Wednesday, February 10, 2010

St. Olaf Review, Part 3 (and last)

My last thought about the concert is really a series of question for my readers regarding repertoire. The St. Olaf choir sang Charles Forsberg's setting of "Prayer of St. Francis." Of all the music they sang, it was the piece that had the least impact on me, personally. In thinking about it, I wonder if it was because I know the text so well and have heard it sung (and recited) so many times. Has repetition simply dulled its effect?

The question brings to mind a segment I once heard on "This American Life." Ira Glass told the story of a school teacher who took his students to Washington D.C. and played Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech for them on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Of course, we'd expect anyone to be awed by the history, the emotion, and the power of that place and those words. Instead, many of the students shrugged and said they had heard it plenty of times before and it still hadn't seemed to change the world. Is that just general cynicism or the inevitable effect of repetition?

Obviously it would be difficult to argue with the message of the text of the Prayer of St. Francis - "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace." On the other hand, a perfectly obvious result is often considered boring or elementary in other disciplines. A mathematical tautology doesn't need further study, after all.

So my experience has brought three questions to my mind:

1. Is the Prayer of St. Francis in particular still a meaningful text?
2. If not, has it been dulled by repetition, its "obviousness," or something else?
3. In any case, what are the implications for weekly repetition of the liturgy or hymns? Does such repetition ultimately reinforce or undermine the message?


  1. i think the prayer of st francis is right up there with some of the oldie goldie hymns like amazing grace, repeated so often they've become trite, sort of like an irish pub where they play danny boy. the lords prayer and creed sadly can be monotone mumbles during the service. it takes a lot of work to keep repeated texts interesting and meaningful so maybe updating the language (which i know some people hate) actually helps us pay more attention.

  2. At Bethany we try to minimize the repetition of hymns by only singing a hymn once or at most twice a year. However, I know that many contemporary worship services have a much more limited repertoire of hymns/songs that are repeated more more frequently. Musically, I find many contemporary praise songs and chorus to be much more repetitive than the "traditional" hymns.

    For me, the the one song at the St. Olaf Concert that was the most expendable was "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree". I know that the music was written by one of the choir members, but it just didn't do a whole lot for me.

  3. I remember as a child singing the "Gloria" while cutting the grass. It was something that I knew and loved from church. In my ministry with people, it is the familiar passages and hymns that always seem to speak most deeply to people, especially during times of crisis. The one consistent complaint that I have heard about the music at Bethany is that we don't sing the "old favorites" often enough (see my comment above). Maybe the fear of too much repetition is something that we worship leaders struggle with, but that doesn't really bother the folks in the pews.

  4. The Church Father St. Gregory of Nyssa once wrote that "Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything." A perfect example of how the Liturgy can be destroyed by concepts is the Roman Novus Ordo Mass, which in practice places more value on explanation and commentary than actual prayer. The presence of litanies and the repetition of common prayers evolved from Judaic liturgics, but ultimately was codified for us in the Rule of St. Benedictine. It's hard for me to believe that at one time religious were expected to be able to chant all 150 psalms by memory. Of course, Compline has always been traditionally chanted by memory.

    We live in a fundamentalist culture where prayer ex tempore is seen as the ideal. Perhaps this is even an issue because the practice of Hesychasm (Christian meditation using litanies) never found a Western equivalent (Lectio Divina comes the closest, perhaps?). I think that there's something to say for having the tools to recite a litany, prayers of confession, creeds, psalms, and hymns/chants without hesitation. There have been times in my life where the use of those alone have sustained me through times of spiritual turmoil. Personally, I've found it more productive to be consistent in prayer than to be innovative. I don't ever feel the need to have my mind blown by a particularly "powerful" or cleverly insightful prayer; if I wanted to think about it, I'd go to a lecture rather than to a Liturgy. Besides, it doesn't get any better than the Psalms and Ambrose's hymns anyways.

  5. C.S. Lewis compared the Liturgy to the difference between learning how to dance and actually dancing. When you are learning how to dance, you are always thinking about what you are doing and what steps come next. But when you know how to dance, the steps flow natually and you do it without a lot of thought. He complained that when we constantly change the Liturgy, we are always learning how to dance, trying to figure out what to do and what comes next, and never actually dancing.

  6. I see the Liturgy as a symbol. Symbol, from the old meaning between the antonyms symbolism and diabolism, respectively, "that which unites divided parts" and "that which divides the united". In Orthodoxy, we call the Creed the Symbol of Faith.

    If a person nods off during the Gospel because they've heard the parable hundreds of times, does it devalue the revelation of its Truth?

    Some thoughts:
    When we sing the Liturgy, hymns, etc., are we singing to each other? Are we serenading ourselves? Or are we uniting to sing ad orientem? These are important questions to ask ourselves as we prepare for worship.

  7. To pick up the C.S. Lewis Liturgy as dance analogy and dovetailing with what Cassie wrote, I would say that if Liturgy is a dance, then it is a dance with God. Unfortunately we tend to think of it as a dance with ourselves or at most as a dance with one another. Maybe Liturgy is the opportunity to learn how to dance with the Divine in this life before we enter into the eternal Dance in the Life to come.

    If Liturgy is a dance, then the next question is, "Who should lead?" Should we lead or should God? I think the only faithful answer is that God is the leader, we are the followers, and He is the one helping us through the Liturgy to learn the steps and experience the eternal dance of the Trinity.

    We can also view the Liturgy as the gift given to us by our ancestors who have learned the dance, and which we in turn pass on to our children, so that they can learn the dance.

    If that is the case, then we ought to be very careful about what we do in Liturgy, so that we let God lead, and we follow. That perspective however runs counter to our typical way of thinking about these things.

  8. A different point of view from the dancing analogy - just because we all agree on the basic steps of the waltz doesn't mean they always come in exactly the same order. We can dance a waltz to different music, at different tempos, wearing different clothes, etc. The basic one-two-three won't change, but the details are up to us. Liturgy can be patterned without being repetitive, right?

  9. Nothing is ever truly repeated, because life has happened to us in the time between hearings. A section that once meant a lot can become trite for a while, and then something happens that brings a new meaning that is more beautiful. Yes, the students may have heard "I have a Dream," but at another time in their life they may understand the dream better. The same can be said of hymns, prayers, and liturgies

  10. To pick up on the question of who should lead the dance, we might also inquire of prayer. When communicating with God, who should really be doing the talking? It is fun to let our thoughts wander a little sometimes. I know there is an issue of whether the thoughts come from God or somewhere else, but at least some of them might be a part of revelation?

  11. In regards to the dance analogy, with which I agree, I'm almost certain that Lewis was speaking of ritual dance. Consider the Nuptual Mass of the Eastern Church, which actually has a "dance of Isaiah" around the solea of the nave. Ritual dance never changes because it's purpose is invocation and/or re-enactment.

    If you've ever been to a Romanian (or Russian, or Greek) wedding you know what it's like to dance with 100 other people who are doing the exact same steps at the same time, with the leader simply keeping them from running into a wall or falling off a platform. In ritual dance the leader is not a performer, but a shepherd. If the leader changes his steps the rest of the dancers will, in domino effect, be pummeled.

    Sadly, since the 1970's, many American Christians have been Liturgically pummeled. The Roman Catholic "Notre Dame Study" concluded that liturgical degeneration was a major factor after 1970 in the mass exodus of Catholics from their ecclesiastical communities; I'm absolutely sure that the same is true for mainstream denominations across the board.

    We can't keep pandering to the whims of the liturgically and theologically uneducated and expect sustainability, let alone profound growth. Our clergy, who dedicate their lives to an advanced level of spiritual formation, are responsible for teaching us to pray and to encourage our musicians in the norms of artistic orthodoxy.

    Only with such courage can the Liturgy, and thus the world, be saved.