I am a liturgy junkie. Actually, I am a liturgy snob. Nothing feeds my soul like bells, smells, and ritual. I cut my liturgical teeth in an Episcopal parish with an organist-choirmaster with a national reputation, and a legendary composer in residence. I was spoiled in no uncertain terms by their repertoire of magnificent, traditional choral music that came to us weekly in service. When I came into the Catholic Church, I had to readjust my musical expectations.
Gimme that old time religion—and by that I mean the Tridentine Mass with Gregorian chant. I am not overmuch fond of modern liturgical innovations, especially the praise-and-worship music that is so common in church services of all kinds, even in the Mass. I have never believed this new-fangled, pop-rock, happening style of music could mean reverence and worship, at least not for me.
Boy was I wrong.
While on vacation in southern California, my husband and I dropped into a local parish to meet our Sunday obligation. The church had been built in the 1920s but remodeled more recently, with the spare, abstract interior so common in post Vatican II churches—though there were some spectacular stained class windows and sculpted stations of the cross, perhaps a nod to the more representational-minded in the congregation. We took our seats near the front, and the church rapidly filled around us.
A lanky young man checked out the lectern; he would be our reader for the evening. Several young women, in their teens or early twenties, took their places in the front near a mass of electronic equipment—which should have been my first clue of what was to come. (The massive pipe organ in the back had provided a comfortable—if false—sense of liturgical security). The first notes of the processional—loud, overwhelming, and synthesized, hit me like a wave of cold water. For an instant, I was shocked, stunned, and wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into. In the old BC (before Catholic) days, I would have worked myself into a snit. As it was, I took a look over toward the tabernacle, reminded myself that whatever music greeted Him, Christ was well and truly present, and I needed to get a grip on myself rather than the pew in front of me.
About that time, seeing that we had no hymnal, the woman next to us passed hers over, smiling, and saying she and the woman next to her would share. The music was not only unfamiliar and modern, but too difficult for me to sing, so I ended up just reading along—a practice I recommend once in a while. As the sound washed (well, crashed) over me, I had the opportunity to really think about the words I was reading silently. He who sings prays twice indeed, but in this case, praying once, silently, was powerful enough. After the music, our pew-mate looked over and smiled again—that music I so dislike had brought me into communion with a sister in Christ. Not bad.
We were seated close enough to see the choir and the director, and it brought back memories of my own daughter’s years singing in church. Whatever my initial reaction, these kids were enthusiastic, they were present, and they were good; who could fail to be brought into their experience? And if the kids who were singing prayed twice, the director, like all good choirmasters, prayed three times as he led, encouraged, responded to and rejoiced in their efforts. By the time we got to the homily, I was warming to the whole experience (though I confess to a certain amount of relief at a gospel acclimation that I actually recognized).
What I noticed most of all was the sense of engagement that everyone shared, not just the young people whose night it clearly was. A silver-haired granny a few pews ahead was physically enthusiastic, as she raised her hands and her voice in responses. An older man put his clear “amen” to the Lord’s prayer as he squeezed the hands of his neighbors with the enthusiasm—and the body language—of a coach sending an “attaboy” to his team. Passing the peace was handshakes, smiles, hugs, and it spread across the church like ripples in a pool. Quiet? No. Traditional? No. Familiar and comfortable? Certainly not. Worshipful, exciting, energizing and embracing? Yes.
Liturgy, the work of the people. I still prefer, and always will, the quiet reverence that draws me into inner spaces of silence and contemplation as I worship. But there is room—and need-- for occasional bouts of joyful abandon in my life, and I am glad to have experienced it in a far-away church service.