ONIGHT WAS TACO TUESDAY IN THE SMITH HOUSE. Because it’s Fat Tuesday. And tomorrow, the meat goes away. The scene around our kitchen island this evening was intense. My two older children and I circled that square of quartz in rapt concentration. I wish I could say our silence came from a deep and holy appreciation of the solemn season that’s about to begin. But I think it came more from a determination to get this meal right. A good plate of Mexican food must combine all the available elements in perfect balance.
And tomorrow, the meat goes away.
As I experienced the tastes and textures of this meal, I thought back to previous Fat Tuesdays. There have been years when I somehow fit in all my favorite treats the evening before Lent and enjoyed them deeply. This year, dinner wasn’t extraordinary (I make tacos regularly and didn’t even have any avocados handy tonight), and I ate it with more satisfaction than delight.
“What does it mean to enjoy something?” I wondered to myself. “Must I savor each bite and appreciate every flavor in the moment? Or does the real enjoyment come when I’ve finished the meal and am taking the time to digest it?
As the busy season of Lent descends upon us, I have the same questions about liturgical music.
A Common Dilemma for Church Musicians
Lenten liturgies place massive demands on choir directors and their singers. The organ falls silent, leaving the choir exposed. We see short Alleluia chants replaced by long, intricate Tracts. Every word of the Mass seems to weigh twice as much. And then the liturgies of the Triduum are almost too big to process.
I suspect that church musicians fall into two camps at this time of year. There are those who simply want to get through everything in one piece. It’s not that they don’t love liturgy; it’s that they fear the downside of having it go poorly. But after it’s all over, they wish they could have enjoyed it more—especially when they realize it exceeded their expectations (dedicated church choirs do tend to rise to the occasion when it matters most).
There are also those church musicians who enjoy Lent and Triduum liturgies so much, and anticipate them so eagerly, that it’s painful to have them fly by as they seem to do. Imagine looking forward to the Alleluia on Easter Sunday for months, humming it to yourself frequently, and then realizing as you’re in the middle of that spectacular melisma on “immolatus” that it’s all about to be over.
This used to be me. I love the Easter Cycle more than the rest of the liturgical year combined. But every year it seemed to go by more quickly, and before I knew it, I would be experiencing the withdrawal of Easter Monday.
How St. Augustine Can Help
I finally asked a good priest for advice on the matter. “Father,” I asked, “is liturgy meant to be cruel? Is it meant to get your hopes up, but then come and go in an instant and leave you hungry for more?”
Being a wise and well-read priest, he referred me to St. Augustine. And in Confessions, I found the perspective I needed in a passage where St. Augustine describes the grief he experienced at the death of a dear friend:
“Things rise and set: in their emerging they begin as it were to be, and grow to perfection; having reached perfection, they grow old and die. Not everything grows old, but everything dies. So when things rise and emerge into existence, the faster they grow to be, the quicker they rush towards non-being. That is the law limiting their being. So much have you given them, namely to be parts of things which do not all have their being at the same moment, but by passing away and by successiveness, they all form the whole of which they are parts. That is the way our speech is constructed by sounds which are significant. What we say would not be complete if one word did not cease to exist when it has sounded its constituent parts, so that it can be succeeded by another.
“Let these transient things be the ground on which my soul praises you (Ps. 145:2), ‘God creator of all.’ But let it not become stuck in them and glued to them with love through the physical senses. For these things pass along the path of things that move towards non-existence. They rend the soul with pestilential desires; for the soul loves to be in them and take its repose among the objects of its love. But in these things there is no point of rest: they lack permanence. They flee away and cannot be followed with the bodily senses. No one can fully grasp them even while they are present….
“Why then are you perversely following the leading of your flesh? If you turn away from it, it has to follow you. All that you experience through it is only partial; you are ignorant of the whole to which the parts belong. Yet they delight you. But if your physical perception were capable of comprehending the whole and had not, for your punishment, been justly restrained to a part of the universe, you would wish everything at present in being to pass away, so that the totality of things could provide you with greater pleasure. The word we speak you hear by the same physical perception, and you have no wish that the speaker stop at each syllable. You want him to hurry on so that other syllables may come, and you may hear the whole. That is always how it is with the sum of the elements out of which a unity is constituted, and the elements out of which it is constituted never exist all at the same moment. There would be more delight in all the elements than in individual pieces if only one had the capacity to perceive all of them. But far superior to these things is he who made all things, and he is our God. he does not pass away; nothing succeeds him.”
From this magnificent passage, I take away that we church musicians shouldn’t be uneasy about finding ourselves in either of the camps I described above. If you’re simply hoping to survive this busy season, perhaps your sense of detachment from the individual moments will enable you to better enjoy the totality of your experiences in hindsight. And if you’re dismayed at how quickly this season goes by, know that there’s no sense in trying to enjoy each moment any more deeply because what you really want is to experience the whole—and He who made it. May our musical efforts this Lent and Easter give us all a taste of the heavenly liturgy we hope to sing in eternity.
Saint Augustine: Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 61-63 pp.