For some reason, the word meanness has lodged in my mind and hovered before my eyes lately, and since I am a word guy from way back, I decided to explore the meaning of this word (meaning has a completely different sense of “mean”).
Shortly before he died in 1990, one of my favorite authors, Walker Percy, set himself to reflecting on his answer to the question, “Why are you a Catholic?” Among the reasons he is a favorite are, in no particular order, his being from Birmingham, fascinated by language and what it indicates about human nature, a convert to Catholicism, best friends with Shelby Foote, piercingly critical of the postmodern therapeutic mindset, ironic, self-deprecating, and funny. In the heat of summer, when it feels like we are in the South that Percy called home, here are some passages from his answer to that question:
At a Mass with music you might miss it during the singing of the Lamb of God, but without the music, you will notice a silent stillness just before the priest elevates the Host and says, Behold the Lamb of God. He is praying inaudibly, preparing for his communion with the living God. One of the prayers is this:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Who, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, through Your death gave life to the world, free me by this, Your most holy Body and Blood, from all my sins and from every evil; keep me always faithful to your commandments, and never let me be parted from you.
When I was beginning to say Mass, the English translation was still the old one, and I knew how poor it was. Frustrated by the inaccuracies and leaden phrasing, I memorized the original Latin forms of all the prayers that are said inaudibly, since the only reason to use the vernacular would be to facilitate the understanding of the laity in attendance, and they aren’t able to hear these anyway. Some phrases were harder than others to memorize, and to form on my lips, for example: keep me always faithful to your commandments comes from et fac me tuis semper inhaerere mandatis, which is a real mouthful.
But mostly the rich formulation of the Latin, untarnished by mundane overuse, made the phrases both more beautiful and more memorable. Plus, when the new English missal came out ten years ago, I didn’t have to learn them over again. These prayers in this form have been uttered by priests daily for centuries upon centuries, and provide a rich reminder of what we do.
The one phrase that gives me pause every time, and not because I forget the words or trip over the syllables, is: a te numquam separari permittas -- never let me be parted from you. It sounds like something a newlywed would say. The words could come from the lips of a mother to her son, or a daughter to her father, or between the truest of friends, but there is an inescapably nuptial quality that embraces to the two bodies becoming one in the consummation about to occur.
These words never fail to engage my heart as well as my mind and mouth, as I realize some element of the complexity of their truth. There is a more than a hint of desperation, and no lack of gratitude and delight. In context, there is the acknowledgement that the coming together is more His work than mine, which work includes helping me to inhere in His commandments in what I desire and do. How fragile this union between me and my Lord; how powerful!
This unheard whisper of the beloved to the One Who is Love, this intimate expression of the most generous desire of a soul, articulates the expansiveness of Eucharistic love. It reveals and encourages the ecstatic openness one to another of all who share in this coming together, this becoming one. We desperately want not only our communion with the living God to last forever, but also our communion with one another in Christ’s risen body: we on earth, with the saints round the Divine throne; we in Silver Spring with the worshiping faithful around the world; we in the pews, with our family, our friends, our neighbors; and the priest with his people. A te numquam separari permittas -- never let me be parted from you.Monsignor Smith
Have you ever come into our church, and as you were settling into prayer noticed that some of the altar flowers looked like they had died? Or maybe watched one of our fearless altar servers snuff the altar candles after Mass, and realized that they looked rather stumpy? There is a reason for that: they are real.
Artificial flowers or candles have no place in worship, not only because they are tacky, but also because they do not fit into the nature of our worship, which is sacrifice. Both the candles and the flowers are consumed by giving their glory to God, just as Christ offers Himself as the perfect sacrifice: to be consumed. But not being themselves divine, their finite gifts expire upon reaching their natural limit; so we obtain fresh flowers, and set out new, tall candles.
Where did the idea for artificial flowers come from, anyway? Long before we invented virtual reality, man had set his mind to the challenges of simulating many of the good things of the world that could be presented, preserved, or transported only at great difficulty and expense.
Once upon a time, when cassette tapes were new technology, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” was the tagline of an advertisement. The thrust was that the tape was so good that, without seeing the source, one could not tell which was which – the recording, or the live performer. As I type this, I am listening to Brahms streamed through my computer to my wireless speaker. It’s great. I doubt I would ever hear this music at all, much less precisely when and where I am in the mood for it, if it were not for such technologies old and new. But in a vital way, it is not real.
Ask anybody you know when was the last time he enjoyed music that was not only not recorded, but not even amplified electronically – that is, no microphone, no speakers or earbuds, no sound system? If the person you ask is under forty, the answer may well be, “Never” – UNLESS he goes to church, and at Saint Bernadette!
All of the music for our Masses is real: real people, singing live before God, accompanied by instruments that are real, especially our Wicks pipe organ, played by people in our midst. The sound is human strength and breath, and real wind, metal, and wood, that moves through the air that surrounds us and courses through the very fabric of our church building, without microphones, speakers, or electronic amplification.
For years, Andy Brown, eldest of Tom and Jessica, has been playing our organ in varying capacities from little kid noodling on the keys to substitute organist for weekend Masses and funerals. A few weeks ago Andy, freshly graduated from DeMatha and headed to Baylor in the fall, gave a recital in our church. We moved the organ console so that the crowd could see what he was doing with his hands and his feet, a fascinating display of the complexity and speed of movement required to make the glorious sounds. Music originates from people, and that is what makes it a worthy offering to God.
Under the direction of John Henderson, our music here is of a level rarely encountered in an “ordinary” parish church; the breadth and depth of centuries of sacred music from the Church’s treasury. Did you ever think you would stand among so many people singing the centuries-old “Salve Regina,” by heart? Or hear Bach, Victoria, Palestrina, and Elgar sung so beautifully by people whom you know, and have doughnuts with after Mass? It is all real, an authentic gift to God and us.
Our singers have given us marvelous music throughout the pandemic restriction times. Once public officials gave us all permission to sing again, there was remarkable change in the congregational singing that had been tiptoeing along the edges of our liturgies, and that full-throated joy was music to my ears, and John’s too. How vital singing is to our worship!
After Labor Day, we hope both Community Sunday doughnuts and our choirs return at full strength. I cannot wait. Sure, I have recordings, but only the real thing, unrecorded and ephemeral, offered by people in our midst whom we know and love, is music worthy to give glory to God. Pray that people you know, young and old, be willing and able to make the sacrifice of time and effort to offer glorious music before God, and us. Offer a prayer for this intention; maybe even light a candle.
Already it has been three years since I ran this column, and since Independence Day falls precisely on Sunday this year, I will take this opportunity to share it again.
The concept of “American exceptionalism” has almost as many definitions as there are commentators on it. I have long been fascinated by the term, whether its first best use was by Alexis de Tocqueville or Josef Stalin, both of whom are candidates for credit. Some would assert that the only exceptional aspect of our country is that it is ours, which is thus the same thing that makes any country exceptional. While I could not endorse any particular theory, it seems sufficiently commonsense to acknowledge that there is something authentically exceptional about our nation.