AM EXCEEDINGLY UNREASONABLE and inflexible when it comes to caring for the pipe organs and pianos at St. Cecilia Church and St. Mary’s Chapel. Put some bottled water on top of the organ console or the piano? Don’t even think about it. You will know my immediate (feigned) wrath:
Poor Unsuspecting Choir Member: “But it’s empty!”
Me: “I don’t care. Get it off.”
Poor Unsuspecting Choir Member: “Seriously? But it’s empty! Nothing will happen.”
Me: “I’m not joking. NEVER put water or tea on or NEAR the piano or organ ever!”
Poor Unsuspecting Choir Member then looks at me like I have three heads, an entirely appropriate response.
AM ALSO OBSESSIVELY VIGILANT with regard to temperature and humidity regulation. I have my digital hydrometers reminding me to fill humidifiers for the organ blowers and pianos during the cold and dry Boston winters. Those who work with me suffer my cantankerous moods when temperature is less than ideal, causing the organ to be out of tune. My inflexibility must be very annoying.
But this is not about instrument maintenance. It is about seeing the big picture and more than the surface.
Poor Unsuspecting Choir Member looks at an instrument and sees a piece of furniture. I see the thousands of dollars of electronics in the organ console, the years of labor to build the organ, and the many generous donors who made the instruments possible. While someone may see a convenient flat surface, I see years of building up a music program to earn the trust of those donors. Someone may see a place for a drink, I see the glory to God and the sustenance of the community these instruments help provide. I see a longterm plan to pass these instruments on to the next generation in decent working condition, unlike what I inherited. In these matters I am an ideologue, probably seen as inflexible, unreasonable, and annoying. But with gentle diplomacy, I can successfully persuade others that diligent regular maintenance is far cheaper than a five or six figure restoration brought on by neglect.
But let’s put things into proper perspective. If an instrument is treated with such great care and reverence (great pipe organs are practically venerated), then how much more care should we venerate the Eucharist? How much more love should we show liturgy? The Word of God? My co-bloggers, Fr. David Friel and Peter Kwasniewski write on such topics with far greater eloquence and authority than I ever could. I will leave the task to them.
In matters of faith and theology, it is self-evident to be firm and unmoving. It is not my place or authority to reinterpret dogma. However, we must recognize the lesser matters in which we must be flexible, especially when in crisis. We must be wise in choosing when to be an archconservative and when to exercise diplomacy. (See Andrew Motyka’s What Hill are You Willing to Die on?)
AKE THE EXAMPLE OF SACRED MUSIC. The repertoire is vast and the controversy, like the poor, will be with us always — at least so it seems. There is an abundance of environments hostile to the sacred, beautiful, and universal. This hostility exists whether intentional or born of ignorance. Therefore, in such cases of liturgical crisis, diplomacy yields far more fruit than ideology. For when it comes to hostile environments, demanding the ideal will usually get you nothing but a pink slip. Diplomacy and negotiation, however, usually produce an end result that is short of the ideal, but both parties receive something from the transaction that is mutually beneficial. This sounds rather impersonal and more like a study in economics or political deal-making, does it not?
(Aside: Musicians must keep in mind that being a pastor is one of the most stressful and difficult jobs anywhere. They must be all things to all people. They are pulled in many different directions and face pressures we often know nothing about.)
An economic parallel is that of the popular music industry. When an artist signs with a record company, standard terms give the record label 50% of the publishing rights. Some artists think this is unfair. However, one is immediately reminded by the record label that 100% x 0=0. However, 50% of a large number, on the other hand, equals a number much larger than zero. Artists recognize the math quickly as a better result for them.
In sacred music and liturgy, especially in times of crisis, one must make progress rather than perfection. We do so through exposure to parts of the ideal, if not all of it.
Is this satisfactory? Probably not. However, in a time and place when sacred music is not fully supported, diplomacy is the best shot we may have of making inroads, crack the door open and expose people to our traditions. It is the best shot we have of handing off our traditions to the next generation. Otherwise, the status quo will take further root. Status quo will be passed down to the next generation. Our children deserve better than that.
I am reminded of a line from the Pentecost Sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus:
Bend the stubborn heart and will
Melt the frozen, warm the chill
Guide the steps that go astray.
N EXAMPLE OF DIPLOMACY is introducing chant in English or modern chant-like settings in English rather than in Latin, especially if Latin is a lightning rod issue. In time, those may be ready for Latin texts, which are far more satisfying theologically and musically.
In that spirit I will share with you this simple communion antiphon for the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time: