Summary: The point of art, and especially music, is to lead us beyond what we can apprehend at the material level, even to contemplative prayer.
May 25, 2009
Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds; his name is the LORD, exult before him! 5 Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.
The anointing of the Holy Spirit is the action of God that empowers us to witness to the love of God manifest in Jesus Christ. That witness is, first of all, liturgical, because it is in the liturgy, especially the Eucharistic sacrifice, that we can show the world the intention of God. What is that intention? We tell the world by our actions here that God becomes human so that humans can become divine. That is what happens each time we re-present the sacrifice of Calvary, and, by communing in the Risen Body and Blood of Christ, draw closer to each other and become more fully images of Christ. This is the Holy Spirit’s work, as we acknowledge when the priest, acting in persona Christi capitis, holds his hands over the eucharistic elements and invokes the power of the Spirit on them.
Last week I spoke in general about liturgical song, and echoed the Pope’s insistence that our two thousand year old heritage of sacred song not be lost. He especially admonishes us to suitably esteem and employ Gregorian chant. If we are to understand this insistence on the value of our traditional music–music we originally got from the synagogue–as something more than musty nostalgia, I think we need to look at the Pope’s earlier work, The Spirit of the Liturgy. Music is ephemeral art, but it is first of all art. To paraphrase what Pope Benedict says in another context, the “whole point” of art is to lead us beyond what can be apprehended at the merely material level, to awaken new senses in us, and to teach us a new kind of hearing, which perceives the Inaudible in the audible. The sacredness of the [art] consists precisely in the fact that it comes from an interior [hearing] and thus leads us to such an interior [hearing]. It must be a fruit of contemplation, of an encounter in faith with the new reality of the risen Christ, and so it leads us in turn into an interior gazing, an encounter in prayer with the Lord..
We could write volumes about this, but in applying it to chant, for instance, the very foreignness and Semitic character of Gregorian chant leads our ears and minds beyond what can be apprehended at the merely material level, awakens a new sense of music-connected-to-Word in us, and facilitates contemplation. This is due to the strong connection of the music with the Lord Jesus, who almost certainly sang music like it, and the early Church, which borrowed it from the Jewish worship. But it also is a fruit of the contemplation of generations of monks who composed–almost as a collegial effort–the sacred chants we have inherited.