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The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Emotional Responsorial Psalms

Fr. Pat said something in his homily at the Catholic Worker that has stuck with me. He said that the Responsorial Psalm is a time to reflect emotionally on themes found in the other readings. That day it was particularly true of the first reading, as the hopeful Psalm was a much needed answer to the burden of the Jeremiah reading.

Along the same lines, there is in line in the GIRM (General Instructions of the Roman Missal), which states that the Responsorial Psalm "fosters meditation on the word of God." (Yes, it really is pronounced like "germ.")

If the goal is to foster meditation on the word of God and reflect emotionally on the other readings, are we actually doing that?

I have to admit that most Reponsorial interpretations I have heard have left me empty. We usually have a melodic refrain and the verses are done in a kind of plain song. Plain song is a way of singing that is less rhythmic and chant-like. This is where you sing a single note for most of each line and the last few syllables you either ascend or descend to the next chord change. You would think this would give the cantors the freedom to let the words drip from their mouths like poetry. However, it seems that all too often the cantor is more focused on just getting the syllables right, knowing when to bring it back to the ending notes or such. Many cantors get too strict on the technicalities, and the notes seem to rise or fall regardless of which words are involved.

To my ear, cantors simply jam the words of the psalm into the plain song motif whether they fit in an emotional sense or not.

Hearing someone chant the Psalms in plain song is a beautiful thing to hear. What I mean is: It is a physically beautiful sound, and the sound itself has atmosphere, drama and depth. However, it is often detached emotionally from the words, for me. It can be a great way to get a whole congregation singing that hasn't had time to practice together. People can chant the Liturgy of the Hours together with no preparation. However, if the chant melody enhances the words of the Psalm it is almost purely by accident. Often, it is downright awkward. They could be chanting "blah blah blah" and the effect would probably be the same.

I suppose in my heart of hearts I'm a folk singer. I approach music the way a folk singer would. What that means is that the "holy trinity" of melody, words and chords needs to be in equal balance. Each compliments the other and they all feed into the essence of a song. The melody has to fit the words and the chordal structure, and none of them is arbitrary. That is in sharp contrast to the approach of plain song chants.

I enjoy "plain songing" the psalms in a kind of folk style. This involves using chord changes that are more modern, and I often try to keep a steady rhythm. This means that the plain song starts to sound more and more like a distinct melody, and it requires rehearsal as each line needs to be interpreted slightly differently. Many of the chant features are still present, though. It is my way of making the Psalms real to me and letting the words resonate through me.

In planning the music for Masses, I wanted to give my choir not just a list of songs but some sort of direction or focus for each liturgy. I thought about having a one-line theme. I debated whether this was appropriate to do or whether the words of the liturgy should just speak for themselves. I reasoned that there are many who interpret the liturgy, such as the words of the homily, the selection of music or the intentions, and even the decor of the surroundings factors in, so I decided it is not misleading to suggest a focus this way. A music minister is, after all, a minister and as such should be a guide.

Actually, it is in discussion, reflection and hearing others' interpretations that I feel the "communication" that is meant to happen in liturgy actually happens for me. Simply hearing someone proclaim the readings often doesn't do much for me, until I sit back and try to reflect or discuss them with someone afterwards. I feel very connected to the liturgy in planning the music, because that, of all things, surely fosters meditation! I see how the pieces of each Mass fit together, and I am often just amazed. It can all whiz by me so quickly during Mass that it is easy to miss how well put together each Mass is.

What I discovered is that in nearly all circumstances, the Responsorial refrain is the best one-line theme for each Mass that I could think of. There is rarely a need wrack my brains to try to scope out the essence for a Mass. If you need to boil a Mass down to a one-line theme, look no further.

I later learned that a former professor of mine holds this same opinion, so whether I heard him say it or whether I came up with this on my own, I don't know. In any case, this is powerful enough and obvious enough (once I saw it) that I'm sure many folks have made the same connection time and again.

I am often amazed at how modern the Psalms can sound. Sure, there are times when too-literal translations or archaic references can cause a distancing. Quite often, though, I find myself saying that these words could have just as easily come from Woodie Guthrie or Jim Croce as from some psalmist 2,500 years ago. They just as easily could have come from me or you. We should sing them as if they do.

Perhaps this is just a matter of personal genre preference. Maybe there are many out there who are emotionally moved by the way Psalms are typically done in Catholic churches. I find them to be very beautiful, which can be moving in a certain way, but if the goal is to be emotionally moved by the words which cause a deeper meditation, then that's not happening. I'm much more likely to be emotionally moved by the stand-alone songs (which are often based on the Psalms), but rarely through the Responsorial interpretation. I bet I'm not alone in this.

It would seem that there could be more variety from parish to parish to appeal to people who connect in different ways, in much the same way that we do for the other songs we select for Mass. We freely select songs that match the age, culture and temperament of the congregation. It would seem that the Responsorial Psalm could and should be handled the same, ESPECIALLY since it plays such a strong role in the Mass itself.

The Psalms are deeply moving. Their words are as true today as they were when they were written. The Responsorial is a cornerstone for the Mass. It should be sung in a way that brings this out more to the congregation. It is the job of the music ministers to take those words from 2,500 years ago and show that they are alive and present now.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Liberals and Conservatives in the Church

Liberal and conservative trends in the Church often have a yin/yang relationship. One can give rise to the other.

Some liberal communities have a tendency to dissipate. The freedom to experiment is at first wonderful. People search for an authentic interaction rather than something scripted. But soon enough, things lose meaning. People go separate ways down undefined paths and end up just floating along. What are we about? People get mad at repressive policies in their church, so they leave and end up going to no church whatsoever. The baby can get thrown out with the bathwater.

Conservatives have a tendency to hyper-focus. Put a bunch of conservatives together and suddenly you have 10 pages of rules and a cult-like atmosphere. There is a need to breathe. God is bigger than your little rules. There's a lot of ugliness mixed in to the message, but at least there is a message, and the wonderful Good News of the Gospel can be passed along to the next generation, perhaps even unbeknownst to the messenger, in the most clumsy way possible.

There are all sorts of ways of finding God. Some seek God through the amazing freedom and radical justice promised in Scripture. Others seek God in stability, the Rock, the Cornerstone you can build on, also promised in Scripture. Our large Church can hold all of this together.

It is my belief that as long as liberals lose focus and throw the baby out with the bathwater, we will be continually cursed with subsequent generations of conservatives to bring the baby back, along with all the toxic bathwater.

Chesterton argued that Medieval Europe was not ready for the nature-loving Francis until it had deeply purged the essence of paganism from its psyche. Once people got the right relationship of God and nature, then the beautiful love of Creation could flower. We weren't worshipping nature, we were seeing the Revelation of God in and through nature, which is also wonderful and praiseworthy but it's not the same thing as actually worshipping nature. You can't go around talking about "brother sun and sister moon" until you know what you mean by that. The problem is that in order to establish this, Europe paid a hefty price. It wasn't a pretty sight re-orienting once-pagan Europe, and people did some very un-Christian-like things to encourage this to happen. A lot of good things got repressed in order to get this one idea across. I'm not sure why they couldn't have found a better method.

Some liberal theologians, activists and leaders may be ready to move the Church along. Some, however, think they are ready, but they aren't. In any case, the rank and file congregants may not be ready, and so we have to wait. The Catholic Church has a strong intellectual tradition, but we are not a church solely of intellectuals. We are a whole people, which is one of our most attractive features.

Liberals have in some ways let the Church down. Granted, conservatives have made it unquestioningly difficult for them. But at the end of the day, you can't blame someone else for why you have no faith. It's not good to have an answer for no reason. But it's not very attractive to just have questions, either.

I don't think liberal Christianity (of any denomination) has a message right now, which is why out-dated fundamentalism is so strong--when the choice is between having a clumsy, out-dated fundamentalism or having no faith at all, many choose the former. Perhaps they intuitively understand that it is better to have a faith with some very rough edges than to have no faith at all. For lack of a better term, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. (Or maybe it's a question of frying pan vs. fire, but that's not a better metaphor, either!)

I do think Vatican II-era Catholicism was still in the sweet spot, but it perhaps broke down too many walls without giving enough clues as to what the alternatives can be. As Raymond Brown argued, you can give all sorts of well-founded reasons why some Bible stories may not be literally true, but if you don't offer at least some morsel of direction as to how you can still have faith in light of that, you will be doing a disservice to your audience. Something like that unintentionally happened in the fallout from Vatican II. However, I do think if the Church just kept the conversation going we would have gotten there.

Everything has a history. You can't understand the experiments of the 60s and 70s (beer and pizza Mass) without knowing the stagnant repression that it came in response to. And you can't understand the tightening of the reigns of modern times without admitting that in some important ways the experiments may be at risk for losing the baby with the bathwater. And so the powers that be clamp down--this is an exercise in fear, but maybe it is more than just fear? Maybe it is just an amazingly clumsy way of addressing the fact that something deep and important is at risk. I would like to think there were a better way of addressing this risk, but for whatever reason this seems to be what happens.

The logical, intellectual mind can move faster than the heart. You can intellectualize your way out of your faith before the rest of you has time to catch up. Whenever the Church as a whole does this, we run the risk of being smacked back two steps to try again.

If the pendulum swings too far one way, we can expect it to swing back eventually in the opposite direction. Perhaps this should be a warning to both liberals and conservatives.

Vatican II is to us what Francis was to Medieval Europe: The doors and windows swung open with a tremendous breath of fresh air. We recovered something important that we had previously lost. But if we can't move forward without unraveling something important, some people will come along (such as the modern young conservatives) to tighten up the clamps once again until we get it right.

Friday, September 17, 2010

My Guitar

I have always said that there no possessions that I would really miss if I ever lost them--except my guitar.

The loss of the sum total of all my childhood mementos would probably be an emotional hit, but I wouldn't fret so much over the loss of too many individual items--except maybe my world class newborn photo. Being out on the streets, cold and penniless would be very bad, but I don't have to be in that house, those clothes or that furniture.

From the moment I first played it I knew. I just knew. It was the most magical sound. I loved playing it just to hear that sound. I could just sit there and strum the same chord over and over just to hear that sound. However, I didn't expect, or even want that guitar be "the one."

It arrived on Christmas morning sometime during college, maybe I was 20 or 21. Out from nowhere my mom and dad brought out a new Yamaha acoustic guitar. They said they shopped around quite a bit and had a salesman try out numerous models while they sat and listened. Knowing them, they probably gave that salesman quite a workout! They said it wasn't even expensive, but they liked the sound.

I met that salesman later, a big black guy who told me, "you know, your parents really love you."

I had been putting off buying a guitar for some time. The only guitar I had was a $5 garage sale special that Andy dropped off one day. It was dusty and clunky, couldn't make a sound beyond the 7th fret, and it had a strange smell. It was a good starter guitar, though, I learned on it and once it served its purpose I handed it off to the next generation, the brother of a previous girlfriend--perhaps it is somewhere in western Pennsylvania right now or maybe Minnesota. Buying my own guitar was an intimidating process--I wanted it to be just right, and it was such an agonizing process that I just kept putting it off.

I had some expectations for the guitar--it just had to have a knob to attach the strap around the drum. I didn't want to tie it around the neck. I didn't like how that looked and thought it would be awkward to play or damaging to the guitar.

My parents were more than happy to exchange it and go shopping with me for another. They just wanted something for me to open on Christmas morning. I always feel guilty when they make a large purchase like this, and even more so I felt it was wasted effort because I know how picky I am about the sound of a guitar. I felt it was silly for them to be spending to much time and energy on a near-impossible mission. On top of that, when I opened it up and saw that it didn't have a knob for a strap, I immediately ruled it out. "Ah, this one will have to be thrown back for sure," I said to myself. They are pretty comfortable with just having fun shopping without expectations and don't see making exchanges as being negative, but still I didn't want to hurt their feelings.

Then I played it.

I couldn't believe that sound. It was just magic.

Later, I have come to understand that the sound of that guitar has color. That seems to be rare in guitars, especially acoustic. I think that many guitar players even prefer it that way with a plain, grey, almost harsh sound. I'm not talking about a superficial, flashy sound, but rather a color with depth. That is rare. Other folks who have played it have also remarked that there is something special about that guitar, a real good sound.

I also learned that tying a strap around the neck isn't such a bad thing at all, and I got used to it. It might not be the best for the wood of the guitar, but it wasn't a really big issue at all.

That guitar and I went everywhere. I took it to the inner cities and mountains on mission trips. I stayed up endless nights playing it, sleeping beside it. I played it in churches, in basements, for friends and family, on hot afternoons and gentle nights. It is soaked in my sweat from nervous performances and as I vented every emotion you can think of alone in my basement. To this day, it is sprinkled in my blood. I know it is cliche, but truth be told I literally would play until my knuckles bled and there are still splattered droplets on the inside of the drum. It is covered with paint marks on the outside as I would often clumsily bump into walls, "like a goofy dog with a big ole tail" as Leah recently told me.

In many ways, the sound of a guitar improves with playing. Every reverberation goes through the wood and leaves a trace of itself. There is something fuller and richer about the sound of a guitar that has been played over and over for years. You just can't buy that, it must be earned. The sound of the wood deepens and you can hear the echoes of every song that has come before. It is like the difference between a well worn favorite pair of pants compared to something new and stiff from the store. The good news is that I liked the sound of this guitar in all its phases--from the newness of Day 1 to the depth as it got played more and more.

I originally bought a deep blue Tye-dye guitar strap at Woodsy's, thinking it would be the perfect accompaniment to my blue paisley electric guitar--but together they clashed, what do I know about putting colors together? It was, however, a perfect fit for my wood acoustic.

I didn't always treat that guitar the best, and it has periodically lost some of the quality of its sound and has needed adjustments. But that was part of the magic of this guitar--I didn't baby it. It was appropriate for either top-notch performances or campfires. It could be banged around and played with every emotional expression--bent and twisted, wrenching every note out of it, or softly strummed in the gentle quiet late at night. It wasn't the kind of guitar to be left on a shelf and admired from a distance or played with white gloves. This one could go the distance, wherever I was or whatever I was going through.

I wrote hundreds of songs on that guitar, in fits of euphoria and utterly gut wrenching, sobbing expressions. It was there through it all. I purged every emotion on that guitar--good, bad and everything in between. I've even been bored with that guitar and sometimes wouldn't play it for months--and even that was important as this was a very full and authentic relationship that ran the gamut of emotions.

It wasn't a showy piece, it was a tried-and-true, every day and special day guitar. For a brief moment I had a flirtation with some Larivees--their sound was charismatic and catchy, but after a while I realized they were too strong for me. My ear would get tired of their flashiness. My guitar didn't have a dull sound, either. It was just right. It was like a favorite cassette tape that you could listen to for hours and hours, days and weeks and years, and never grow tired of it.

For a guitar with this history, it may be sad to know that it didn't go out with a bang. I simply left it on the trunk of my car while dumping recyclables and didn't remember to put it back in as I drove away. A man told me he saw it fall off my car and saw someone push it to the curb, but when I went back to that area it was long gone. I've been to some pawn shops, had some signs up, but no trace of it. My parents have the model number but not the serial number (the latter pawn shops can trace).

Since then, I've had all sorts of offers and gifts of guitars. Our neighbor Jean gave me her 30-year old nylon stringed guitar. The case was mildewy but the guitar sounds just fine. Leah from the church told me I could "borrow indefinitely" her like-new Fender acoustic. It has beautiful wood and a strong, clear and warm sound. Mary from the church also offered her classical guitar. Like before, I don't look forward to making a purchase, but I feel that will come in time.

Guitar: I wish you well! I hope you find your way to the hands of someone who will cherish you as much as I have. I hope you don't end up abandoned in a closet. I've been all around, I've heard lots of guitars, but I've never heard any one quite like you. I can choose to be sad, and I am, but I can also choose to take this moment to celebrate a really wonderful relationship I have had with a really wonderful instrument!

Thanks for many good years and many, many good memories!