Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why the Brady Bunch Should Not Be In Charge of Liturgy

I am a Vatican II baby.  Which is to say, my life of faith has been entirely under the aegis of the Vatican II reforms.   I grew up with the St. Louis Jesuits, with communion by the hand and under both species, with the English liturgy (did I hear that’s going out of style?).

One thing that means when I come to liturgy is that I look forward to music that encourages participation.  Don’t give me lots of Latin choir solos, Gregorian chant or, for that matter, slow, dour, dirge-like renditions. It’s hardly Amazing Grace if I feel bummed out singing it. 

Bottom line, I go in wanting to sing and sing out strong. 

So, you know how they say sometimes God gives you what you want so realize what you need… well, today I went to liturgy at a well-reputed parish in the Los Angeles area.  Full congregation, everyone chatting before mass, lots of families, pastor walking up the aisle before Mass greeting people.  Great spirit.

But when it came to the music, I swear, if you had told me that the choir’s water bottles had been dosed with amphetamines, it would have made perfect sense. Imagine the energy (and even more the naivete) of the Partridge Family or the Brady Bunch – actually yes, imagine the Brady Bunch singing "Sunshine Day", but then instrumentalized for Vegas (i.e BIG).  Everything extremely up tempo all throughout the Mass, choir members not only swaying but sort of dancing along at times, repeated calls to “clap along” and a soloist during the presentation of the gifts doing American Idol style trills. (Being in LA, I said a prayer that Simon Cowell might be in the congregation, and might an end to Miss “I want to be Mariah Carey but all I can really manage are the ‘trilling now’ hand gestures.”  My prayer was not answered.)

It was not, as they say, a buena vista.  Actually, it was a poster child for everything the organ and chant Catholics fear from the likes of me – jumbo jets of ALLELUIA, and very little “And let us pray”.

Now, as Jesuits like to recite when they are in complete and total disagreement with one another while having cocktails, and don’t wish to fight -- de gustibus non disputandum.  About matters of taste, there’s no arguing.  One man’s amphethamine-induced jamboree is another person’s holy moment.  (I guess.)

But it’s also true if you push too hard on any part of the liturgy, you really do risk taking the whole ship down.  So here, each time the music would end and a reading begin, it was as though all the heart and hope went out of the room.  And yet the readers were just fine; no Eeyores killing us softly with their tepid despair; they read as well as anyone in your parish or mine.   The problem was rather the context.  The music was SO BIG, so HAPPY!, the Scripture could not keep up.  No spiritual space had been created to listen, to receive. 

So here we are, supposedly coming to be touched by God, and believing that a significant element of that is the readings, and we’re so hyperstimulated, there’s no room for that to happen. 

As David Byrne once sang, “This is not my beautiful house.”  (And also, "How did I get here?")

So, pastors, liturgists, parishioners – if you have a similar experience of the readings not “landing”, you might check the broader context.  Does what precedes the readings actually create a space for people listen? Do you have some significant moment for silence (and, implicitly, settling in)?  And is your music in balance with everything else? 

It really was like this clip from the Brady Bunch Movie (complete with the swaying).

(And I am the terrified guy just wanting to buy my umbrella, for God's sake!)


rocsj said...

As one who labors to cultivate liturgical prayer that is spacious, reverent, touching, and appropriately happy, I thank you for your story and insight.
Like e.e.cummings said, "it's always ourselves we find at the sea"
Thanks, bro.

Anonymous said...

Hi Father Jim, Enjoyed your blog and agree totally. We have a different challenge in our parish - a JPII 33-year-old pastor who wants pre-Vatican II music and the Latin Mass. I'm 67 and do not want to go backward. Though I like singing Gregorian chant at times, our choir is bummed by all the dry, old hymns and "chain-gang" rhythms of our childhoods. Pray for us...maybe for our pastor for enlightenment before we all join the "2nd Baptists" (joke). God bless, Bev

M Russell said...

I attended Mass away from my home parish this weekend, and for the most part had a beautiful experience. Unlike home, this was not a terribly friendly parish, but the Mass was so well-paced, I could sense a rhythm to the Liturgy. There were well-orchestrated pauses after each reading, after the homily, and a period of silence after Eucharist: we have none of this at home. This parish liked Latin :-), but the small men's choir was excellent and, again, their musical pace fit the pace of the Mass. It makes it easier to "get into" the Mass when all parts flow, and there is a discernable rhythm to all the various elements.

And if you are ever back up this way again (Pacific Northwest), you should come over to Orcas Island, in the San Juans. Our small island church loves visitors!
Michelle R.

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

Thanks for the comments on this post!!! Love the ee cummings quote, Roc, and people's insights into the liturgy. Rhythm -- great way of talking about the liturgy. Exactly. And Bev, I feel for you. It's a real puzzle, this whole concept that some of us priests get that we can come in and completely turn everything upside down to suit us. As though the parish is our living room or something.

Much to think about. Thanks for the comments!