ITHOUT QUESTION, it’s a struggle every church musician faces: trying to remain prayerful at Mass while also providing the music for Mass. For us choir directors, the situation is even more intense. We must divide our attention amongst perhaps 20 or 30 people while we strive to follow the liturgical action and remain in communication with God.
I’ve heard various suggestions on how to overcome this challenge, and all of them are good:
- Remember to pray the text you’re singing.
- Look over your missal before Mass so you can begin to connect with the contents of that liturgy.
- Work extra hard in rehearsal and personal practice so that the music will feel easier—and take up less of your focus—on Sunday.
- Maintain a spirit of detachment from your work, so that you won’t be tempted to view Mass as a performance.
I can recall our President of Corpus Christi Watershed, Jeff Ostrowski, advising church musicians to designate one Sunday Mass as their “own” Mass to simply sit in the pew and worship. This, too, is a very helpful suggestion. But some musicians may find this approach impossible due to their family life, parish Mass schedule, or the fact that they are involved in the music at every single Mass their parish offers.
And regardless of whether one can set aside a “personal” Mass, I think we all want to avoid having any Mass feel more like work than a participation in the sacred. It’s a struggle that can cause a great deal of anxiety for any Catholic who has high spiritual and musical standards.
An Unlikely Solution to a Common Problem
I’ve found that the answer lies in focusing not on what I do at Mass, but on what I do with the rest of my waking hours. It all boils down to recollection.
When we stay recollected, we remain aware of God’s presence in our soul. While it’s doubtful that anyone manages to think of God every minute of every day, the goal is to remain in constant conversation with Him.
I’ve found that if I fall into the bad habit of letting my busy life take over and only communicating with God during designated prayer time, it’s very difficult to suddenly flip on the “prayer time” switch when a sung Mass begins. But if I’ve been doing a good job of communicating with God throughout the day, then He doesn’t feel so far away when I begin playing or singing a Mass.
These were things I found hard to articulate until I recently read a wonderful little book: The Practice of the Presence of God. The book is made up of conversations with, and letters by, one Brother Lawrence, a lay brother with the barefooted Carmelites in Paris in the late seventeenth century.
Little more than a pamphlet, this book would be easy to dismiss as too “simple.” But that’s the genius of it. In just 39 pages, Brother Lawrence describes his spiritual life in terms that anyone can understand. For example:
“[A]ll consists in one hearty renunciation of everything which we are sensible does not lead to GOD; that we might accustom ourselves to a continual conversation with Him, with freedom and in simplicity. That we need only to recognize GOD intimately present with us, to address ourselves to Him every moment, that we may beg His assistance for knowing His will in things doubtful, and for rightly performing those which we plainly see He requires of us, offering them to Him before we do them, and giving Him thanks when we have done.”
Sounds like a good plan for anyone who’s singing Mass this Sunday! But here are the passages that really hit me—paragraphs in which the book’s compiler describes Brother Lawrence’s prayer life:
“[P]rayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of GOD, his soul being at that time insensible to everything but Divine love; and that when the appointed times of prayer were past, he found no difference, because he still continued with GOD, praising and blessing Him with all his might, so that he passed his life in continual joy….”
“[W]ith him the set times of prayer were not different from other times; that he retired to pray, according to the directions of his Superior, but that he did not want such retirement, nor ask for it, because his greatest business did not divert him from GOD.”
So, for Brother Lawrence, work time flowed into prayer time and vice versa. They were all times of recollection. Now, we church musicians in the modern world may find it difficult to achieve this degree of recollection as we juggle church music with family life and perhaps a day job. But it’s encouraging to think that perhaps, with some consistent effort, we can remain just as recollected during a sung Mass as we would be during an hour spent silently adoring the Eucharist.
Your Computer Can Help You Stay Recollected. No, Really!
At the risk of seeming eccentric, I’ll share one final tip with you. When I’m not directing our choir and playing organ, I work as a freelance writer. Between that and preparing for rehearsals and music classes, I spend many hours at the computer. It’s easy to get glued to the screen and forget that God is present. So I’ve configured an app to pop up and remind me to stay recollected. Every 10 minutes, I see a little message for 10 seconds. That means I’m giving God one minute for every hour I spend at the computer—certainly not an amount of time that will cause me to miss deadlines.
That annoying little popup has made such a difference! But if it’s too weird for you, at least check out the Brother Lawrence book. You won’t be sorry.