Friday, December 28, 2007

2007 Liturgical Round-Up

There's a line in the book Farmer Boy where Father says to Almanzo something like "Many good beginnings have a bad ending." I don't know why this line has stuck with me since I heard it in the third grade, but it seems fairly apt as I reflect on the last two liturgies I attended in my home parish.

On Sunday I went to the 12:00 mass. To begin with, it's amazing how a church that is barely 1/3 full during the first reading swells to 3/4 full by the time we begin the liturgy of the Eucharist. I always thought it was a two-for-one deal (Word and Eucharist) but, apparently, one can choose to forgo the Liturgy of the Word and come in at the half-time break (I'm assuming the Nicene Creed and prayers of petition mark the intermission). 

Not that I can blame them, really. As an Irish musician, I'm accustomed to complicated melodies where wild combinations of notes highlight the skills of the musician. Unfortunately I have little vocal acumen and the opening song demanded any who dared chime in to engage in vocal gymnastics. The fast-paced melody and bizarre lyrics left me bereft of wonder and, instead, wondering why I was being subjected to a watered-down North Olmsted version of Captain and Tennille. The Responsorial Psalm was a fine soprano and when I have the strength and volition to climb up into the rafters, I'll join my dulcet tones to hers and I'll feel as though I've participated.  

The homily, it should be said, achieved a feat of its own: it never mentioned the gospel, any reading, or the fact that the next day was Christmas. I think I recognized the charming story that served as its centerpiece from an old volume of Reader's Digest. 

We clapped during the closing hymn. Done well, clapping can be fine. Done in a suburban parish, it's lethal. Perhaps is was the strange acoustics of the church, but people must have experienced a delay in the music depending on where they were sitting: entire sections of people seemed to clap off-time. 

On Christmas Eve I attended Mass with my family. In the gym. It's my fault: I could have lobbied for going into the Church, but when I saw the enormous crowd there I acquiesced and went into the gym-turned-bingo hall-turned church. It was like beholding the Transformers but there were no talking robots and the threat posed was not to the earth, but to my soul and sanity.

We began with a "warm up the crowd" effort at a sing-a-long. The Xeroxed song guides were eminently helpful: decorative pink paper with songs printed out of order. Had it been hot in the gym, they could have been used as fans because no one sang. The congregation just stood there as the guitar player crooned Angels we Have Heard on High. A particular musical zenith was reached when an attempt at singing Silent Night with a counter-hymn was made. I now have greater sympathy for schizophrenics who experience two (or more) dissonant voices at once. Had these voices told me to do something interesting (Lead my country into battle, pace Joan of Arc) I would have appreciated it more. In this case, the voices prompted me to roll my eyes and contemplate how I could escape the gym without touching the floor.

Finally, I realized that the priest took literally the "Holy Sacrifice of the Mass." There was sacrifice, all right. For this priest insisted on singing the Mass. By the time he intoned "Christ Has Died..." I was envious of Jesus' passion and death. His voice soared and plummetted haphazardly and with dizzying irregularity. It was excruciating...indeed, I think I might write "The Dolorous Passion of Ryan" in light of my experience. 

So what have we learned? If you are going to do liturgy, do it right. There are small things that can be done: if you can't sing, don't inflict your voice on others - there is nothing wrong with the spoken word! If you are going to homilize, don't read a story -- unpack the gospel/readings and challenge us. And if you're going to have music, get a vocalist who has a voice that can be reached without the aide of a ladder and select songs that can be apprehended by regular people. 

In light of this, I propose the 12th Commandment (the 11th, Sister Victoria taught us, was MYOB: Mind Your Own Business): Thou Shall Not be Tacky. The gulf between Taste and Tacky is not always readily discernable but I think that a higher degree of attentiveness to small details will enhance the prayer experience of many. I guess my rule of thumb is to ask whether this __________ (insert here) will help OR hinder the experience of prayer. If it's not pretty clear that it will help, then it should be used sparingly or not at all. 

You can tell I'm vacationed out! 
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