OST PEOPLE join a church choir because they love to sing sacred music. Some love the chance to sing chant or Renaissance polyphony, some love the chance to sing in extra things like concerts or during the Christmas season, some sing because they have their favorite pieces and they know that eventually the choir will get around to singing it again. There are several other reasons why people join choirs and they’re all good reasons. But sometimes it’s important to remind choirs the real reason we are doing what we’re doing.
Last Thursday we had the opportunity to sing for the first ever Requiem Mass for All Souls in our parish. We hired an orchestra, and for the propers sang the Fauré Requiem (with movements shifted appropriately). I constructed a catafalque, someone sewed a black pall, our priest wore a beautiful black vestment, we used the altar bells at the epiclesis and elevations (which has not happened here for years), and we had lots and lots of incense. It was a beautiful and seminal moment in the life of this parish. The choir loved doing it, but I felt that I needed to remind them that apart from the good feeling they got about themselves for being part of this, there was a bigger reason to consider.
Below is the letter I wrote to them following the Mass.
Thursday night was wonderful and I’m proud of your hard work and commitment. Like anything else, live renderings have their strengths and weaknesses and we can talk about all of that another time. But I’d like to bring a perspective to what we did, and why.
Q. Was it great fun to sing the Fauré Requiem? Of course.
Q. Was it neat to see the black vestments and black draped catafalque? Yes.
Q. Was it a cool to hear the altar bells rung during the Mass? You bet.
All of that is great and gives us reasons to love doing this. But here is what is really important. We, the Church, are the custodians of the good, the true, and the beautiful. What’s true is beautiful and what’s beautiful is true. The ars celebrandi (the way Mass is celebrated) is directly related to the idea of lex orandi, lex credendi (what we pray is what we believe).
Bells, smells, Latin texts, chants, beautiful vestments, reverent gestures, formal traditions, are more than just cool, neat, warm memories of days gone by. The art of the church in all its forms brings us out of the everyday culture and places us nearer to heaven. The Mass is truly the near-collision of earth and heaven, as close as we can get without actually piercing the veil.
We, as liturgical musicians, are caretakers of the most important of the sacred arts, and it should at all times be good, true, and beautiful. In a culture that is absent of beauty, when noise is all around us, when goodness is an unknown quantity, when ugliness and iconoclasm reign supreme in our architecture, when the secular has replaced the sacred, then what we did is important. Not because we are good, but because it is good.
I will always consider myself an academic, a teacher. And so you, by default, are a teaching choir, teaching those gathered in our church what the deposit of the faith is all about. The spiritual effect is immense and yet unknown. We may never know the fruits of it. But we know it is good, and true, and beautiful.