Singing Our Contrition:


congregation-singingPenitence is a quiet thing.  Certainly, one who has found freedom and redemption wants to shout it from the rooftops, but that comes later.  The first movement toward acknowledging our failings turns us inward, to contemplation and remorse.  Who dances into the confessional?  We rejoice in forgiveness, but who feels joyful when he cries out, “Forgive me”?  I have never known anyone who wanted to sing about his sins.

I was surprised, then, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the 2008 document Sing to the Lord, and I read this statement: “In Lent, instruments should be used only to support the singing of the gathered assembly” (#114.)  I was not the only music director who thought this strange.  What better season is there for a contemplative piano solo, maybe a flute or a violin, to gently coax our souls along their penitential path?  Movies have conditioned us to feel the way the instrumental music sounds.  When the orchestra is soft and prayerful, we automatically follow suit.  Yet here the bishops were hamstringing directors, requiring in the very same paragraph that Lenten music exercise “restraint,” while ripping from our arsenal restraint’s most obvious friend: the instruments.  Why not dial back all that awkward minor-mode singing and just let the music flow?

I did not understand the bishops’ orders, but, like a good little Roman soldier, I marched.  Gone were the soft organ preludes before Mass, the subtle “doodling” underneath the spoken prayers.  In came more sung hymns to add to our sung “Kyrie” and sung “Lord, hear our prayer,” which were already Lenten traditions in our parish.  We created a relentless, unbroken strain of congregational songs supported by piano and organ.  The entire mood felt forced.  For several years, our hamstrung Lenten music dragged itself impatiently toward Easter.  So, last year I finally said, “Fine, bishops.  You don’t want instruments in Lent?  They’re gone.”  For every Lenten Mass, I programmed two pieces (one was the same every week) to be sung completely a cappella.

The pastor nodded reluctant approval.  The organist declared me to be completely off my rocker.  The other cantors all said, “Great, but you’re going to lead it.  We’re out.”  The choir was skeptical, but they have followed me on wilder liturgical adventures and lightning has yet to strike us, so they warily came along for the ride.  Our congregation is a singing one, relative to some, but no one thought it possible for them to sustain a cappella verse for more than the length of “Thanks be to God.”  Nevertheless, we armed ourselves with hymnals, screwed our courage to the sticking place, and set out to restrain Lent.

That’s when God, in His infinite wisdom, saw fit to give me tonsillitis.  Thus did I discover how truly penitential singing can be.

Fortunately, the congregation never noticed the agony their cantor was enduring as I led them into these uncharted waters of pure unison song–uncharted, except that the Church has been navigating them for its entire history.  It’s the pipe organ, the piano, the guitar that are new-fangled; the human voice had been praising God for millennia before such contraptions came along.  My parish threw down its mechanical crutches, and an amazing thing happened: God said, “Get up and walk.”  Our twenty-story ceiling echoed with the plaint that had always been singing in our hearts, the melody of contrition.  We did not end up hopelessly flat; our tempos did not drag down into breathless dirges.  Instead, something simple, new, and beautiful was born.  It was true Lent.

Not surprisingly, it turns out the bishops know good liturgy better than I do.  They know that “engaging human hearts in the mystery of Christ” (#113) also means engaging human voices.  They know that the healing presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ is made manifest in the communion of the assembly much more readily than in a movie-style soundtrack to the Mass.  In Sing to the Lord, the bishops affirm the power of instrumental music to glorify God in the Mass, and so do I.  But the quiet, inward turning of repentance should lead us toward the place where “God dwells within each human person, in the place where music takes its source” (#1.)  The source of all music is the instrument God Himself fashioned: your voice.  Sinfulness may not make us feel much like singing, but song is the way God leads us “to the realm of higher things,” (#2) to mercy, grace, and salvation.

You who are reading this may or may not have any say-so about how liturgy happens in your parish.  Even if you do, my little experiment might serve no purpose in the context of your parish life.  But, no matter what your liturgies sound like, during this Lenten season, I challenge all of you to sing.  “Music is… a sign of God’s love for us and our love for him….  Thus, it is no wonder that singing together in church expresses so well the sacramental presence of God to his people” (#1.)  If it is truly God’s presence you seek to know in your Lenten journey, then forget about giving up cake and give up your self-conscious silence instead.  Kick your ego to the curb, ignore your neighbor’s dirty glares, and proclaim your sorrow, your sinfulness, and your hope of salvation to the One who will always listen.  Let the song of the Church at prayer guide your heart through desert dryness into the oasis of Easter.  Then, when we have found true union with the Body of Christ in our assemblies, we can let the trumpets, lyres, and the rest join in to proclaim our joy.