Just before my alarm went off, 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I had the most amazing dream. We were attending Mass at the Newman Center, and singing the new Mass parts. They were chants, as a matter of fact, but the most gorgeous, melodic chants I’d ever heard, and expanded into gorgeously rich harmony that made the very air hum. And ringed around the exterior of the church stood dozens of people, children and adults, bearing small percussion instruments—agogô, cabasa, güiro, and others I know by sight and sound but for which I know no names. It was a tight ensemble; I looked around and marveled at the way even the children kept the complex rhythms locked to the voices, the joy filling up the space, and my heart lifted up in gratitude not only for the existence of God, but for the power of what He created here on Earth.
It is sometimes suggested that what I describe crosses into irreverence. It is called banal, feel-good, happy-clappy, and so on. People I deeply respect in all other areas use the word “beauty” to mean “high church,” unable (or refusing) to acknowledge that beauty crosses aesthetic lines, finding itself equally at home amid chant, praise bands, contemporary ensembles, solo cantors and classically-trained choirs.
Only in the constant frustration of trying to moderate the online rhetoric do I finally realize how blessed I was to grow up in a small, rural parish where there was little pretension and a great openness to all forms of beauty in music (even though, being a small parish, we were incredibly limited in what we could do). It wasn’t until much later that I realized how strongly so many people equate God with solemn, humorless sternness. I’ve never understood it. Why must reverence equal silence, holiness equal formality? Why do we shush children, try to make them behave (defined as sitting still and being silent, things utterly not in their nature, things which cause them to yell “church is boring” and help them not at all along the road toward understanding what’s going on and becoming active in participation)—why, when Jesus very clearly said “Let the little children come to me” and “whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it”? Why do we use worship as another venue to drive wedges between people, to separate them into groups that can be labeled “Us” and “Them”?
Don’t get me wrong. You know how I crave silence, how I find God in it. I think the lack of silence in modern life is a real problem, one that people are reluctant to address. And certainly I’m not suggesting that we should abandon the pomp and grandeur of high church. I know, without a doubt, that the ideal held up by the aforementioned people has real power to lift the heart to God, when it’s well done. But so do other forms. Look around the world. God created kangaroos and slugs, mountains and valleys and deserts and oceans, skin in black and white and all variations in between, and inspired people in all of them to create unique forms of beauty. How can we claim that there is only one way to worship the God who created such diversity? When any of us try to set up our own personal preferences (whatever form they take) as the only way or even the best way, we put God in a box.
Well, thank God He won’t stay in that box, that’s all I have to say.
What I experienced in that dream would be hard to achieve this side of Heaven. But it reminds me yet again that the human race, in all its diversity of custom and culture, truly is good.
Today I am grateful for all the things that support the song of the people of God:
hand drums and drumsets
electric guitars and keyboards
pipe organs and glorious trained choirs
chants and Renaissance polyphony (okay, so that last doesn’t support assembly song, but it can still lift our souls)
for the inSpiration that touches all artists, whether they choose to make good use of it or not
for the constant renewal of the Church in the gifts of its members
for the constant tension between embracing what is good from contemporary culture and holding on to truth—however imperfectly the balance is held
for online arguments that remind me never to take for granted the blessings I’ve been given