Friday, June 15, 2012

Sursum Corda

The Holy Spirit leads us to the Logos, and he leads us to a music that serves the Logos as a sign of the sursum corda, the lifting up of the human heart. Does it integrate man by drawing him to what is above, or does it cause his disintegration into formless intoxication or mere sensuality? That is the criterion for a music in harmony with logos…
Spirit of the Liturgy, 151

Reflection – The discussion of liturgical music on a blog always raises interest, raises traffic to said blog, raises a few hackles, and (more often than not) raises a bruise or two upon the poor beleaguered wretch who is trying to run a parish music program, usually on a volunteer basis and with a small budget, and with limited if any say on the hymnals and other resources provided to him or her.

I have been there and done that, admittedly a good few years ago, so I do get it. There are genuine practical difficulties that enter into any effort to substantially change what is happening on the ground in a parish, musically. It takes money, time, and human resources, all of which may simply not be there in a specific place. Sometimes people really are doing all they are capable of doing, and are doing it with great love and generosity for God and the Church.

All of which is to say that discussions around parish music have to be conducted with great gentleness and charity. It is easy to rant about this hymnal or that song; it is easy (sadly!) to make fun of this composer or that style. I personally have great capacity for both ranting and mockery—I try not to indulge those capacities. Neither ranting nor mockery are particularly helpful to anyone, least of all to the one ranting or mocking.

Nonetheless, conversation needs to happen. And I personally know no one who has tried harder and with greater charity and gentleness to get this conversation going than Joseph Ratzinger. Do you know that he actually has written theological reflections on rock music? (I’ll have some of those here at some point). Has anyone else even had enough respect for rock music to look at its theological implications?

Of course, he himself is a musician, a pianist formed in the classical German tradition of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. He has the understanding and sympathy of one who has gone through the struggle and labour of the musical craft. It is hard work to master an instrument; he has done that hard work.

His whole focus on the words logos and sursum corda is the key to his reflections. Music is meant to be a lifting up of the human heart. And what the human heart is being lifted up towards in liturgy is not merely elevated emotion or Dionysian intoxication (as in rock music), but the logos of God. Christ Himself, and in Christ the ordered disciplined pattern of Christian worship. This call to order and discipline in our worship goes back, of course, to St. Paul (cf 1 Cor 14). From the beginning the Church has rejected a chaotic free-for-all approach to liturgy.

Musicians in the Church have always had to walk a fine line between music that ‘grabs us,’ music that according to cultural fashions and personal tastes draws us and lifts us up, and music that serves the logos of worship. This is no easy thing, and I don’t think there ever has been a Golden Age when the Church really has gotten this right. We can talk about Gregorian Chant, and I’m all for it, but historically it has mostly thrived in monasteries, not parishes.

It seems to me that the first priority is sound theology in the lyrics. Historically, the Church has resisted allowing just anyone to compose liturgical hymnodic texts. It is so easy for heretical notions to enter into people’s minds and hearts via a catchy tune. Scripture, writings of canonized saints, and existing liturgical antiphons are the best places to find texts.

Hymns and songs with other lyrics have to be scrutinized carefully. Is this sound doctrine? Is the quality of these lyrics worthy of the liturgy, free from slang or soupiness or banality? Are we praising God here, or ourselves? It can be very subtle, that – a good criteria is to see how often variations of the word ‘I’ occur in the song. ‘I want to praise you… I think you’re so great… I want to say to you that you are my God… my one desire is to tell you what a great God you are for me…’ If we’re praising God, why do we keep talking about ourselves?

Well, this blog post has approached its critical mass. Regarding musical style and genre, all I would say (because it’s really complicated, actually) is that we need to find music that serves the liturgy, that does not distract from the action of the liturgy (for example, both rock performances and operatic arias distract), and that is of a quality worthy of the sacred liturgy. And I’ll leave it there, I think, for now at least.


  1. Thank-you. This is maybe the first blog I've seen that offers a gentle but accurate view of liturgical music, and I've seen many, having tried to walk that fine line myself. Another form of lyrics that I'm wary of, because I'm unsure of how to pray it well, is where the lyrics take God's point of view (think "And I will raise him up" or "and I will give him rest") Some of these hymns are beautiful and comforting, but I'm not convinced they belong in the mass. What do you think?

    1. Thanks! I really have to walk a fine line myself because my own conversion (back in the day now!) was so wrapped up in my experience of liturgical music that I now look back on as being in itself inappropriate... but God found me there, no question. So I know we cannot just dismiss and deride 'bad' music.
      I am wary of the 'voice of God' music, too - I'm not sure it is spiritually healthy to assume that perspective in our singing. We have to experience and know that Voice as being outside of ourselves, as being not us.
      But I am happy to be corrected on this matter, as I am unsure of myself on this question.

  2. I've been a parish musician in some capacity for most of my life. My own feelings towards liturgical music have developed a great deal since I was nine years old!

    I believe that any musician and especially the music directors, should be very familiar with the liturgical documents, particularly as they pertain to music, and at the very least be aware of other writings on Church music...

    I am no longer in a leadership role, but I do try to encourage, at least, a more traditional hymnody. Gregorian chant, as much as I love it, would lead to a great deal of strife at this point. As I've begun to be familiar with the "Propers", I am apalled at how few songs/hymns are actually written that even remotely correspond to the Propers. So much for trying to find middle ground.

    1. Good point, and I agree that we hardly begun to delve into the possibilities held by the propers - so much can be done there, I think, that would enrich all of us.


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