Profanation Versus Sanctification

lute player

My friend Charles has had a near-monopoly at the Chant Cafe this week, and I was struck by his musings on profanation via music at the Mass.

The tune I remember as a kid from my mom’s PP&M vinyl as “The Water Is Wide” is sort of a test case. It doesn’t have the association of Mike and Carol (and Ted and Alice in one unnatural act?) To boot, I truly doubt that 60’s acoustic music is really the bane people think it is. Not compared to what’s up and going down in pop music these days.

The concern about profanation of musical aspects within the Mass has vexed the Church likely before the recognition of the parody Mass.

I’m not sure the concern is universal. Humor like this is less likely to be an attack on God, and more likely to be a poke at people who think they have God in their back pocket, a West Side Story of a switchblade, if you will. (Cue “Cool.”)

I’m serious.

We’ve all known church people who take their status, knowledge, experience, and cred a little too seriously. And when they get poked, maybe more’s the fun when they don’t even see it. The un-cool kids can’t be laughing at me, they think. They must be mocking God.

Is it really some kind of a profanation when a nearly forgotten pop tune from ages past gets re-purposed for sacred singing? I don’t think so. I’d like to believe that the presence and action of Christ in the world, even through his unorthodox musical disciples, is more of a sanctification. If some anonymous lute dude sang to his sweetie under her balcony one night, does that damn the tune for all eternity? I think not.

If it did,we’d have to start ripping out a lot of organ pipes and consoles. You don’t even want to go where that instrument got its start in Western culture.

It does, however, lend a lot of weight to the PiusX/Marht/Kwasniewski paradigm arguments of sticking pretty darn close to the musical patrimony, no?


Unless we all want to remain spiritual six-year-olds because mom told us not to cross the street. There’s a wide musical world out there. The odds are that we don’t live on the same block as a church, a conservatory, or a symphony hall. Or the coffeehouse, jazz joint, or contradance club. Most garages here are full of cars, with a few bands, and far fewer scholae.

Clearly, when one starts crossing the street, such freedom is not unlimited. A church musician must employ that great lost quality, prudence. (Not John Lennon’s dear version, mind you.) We don’t cross in front of the bus, the cruisers, or the motorcycle parade. If great-great-grandma was the last person to tap her toe to the tune set to some Scripture text, and she’s z-minus six feet, that’s just alright with me.

In fact, I think it’s good for the Church to coopt unoriginal tunes. The stubbornness of some even motivates me to look first to what other people sang and sang well. Christ is a lot stronger, more able, and more grace-inclined than some people think. Even Saint John Paul urged folks to set out for the deep water. Sooner or later, we all have to take off the training wheels and cross the street. And if the music gets a little messy while we spread the Gospel, I don’t have a problem with that.

The point is not to use some formula to get it right, but to get it right with whatever formula we use.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Profanation Versus Sanctification

  1. I like your point about sanctifying the music of the culture, rather than the music profaning the Church. I had never thought of it that way before.

    Now I want to read a book about the history of organs!

  2. Joyce Donahue says:

    LOL – there actually WAS in the 80’s a setting of one of the Memorial Acclamations to the tune of “The Water is Wide” – “Lord by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free, you have set us free…”

    I think you’re right. Those who are locked in a mind-set that demonizes the culture can’t see that the church and the culture need this kind of interaction – and benefit from it. (P.S., I bet he hates “Canticle of the Turning” too…)

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