Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sober Intoxication

It is the Holy Spirit who teaches us to sing—first David and then, through him, Israel and the church. Yes, singing, the surpassing of ordinary speech, is a ‘pneumatic’ event. Church music comes into being as a ‘charism,’ a gift of the Spirit. It is the true glossolalia, the new tongue that comes from the Holy Spirit. It is above all in Church music that the ‘sober inebriation’ of faith takes place—an inebriation surpassing all the possibilities of mere rationality.

But this intoxication remains sober, because Christ and the Holy Spirit belong together, because this drunken speech stays totally within the discipline of the Logos, in a new rationality that, beyond all words, serves the primordial Word, the ground of all reason.

Spirit of the Liturgy, 140

Reflection – The issue of liturgical music and what it should sound like is one of those cans of worms that bloggers open at their peril. Rock music vs. Gregorian chant, folk music vs. Palestrina and Byrd, Haugen vs. Handel—the fault lines open up quickly and deeply and everyone’s emotions quickly get stirred up. Charity and tolerance get left in the dust all too often.

In the interest of full disclosure, my own journey as an amateur liturgical musician took me from the Glory and Praise school of guitar hymns, where as a youth God did in fact meet me and began to stir up in me the first movements of faith and prayer, through to immersion in the choral tradition of the Church. I have, by God’s grace, Palestrina-ed and Byrd-ed and Mozart-ed and loved it, and my own liturgical sensibility favours that style, mixed in with hefty doses of chant and good quality, theologically sound hymnody.

So I find myself unable to dismiss or scorn the more primitive musical styles of ‘praise and worship’, for the simple reason that I know my own adult faith life truly was nourished by that kind of music in its early stages. I am also aware of the very real limitations of time, money, talent, and training in many parish music ministries. We do what we can, right?

At the same time, I am well aware that the solemnity and sublime nature of the liturgy calls for something better than rock/folk/Broadway inspired musical forms, and that we should at least be trying as a Church to move towards that ‘something better’, as and when we are able.

Ratzinger is one of the most thoughtful and balanced writers about this need for something better in Church music. Himself a classically trained musician, he knows very well what music is, what its challenges are, and where it can take us. In the above passage, he strikes a very good balance: music is intoxication, elevating us above the prosaic and the plain, but it is a sober intoxication, never losing its connection to the Logos, the rational nature of our faith rooted in the rationale of God which is Christ.

The joy and abandonment we experience in truly successful music, that sense of beautiful release, of something carrying us beyond our own horizons and thoughts, must be at the service of the proclamation of the Gospel. Rock music, which is by nature a sub-rational release of raw emotion, Dionysian abandonment to the sensual level, does not belong in liturgy. It is an intoxication that is not sober, not ordered to the Logos.

The phrase ‘sober intoxication’ is, I think, a good one to ponder as we evaluate this or that piece of music. Does it elevate us? Or is the quality of this piece too mediocre to achieve that (cough-PeaceisFlowingLikeaRiver-cough)? Does the music raise our minds and hearts to God, or does it draw too much attention to the choir, the soloist, the ‘band’? Are the lyrics theologically sound and substantial or not (cough-GatherUsIn-cough)? Bad theology truly does not serve the proclamation of the Gospel, right?

It all is a bit complex, and of course all the limitations of time, talent, personnel, and money will come to bear on this. But it behoves all who love music, love the liturgy, and wish for music to serve the liturgy to ponder these things, weed out the worst items in our repertoires, and strive towards the ‘sober intoxication’ that truly beautiful and fitting liturgical music can contribute to the worship of God.


  1. Music....seems like the older I get, the more I appreciate sober music...indeed sometimes no music at all.

    But there have been times in journey with Jesus that it was the music that helped me hang on. That's the thing about music, it can take you outside of your thoughts, to other thoughts and bring you back again.

    I guess I am not understanding. I find your statement about not being able to dismiss or scorn more primitive music styles curious. In thinking of them as primitive , didn't you do just that?

    Music styles and tastes are interesting, eh?

    1. Well, only if primitive is understood as a pejorative term, which it is not. It is an objective term in musicology, referring to harmonic and rhythmic structures.
      I do make it clear that there is value in that kind of music, even though my preference is elsewhere. I think I state that rather plainly in the post, Catherine.

    2. Oh, okay.... Primitive is an objective description and not a subjective one.... I didn't understand, yes, you made it clear.... Except for that primitive word. Thanks, Fr Denis


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