Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Good Tuesday to all of you; Merry Christmas; and welcome to this edition of "New Translation Tuesday."



I want to use today's post to continue a conversation I am currently having with one of Gotta Sing Gotta Pray's faithful readers, my friend Chironomo. One of his comments on last Thursday's post was this:

I think this would be a good opportunity to consider seriously the question of WHY ours is (supposed to be) a sung liturgical form rather than a spoken one. If it is true that singing a text gets in the way of "conveying its meaning", then wouldn't a spoken liturgical form be preferable? But the Roman Rite is and always has been a sung form, and as such it would seem that comprehension is not the first priority in proclaiming texts... Perhaps things more elusive like "beauty" and "reverence" are intended as priorities?


I have been thinking a lot about this comment. Everywhere that I have been speaking about the new translation recently, I have tried to help people understand that—to use perhaps a too-oft used phrase—we sing the Mass; we do not sing at Mass. Singing the dialogues with people helps them to grasp this central truth about our liturgy.


I'd like you to weigh in on Chironomo's comment about comprehension, however. I thought about what he (and others) espouse with respect to the "beauty" and "reverence" that can come about when, say, the Collect is chanted. I thought about being in a place where the celebrant had a beautiful singing voice and chanted the text with reverence. Once the prayer was completed and I joined the rest of the congregation in a hearty sung "Amen," I imagined myself thinking, "Wow, this sounded so beautiful; it sounded so "Catholic." But what if that was the only thing I was left with; what if the meaning of the text was not conveyed; what if I did not comprehend the text itself? According to Chironimo (and others), it would seem that the "beauty" and "reverence" of the chanted text trumps the comprehension.


Perhaps I am one of only a few Catholics who actually try to let the meaning of these important texts sink into my heart and soul. When I look around at Mass sometimes, it seems that some people don't pay too much attention to the so-called "presidential prayers." 


I payed very close attention this past Sunday at Mass. The Prayer After Communion struck me:


Eternal Father, 
we want to live as Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,
in peace with you and one another.
May this communion strengthen us
to face the troubles of life.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.


I try to let the meaning of these prayers shape my own faith. I know that our beliefs are expressed in these prayers. Liturgy is a locus theologicus, a primary place where our theology, our belief, is expressed. I know in my brain that the the Eucharist is a source of strength. But when we are reminded of that fact as a prayer is being proclaimed, this meaning sinks deeper into my heart. When I hear the phrase prayed "May this communion strengthen us to face the troubles of life," I think about those things that weigh me down, things like illness in my own immediate family, things like the fact that my parish is faced with so many challenges right now; and I take a deep breath and pray that the Body and Blood of the Lord will indeed strengthen me and strengthen those sitting around me in the personal troubles of life, as well as in the troubles that we are experiencing as a community of faith.


If I am not able to comprehend the texts—even though I may be moved by their beauty and reverence when they are chanted beautifully—then why pray them at all?


I would appreciate your chiming in on this one, folks.


I hope your Christmas week is a good one. And for all those who are dealing with the recent blizzard on the East Coast, I hope you are safe and warm.


Gotta ing. Gotta pray.

15 comments:

jdonliturgy said...

Gerry, I agree that it does not make any difference if the texts are chanted if they are still incomprehensible!

Our celebrant at Midnight Mass this year chanted the orations - and I have to admit that for me, as a musician, I then tune out the words and focus on his swooping and scooping as he chants in a fair, but amateur voice. Maybe I am not the typical worshiper, but I cannot turn off the music critic!

It did add to the perceived solemnity of the occasion, but I do wonder what non-musicians hear. Do they focus on the words or the musicianship of the chanter? Since in my experience only some priests are "up to the task" of chanting well, it is food for thought.

Maureen Grisanti Larison said...

Yes, yes, and yes! If we cannot understand the prayers being prayed - whether spoken or sung - then how can we assent to them with a heartfelt "Amen"? How is the presider leading us in prayer if we cannot comprehend any of it?

Our pastor (who has a decent singing voice) chanted parts of the Christmas Mass quite clearly, but I'm not sure that anyone heard the words because they were mesmerized by the chant itself. It conveyed solemnity, of course, but I wonder how many people heard it well enough to absorb it. And I agree that those of us who are musicians tend to start critiquing almost immediately. How can that be avoided?

If we truly believe that Christ is present in the proclamation of the Word, I think that must include not only the Scriptures themselves but all of the liturgical prayers. We focus so much on how well the presider paces the spoken or chanted word, how much space is given to silence, and the whole "flow" of things, but I'm curious to know how well we listen and are able to assimilate what we hear during liturgy. And no, Jerry, you are not the only one who listens carefully to the texts of the presidential prayers. Those often provide the one image that stays with me all week. Thank you for engaging us in this discussion.

Kevin Vogt said...

I wonder if being distracted by the "musical" aspects of cantillated prayer has something to do with the frequency with which one experiences it in that context. I can think of several examples of idiosyncratic chanting which I have learned to "hear through" after frequent exposure (in the same way that I learn to excuse indiosyncracies in recited or "proclaimed" texts).

Whether or not we experience ritual cantillation from time to time, it is a modality of prayer that will feel foreign, impede understanding, and perhaps even offer a cheap feeling of religiosity, UNLESS we experience it with great frequency and regularity, and over a long period of time.

There is no question that there is an enormous span of discontinuity over reign of the recited Mass (coinciding not only with the age of Humanism, the Protestant, Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Modernity, but also with the Counter-Reformation and all of the reforms within the Church ever since), which will not be bridged overnight. Still, cantillation as a modality of prayer is a significant element of traditional Christianity, a phenomenon shared with other historical and contemporary traditional religions. It probably can't be defended on aesthetic grounds, but neither should it be dismissed on the grounds of immediate individual experience.

Charles Culbreth said...

Jerry et al,
In my best Rod Serling voice....
Imagine you're a saint, in the presence of hosts of cherubim, seraphim, other angelic chori and those of your fellow saints.
(Pause)
Unending hymn of praise.....(that, itself an insufficient human utterance to enable us to ponder.)
(Pause)
In your imagining, is intellectual comprehension even remotely a factor in your joining in that praise? Even in theory, aren't you integrally substantive within the Living Word by your salvation and santification?
Caveat emptor: getting to sainthood and worship- a mystery. Grace. What else can we say or listen to about that.
(Pause)
Is there a correspondence between this Communion (ala Scott Hahn's THE SUPPER OF THE LAMB) of heaven and earth and the details, vagaries and arts we practice at our rituals?
Are comprehension and understanding the same thing? And to what degree are they really necessary to pray to and praise God?
Just thinkin'
Happy Christmas/New Year/Epiphany to all.

rorycooney said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rorycooney said...

I'm with the both-and folks. Actually both-and-but, to be precise. Ideas without beauty (comprehension) may soon become rote and ritualistic rather than prayerful; beauty without grounding in scripture and ritual text often gets off course and narcissistic, leading to elitism and even gnosticism. Christian beauty, however, needs to be carefully considered not in the light of modern aesthetics but in the light of the exodus and the cross, in the same way that christian texts must be. What is beautiful is God, but a paschal God. What is beautiful is truth, but a paschal truth. There is an essentially democratic, plebeian element of beauty that is often scoffed at by aesthetes. It is here that catholic aesthetics often fails: when it confuses the Aristotelian beauty of the courtly with the beauty of the God who does not consider godliness a thing to be grasped, but who died on the cross everyone, including the decidedly unbeautiful.

Linda Reid said...

"If it is true that singing a text gets in the way of "conveying its meaning", then wouldn't a spoken liturgical form be preferable?"

Who said that singing gets in the way of conveying the meaning?? I strenuously disagree with this. Yes, just as there are unintelligible lectors, there are unintelligible cantors, but that is not to say that ALL sung texts are meaning compromised!
This is one of my constant directions to my cantors and choir, 'If the text is not heard (either due to diction or to volume) then why are we here???"
I am all for beauty and reverence, but I do not hold that it has to rule out intelligibility. Actually, if you are using a well crafted piece of music, the music should ENHANCE the meaning of the text, not obscure it!
I guess all this rambling means that I agree with you, Gerry!

Chironomo said...

Linda said:

Who said that singing gets in the way of conveying the meaning??

From the post from which the excerpt in this article came, Jerry commented in response to my comment:

"Chironimo, I would like your take on how chanting a challenging text conveys the meaning more than speaking the text."

Perhaps I over-extrapolated, but I took this to mean that Jerry felt that speaking a text conveys "meaning" better than chanting. That impression is further backed up by comments he has made in this post such as:

If I am not able to comprehend the texts—even though I may be moved by their beauty and reverence when they are chanted beautifully—then why pray them at all?

So to answer your question, it would seem that as far as our conversation is concerned, Jerry is of the opinion that chanting decreases comprehension. I am not of this opinion... I believe that chanting a text elevates it and increases our understanding of that text, even if not our literal comprehension (as Charles noted above, understanding and comprehension are not the same thing).

This is, of course, a completely different issue from whether or not particular presiders are capable of chanting a text. My experience has borne out that most priests ARE able to chant texts, even if not with the most polished of vocal quality. The problem is that they confuse chanting a text with singing (i.e- "performing"). I try to remind those priests I have worked with that chanting texts is more closely related to reading than to singing, and that it is the words, not the melody or even timbre that is central.

Also, I hope that some comments might focus on the point of my original comment - That the Roman Rite IS and HAS BEEN a sung liturgical form since it's inception. Are we to believe that during that time Catholics have simply stood stupidly around not understanding what's being said? That seems doubtful.

It might also be interesting to compare the awareness and knowledge of Catholic liturgy and teachings of those who attend the Mass in English and those who attend Masses said in Latin. I don't want to open a controversial can of worms, but I think I could pretty well predict the outcome of such a comparison. It isn't really about "comprehending" what the priest is saying at Mass...understanding the faith requires a lot of work outside of Mass time in preparation for worship. I think the problem is that too many now feel that their hour at Church is all they're going to give, so it has to be worship, catechesis, prayer and service all rolled into one.

I recently said in response to a colleague of mine who asked how long I thought it would take for the average Catholic to become comfortable with these new texts, "after about one or two hundred times through the Mass they should have it down". And I was serious...that's only two or three years of going to Mass! We have no good reason to either expect or desire that the liturgy should be readily accessible on the first reading or listening.

Jerry Galipeau, D. Min. said...

Can we move from lex orandi to lex credendi without inserting something like lex intellegendi between the two?
Thanks for this continued important discussion.
Jerry

Charles Culbreth said...

Jerry,
This was your charter: "I'd like you to weigh in on Chironomo's comment about comprehension, however. I thought about what he (and others) espouse with respect to the "beauty" and "reverence" that can come about when, say, the Collect is chanted. I thought about being in a place where the celebrant had a beautiful singing voice and chanted the text with reverence. Once the prayer was completed and I joined the rest of the congregation in a hearty sung "Amen," I imagined myself thinking, "Wow, this sounded so beautiful; it sounded so "Catholic." But what if that was the only thing I was left with; what if the meaning of the text was not conveyed; what if I did not comprehend the text itself? According to Chironimo (and others), it would seem that the "beauty" and "reverence" of the chanted text trumps the comprehension."
Your charter, your words, your invitation; I'd say that filtering "measure of comprehension" between those of worship and belief benefits your inclinations.
BTW, nice to hear Rory's voice again in the ether.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jerry.

It seems to me the decision to translate the words into the vernacular implies that it is better for the congregation to understand IN DETAIL what the priest is saying and to join their hearts and minds with the words.

I have been doing some reading on the history of the Byzantine and Eastern liturgies and was struck by the fact that many of the crucial prayers were said silently by the clergy and even the view of what they were doing was (in later times) hidden behind a curtain or screen. The underlying premise was that the laity were not holy enough or worthy enough to see and hear these things.

Those of us "of a certain age" can remember when the priest said Latin eucharistic prayer (aka canon)in a whisper. I have come to think that this sort of thing amounts to a kind of ex opere operato word magic and not the reverent worship of a human being with intelligence and free will.

I would also underscore the comment that chanting is not singing but is closer to reading.

Chuck

Chironomo said...

Anon;

The fact that the Canon is said silently in no way implies that these words are being "hidden" or "kept from" the faithful. They are right there in the hand missal for all to read along with (which I would suggest allows a much greater level of comprehension than listening). The silent Canon is simply a facet of that particular ritual. One has to already adopt an oppositional attitude to interpret the motive as being one of secrecy or "unworthiness".

Anonymous said...

Lovers sing or they used to.

Singing the Mass, for me, is the only true way to participate as a lover of the Church and of God. Singing at Mass, especially the modern music which is often based on waltzy-smaltzy melodies is just awful and destroys what little sacrality remains in the Novus Ordo liturgy.

Singing at Mass also introduces a competition of the priest and the singers resulting in cognitive dissonance. It confuses the worshipers, leaves them wondering: should I listen to what the priest is saying or what is being played on the piano by the cantor?

It is more than a little puzzling that our Bishops let this situation just go from bad to worse year after year.

Incidentally, I could also paraphrase someone and say that 'music is too important to be left to musicians' when it comes to the proper way of praying the Mass.

Silence, sacred silence during the liturgy, must not be suppressed. Singing is often imposed on the liturgy during times when it is least appropriate. As if doing a Sunday morning gig. (Very bad experiences over the years).

Anonymous said...

Isn't it a bit presumptuous to think that ANY of us can ever fully understand the Mysteries of our Faith?
Properly composed, properly selected, properly rendered, music provides what in musical theatre is called subtext.
The dimension that hearing or singing appropriate music supplies to our prayer is not something that can be replaced by intellectual reaction to words.
We might do well to consider the prayer of the mentally impaired or handicapped, and then to acknowledge that we are all, however theologically learned, or verbally astute, somewhere on a continuum of intelligence.
my 2 cents

Ted K said...

Goodness, I hope we will not soon need IQ tests to test comprehension so as to be eligible to attend Mass. Or should the Mass just use the words that a 2 year old can understand, or maybe just use sign language?
Chironomo is correct, the Mass is the culmination of the Christian response to God's actions, and the comprehension of faith requires preparation outside the Mass.
The Mass is not simply worship of God, as we are meant to worship God through all that we do. The Mass is the Sacrifice, and how an eternal Being becomes part of time and is sacrificed on the cross for our sake is beyond our human comprehension. To want to understand everything dates back to the very beginning in the garden of Eden where man wanted to have the tree of knowledge for himself.
What moves the heart of man is the supra rational such as beauty. Through beauty, the soul is led the the Source of all Beauty. Perhaps too many no longer recognise beauty anymore, so instead of trying to understand the text as if one needed to be a theologian to worship God properly, one should try to grasp the beauty of the text especially when set to beautiful music. It says a lot about today's Church that the tremendous beauty and sacredness of Gregorian chant is recognised more by people outside the Church than those within it, as CD sales of chant have been showing.