Monday, 16 February 2009

Modes of Worship

I posted this over in the comments at OCICBW after reading some of the comments on MP's Thought for the Day, which dealt with the Latin Mass and the present pope destroying something which was beautiful. Some commenters described their experiences of Latin Mass as very moving, others had experienced it as moving rather too quickly to be seemly or meaningful. I'm not sure of the etiquette here, in re-posting a comment that I made elsewhere, but wanted to have it for future reference.


It's interesting reading about differing approaches to the Latin Mass from the perspective of having participated in Jewish services of the Orthodox variety. These are all in Hebrew, for similar reasons to the Mass being in Latin. It was certainly a useful thing to be able to go to any service and encounter familiar words, even if they were in a language that I never did manage to learn properly.

Perhaps because of the nature of the liturgy, which has a written text but tunes which are passed on through oral tradition, there was a rich variety of music in worship in the synagogue and at home. I experienced both approaches in different circumstances: sometimes, yes, the prayers would be gabbled, rushed through. Other times there was a real appreciation of the music of the prayers, not always solemn, but meaningful.

I think both approaches can have a place. I know that saying the grace after meals there were times when we were going too fast for me to really keep up with the Hebrew in any sensible way and I just had to give up and let the syllables wash over me, pronounce the sounds without thinking about the meaning in anything other than a very general way. I found that this can be an almost meditative experience, as if saying the words distracts that part of my brain that gets caught up in such things and leaves me free to experience something deeper. The danger, of course, is that quickly gabbled prayers said on autopilot can also free up part of my brain to think about what I might want to do with the leftovers from the meal, or what I might wear tomorrow, or how hideous that cabbage casserole was!

I'm a musician, and beautifully performed music speaks to me on a level that I've been unable to explain in words. Some of my most powerful spiritual experiences have been in the context of singing at a high level of competency with good direction and excellently-crafted music. But there are dangers there, too, I feel: it is entirely possible to get so caught up in technical aspects of good musical performance, perhaps even getting competitive about it, that one loses the true intent of the liturgy.

This is often a problem in non-liturgical musical settings, too! I think one of the differences between a very good musician and an astounding one is the ability to communicate in some sort of transcendent manner on a consistent and regular basis. Of course, if there are technical problems--if the music is just too hard--that will distract the listener, which is why musicians spend so much time and effort trying to get the technical details right. But at the end of the day the technical details are only the technical details, and a perfectly-executed technical performance can still fall flat.

The issue of language is a knotty one. The Latin I have sung has always been beautiful text in and of itself, and it is a language that often lends itself to singing rather better than English does. Singing is such an important part of worship for me that given a choice between beautifully-sung Latin and badly-sung vernacular I would probably choose the Latin and go learn what it means. Hebrew is a lot harder to learn (I studied French at school, which makes Latin a little easier, and Hebrew goes the other direction and has a different set of characters!) but if I had stayed longer in Judaism I'm sure I would understand a lot more of it by now. But someone who doesn't learn languages as well as I do, or who isn't affected as much by music, or who has a higher need for immediate literal understanding of liturgy, might choose differently. The needs of someone who cannot hear at all will be different again.

A perfectly-executed technical performance of the Latin Mass could be a thing of sublime, transcendent beauty, or it could be utterly alienating. It depends on who is singing and it depends on who is listening.

With that in mind, I think there is a place for the Latin Mass in modern worship, but I'm not sure what it is. I guess ideally there would be a variety of worship styles available regardless of doctrine or dogma, and people could feel free to attend or participate in whatever services they found most meaningful. But that might be a little forward-thinking, given the current state of the world.

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