Masses ad orientem. We’ve done this once before at my parishes, on the Solemnity of All Souls. It was very well-received at the time, but there were only about 100 folks as All Souls landed on a weekday last year.

Before all of the Sunday Masses, I offered a brief explanation. The short version is that this is the way Vatican II envisioned and the Roman Missal yet presumes Mass will be celebrated. The Latin of this orientation means ‘to the east’ and in this turning together we all face the direction of the rising sun and offer our worship of the Risen Son. At the end of the explanation, I encouraged the congregation to take note of how the Mass was different, particularly during the Eucharistic prayer. How did this re-orientation change their prayer?

As a priest, I can summarize the change with one word: focus.

At Mass celebrated versus populum – facing the people – there is a nigh-unavoidable and ever-present element of showmanship. The priests facial expressions, posture, where he’s looking and of course, what he’s doing are all on display. For me, I’m always aware and trying to keep these from becoming distractions to the prayer of the Mass…..which is no small distraction to my own prayer. This is most apparent during the preparation of the altar and during the liturgy of the Eucharist.

At this Mass facing with the congregation towards the East, that pressure disappeared. I can’t overstate what a grand relief that was! It’s like a backache that you’ve forgotten you had – it’s absence is a joyful relief. Rather than simply presenting it for everyone else’s prayer, I suddenly found that I was praying the Mass with them. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that – and all of this was just as I was making my offertory prayers!

The preface of the Mass is where ad orientem really starts to set itself apart as something special. The priest greets the congregation with ‘The Lord be with you’, exhorts them to ‘Lift up your hearts’ and then invites them to prayer with ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord our God’. And then he turns towards the East and begins giving thanks with them to God. ‘It is truly right and just…..’

That turning towards God makes such a difference. With our words we have just said that we’re here to praise and thank God. With that one bodily turn, our actions reflect our words – the priest isn’t talking to the congregation, but rather he presents their worship to God!

And at the conclusion of the preface, we all join together glorifying God’s holiness before taking a knee in preparation for the Eucharistic prayer. Again, all facing together towards the Lord.

In the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I), there is an optional conclusion to each segment of the prayer. The priest draws his hands together and closes that section with the words ‘Through Christ our Lord. Amen.’ Naturally, the congregation joins in the ‘Amen’ each time. What was interesting to notice during Mass ad orientem was how folks had to more deliberately participate. Since we were facing the altar together, they couldn’t see my hands come together – they had to actively listen.

To the modern Catholic, ‘listening’ may seem counter to ‘active’. This has much to do with the attitude of stage performance that has weaseled its way into our liturgies, particularly in the music and the readings. Mass Ad orientem uses that simple turn to instill a genuine participation that is fuller due because it must be actively, consciously pursued.

I’m reminded of the Eucharistic hymn Tantum Ergo, whose first verse concludes ‘Præstet fides supplementum, sensuum defectui’ – Faith supplies for our defects, where our senses fail. Perhaps faith even grows when our senses are deprived!

The elevation of the Sacred Species is dramatically different as well. Since we’re all looking together, I couldn’t get away with just lifting the Precious Body and chalice of the Precious Blood a few inches above the altar. I had to extend my arms completely up, and as my body assumed the visible posture of offering I was struck by the enormity of what I was doing.

It all fell into place as I was standing before the tabernacle in the shadow of the crucifix; I was offering the sacrifice of Christ on the cross to God on behalf of all gathered. It is amazing what can be driven home by the physicality of what you’re doing.

Another stand-out aspect is the necessity of turning around to address the congregation after the Eucharistic prayer at the sign of peace. In having to turn to begin that dialogue (‘the peace of the Lord be with you….let us offer each other….’), there is a clear division between prayer set aside as worship and a brief moment for fraternity. 

Finally, there was the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). Re-joining into a common orientation helped focus us again on the Eucharist….which made for a noticeably more reverent conclusion to the sign of peace! When the Agnus Dei concluded, I turned around with the host held over the chalice – and as I said the words ‘Behold the Lamb of God….’, it was a meaningful invitation. What was unseen just a moment before was now held up to be reverenced. Behold, in deed as well as word.

These and other details all drove home the greatest gift of Mass ad orientem – renewed focus on Christ. Though available to us in Mass versus populum, this focus is intrinsic in Mass ad orientem. Our bodies are re-oriented in such a way that we can’t help but be directed towards the Lord.

It is no wonder the Church is calling us to return to celebrations facing East! As I can attest, it’s well worth the effort.

Blessed

So, it seems I have a blog – which implies an intention to, you know, write. Which is in fact the case, as I have been mulling a post titled ‘In defense of sarcasm’. While this seemed a fitting introduction to the informal spirit of this blog, a title and informal spirit aren’t sufficient to merit clicking the ‘publish’ button. So I’ll leave that to percolate for a little while longer.

This last week has been strangely blessed. It started with the funeral Mass for Father Victor Cloquet, a priest of the archdiocese of Seattle and one connected to one of my previous and one of my current parishes. So I drove up to Saint Joseph in Tacoma for the celebration. The whole affair was a mix of different graces. Fraternity with my brother priests of the archdiocese & Saint Joseph‘s pastor – Father Michael Stinson (who graciously hosted us in his rectory). The sacrifice of the Mass offered for one of the gentlest priests I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Reminiscing with former parishioners and catching up with seminarians.

Because I’m assigned to the wild, wonderful but remote hinterland of Lewis county, I took the afternoon to run errands in the big city. Highlights included a visit to Vercillo’s Catholic Book & Gift store, Lowes and the local cigar shop (appropriately named ‘The Tinder Box‘).

The latter was important, as I passed the evening with two dear friends who had recently returned from a 30-day trip walking the Camino. Stories were shared, cigars smoked, jokes told, beers enjoyed and generally much fraternity into the wee hours of the night.

Fortunately, Tuesday is my day off – which allowed for a late start to a lazy day.

At the end of the week, I drove to Everett to visit another set of dear friends and their four daughters – the eldest of whom is my goddaughter. It was the first we’ve seen each other in almost a year because, well, life and things. Their parents are trying to avoid publishing their lives online, so you’ll have to take my word when I tell you that these little girls are the very definition of cute. And my how they’ve grown! But not so much that they wouldn’t let their godfather read them a bedtime story on the living room floor.

Back at the parishes this weekend, we had another round of new communicants as we celebrated First Holy Communion at Saint Yves in Mossyrock. The pastor, being a shmuck, forgot that today’s Mass was bi-lingual and had not prepared himself to preach in both English and Spanish.1 Thankfully, God provided – though the congregation pitched in when a stray word eluded translation!

Finally, today marked the resumption of our Hackmaster campaign.2 Several of our members had been out of the country, our hosts on the Camino in Spain and another in Japan. While we goofed around in-game, we were actually doing a lot of catch-up in real life. Of course, that didn’t preclude the usual table-top shenanigans – featuring bad puns, Diggy Diggy Hole references, discussing which Doctor is in fact the best (10th or 12th?) and sharing in copious amounts of rich & tasty food.

The first reading in the Office of Readings from Friday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time had this timely bit:

This is a vanity that occurs on earth: There are those who are just but are treated as though they had done evil, and those who are wicked but are treated as though they had done justly. This, too, I say is vanity.

Therefore I praised joy, because there is nothing better for mortals under the sun than to eat and to drink and to be joyful; this will accompany them in their toil through the limited days of life God gives them under the sun.

Somewhere in the rich history of the Church, someone wise observed that every sorrow is accompanied by graces from God and every blessing is a strengthening against future sorrows3. This week certainly fits that bill! God is good.

(Edited for grammar a couple times – 2016/05/23)