Monday, December 28, 2009

Liturgical Lamentations

I'm heading back to Detroit early tomorrow morning and I was looking forward to spending this evening at a gathering with other Jesuits hosted by John Carroll University. Poor weather, unplowed streets, and a bad feeling that I'm in the early stages of a cold have forced me, sadly, to stay in for the evening.

It has been my good fortune this semester to become more involved in the planning and execution of liturgies. I rather like the whole affair. It's exhilarating to organize the students, make dynamic use of liturgical symbolism, and find ways to encourage a greater sense of reverence for and participation in the celebration of the Eucharist.

One thing I've noticed over the years is that a key to a good liturgy is good music. It's not everything, to be sure, but it certainly helps. Saint Augustine is reputed to have exhorted his listeners, "He who sings prays twice." If speaking is "Prayer x 1" and singing is "Prayer x 2," then this weekend the sung Mass I attended resulted me praying 1/16. In other words: the music was diabolical.

When did it become a good idea for an Alto Soprano accompanied by an organ to belt out tunes that one couldn't reach with a ladder? The Gloria we sung yesterday was pitched so high that there was no way of aligning oneself with it. Were I an extraordinarily gifted castrato I might have been able to go a few rounds with the cantor. But that would also rest on my being able to understand the song which, near as I can tell, blended elements of the Gloria, the Holy, Holy, Holy, and the Lamb of God. It was a disorienting affair. I heard that a chorus line came in and performed a number from Cats during the middle of the song, but I was struggling so hard to follow the lyrics that I think I missed it.

Christmas Eve was an entirely different affair. Our song Leader thought it was a good ol' jamboree before Mass and tried to lead the congregation in song. This is, surely, a good idea. Trying to turn the people into the Tabernacle Choir 20 minutes before Mass is, however, not. I became increasingly ill at ease as the Leader tried to have us sing a 4-part harmony to "Silent Night": replete with two counter-posed verses and two segments of the church singing "oooooohs" and "aaaaaaaahs." The Leader then ignored the priest's gestures to begin the opening hymn, causing Mass to start nearly 10 minutes later than it should have.

Directly in front of me a young mother - who I went to grade school with - had her two children with her. I was amazed to see the accoutrements she deemed necessary to get through a one-hour Mass: four activity books, three different trucks, a bag of Legos, several bags of provisions (2 types of cereal, some juice boxes, and gum), a milk bottle, a juice bottle, a sipper cup, and a handful of crayons. I wonder if she parked the pack mule in front of the church. If the intent was to give the little ones something to do to keep them quiet, it was a spectacular failure: the provisions were exhausted immediately, the milk bottle was disregarded, the sipper cup dumped on the floor, and the activity books failed to keep anyone occupied [although I did manage to complete a connect-the-dots activity while we were listening to the Gospel]. They lasted only through the homily, when she broke camp and took the kids home.

Next, the Sign of Peace left me with terribly hurt feelings. First of all, the young guy standing to my left wanted to give me a "Bro-Hug." I'm not opposed to hugging...if I know you. But just as I wouldn't hug a stranger on the subway, I'm not apt to hug a stranger at Mass. I turned to my right and shook hands with a kind-looking elderly woman who promptly removed a bottle of Purell and generously applied it to her hands, rubbing it in with gusto. Her vigor made me feel like a leper, as though I should wear a bell around my neck to announce my coming. The third person to whom I extended my hand - a little kid - completely ignored me.

Finally, we had the reception of Communion. I'm quite happy to receive Communion in the hand and I execute a reverential bow before reception. The young man who sat to my left - remember, the "Bro-Hug" - apparently felt moved to out-do my bow. So as I stepped forward to receive the Host, he made the profoundest of bows and hit me in the back with his head. I stepped forward slightly, caught off-guard, but maintained my composure and didn't roll my eyes until after I'd returned to my seat. Then I started to chuckle inwardly, a chuckle I had to stifle when at the end of Mass the priest gave his final blessing and proclaimed in halting English, "The Mass has been Over. Go in Peace." Case closed.

Now I don't mean to sound the curmudgeon's horn. I share this both as a way of processing (remember: I'm an extrovert) and because I find it rather funny. Furthermore, I reckon that many of my readers have similar "liturgical lamentations" that they can share and, should they wish, may do so in the comments!
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