HE CHURCH’S LITURGY, since it is the Passover Feast, has to bring us out of the world, out of Egypt. So it ought to have a certain “strangeness” about it, a certain challenge to the comfortable categories by which we live in the secular world, surrounded by its familiar idols. In the liturgy we are trained to leave behind the mind of the world and put on the mind of Christ. This means that what is “unclean” in the world’s mind must be embraced by us, for example, silence and religious chant, and that what is “clean” for the world must be held by us as worldly and unworthy, such as popular music and amplified blather.
I was rather struck by this passage in Richard R. Terry’s 1907 book Catholic Church Music:
“I think we may say that modern individualistic music, with its realism and emotionalism, may stir human feeling, but it can never create that atmosphere of serene spiritual ecstasy that the old music generates. It is a case of mysticism versus hysteria. Mysticism is a note of the Church: it is healthy and sane. Hysteria is of the world: it is morbid and feverish, and has no place in the Church. Individual emotions and feelings are dangerous guides, and the Church in her wisdom recognises this. Hence in the music which she gives us, the individual has to sink his personality, and become only one of the many who offer their corporate praise.”
One example of hysteria is the insistence, which has grown in the minds of some people nearly to the magnitude of a first unshakeable principle, that the people must always and everywhere understand everything that is being sung or said during the liturgy. True, if people never knew what the words meant, they would be at a distinct disadvantage when it came to internalizing the instruction offered by the music. But at the same time, there is something inherently sacred and beautiful, elevating and nourishing, in the music itself, if it is sung with piety and skill. I came across a quotation from Arvo Pärt that seemed exactly on target to me: “Music must be given the chance to express itself. … In my view, the very existence of music is jeopardized by today’s society’s obsession with communication.” If we are concerned only about communicating, we lose the deeper expression, often a wordless jubilus or something ineffable in the words themselves, that is at the heart of divine worship, the encounter with the numinous Other who is yet more intimate to myself than I am.
In the Summa theologiae (IIaIIae, qu. 91, art. 2), Saint Thomas crafts a characteristically incisive objection against praising God with chants: “The praise of the heart is more important than the praise of the lips. But the praise of the heart is hindered by singing, both because the attention of the singers is distracted from the consideration of what they are singing, so long as they give all their attention to the chant, and because others are less able to understand the thing that are sung than if they were recited without chant. Therefore chants should not be employed in the divine praises.” His refutation of the objection deserves to be carefully pondered:
“The soul is distracted from that which is sung by a chant that is employed for the purpose of giving pleasure. But if the singer chant for the sake of devotion, he pays more attention to what he says, both because he lingers more thereon, and because, as Augustine remarks, ‘each affection of our spirit, according to its variety, has its own appropriate measure in the voice, and singing, by some hidden correspondence wherewith it is stirred.’ The same applies to the hearers, for even if some of them understand not what is sung, yet they understand why it is sung, namely, for God’s glory: and this is enough to arouse their devotion.”