Sunday, 1 August 2010

Reflections on August at the O and the Missa de Angelis

1 August - Lughnasadh, the beginning of the old autumn...and, if it's a Sunday, the beginning of a choir-free month at the Oratory.

Pure and utter bliss.

I'd forgotten how much my blood pressure drops when the choir leaves and we get to sing the Missa de Angelis. Normally, I'd dismiss it as being because of a mediocre choir and an annoying choir director. Today, for the first time, I finally went deeper: what is it about that first Sunday in August that makes my heart lift when the single priest, the MC and a minimum number of servers come out of the sacristy during the first hymn?

First of all, it's the sheer simplicity: there's space on the sanctuary; there's space in the liturgy. During the year, there's NEVER silence: either the choir is singing the mass setting or a motet. It's never STILL; the choir, though not present on the sanctuary, crowds it more than the 12-13 altar servers who can sit on it in addition to the MC and clergy at any one time.

That lack of stillness and space inhibits the natural movement of the mass, since liturgical flow - indeed any flow - needs an ebb. The extra music stops movement on the sanctuary dead, making it hard to start up again. E.g., at the end of the Gloria, it's difficult for the MC to know when to bring the collect up. My preference is that it is in front of the celebrant on the last note, so there's no pause, no kerfuffling, just a smooth transition. This is a dance; any break in it is jarring. Most of the year, the MC is late, which has everything to do with not knowing when the interminable 'Amen' is going to finish. Today, it was perfect - on the last note of the 'Amen', the missal was there, and liturgical flow was as it should be.

If we talk about the liturgy as flow, pattern and dance, then we cannot ignore the fact that there are partners: this is not something happening in isolation. And it's also important that the partners be fully engaged in the dance; fully present. The mass is a dance between sanctuary and nave. When the choir dominates, as it does 11 months of the year, the people aren't engaged and the dance falters.

Today, you could feel the shift in energy as the people remained standing to sing the Kyrie and the Gloria. I couldn't stop smiling: you could feel something click into place, an emotional engagement, a real dance partner, a presence. And the whole was more than the sum of the parts. For the first time in a long time, it felt *real*.

As you can tell from what I've written above, I resent the choir's domination of our service: I am coming to this mass to be a part of the worship, not a bystander. The Kyrie is OURS to say; the Gloria, OUR praise to God. It is NOT for anyone else to sing it for us. It's OURS - and singing it with those in the sanctuary creates the prayer, the mass, that rises like incense to its destination.

And then...and then, there's the Missa de Angelis. I'm sure the Oratorians will roll their eyes when (if) they read this, but I absolutely adore it.

The Missa takes me back to my pre-Catholic days, when I would visit my (soon-to-be sponsor) friend, Anni, at Catholic University on a Sunday. At 13.00 in the crypt church (don't waste your time looking at the basilica, go straight down to the lushly dark crypt), there was a Latin mass, most often sung by the ponytailed Fr Marc-Daniel Kirby, O.Cist. Not only did he sing beautifully, but he was absolutely on fire with the love of God - his sermons were passionate pleas for love of God and neighbour, for compassion, for mercy towards one another. And it didn't hurt that I often saw him in his biker leathers around campus, which just made him utterly cool.

If it wasn't Fr Kirby, it was often Msgr Renato Volante. OH. MY. GOD. OH. MY. GOD. There is nothing, NOTHING so sensual as Latin spoken by an Italian. Every time he said mass, I went weak in the knees. And I'll tell you, I peeked through my hands during the Eucharistic Prayer just to watch those Italian gestures. His sermons were almost always wistful ones about loneliness; more often than not, as I passed him on my way out, I just wanted to wrap my arms around him and tell him I was sorry and that I wish I could make it okay.

So, occasionally in August, the church seems to dim and there seems to be a black marble overlay over the late Victorian interior with which I am so familiar.

Then, there's the Kyrie. For me, it will always be THE Kyrie - no other will stick in my head. My first brush with the phrase 'Kyrie eleison' came with Mr Mister's haunting, emotional, opening cry of their song of the same name. I remember having to go look it up, loving the meaning and loving the fact that it made sense in their chorus. I used it as a prayer years before I converted. Even now, when I'm lost for words in prayer, their chorus comes back to mind:

Kyrie eleison - down the road that I must travel,
Kyrie eleison - through the darkness of the night,

Kyrie eleison - where I'm going, will you follow?

Kyrie eleison - on a highway in the light.

Only the Kyrie in the Missa de Angelis approaches this for me: plaintive, yearning, reaching. Maybe it's because it's stripped right down, like the mass in August; maybe because it's the first liturgical Kyrie I ever heard; maybe because it's the one I get to sing. But I put my whole heart and soul into it when I get to sing it, and it's the one that will move me to tears every time.

And the moment I do that, I'm there. At mass. Totally and completely - which allows me to be part of the whole mass, even my little idiosyncrasies, like watching the MC - which today left me in fits of giggles as I watched him use 'Achmed the Dead Terrorist' eyebrows in an attempt to get hapless servers to perform the most basic of tasks. At one point, when he was trying to get them off the sanctuary after communion, the expression was so pronounced, I could hear 'SILENCE! I KHEEL YOU!' - which just made me completely useless. I also engage with the sermon, rather than shutting it out, because I can't afford to be irimtated by one more thing, since the choir has used up my irimtation quota. Good thing today, as the sermon was well worth engaging with.

That engagement and that laughter is part of the holy experience - because you have to be fully present, fully engaged, to worship and be in relationship with God. That is the gift of August at the O for me.

I'm thinking of suggesting an Indian summer, and extending August till the equinox - at least.

Rock on.


Kenetha said...

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post! You are so my heart-twin. I am always fed so much more deeply with simplicity than I am with the most ornate rituals. And I too love the Kyrie (and first heard it from Mr. Mister). I don't think I've ever heard a Kyrie that I didn't love.

Thanks for sharing, dearest! xx

Playful Grace said...

I love reading your writings. Though, not as much as I adore the word irimtated or irimtation. :) Might just add these to my vocab.

Love this!

Ariel said...

I'm late in responding because this post gave me a lot of interesting things to think about.

"Once We Were Kings", the last song in the musical Billy Elliott (I think the last one), is sung by the chorus while the miners are returning to the strike. It's an incredibly moving song, about how a group of people has lost the battle they were fighting but they're still alive and they're still standing with each other. What makes it even more moving is this: just as it gets climactic at the very end, with everyone singing in harmony, suddenly the music disappears and they continue a capella. Ordinarily one thinks of the music intensifying as you reach the climax, but here they do the exact opposite, and it's remarkably effective.

This is one of the things this post makes me think of.

The other thing, which is related, is that there are seasons for everything (yay Ecclesiastes). When everything swells to a huge rousing climax, it can be very effective. Both small movements and large movements have the power to take you somewhere beyond yourself, but sometimes one or the other is called for.

I find this fascinating. I totally get what you mean; one of the things I was surprised to discover about the disorganised, frequently silent Jewish services was how powerful they were. I had expected to miss the complexity and pageantry of the Catholic mass, and I never did. And yet, I think the experience in my life that most transported me to somewhere transcendent was the one time I went to the opera, which was all about high drama and swelling orchestras and soaring voices.

I have already written too much, so I'll stop. But I'm really glad you posted this.

Irim said...

Thank you, everyone. Ari, I totally agree - BOTH transport me; each has a place.

What the silences allow is space for relationship with God, I think - space to be alone in the togetherness.

Some initial ideas - and NO, you didn't write too much; would love to hear more! xx

Ariel said...

It reminds me of the "still, small voice", you know?

You can experience it as an overwhelming wave, and that will transport you, and fill you up, immerse you... but it's like the Uncertainty Principle, you know? You're feeling it all, so you don't know where you are, or how you fit into any of it. This is not a bad thing. But, as you say, the silence gives you the room to locate yourself in all of that, and just sort of be yourself.

The relationship between the all and the nothing is very interesting. I think I remembering reading somewhere that some Native American traditions deal with this, and I've always kind of wanted to learn more about it.


Daniel said...

I do miss the services of my youth. I remember basic training, when I went to mass as much for the organ and peace as the threats of the Sgt (there was a choice: church call or cleaning detail). Alas, Mass was a modern "rock band" service, perhaps to drown out the prots - their service was set to something between "snake handling" and "golden calf." After that I chose the zen of cleaning.

Even though I'm well quit of the Holy Mother Church, I miss the Latin and the organ. It still pops up now and again, such as the "Non nobis" scene from Henry V.