Music at Mass Review: June 19, 2011

At Parish A this week. Two items stand out for comment:

We sang a Eucharistic Acclamation that included the word ‘Jesus’ held at the end of a phrase for a couple measures, with the completely predictable result: the congregation, not being musicians and not, at any rate, having the music in front of them (the words only were projected on the wall about 80 degrees and 20′ up from the altar) , came to the final ‘s’ at a variety of times, leading to sound not unlike a punctured tire loudly deflating – ‘Sssssssssssssssssssssssss’. This is what I mean by amateur composers just missing the obvious – what, do they expect the ‘song leader’ jump up and down waving her arms to get people to not voice the ‘s’ until just the right moment (like that’s gonna happen) or did they just not care or hear how it was inevitably going to sound? Sheesh.

The second, more serious issue is the song ‘God, Beyond All Dreams’:

God, beyond our dreams, you have stirred in us a memory,
you have placed your powerful spirit in the hearts of humankind.

(refrain) All around us, we have known you; all creation lives to hold you,
In our living and our dying we are bringing you to birth.

God, beyond all names, you have made us in your image,
we are like you, we reflect you, we are woman, we are man.

God, beyond all words, all creation tells your story,
you have shaken with our laughter, you have trembled with our tears.

God, beyond all time, you are laboring within us;
we are moving, we are changing, in your spirit ever new.

God of tender care, you have cradled us in goodness,
you have mothered us in wholeness, you have loved us into birth.

–Bernadette Farrell

The first two lines of the last verse present an evocative image, and would make a nice piece of devotional poetry.

And that’s it for nice things to say about this song.

All creation does not live to hold God. Holding God is precisely what Creation cannot do, unless you’re a pantheist. In fact, all creation doesn’t even live – living things are a tiny speck, a thin film on one of many billions of planets. It’s the smallness of life, its fragility, that is the striking thing – if you’re going to turn your eyes to capital ‘C’ Creation.

Creation, especially that tiny fraction represented by us, is the recipient and product of God’s Love, in whom we live and move and have our being. If you wanted to make a remarkable and humbling observation about receiving Christ in the Eucharist, and thereby having and holding God in His most humble Presence, OK, do it, great thought.

But there’s no humble in this song’s lyrics that I can find. We are bringing God to birth – um, huh? I guess this could be an example of the idea that we, as believers, body forth God as our share in the Incarnation – maybe. There’s nothing in this song to suggest an active part for God in all this – it’s all about we.

A powerful spirit has been placed in the heart of humankind. Sure. Not a capital ‘S’ Spirit of scripture, but rather a small ‘s’ spirit of Hegelian self-realization. In case you think I’m going to far, I plead the resat of the song: nowhere in it will you find any unambiguous reference to the idea that God is in the driver seat in any way besides having set in motion a creation.  The whole ‘you are laboring within us’ sounds like maybe God is in charge – but only in charge of our labor in giving Him birth – ambiguous, at best.

The music has this built in start-and-stop thing that is annoying, but it captures perfectly the ‘we don’t know exactly what we mean, here’ vibe.

Meta-comment: there’s this thing I run into once in while, where some people seem to think that parsing out what words are really saying is some kind of injustice – that all we’re supposed to get from a song is this wash of emotions. If the emotions are strong and feel appropriate, we shouldn’t quibble about what the words actually say. I’m sympathetic to this, because, as a kid listening to late 60’s early 70’s rock, I could rarely figure out what they were saying anyway, and so just laid back and enjoyed the sonic massage. Ya know?

The problem is that I also believe words are powerful. Mushy words create mushy minds (and visa-versa).  Poetry entails a certain amount of ambiguity, a certain amount of surprise, or it becomes prose. But within that world, it is possible – or should be possible – to figure out some message, some point. Lyrics to songs sung in church, at holy Mass, have, from that context alone, a great power. The poet abuses that power by accepting a vagueness not tied so much to the nature of poetry itself as to the lack of clarity or evasiveness of the poet.

Update: Seems I already examined God Beyond All Names here, and maybe did a better job of it.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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