Adventures in Liturgy With A Musical Mom


Not this organized. (Photo via Wiki commons)

Friday morning, I flew into church at 7:59 a.m. for 8:00 holy day Mass, trailing a widely-spaced gaggle of little ones–the last one wailing. With Christian out of town, I was single parenting, and it was also the last field trip day of the summer, with speech therapy thrown in for good measure. We’d left for church with the van packed for the day but no cell phone, because I couldn’t find it.

Did I mention I was the pianist for that Mass?


There is a certain poetic symmetry in this. After all, for every action in the universe, there is an equal and opposite reaction, right? The feast of the Assumption in 2004, while I was on retreat with Jeanne Cotter, was one of those transcendent moments that stays with a person.

The tenth anniversary of that transcendent moment?

Long, loud toddler wails filled the church as I strode up the aisle, retrieved the keys to the music closet, and got out the microphones, trying not to meet the eyes of any of the parishioners. I got the mics set up in less than a minute, by which time three of my children were sitting quietly at the end of the first row of the music area, and the last–the wailing one–was coming up the aisle with a friend from our choir. I announced “Immaculate Mary,” and off we went. By now, however, Michael had escalated to that catch-breath crying. You know, the kind that is beyond all self-control.

And he was sitting underneath the hanging microphones. The ones you can’t turn off.

Mid-phrase, I waved at Michael to come over to me, thinking he’d hug my leg until I finished the opening hymn. No, no. This child began climbing. In the middle of verse 2 I had to break off the left hand to haul him up, because otherwise I was going to derail altogether.

Luckily, he calmed down once he was on my lap. I didn’t even try to stand up until the Gospel.

Father started his homily by introducing the topic: Mary, motherhood, the importance of the mother-child bond.

And me.

“Look at Kate, this morning!” he said, sweeping a hand in my direction. “Her child followed her around the church, crying for his mother. You cannot keep a child away from his mother. The mother, she is so important.”

Never once have I envisioned myself being invoked as a homiletic example. And if I had to choose a time to focus on me, this would not have been it.

But Father was right. It was a very apt illustration. And everyone laughed.

Michael spent most of Mass on my lap at the piano. Once he settled down, it got steadily harder to play. He reached for the keys. He pulled the hair on my arm. He wiggled his bottom down my legs, then grabbed my arms and used them to haul himself back up. Have you ever tried to play the piano–think “type,” it’s the same idea–with a child pulling on your arm? I found a lot of wrong notes in the piano that morning.

Like this.

Like this. This is his “won’t-look-at-you” look.

Finally I had to banish him. My friend took him onto her lap. By this time–mid-Eucharistic Prayer–he tolerated it. “But he wouldn’t look at me,” she said.

By the grace of God, even epic pastoral musician fail moments can make way for moments of grace and transcendence. When it was all over, Father met us in the prayer garden outside church. This priest, from the Ivory Coast, spent a semester here when I was full-time liturgy director, and he’s been coming back to the States almost every summer for over a decade to cover our pastor’s vacation. We had him over for dinner this summer, and he blessed our family. It was more than a hand motion; I could feel the blessing descend. I have never felt that before, but I felt it that day in my kitchen.

I felt it again in the prayer garden outside our church, as he blessed each of my children in turn and we said goodbye for at least a year. And I was grateful for the reminder that ceremony and solemnity are not, in the end, as important as the love that underlies them.

Applause In Church Is Not Always A Bad Thing

_Emotions 02

_Emotions 02 (Photo credit: SeRGioSVoX)

If there is one thing you can get both sides to agree on in the liturgy wars, it is that applause in church is a bad thing. I heard the argument made once that any time there is applause in church, it is a sign that the liturgy has been derailed. Applause is for performances; the liturgy is not a performance; ergo, applause = bad.

In general I think that’s reasonable, but it’s not 100%.

There are many reasons why people applaud, and most of them have nothing to do with praise for a performance. Applause is a sign of support, of solidarity, of affirmation, of appreciation. We applaud when kids receive their first Communion, when families celebrate a baptism, when a priest announces he is being reassigned (and not because we’re glad to see him go!). One on one, there are many other ways to express these sentiments, but as a community, applause speaks love and fellowship most simply and effectively.

But even if we focus on applause that is a response to the music, I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as it seems. Applause speaks of emotion, and music evokes an emotional response. A few weeks ago, we finished Mass with “Amazing Grace.” The congregation sang its heart out, and afterward, they applauded. If you asked why, most people probably would say something that invokes a good performance, but I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. What they’re responding to is the fact that something touched their hearts and evoked an emotional response.

The prevalence of emotional manipulation in a lot of modern religious rhetoric tends to make Catholics suspicious of emotional response to religion. We often see Catholicism as strong because it isn’t emotionally manipulative; it doesn’t rely on gimmicks and flashy trends to reach people. Instead, it rests on a fathomless tradition of study, prayer, and big-T Tradition. This is true, but none of that negates emotion. Emotion is part of who we are as human beings, and if we try to pretend that it has no place in our worship, we’re not being true to how were created.

In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton talks a lot about transparency and its close relationship to humility. A truly humble person, like Mary, is like a pristinely clear window offering a view of God. The view you see through that window is what receives the praise, not the window itself, which is nothing more than a conduit for the view.

Most of us, including me, are not pristine windows. Our pride and vanity smudge the glass, and all that praise catches on the surface instead of passing through to its proper destination. So we’re always going to have to wrestle with this issue. But I think our preoccupation with the topic reveals more about our own sins than it does about reality.

A Ministry Manifesto


Visita Papa Brasil

If you only ever share one post I write, this is the one. Because this is important.

We need you.

And yes, I mean you.

You think you aren’t good enough to join the choir. You are. You say you’re tone deaf. You’re not. We’ve known a man who actually was…and he learned to sing. (Sort of.)

We are better when there are more of us. We blend better, we carry better, we are more confident, we worship God better when you are with us, even if your voice is only so-so, even if you can’t read a note of music. I thank God for each and every one of our core members, but all of us know we are better when there are more of us.

You think you don’t have time, that ministry is a drain on your time that you can’t afford. But you will receive as much as or more than you give. Christianity was never meant to be practiced in isolation. Those who give of themselves find that the community gives back many times over.

But even if you’re not called to minister through music, you are called to minister in something else. The value of lay Eucharistic ministers and lectors is self-evident, but the basic ministry is hospitality. When you come to church, whose is the first face you see? The person who can stand at the door and smile and welcome their fellow worshipers is the person who sets the tone for the day. If a hospitality minister breaks the ice for you, it empowers you to sit in community with someone you don’t know. It enables you to reach out to the person beside you in the pew and welcome them in turn.

Visita Papa Brasil

All our gifts support each other. My husband and I can’t lead our community in sung praise when we have a toddler running around, dive bombing microphone stands and yanking on cords. Two weekends a month, we sit in the assembly with all our kids, but on our choir weekends, we depend upon the people who volunteer in the nursery. They make our ministry possible.

As Catholics, we don’t talk enough about the impact we have on each other in worship. Our tradition focuses on the vertical plane, and there’s a sense that it’s sacrilegious, too touchy-feely, too “horizontal” to acknowledge that our role is important, too.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that the music or the hospitality is the point of Mass. But we must recognize that if the liturgy is the spiritual food that sustains Christian living, then the way we interact with it–both what we give and what we receive–is part of the equation.

The Contemporary Group singers

The liturgy engages the senses because we are souls enfleshed. We experience the world through our senses and through our emotions. What we put into to church matters. What we experience there matters, too. If we sit in our invisible box, pretending it’s just “me and Jesus” (or “me and the Eucharist”), pretending we have no responsibility to and nothing to receive from those around us, we’re deliberately cutting ourselves off from a source of grace.

If we want our Church community to be a force for good in the world, we actually have to be community. Faith is not lived in a vacuum. Far too many people simply show up on Sunday, expecting the Church to check off their little box and consider their obligation to Christian living fulfilled. If you want to be a real Christian, you have to give of yourself. If we’re going to spread the Gospel, we have to spread it to people.

Hospitality Ministry

We need each other. We need you. Yes, I’m talking to you, not the person in the next cubicle, not the person who has more time or more talent. None of us actually have time for ministry. We do it because we recognize that we have gifts that can serve the community–and through it, God.

So here’s my challenge. If you aren’t committed to a ministry, call up your parish today and ask where the greatest need is–and sign up!

And if you recognize your parish in this, share this post. I never say that, because it feels bigheaded, like I think my little corner of the blogosphere is the center of the universe. But in this case, I’m willing to take the risk. I’ll make it easy. See that little “share” button at the bottom? Hover over it and see all the ways you can share it.

God is the source, the center and the end point of our worship, but that doesn’t mean He has to do all the work. If we expect to build the Kingdom on earth, we have to do something about it ourselves.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

–Teresa of Avila

Ending the Liturgy Wars


With the changes to the Mass less than a year away, it seems like a good time to address a topic that’s been bothering me for quite a while.

They’re called the liturgy wars, and they are as ridiculous as their name.

Today I’m guest posting at Catholic Mothers Online, and my topic is liturgical music–something that, as a church composer, a choir baby who now has choir babies of my own, is near and dear to my heart. Come on over and join in the discussion!