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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mantillas, Cum Jubilo, and other Acts of Rebellion

I am not, by nature, a rebel.  That is not to say I'm a conformist, but I've never had any great desire to change things or to be part of a movement.  I've always found the motion of the world to be too much like the Borg.  "Resistance is Futile".  It is what it was, and isn't a place I care to be, but I won't swear that my soul is any sort of shape for the better of the remaining options, so here I'll stay until the Good Lord deems otherwise.

Yet, I seem to constantly find myself at the center of some controversy when it comes to music and liturgy. As you've no doubt gathered, I am a musician, specifically, a singer.  I am one of those dreaded sopranos who can be either very good or very bad, depending on the piece and the mood, but regardless, I am LOUD.  I have a set of lungs that can overpower the shrillest set of screaming infants, even in an acoustically challenged room.  But I digress.

I learned how to sing as a Baptist.  I learned what to sing as an Anglican.  Then I became a Catholic at a time when it appeared that almost no one in the Church knew how to do either. This was eleven years ago, during the Easter Vigil 2000.  I was blessed from the beginning with an excellent set of priests and a beautiful parish. There were still minor horrors in the music, the occasional "Lord of the Dance" or "We Saw Him!", but these were easily brushed aside by hearing the regular and seasonal chants in the appropriate season, and the hymns that flanked these were often very good.  At this point, I had never heard of the Propers, nor had I heard the Ordinary referred to by that term.  I knew quite a few chants by rote, both in Latin and Greek, but thought of them as just other, and infinitely better, "hymn" options.  It was a very happy time for me as a Catholic, less so for my long-suffering choir directors, but God gives us all enough grace to muddle through.

Then came the day when we decided to move back to the South.  We were again fortunate to be near the Diocese of Charlotte, which has a lovely Cathedral with a choir master of excellent taste, but it was a bit of drive and it was outside of our diocese.  We wandered from parish to parish, trying those nearest our home, finding the music was abysmal, the liturgy often altered, and sermons, at best, mundane.  To quote an acquaintance of mine, when I glanced at the crucifix, I could really relate.

So, I became a rebel.

My first rebellion was in wearing a mantilla.  I still recall the first person who commented on it.  A woman whose name I will never know actually accosted me after Mass to tell me "We don't have to wear those anymore!!".  I smiled sweetly and replied, "I know".  I wasn't there to argue.  I was there to worship. The mantilla was an outward sign to me of my need to ignore the distractions around me.  The black veil to either side of my eyes kept me focused on the altar and our Lord,  as present there as on any high altar, despite what was going on around me.  It was not a sign of submission to "men" but of submission to God, and I see no degradation in showing humility before the Almighty.

By this time, we had found a tolerable parish within our diocese, if outside of the county.  The priest was sound, a Jesuit of the old school, and he was most encouraging of his more orthodox parishioners.  This led me to join the choir, and to my second form of rebellion. After all, life is too short to sing bad hymns.  Wrong lyrics?  Having a prestigious memory, I just sang the right ones (circa 1940, for those in the know).  If the hymn was particularly bad, I just knelt and ignored it.

In other words, I inadvertently started a parish war.  I needn't go into the specifics, as that would defeat the purpose of what I wish to express here, but suffice it to say that the priest (whom I still respect and love) asked me to leave the music ministry as I was a disruptive influence (I must agree with him) and he, like so many others, preferred a calm choir, even if it was of only two performers whose tastes were at odds with his, the majority of the congregation, and the Holy See.  Calm was still preferable.  We have all seen this again and again...better the devil you know, so to speak, perhaps literally.

So we left the parish rather than continue to disrupt it.

I was very bitter and angry after leaving, and decided I would not seek out another choir, but would look for a different venue, something generic that wasn't affiliated with any particular parish that would fill my need to sing.   In my wanderings, I stumbled across an ad for something called a "Colloquium" that was being held in Chicago.  I yielded to an impulse and registered.  This was far beyond my comfort zone.  I am not a traveler.  I am not shy, but I am not the sort of person to make friends easily, nor am I one to join groups.  Yet, I went to Chicago, even found my own taxi, and hesitantly approached the registration desk, waiting my turn to get a a registration packet and something called The Parish Book of Chant.

Like most such events, there was a reception the first evening.  I stood alone, looking over the lake, trying to figure out what in the world I was doing here.  Obviously, most of these people knew each other.  Obviously, they were professional musicians, with far greater gifts than mine.  I snagged a second glass of wine and started looking for the exit, when a soft-spoken man in seersucker and a bow tie blocked my way.  Our conversation was brief, but somehow got around to the recent unpleasantness of my last choir experience and he related similar feelings from years before, and then, he mentioned, in that vague and wonderful way of his, how pointless such anger is, how better directed the world would be with a different focus, and somehow, in the course of that conversation, he conveyed to me how to do this.  This was the beginning of a true Catholicity for me,  an understanding of Faith that is far too difficult to put into words.  

I cannot tell you what a wonderful experience that entire week was.  I had some familiarity with chant and polyphony, but had never been presented with it in context of the Mass.  The beauty overwhelmed me, I was literally in tears at the first Mass.  I was totally out of my league, but that was okay.  I needn't be able to sing everything to participate.  I needed only to be able to see the choreography of the priests and acolytes, to hear the organ, chant and polyphony, to smell the incense that really did seem to carry the prayers to the throne of God.  This was the Mass raised to an art form, and it made me feel both small and exalted at once, my own inadequacies abandoned in the timelessness of worship, that sublime moment of eternity that God gives us with each prayer of the consecration.

It was here that I first truly understood the power of continuity, of singing what the Fathers of the Church had sung, of seeing the ancient beauty and rituals that lured some of the vilest sinners away from their vices, that which drew the most brilliant of writers and composers to lend their talents to its service, and that which still draws us, the gifted, the mediocre, the vain and the clueless, toward the Mass, to give of ourselves that which is fitting for the service of God, and hoping to be made perfect by this, His gift to us.


  1. I, too, had a powerful experience of continuity when I was at Mass with a group in the catacombs. We sang at that Mass and I placed my hand into earthen holes where the bodies of the saints that went before me had rested. We in a portion where one had been murdered and we used that sarcophagus as the altar. During communion I had the deepest experience of being connected to Heaven and Earth and to the Universal Church.

    I enjoyed your post here immensely.

  2. At the fore-runner to the Chicago event--one held at Christendom College, the participants sang a Latin (OF) Mass at the National Shrine on Sunday to end the event.

    We used (IIRC) Mass IX. In the front row of the congregation, only 15 feet from the choir, was a woman who was strikingly dressed in an African long-dress, (etc.) It occurred to me that she was part of a diplomatic corps from Africa; perhaps her bearing AND the dress.

    We began Mass IX, and she joined in, perfectly on pitch, not missing a note or word of the Latin.

    That's when I had that "aha" moment that you did in Chicago: She is Universal!

  3. What a terrific post!

    I learned more about my religion in my college Music History I class than I ever did in CCD, and now by singing chant every week in our parish "Missa Cantata" as well as programming music for a second evening choir, my understanding and love for The Church deepens daily.

    Thanks for sharing!