One of the things that reading “Why Catholics Can’t Sing” (by Thomas Day) impressed upon me is that the quickest way to kill liturgy (and the full participation of the people) is when individuals use the liturgy as a canvas upon which to paint their own individualism. Usually this is in form of what Day calls a “Father Hank” (the chatty, nice, likable priest who hogs the show up front) or a “Mr [or Ms] Caruso” (the “song leader” with the microphone who bellows out his [her] own amplified voice over everyone else).
But today, in the newsletter of a local Catholic theological institution which shall remain nameless (to protect the guilty, as they say), I read this little story. It was meant quite sincerely, and offered as a glowing example of “striking a blow” against the male-dominated Church, but the hubris of it is quite breath-taking. It begins as follows:
“It was just a few years back, Holy Week, Mass of the Oils, the Cathedral church. And so, a large gathering: Bishop, priests, deacons and parishioners from all over the diocese. The mighty organ sounded. The grand entrance was about to begin as the clergy readied themselves for the solemn procession into the Cathedral. Everyone rose.
“I was at the back of the Cathedral and a religious sister and friend next to me said: ‘Here comes our male dominated church!’ I suggested to her that she might consider walking in behind the priests, making a profound statement by her solemn, silent presence… ‘You do it and I’ll follow’, she said. Heck!! ‘OK’, I said, secretly aghast, but knowing I would have to commit. However as the lengthy procession continued, she turned to me and said,’ I can’t’. ‘No problem’, whispered I, feeling a wave of relief, but just momentarily.”
And had the bishop and everyone else known what was going through her head at that point, they too would have breathed a sigh of relief. There’s more to come; but first do you notice the sheer anger in the nun’s comment “Here comes our male-dominated church!”? Is this the attitude in which any of us should come into the presence of God? The Bishop, we are taught, is Christ in our midst. A real living presence of Christ. On Judgement day, when this sister comes face to face with her (male) Lord, is she going to say: “Hah! Just goes to show you that Heaven will be male-dominated too!”? Anyway it goes on…
“For the Spirit was stirring. I knew I had to respond.”
Why does the Spirit always get blamed for these things? I will leave it to you, dear Reader, to identify the real source of these stirrings:
“In our best moments, we all respond according to our own particular ways. My way is dance. Heck again!! Here in the Cathedral? Uninvited? Unscripted? Uncensored? But that night I was called to dance for her, and for all the women and men who were experiencing some of the disconnectedness, the disintegration, the distance we can feel at times, from the church we are…
“So I glanced – and now with heart beating wildly – through the Mass booklet. The words of the second communion song were strong. I’d get myself up to the front of the church during the communion, and if the music was right, I knew nothing could stop me, terrified as I was.
“The music was perfect – and the dance was pretty amazing too, so I heard later. I was up on the sanctuary and to the huge congregation (as well as to the Bishop and clergy around me) I was dancing: We – all together – are church. The dance for me was not so much a breaking down of the male/female divide, as a bridging between clergy and lay.
“After the Mass, there were many responses: delight, discomfort, questions, gratitude, disapproval, tears… all the stuff of our lives. I just danced.”
Yes, sister, I bet you did. And if I were there, I would have been one of those with tears: of utter rage in reaction to the violence which this egotistical individual had thrust upon the liturgy and upon her brothers and sisters in Christ. Tears of frustration that the “Godward-ness” of the liturgy had been hijacked, and now the spotlight was on her mono-theatrical performance, as she worked out her angst in the presence of the whole assembly.
The liturgy is a corporate act, not an individual act. Everything about it is scripted and carried out according to rules and roles to ensure that the focus is kept on God and the praise is a team-effort. This may seem artificial, and yes, in a sense, it is. Like a game of football, however, it is only possible for everyone to join in the game and remain focused on the goal if the rules are observed. There is no room for lone rangers.
There was a great ad on TV during the winter Olympics for health insurance that had a solo figure skater gate-crashing an ice-hockey game. That image is not far different from the story of this impromptu liturgical dancer.
I sometimes struggle with my own hubris in the liturgy.
[Reader: It takes one to know one.
Schütz: Yes, I know, I admit it freely.]
I love to sing. I struggle to worship and pray if I do not sing. My equivalent to the nun’s reaction above would be when I sit through Sunday Mass accompanied by appalling liturgical sung or—worse—no song at all. Then I think to myself: what if I were to get up and sing? I could make a real difference. I could save the liturgy and it would be all thanks to me! And people would tell me how good a singer I was, and they would have tears in their eyes, and gratitude…
Those who worship regularly at St Patrick’s Cathedral at lunchtime during the week know that sometimes I can’t resist this temptation, and I do get up and sing the psalm. (I even sang the Victimae Paschali sequence during Easter Week). I do it with the Dean’s permission and try to do it in a spirit of service, but somewhere not far below the surface is that old hubris that wants to use the liturgy as a canvas for my own creativity. And not a few of the worshippers (I am sure) wish that I would just shut up and read the psalm like everyone else.
Is there any difference between me and our lone dancer in the story above? No, not really. Not in my soul. But at least I try to play by the rules.