Saturday, December 17, 2011

On being heard

Can you hear me now? Before the wireless company made it their slogan, that was frequently a very pertinent question – even in church.

Recently someone lent me a book about Theodore Roosevelt that discussed a campaign speech he made in Madison Square Garden in 1912 – ninety-nine years ago. It mentioned the effect of the quality of his voice (high-pitched and shrill) and noted that the loudspeaker would not be invented until the following year.

Imagine national-level politics without electronic amplification! That’s hard to do in our era of the 24-hour news cycle and viral videos, isn’t it? There is NOTHING we don’t hear – though like me, you may often wish there were.

Something else has been transformed in that same century’s time: the sacred liturgy. As children of the electronic age, we bring to church the expectation that we will hear everything at volume. The question “Can you hear me?” is often considered as if it had been “is the sound system working?”, as if nothing is audible unless coming through powered speakers.

Long before electricity, the first level of amplification at Mass was to sing, which increased the range and clarity of the words. The next level was achieved by having several people sing, and thus choirs found their role in the sacred liturgy. For many centuries, the choir would sing or chant the prayers of the Mass that most people never would have heard if only the priest had spoken them.

For homilies, folks would crowd around the pulpit, which was carefully placed in the church, and often lidded with a sounding board, to help reflect the preacher’s words toward the hearers. You can imagine how people would have to strain if they didn’t get close!

Now our expectations have swung to the opposite end of the spectrum. We expect to hear every word at Mass as we do listening to a news broadcast. But while this attention and clarity of communication have helped in some aspects of our liturgical participation, I think they have wounded others.

When the preacher is preaching, when the Sacred Scripture is being read, or even when announcements are being made, information is conveyed, so intelligibility is important. Amplification enhances the effectiveness of that communication. In other aspects of prayer and worship, understanding is not dependent upon the intelligibility of every syllable, and a clear line of sight from face to face is not essential to participation.

But the expectation has taken hold that the priest or minister, whenever he speaks, is speaking to us, facing us, and conveying information. This has resulted in our own time in a liturgical praxis that often has the priest behaving like a newscaster, entertainer, or some other “talking head,” when in fact he is leading the people in prayer to Almighty God.

Not everyone can be gifted enough to have the kind of high-pitched, shrill voice that is prized for great orators, so I concede the usefulness of microphones in the sacred liturgy. But before you count yourself left out of some aspect of worship that does not sound as if it were coming out of your television or radio, let the psalmist remind you that at the heart of our worship for millennia the question has been the other way round: Lord, hear my voice! Let thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! (Ps 130:2) I paraphrase: O God, can you hear me now?

Monsignor Smith