Sunday, April 26, 2009

Not awful...awful

My family and I attended Mass at a different parish this Sunday than is our norm. We walked into the lovely neo-gothic style Church that looked like it could have come out of an English countryside (the fact that it was cold and rainy today lent to the whole mystique of the thing). We were immediately struck by the wood and the stone and the beautiful vestments of the celebrating priest and his deacon.

Then this voice from above came crackling over the PA: "Good morning folks. Our opening hymn..."

"FOLKS? Did I just hear him say 'folks?'"


Strum, strum, dee dumditty, strum. Yes it was a guitar.

Now let me stop you, the reader, right there. I have nothing against the guitar Mass per se. I lived through them at the Jesuit parish growing up, and I lived through them at school, and eventually through college. They didn't bother me then...when I didn't know, didn't really know that there was anything else.

My first argument here is not primarily theological, it's aesthetic. If we were in one of those gymnasium churches where one could hold a pot-luck or a battle of the bands without feeling discomfited either way, then, yes the guitar would not have bothered me as much. But to have the guitar there, at this gorgeous church...well... it was like being forced to listen to a old man play the spoons (as cool as that is) while I'm contemplating the architectural significance of Rome's Pantheon. Or, conversely, being forced to listen to Mozart while contemplating the significance of rural Indiana architecture. They just don't fit together.

My second argument is more theological and I will borrow a few lines from Dorothy Day for this one. Dorothy lived the America of the 20th century about as fully as anyone could (It would have been fascinating to see what she would have said to the success of the Reagan administration in ending the Cold War peaceably as a result, at least in part, to the arms race that Dorothy rightly condemned, or what she would have thought of Pope John Paul II who was only Pope for two years when she died. Anyway, here is what she wrote:

"But there is also the attempt made by some young priests to reach the young, to make the Mass meaningful to the young (the bourgeois, educated, middle-class young), where novelty is supposed to attract the attention but which, as far as I can see, has led to drawing these same young ones completely away from the ‘people of God,’ ‘the masses’ and worship in the parish church. There is the suggestion of contempt here for the people and for the faith of the inarticulate ones of the earth, ‘the ancient lowly,’ as they have been called.

"I do love the guitar Masses, and the Masses were the recorder and the flute are played, and sometimes the glorious and triumphant trumpet. But I do not want them every day, any more than we ever wanted solemn Gregorian Requiem Masses every day. They are for the occasion. They are joyful and happy Masses indeed and supposed to attract the young. But the beginning of faith is something different. The ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ Fear in the sense of awe."

Where is the "awe" in a guitar Mass?

I was joyful on my wedding day, but I wasn't giddy. I wasn't bopping around, groovin' to the loads of people and friends and family who were all there to witness something cool. I was much so that I had to steel myself with a dram of spirits. I was fearful, but I wasn't scared. But, hell, even if I was scared I believe that is the appropriate response to such a life transforming moment. I felt very much like how I imagine Chesterton felt when, on his wedding day, he stopped on the way to the church to purchase a glass of milk and a revolver, both of them purchased for fortitude's sake. On that wedding day we are in awe of something beyond the two of us. We come to recognize and submit to the bond which God calls us. The awe of which Dorothy speak is an appreciation for something transcendent, something other, something more than us, even something that calls us to something more, something better.

The guitar at Mass communicates something, and Dorothy is right in that it communicates joy and glee and the youthful abandon that I am sometimes taken by when I revel in the fact that I am loved so immeasurably by Christ. That first time I heard U2's Beautiful Day, though, it gave me the same feeling . I'm glad to be alive. This is fine, but a faith built on enthusiasm is doomed to die a miserable death in lugubrious loneliness.

Like the Bible says, "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." "Fear in the sense of awe," says Dorothy. So don't give me something awful with the guitar. Give me the awful truth of the Mass, the awe-inspiring wonder of Christ's presence among us.

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