In the 1960s, many of our church leaders were seminarians. It was a time when Gregorian chant was forcibly submerged below the surface, and the songs of the St. Louis Jesuits with other colleagues were all the rage.
Gregorian chant was hardly in evidence in lay participation outside of monasteries and the rare parish. The SLJ’s, by the way, didn’t get national publication until 1974, considerably after Thomas Merton criticized stained glass. (The argument against the cheap and the satisfactory in the fine arts, by the way, goes back at least a century in this country. So much for the idea that beauty imposed by ecclesiastical/aristocratic fiat is effective, or that Vatican II dismantled an artistic edifice.)
Is beauty really the Church’s greatest power? It’s important, no doubt. But I’d rather stake my claim on the virtues, especially the most important one.
You have to look a little deeper than the surface, according to one commentator:
The problem with this thesis is that Rome’s stunning churches are nearly empty.
Of course, the music is execrable.
A skeptic on the meme of Americans making the world safe for beauty:
RotR is not WWII.
And the throat of the skeptic was promptly leapt into:
Is this laziness talking, or Rodney King, or what?
But I thought this follow-up bit was quite funny:
If someone finds some of these discussions so uncomfortable that he repeatedly speaks negatively about other participants’ contributions and motives, including their religious motives, then perhaps he could participate in only those discussions that don’t make him uncomfortable.
A very interesting bit of advice, given the speaker’s and allies’ reticence about stepping outside of the reform2 box. Or even listening to alternate points of view. Musica Sacra Forum is a very small pond indeed.
I think love will fill churches more readily than beauty: people who lack the sharp edges refined by years of nursing grudges, theorizing conspiratorily, ducking when the fish fly by, and otherwise putting on a frowny face.
I think misdiagnosing the problem is a problem. You can’t hope to fix a leak with a hammer and nail. You can’t take a wrench and pipe dope to repair old wood. Likewise if you think 1963-1978 (or 1978-2005) was a problem, you may well address the situation of those years, but don’t be surprised if the American reticence to art and beauty (and even love) maintains itself in spite of best efforts.
There is also a danger in thinking that everybody else is like me. If I am touched by great classical music, then everybody else will be touched also. This story is cited:
The French poet, dramatist and former atheist, Paul Claudel (d 1955) recounts his conversion when he heard the Magnificat sung during Vespers on Christmas Eve at the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris: “In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such force, with such relief of all my being, a conviction so powerful, so certain and without any room for doubt, that ever since, all the books and arguments, all the hazards of my agitated life have never shaken my faith, nor, to tell the truth, have they even touched it” (“Ma conversion” in Contacts et circonstances, Gallimard, 1940).
And it’s a moving conversion, to be sure. So what is the lesson drawn from it? We try to recreate conversion experiences in the Liturgy of the Hours? Was it the youth of the listener? Was it the “yes” of Mary? The artistic skill of the particular composer, the conductor, the accompanist, or the choir? Classical music in general? Do we discount the significant numbers of conversion stories circling about contemporary songs? And if so, why?
The truth is that beauty intrudes on many people, those who look for it and those who don’t. And God works through all manner of skill–which isn’t always congruent to beauty. What inspires people, seekers to belief, believers to disciples and servants–this is not something that can be solved by ideology, reform2 or anything else. More often it will be affected when we least suspect it.