HOSE MOST SKILLED in the art of conversation are not those who speak most frequently, but those who listen. Listening is among the greatest acts of love and compassion. Taking time, energy, and concentration, listening is profoundly active.
But when called to respond, those who actively listen can do so carefully and thoughtfully. In our prayer, do we listen to God, and can we respond to His call thoughtfully?
Blessed John Paul II’s 1998 Ad Limina Address to the Bishops of the United States, On Active Participation in the Liturgy contains extraordinary gems of wisdom including: (emphasis added)
“Active participation certainly means that, in gesture, word, song and service, all the members of the community take part in an act of worship, which is anything but inert or passive. Yet active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active.”.
With this profound advice, the Holy Father continues:
“In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural.”.
Interior listening is progressive. Interior listening is relevant. Interior listening is counter-cultural! With unmistakable clarity, the 2007 US Bishop’s Document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, further emphasizes: “The importance of silence in the Liturgy cannot be overemphasized.” (no. 118.)
Meanwhile, I spend nearly all of my days in God’s house (though through no special virtue of my own. I am a great sinner, no doubt. Those happy to second this, please take a number. Proceed to the back of the line.) Busy with everything from never-ending administrative tasks to composing new sacred works, meditative prayer and interior listening can still be elusive. While I can count myself as physically present at a dozen or so liturgies per week, I can honestly say that am fully active, present, and prayerful at far fewer, sometimes even none.
For the sacred musician, full and active participation not only includes mindfulness during mass, but demands full and active preparation well in advance. This holds true for all ministers of the liturgy. This holds true for the priest. This holds true for the congregation who must have opportunity for sacred silence in preparation of the Sacred Liturgy. For example, while a prelude may assist the faithful in entering into prayer, it is advisable to leave time for sacred silence before the Entrance Chant.
Meanwhile, long hours and hard work spent in preparation are necessary. Prayer and meditation are necessary, but one can’t learn and teach music through meditation and prayer alone. Prayer and work go hand in hand – ora et labora.
A few years ago Dr. J. Michael McMahon visited St. Cecilia Parish in Boston to give a symposium on “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship.” On the pragmatic point of hard work in rehearsal, with widened eyes he emphatically declared, “…it is not a performance, but the choir had BETTER perform.”
This statement is a revelation to some. However, one can derive from this great common sense: prepare more fully and actively, so that we may be more present in spirit. Prepare more fully and actively, so that we will be highly mindful of the sacred text we sing. Prepare more fully and actively, in order to be less consumed by myriad technical details. Most importantly, prepare fully and actively so that worshipers can sing and listen with greater ease and attentiveness. Preparation assists not only our own interior listening, but also that of God’s people. Preparation is in itself a noble prayer and an act of love for God and each other.
34. For in the Liturgy God speaks to His people and Christ is still proclaiming His Gospel. And the people reply to God both by song and prayer. (Sacrosanctum Concilium)
Finally, with hard work comes the inevitable fatigue in body and spirit. It is then time to remember stillness, calm, and silence. Listen to God and revel in His presence. I write this for myself, a sinner, who needs to remember this more than anyone who may read this.
Listening to God prepares us for Him. How will we thoughtfully respond to His call?
“And the people reply to God both by song and prayer.”