Tag Archives: choir

The Alabaster Church

Should we be building (or restoring) beautiful churches when there is so much poverty in the world? Shouldn’t the Church sell all that it owns and give the money to the poor?

I am a simple man and I do not have a complete answer to that question. But I ask you to consider the story of the feast of Simon the leper, or more appropriately the story of the woman with the alabaster box of ointment. Does this story have a lesson for us that applies to the questions above? I think so.

Rubens-Feast_of_Simon_the_Pharisee

Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618-1620, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

In the Gospel of Matthew, verses 26:6-13, we read:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, there came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, “To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.” When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, “Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.”

In the Gospel of Matthew this woman pours ointment on Christ’s head, in Luke it says she pours it on His feet and wipes them with her hair. I think it is fair to say she did both, and to do so fits with Christ saying she did it for His burial. But here’s the question I think we should ask for ourselves in light of this story: Do we not, very specifically and uniquely, have Christ with us at Mass, truly present? Are not our churches, in fact, both temples and palaces: places for worship and sacrifice on the one hand, and places for monarchal reverence and pomp on the other? Yes, we must help the poor, but our love for our neighbor goes forth from our worship of our creator and our savior. We proceed from Mass into the world, conforming our lives to Christ in our actions. And churches are for all who come, rich and poor alike.

The poor, above all else, need salvation of their souls as does everyone else. Certainly we must not forsake the poor with cheap excuses that our monies are tied up elsewhere. Christ chastised the Pharisees for that as well. But we must not turn away from proper worship in order to, instead, focus on the poor. When we do, we put our souls at risk, and theirs.

[I realize I risk saying all this because I am not poor. My apologies for any thickheadedness and offense.]

I believe the state of the “new Church” today, with its numbers plummeting, its thin gruel of RCIA programs, its horrible music, its new Mass with namby pamby vestments and shallow prayers, and all its staggering and ravaging scandals, is all of a piece with its degraded and ugly churches. To forsake right worship, which includes, if at all possible, beautiful places of worship of sufficient design and beauty to glorify the King, is to lose the forest for the trees. It is, in a sense, to lose Christ.

This is one reason why churches that focus only on helping the poor all too often become churches where soup and blankets becomes their gospel and not the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection for our sins, saving us from Hell, and leading us to eternal life. Raising Lazarus was an image of the gospel, but Lazarus was raised to die again. His true salvation came because Christ died on the cross, and then rose from the dead, then ascended to the right hand of the Father, and then Lazarus believing in that truth.

Therefore, I believe that a gospel which says we should do away with fancy churches and instead give that money to the poor is, in fact, a substitute gospel. It has some appeal because it has some important truth (we truly do need to help the needy and lay down our lives for others), but it elevates one truth inappropriately above another. The poor (and the downtrodden, and those in prison, and widows & orphans, and the hungry, and the naked, etc), whom you must love, will always be with you. But if you are to see Christ in the poor you must first see Him in the Eucharist, and bend the knee, and bow your head, and worship Him. Should you sell all you have and give it to the poor? Maybe. Should the princes of the Church live simple lives of poverty? I think they probably should (certainly many today should be brought low). Ought the Church as the body of Christ celebrate Mass in plain sheet-rocked or concrete-tilt-up boxes instead of beautiful, ornate, and more expensive churches? I think not (if at all possible). Give glory as and to whom glory is due.

Does this mean that if we focus once again on building more beautiful churches all our problems with go away? No. But we must not be afraid to build beautiful churches. To do so will feed and inform our souls in surprising ways, and help us become more holy, more fully human, more like Christ. This goes hand in hand with helping the poor. The stunning churches of old, those that are still with us, are memorials to those who built them in a similar way that the story of the woman with the alabaster box is her memorial.

You will meet her if you get to Heaven. And, perhaps, you will bow to her and thank her for showing the way.

Finally: Arvo Pärt, the brilliant minimalist composer from Estonia, set the words from Matthew above to music. Listen to this and read the words as you do. This is, I believe, a stunning example of what setting the words of scripture to music can be.

Introíbo ad altáre dei.

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Latin Novus Ordo

Ghent angels singing

I’m the one on the right, squinting, grimacing, and hacking my way through the Missa Secunda Kyrie by Hans Leo Hassler, O Sacrum Convivium by Remondi, Ave Verum by Mozart, Laudate Dominum by Diego Ortiz, and Cantate Domino by Pitoni, plus a lot of traditional Gregorian chant, and other works.

On the first Friday of February of this year my parish celebrated our church’s feast day (Our Lady of the Presentation) with a Latin Novus Ordo Mass. I already wrote about how I decided to join the choir. We, the choir, were not perfect by any means, and it was really a lot of hard work, but it was still beautiful and deeply rewarding. Interestingly, I had a small Twitter exchange tangentially related to this Mass.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker had posted the following tweet:

I have a gut feeling that many, many grass roots Catholics are longing for more traditional liturgy, and its my opinion that this need is best met by the Ordinary Form being celebrated in a traditional manner. This is what B16 wanted–for the two forms to influence each other.

His tweet caught my eye, especially in light of just having participated in such a Mass as he mentions. I cannot say that I want this kind of Mass over a Traditional Latin Mass. For me the jury is out. I love both. I am regularly attending a TLM at a nearby parish once a month, and I hope my parish does more of the Latin Novus Ordo Mass as well. I also hope we have the TLM in our parish again someday.

Anyway, I replied:

My parish just celebrated our parish’s feast day with a beautiful Latin Novus Ordo Mass. I volunteered for the choir. First time for me. Very solemn and beautiful. After recessional folks waited for the choir to finish Cantate Domino. Then applauded. Folks are longing for beauty.

Someone replied to my tweet:

“Then applauded.” Says all about the NO.

[“NO” meaning the Novus Ordo.] I should have expected this response. For man TLMers such things as applause at Mass is a sign of the “Spirit of Vatican II” times, which they despise. I get it. I’m mostly on their “team,” up to a point. But I thought about it and it occurred to me that the negative response was premature. For the applause, though perhaps not entirely appropriate (I don’t really know), did not actually happen at Mass, but after Mass had ended. Plus, applause can be a “thank you,” not only praise.

So I replied:

It was not praise for a good “performance,” but a thanks for what had been done (very hard work to bring a difficult Latin Missa Cantata to our parish). Mass was over. Priests had exited. Would have been appropriate at a TLM in a similar context. Says more about people than NO.

Parishioners also thanked the priests on the way out of church for bringing these “lost” riches back to our parish. Similar gesture as thanking the choir.

Baby steps in light of the damage done. It’s not yet TLM, but a step towards it.

Recognizing that, with charity, is good.

I believe I am right about this, but am willing to be corrected — though I might put up a fight. Anyway, another person also replied to my first tweet:

Applauded?

I replied:

Yes. Mass was over & the priests and servers had left the building, the people were standing & looking to the choir loft enraptured like they hadn’t seen/heard something like this for a long time (which they hadn’t) or ever. The applause says a lot about what people are craving.

Fr. Longenecker did not respond to either mine or the others’ tweets.

I know many who are ardent supporters of the TLM (as against the Novus Ordo) believe a Latin Novus Ordo Mass, though certainly more beautiful and solemn than the all too familiar happy-clappy Novus Ordo Masses common since the late 1960s, is still a kind of bastardized Mass, finally ill suited to proper worship. I don’t expect them to agree with my statements above. Perhaps I might not even agree in a few years either (though I doubt it). But for now I’m on a journey of faith and learning, and I have to say I loved our beautiful Mass on that first Friday in February.

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Can I do this? A bumbling neophyte tries to sing the Missa Secunda

Several evenings ago I walked into my parish church to do something I’ve never done before. Probably out of ignorance and hubris, and not a little blind hopefulness, I decided to lend my voice to our parish choir. But not for the normal Sunday choir. This time I joined in because I had heard at Sunday Mass the announcement that coming up in about four weeks was going to be a special Novus Ordo Mass (feast day at St. Mary, Our Lady of the Presentation) that would be in Latin along with Latin (and Greek) chant, and that if anyone wanted to join in the choir they would be welcome, and that our choir director would be offering a chant schola in preparation for the Mass.

So I reached out via email and was invited to join.

As I walked in to the church I heard beautiful music resounding throughout the nave and sanctuary from the regular choir rehearsal as they were finishing up. After blessing myself and genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament, I turned, looked up, and saw this.

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With not a little panic mixed with excitement I realized I would be going up to the choir loft. What had I decided to do? Reality was setting in. I had never been up there, but have wanted to. I had not sung in a choir since, probably, about 4th grade for some silly event. As I worked my way towards my destination I was asked a couple of times if I was a tenor or bass. I could only shrug. I had no idea. Oh no, I thought to myself. I’m an idiot. I’m a fool. At my answer a look of slight worry crossed the faces of my questioners. Had I made a huge mistake?

On the back bench lay items of sheet music and a binder. I picked up my copies and went to my place. Everything was new to me. I did not know these people. I had never been in the choir loft, I was an imposter. Perhaps I didn’t even know how to sing. However I was welcomed warmly. Okay, at least they’re nice.

Then I looked down at the sheet music. Oh no. This was not the medieval square note sheet music. Not that I know that ancient form well, but because of my curiosity about historical Christianity I know a little. And it’s rather simple to follow if you know the basic format. Rather, this was the Missa Secunda by Hans Leo Hassler, and it looked like this:
1612674_00-02

If you want to know how it’s supposed to sound, here’s a recording from another choir:

 

Okay. For those of you who can read music easily, have sung in adult choirs, know that you are a tenor or bass or whatever, then you might be curious at the sudden and profound panic I felt.  (Perhaps you are merely laughing at my foolishness.) I realized I would have to reach deep into my past, to those few piano lessons of many decades ago and remember foggy snipits about breathing at the right time, etc. 4/4 time. 3/4 time. Half notes. Whole notes. God help me, and God save this choir from me.

The choir director, a very kind and super encouraging man (fortunately for me), brought me to a side room and had me sing Mary had a little lamb, just to determine there my voice might fit. He said I could be a tenor or bass, so he put me with the tenors. And there I was.

We began with the traditional chant Salve Regina to warm up. That helped. I know that one, and it’s not too difficult. Then we dove into the Missa Secunda. Another great blessing for me, I was next to a woman who knows the music very well, has a great ear to be able to listen to me while she sings herself, and a kind and generous spirit to guide me through my stumblings. If she had not been there I might have completely failed and not come back. Later others told me, yeah she’s great.

So, rehearsal one is over. Three more to go. Will I be able to do this. I asked several, including the choir director, after that first rehearsal if they think I can contribute. They were all very encouraging. I also found online resources to help me do “homework” between rehearsals.

God help me, but I loved it.

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