Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Taste Of Heaven

When I enter my parish church and prepare myself for Mass,  I don't want the world to follow me in. I want to leave all my cares of the world "out there" and rest my soul in His presence. I want my senses flooded with what is good and holy. I want my ears to hear the Word, my eyes to see His body on the cross: the flicker of votive candles. I want my fingers to feel the missal I hold. I want to smell the incense last burned a few days ago and I want my lips to sing along with angelic choirs while my soul is lifted and is given a taste of heaven, but what I see and hear instead, is the world that has followed me inside the sanctuary. 

I see people wearing their everyday clothes, whispering to each other, with a muffled laugh here and a chuckle there...and I hear guitars tuning up. I can close my eyes and not see the clothes and I know when Mass starts the voices will hush, but the guitars...I have a big problem with that, along with the songs that will be sung. 

I am a guitar player and have played for decades. Playing guitar is a love of mine and I have had my own blues bands off and on over the years. So what's the problem you ask? It is this: when I hear a guitar in church, the first thing I think of however briefly, is entertainment. I have always thought of a guitar as the instrument of choice when it comes to being entertained, and so it is this feeling of being entertained that comes to me when I hear it in Mass. 

Over the years I've been asked to join in the parish folk group and I have always refused except for one time over 25 years ago. I played at an outdoor Mass and from the get go, I was back on a 'stage' again, entertaining, and it was then and there that I decided never again. Along with the guitar is the modern liturgical music that is played in Mass. I want my soul and spirit to soar in worship to God when I sing and hear beautiful religious hymns and chants, but the modern liturgical music I hear grounds my soul to the world. 

To be sure, the music now played at Mass has come a long way from the Peter, Paul and Mary wannabe that was presented to us in the early sixties as sacred music, but it still leaves much to be desired. I don't want to sing to the mountains...or to the sea. I want my soul to sing to God. I want to sing to His Holy Face and I want the words I sing to reflect this. I don't want to try to find the rhythm and cadence that is lost when one singer in the folk group unexpectedly decides to ad lib in his or her exuberance, leaving me without a melodic rudder. 

Instead, I want to join my voice to the many, in unison, in rhythm and with order in praising God, so that one does not have to think about what is sung next, leaving our hearts and minds to pray: much like praying the prayers of the rosary while meditating on the mysteries. I want to be connected to the ancient Church by the hymns and chants we sing, along with the celebration of the Eucharist.

Yes, I've heard some beautiful songs in the last few years, but I don't think they should be intended for Mass. Though beautiful, they do not reflect the sacredness of the Mass or the mystery that is before us on the alter. I would prefer to hear these songs in gatherings, prayer groups and such, rather than at Mass. We have two thousand years of liturgical music to choose from so we are not wanting for something to sing. We need to reopen this treasure chest of sacred music that has been thrust aside since Vatican II and reintroduce this treasure to a whole generation that has only heard chant in movies, usually as a backdrop in a darkened scene when the evil bishop is conspiring to overtake the Vatican. The  hymns and chants long lost truly praise, edify and place our focus on God in our worship of Him, and the world should not be intruding.

There is very little silence in our world today, especially when it comes to music in our everyday lives. Hardly a minute passes when we do not hear a radio or TV playing a song. Much of what passes as liturgical music today reflects the rhythms and beats present in secular music that we hear every single day, instead of immersing us in the sacredness and reverence of the Mass.  Maybe the lyrics have been changed, but the overall flavor of pop music remains.

Mass is not about us or the world outside the church doors. It is about God and the worship of God. Mass should reflect heaven and not the world we have lived in for the six days prior to Sunday Mass. Mass is public worship and we all need to be on the same page, where there are no distractions so the focus remains on God in the Eucharist. Everything in Mass should remind us that while we may be in the world, we are not of this world, yet that is very difficult to do when the world invades the sanctuary. 

I realize many people  like the music which was introduced forty years ago, but liturgical songwriter Micheal Talbot is not Palestrina, nor is Palestrina, Michael Talbot. Each has his own place and purpose and they both serve that purpose very well indeed. I may walk around during the week humming a Michael Talbot melody, but let me hear chants and  Palestrina in Mass while I lose myself in our Lord in the Eucharist...without worldly distractions.


  1. I agree. I write and record songs with Christian themes. I don't think of myself as a Christian musician. I write what I care about, which happens to be mostly about God. Nor do I consider myself contemporary. (I'm way to old for that!lol) As grateful and humbled as I am if anyone enjoys my music, I would be horrified if anyone performed it at church. (Even my quiet worship songs.) Play it in the car, on an mp3, on the computer anywhere, but not church. Church music needs to be timeless and meditative. Chant, organ grand symphonic majesty, but not a toe tappin hootenanny.

  2. Bobby,
    As a retired church musician with very orthodox tastes and practices, I thought that I'd comment. What I see in your article is your objection to a style of music (I join you there) and the disturbing practice of tuning-up in what should be a meditative time before the celebration of the Eucharist. I agree... Hokie-folkie does not belong in the context of the Mass. Guitars and lutes, however, have an ancient and noble history as instruments of praise and far predate the advent of the organ in church. Much of the great sacred music of the Medieval & Renaissance Church comes to us in tablature form and bears witness to the use of those instruments in highest praise.
    The problem is not the choice of instruments but the selection of music.

  3. I will, respectfully, disagree. Many of the Psalms were written to be played with a lyre - an old-school version of the guitar if ever there was one. There is room for the guitar in the Mass. Silent Night was written for the guitar originally, in part because the organ was out - and who would deny that hymn has a place in Mass? I think it is not the guitar that is the problem, but the way in which it is used and the placement of the instrument that poses the problem. I have a similar problem of feeling like I am on stage when singing in the choir, especially when performing solos. I hate that people clap after Mass for the choir. I know they mean well, and intend to thank us, but this only increases the feeling of performing, rather than worshipping. I think if the choir is moved back into the choir loft, as was originally the case, and the instruments with them, then the problem of distraction would be alleviated and the focus would go back to the One to whom it should rightfully be given. It is the placement of things, not the things themselves, that cause the problems.

  4. I have a CD of Gregorian chant melodies played by classical guitar, so I am confident guitars *could* find a role.

    Could it become a source of pride for the musician that distracts from the Liturgy? Sure, but so can an organ or the fine singing voice of a cantor.

  5. "Mass is public worship and we all need to be on the same page, where there are no distractions so the focus remains on God in the Eucharist."

    I just recently posted a piece titled "If It's Too Loud, You're...", and the conclusion of that title in the post was " church." So often we have exchanged quality for volume. I am with you in your statement, quoted above, but I can hear the counter argument quite clearly. "Latin would distract me. Classical music distracts me because I don't understand. Popular music helps me connect with God because it is something I relate to. It lets me speak to God in my own language."

    Often, in an attempt to evangelize, we have taken Paul's words to be all things to all people so that by all means we might save some, as a mandate for "speaking the language of the times" in our worship. The real question is, what is the ultimate purpose of corporate worship? Is it primarily evangelistic? If so, then many would say, speak the language of the tribes. If it is primarily about worship, those same people would like say that God does not care whether it is Palestrina or Prince (the artist formerly known as, that is). It quite difficult to form an argument in favor of traditional music when presented with a logical dilemma like this.

  6. Well done! My story is similar but (A) I never was a gigging guitarist and (B) I did play at Masses for 5-7 years during my 20s. I stopped because it became too much of a performance. I had guitar-slinging nuns from 1970-76 (whom I loved very much!) so I was awash in "Day is Done" and "Let it Be" in Masses from the beginning. If you in southeastern NH, check out the wkly Sunday 1PM TLM at St. Adelaide in Peabody ( high Mass w/ scola on 4th Sunday of the month... 1st Saturday Mass w/ hymns at 9AM. God Bless, Mike

  7. I'm sure the guitar, if played skillfully and tastefully along with HYMNS THAT DON'T SUCK IN THE FIRST PLACE could find a part in mass. My problem with the guitar is not that it's a guitar -- a guitar is just a tool -- it's that the songs people are using them for are horrendous. At my parish (a college campus parish) we get horrible "hymns" that don't even come from Catholic traditions! Last Sunday our archbishop attended and our band played songs by evangelical rockstars such as David Crowder Band and Chris Tomlin, complete with "yeah yeahs" and self-centered empty sentimental lyrics. It was embarrassing to me, especially considering that we come from a tradition with a rich and beautiful musical tradition. I have heard wonderful treatments of 'O God You Search Me' or 'Be Thou My Vision' on guitar and I would love to hear more songs like that in mass. If you find pop Christian music edifying in your own time, by all means listen, but please don't bring it to mass. I've been running to an Eastern Catholic church lately for refuge from the bad music; everything is a cappella and the words in those hymns have stood the test of centuries.

  8. What about an electric bass guitar? Same objection? Or is it acoustic bass that you prefer, you know, a string bass? The problem is not the is the incompetent guitarists who plague not only Mass but society as well who are the problem. Would a classical guitar be okay for you?

  9. I heard a beautiful version of the Bach Ave Maria on guitar tonight driving home from work. It as definitely the highlight of my trip home. I think a guitar playing the Ave Maria can be done prayerfully .

  10. The guitar can be played very melodious and peacefully. Just because when you yourself hear the guitar youre reminded of the world doesn't mean it's liturgically unlawful.

  11. Speaking as someone with degrees in music with decades of involvement in the music program of all churches from Albanian Orthodox to Methodist, I have no objection to ANY instrument --- WHEN PLAYED WELL --- in worship.

    But it takes much more than the ability to strum three chords and move a capo to make one a liturgical guitarist.

  12. Drums Don't belong in Mass Either, I agree that Guitar is a good instrument but it's not for Mass. No guitar nor Drums as Mass period!

  13. I must disagree also. First, you wrongly associate the guitar with a specific type of style -- folk. As other posters have noticed, this is not the only way that the guitar or other stringed instruments can be played. There was a time when the organ was poo-pooed because it was too secular and "too Protestant." That's never brought up. In addition, liturgical music is never all that removed from secular melodies and styles. Even Gregorian chant bears the stamp of ancient Roman tonal melodies. And as for associating a particular instrument with "entertainment" -- you could do the same for the organ -- oh, I heard a cheesy lounge singer playing a Hammond organ, so we shouldn't have organ in church. Or, hey, they played Take Me Out to the Ballgame on an organ, therefore we shouldn't play the organ in church. Who would say that? And should bad organ players mean that we remove all organs from churches? No one would suggest that either. These rants against guitars are often very narrow, stereotyped, and without fail drum up Puff the Magic Dragon or something out of the 70s, as if that's the only option. The instrument isn't the problem.

  14. Reference the perennial preaching of the Church: Give Gregorian Chant pride of place and then add to it the time-tested polyphony compositions that truly meet the criteria of Sacred Music. Add in a few reverent, theologically correct, dignified hymns of more recent don't have room for anything else and you're in sync with the perrenial thinking of the Church. . .then you can ditch the folk ditties, the singy-songy, touchy feely stuff of today, and please, God, deliver us from the guitar and most especially any electric perversion of it! See ya later Marty!

  15. It used to be that the only musical instrument that was allowed to accompany the mass was the organ, and only because the organ mimicked the human voice. Did Vatican II change that? I really don't know.

    I agree with you 100% on this post. No guitars, no basses, no nothing that distracts from what is supposed to be going on up on the altar.

    I remember when folk masses became all the rage back in the seventies. They were just awful. I love folk music, and play it on the guitar myself, but I don't like it in church. I like jeans and flannel shirts, and will not wear them to church. I like chatting with my friends and neighbors, but will not do it in church.

    Please, can we have some decorum?

    I guess not.

  16. Nonsense!
    guitar is an instrument like any other! The pipe organ was not around in the first century, so why is it that it is more acceptable than a guitar? What's wrong with being entertained at mass? Mass is supposed to be a little slice of Heaven on Earth, so why should it not be entertaining to some degree? The whole reason for the ornaments, statues, incense, etc. at mass is because God gave us our senses and delights in our enjoyment of them, for HIM! Some sects of the Church of Christ have no instruments whatsoever because they "are not mentioned in the New Testament." We as Catholics, who know the fullness of truth, ought to set the example to our separated brethren and not devolve into legalism.

  17. There is Sacred Music and then there is Profane Music. It appears in these times since Vatican 11 most people don't know the difference. Sacred Music is one which lifts the mind, heart, and spirit to God. Profane Music lifts all to self. There is a definite difference. And anyone who truly prays understands this difference.

    It is also true that singing loudly or playing loudly which many non-musicians have a tendency to do, doesn't coverup for the fact that they are NOT musicians. Cantor and organ or guitar players who are unskilled always tend to be loud but not melodious.

  18. "I love the guitar. I've played it for decades. It's my favorite musical instrument. But guitars simply don't belong at Mass, and here's why... .."

    The above quote was taken directly from New which linked the article posted in the It is a paraphrase of what I wrote in the article and it is partially inaccurate. If you re-read the article, I do NOT say guitars simply don't belong in Mass. I am saying however, that a guitar should not be an instrument of choice for Mass for the reasons given in the article.

    I do agree with some of you that some of what I am feeling has to do with the way it is played. No, it is not all 'folksy' in style, as I attest to that at the end of the article, that the music has a definite "pop music" flavor to it and it smacks too much of the secular world and entertainment. Applause that sometimes occurs at the end of a song is a testament to this.

    Thank you.

  19. I believe that God uses different ways to reach to different generations, and 1 way is through music. I also believe that all (or most) Christian songs were written as inspired by the Holy Spirit. I also believe that God is creative and the Holy Spirit is so dynamic.

    Maybe, we should give attention to the hearts of our musicians. If they are worshiping while singing/playing the instruments, they will not be like noisy gongs. Their songs will touch the heart of every individual in the church (whatever genre of the song may be). The choir must realize that they are not performers but are worshipers.

    I don't think that it is the instrument/type of song is the problem...

  20. If there is a danger in many of the chant vs. Modern music posts I have seen in the past few months, it is the division caused by contempt. The contempt for music of the last few decades is no more loving or charitable than the contempt witnessed in the 70's for traditions and practices that were thousands of years old.
    It was contempt for the "old traditions" that "didn't mean anything in modern times" that had us so far into modern music that I grew up with rock bands at mass for the 70's. VaticanII was not about contempt for the old but especially in
    North America it became something it wasn't. In a frenzy we threw out the baby with the bath water.
    Now there is a movement to restore some of what was lost bringing back traditional chants. Beautiful! Let's seek what we lost, but does it need to be at the expense of other choir members?Choir members who sung folk music and modern themes sincerely working to make their faith relevant to their lives for that moment.
    Modern music at mass does not have to be bad to make traditional chants good.

  21. Just like everything that is of this world, whether musical instruments or the human voice itself, any of these can be used in inappropriate ways. Our relationship with God and our awareness of human need must be our guide to how we use created things.
    This is when we need a "moderator" to help us determine what is fitting and proper.
    To be open to use everything to God's greater glory is a grace.

  22. When I left the Church, the Latin Mass was still being said and when I came back to the Church in 2008, I encountered the Novus Ordo Mass.

    Overall, I thought of the Novus Ordo as Catholicism Lite but I was able to give the benefit of the doubt that perhaps it might help more non-Catholics understand the Mass better and be more open to conversion, in spite of the fact that in my 40-year hiatus from Church activities, cradle Catholics seemed to drift away in greater numbers and converts, if on the increase, escaped my notice.

    Many blame Humanae Vitae and its condemnation of contraception for the departure of so many cradle Catholics. That's not why I stopped going to Mass. Sin was the reason I stopped, nothing else.

    After going to confession in 2008, I encountered the guitar at Mass and the Sign of Peace. I don't know which I found more unsuited to the Sacrifice of the Mass, now called the Liturgy by some and The Eucharist by others, even though the Eucharist cannot be consecrated by a priest outside the Sacrifice of the Mass.

    Music at the Novus Ordo Mass is often a little Peter, Paul and Mary and the Sign of Peace seems to be a signal for everyone in the church to waive at other congregants nearby and many pews away.

    If it were not for the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist and my unflagging belief in the truth of Roman Catholic dogma, I'd become a Quaker or a Shaker. But after my long trip back to Catholicism, I'll put up with the guitar until someone realizes that Gregorian Chant or some English version of the same is more complementary to what occurs on the altar during the Consecration.

    Save the guitar and waving at your neighbors for parish picnics. Neither belongs at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Take it from a sinner who knows and learned the hard way.

  23. \\There is Sacred Music and then there is Profane Music. It appears in these times since Vatican 11 most people don't know the difference.\\

    Nor did they know the difference in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

    The same piece would be sung with Latin words in church, French words at a banquet, and the speeded up and played on instruments for dancing afterwards.

  24. \\It used to be that the only musical instrument that was allowed to accompany the mass was the organ,\\

    Not so. Many Mass settings were written with orchestral accompaniments. Mozart is one such composer.

    When Cardinal Mundelein came to Chicago, he told the cathedral choir director he expected an orchestra at the High Mass on Sundays and Feasts.

  25. Though I admit I'm fond of John Michael Talbot's music, I'm not sure it belongs at Mass. I went to a Spanish Language Mass and the musicians played guitars; I considered that more of a Mexican folk custom, though. I prefer chant at my Latin Mass, though. As for the OF Mass, drums are definitely a no-no.

  26. \\As for the OF Mass, drums are definitely a no-no.\\

    There's a famous Mass setting in Latin by Haydn called PAUKENMESSE (Timpani Mass)


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