Keeping our worship in step with ‘what the Spirit is saying’ to FUS

by Kathleen van Schaijik

There is a deeper and more important reason for the resistance to any major change in our liturgical music than has yet been mentioned in the Concourse. It is, I think, the strong intuitive awareness many of us have of the intimate connection between our worship and our specific identity as a body of believers, coupled with a grateful sense that we are what we are thanks to the charismatic renewal.

Particularly those of us who were associated with the University during the high point of its charismatic emphasis in the ‘80s are intensely aware of how much the music of that movement is at the center of our life—aware, too, not only of its authenticity as worship, but of its immense power to influence students’ lives for good.

Nothing I have experienced lately measures up to the full and joyous abandon of the liturgical music of those earlier years here. Is it surprising if we pine for it? If we long for the days when nobody worried about whether or not we were being aesthetically correct; when we simply forgot ourselves and praised the Lord with one another and with all our might? This was the essence of worship, we knew—a taste of glorious eternity, an exultation, a festival of love between us and our Redeemer.

This is what many critics of “charismatic music” seem unable to appreciate; they fail completely to grasp its spontaneousness. It was not a strategy to make church services more relevant to today’s culture. We didn’t choose guitar music because we thought it the best way to make young people feel at home. There was no such calculation. We simply poured out our souls in the only way we knew how, with the instruments at hand, and with the confidence of children in our Father’s pleasure. It wasn’t a reaching out; it was a welling up, and a flowing over. We were basking in grace.

But now, much to our annoyance, criticisms press themselves on our attention: our melodies are flat, our lyrics trite, our instruments inept, we hear, in comparison with those of cultures past. And sometimes this comes from people who seem never to have experienced anything like the “divine madness” that overcame us with the “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” when we found our minds flooded with light, our hearts melted by grace, our throats filled with grateful love and adoration. Can you blame us if we are tempted to resent the intrusion? Not only does it seem to miss the point, it destroys the virginal loveliness of our praise, by sullying it with self-consciousness. We used to be free; now we come to church carrying fig leaves—conscious of our imperfection, conscious of being judged; unable to recover the purity of our previous offering. The loss is heart-breaking.

At the same time, I think it needs to be said that if the renewal is a work of God and not of men, it follows that it is not in our power to make it stay. “The Spirit blows where it wills.” There is no doubt that He has blown here—in hurricane dimensions. But this is no guarantee that He will go on doing so indefinitely. Is it not rather to be expected, when we examine the trends of salvation history, that having thoroughly “shaken this house” and filled it with His glory (Haggai 2:6&7), He will begin to manifest His presence in other, perhaps more subtle, but no less real ways?

To me it seems the evidence of this happening is all around us. Charismatic jubilation is less prominent in our communal life, but Eucharistic adoration much more so; there are fewer prophesies and dramatic healings, but more Masses and deeper reverence; there is less inspired preaching, but more wise teaching. We may be less zealous, but we are steadier now, I think—more “solid in our faith.”

I do not say this is a thoroughly unmixed improvement; I only point to it as a fact. The “mood” of the campus has changed. Whether we will or no, we are different. It is too late to save the spiritual simplicity of earlier years. Like the later Franciscans who insisted, to St. Francis’ dismay, on the importance of developing the intellectual life, it seems we have outgrown our beginnings. For better or for worse, we have become more sophisticated.

The question now is what do we do with the situation as we find it?

We might dig in our heels. We might insist that folk music is what we do here, and if you don’t like it, go somewhere else. We might pervert our confidence that the gift is acceptable into a refusal to listen to suggestions for how it might be improved—as if we were the only ones capable of discernment. But such stubbornness, besides contravening the basic charismatic disposition of openness to change, becomes less and less defensible when we realize how few of those criticizing the music can be dismissed as ultra-conservatives or mere aesthetes. Many of them, in fact, come from our own number. People who ten years ago rejoiced unreservedly in charismatic worship services, now stumble over much of the music, and hesitate to approve it. Perhaps they have become unspiritually picayune in their taste, but other explanations are at least as plausible. Perhaps, for example, under the gradual impact of that outpouring of grace, their souls have become sensitive to aspects of the spiritual life previously unnoticed by them. Or perhaps the same Spirit who inspired them to “play loudly” before, is inspiring them to play “with all their skill” now. Perhaps, in other words, this dissatisfaction with the status quo is the natural development of an authentic work of renewal.

Then, too, there are many other critics, who, though not card-carrying charismatics show clearly “by their fruit” that they are very much in tune with the Spirit—some with a depth and maturity that charismatics (pardon the reductive term), in our enthusiasm over our own experience, have often neglected to appreciate justly. And some of them, by their native talent and careful training in the area of music, deserve to be listened to with special attention.

I am no musician myself, but I think there are many reasons for thinking the time has come for us to reevaluate and open ourselves to the possibility of developing something new in the way of liturgical music. One is that we are learning more about the riches of our heritage, and longing to make them our own. As our love for the Church increases, we naturally strive to identify ourselves more and more with her long and broad traditions. And as our understanding of who God is deepens and expands, we search for ways to worship Him that transcend (to borrow a phrase from Tom Howard) “the shallow puddle of our own resources.” Another is our cultural character as a community is widening out; we have more international students, and more traditional Catholics than in the old days.

Not that I argue for a simple reversion to traditional forms of music. To me this seems both impracticable and undesirable. If worship is essentially an act of love—a personal oblation—then it follows that what we offer must be deeply our own. To the extent that we allow ourselves to be formed by the tradition, the tradition will be reflected in our praise. But if we are truly alive spiritually, then there will be something new likewise reflected—the legitimate developments of the day, and the impressions of grace on our own more or less modern subjectivity.

I might add, though I do not have the space to go much into it, that in my opinion there are certain perfections in the hymns inspired by the renewal not present in most of the more traditional ones. I mean especially what might be called their personalist emphasis—the sense they convey of “heart speaking to heart,” of our lively and intimate communion of love with the Holy Trinity. Sometimes, I admit, we may offend in this direction by tending toward an inappropriate attitude of familiarity with the sacred, but I think many of the charismatic songs embody a thoroughly legitimate expression of the “measure of love the Father has given unto us, in allowing us to be called sons of God.” And they embody an energy and exuberance that has helped many a tepid soul shake off her indifference and realize “the joy of [her] salvation.”

Another advantage of the so-called charismatic songs is the extent to which they are steeped in, or even lifted from Scripture. The lyrics of many of them are the Psalms verbatim: “For you are my God, you alone are my joy…” “Whom have I in heaven but you, O Lord?” “Taste and see how good our God can be…” “I will celebrate your love forever, Yahweh; age on age, my words proclaim Your love…” Others are taken straight out of the New

Testament: “We behold your splendor; seated on the throne; robed and crowned with glory ever more;” “Yea, my life is hidden in Christ. Death no longer rules over me…” “The day of the Lord is at hand; see Him riding on a white horse;” “We have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God; the heavenly Jerusalem, with myriads of angels round the throne…” (Amazing to think how much of the Bible I memorized during my undergraduate years here, just by singing the hymns!) Whatever the “next phase” of our liturgical life brings, I hope we will take care to have it include these and other perfections of what has come before.

I hinted above at another reason why I think the Spirit might be prompting us toward something new, when I said that the original force of the charismatic renewal among us is evidently diminishing. We can seldom so effortlessly transcend ourselves these days. And charismatic music not informed by that spontaneous, self-effacing ardor characteristic of especially the earlier part of the renewal can be rather ghastly. Think how agonizing it is to hear our favorite “Steubenville songs” being strummed and mumbled at an ordinary parish folk Mass. It’s a shell—a travesty almost. We hate it.

But even here, where the faith is very much alive, and where, for the most part, we know what we are about when we go to holy Mass, we are nevertheless at times uninspired—as individuals and as a congregation. I do not wish to judge whether or to what extent this is our own fault. It may well be that we have been culpably negligent in some way, but it may also be that, for reasons hidden to us, the gift has simply been withdrawn—not completely, surely, and perhaps only temporarily, but still, withdrawn at least to the extent that more effort seems required on our part in order for us to be able to enter experientially into the presence of God.

There is something pitiful and awful about being expected to sing “You are my treasure, my portion, delight of my soul,” when we are feeling utterly flat and dry spiritually. We may console ourselves by affirming that such praise is objectively due to God, whether or not we feel like offering it at the moment. Still, the music itself is too mundane to lift us up. And meanwhile the lyrics are very personal and intimate, so that, if our hearts are not engaged, our worship is weighed down with a depressing consciousness of our own insincerity and spiritual obtuseness. We are stricken with the sense of something missing, and we are prone to focus on distracting material flaws.

People who are not (for whatever reason) experiencing the realities of their communion with God are immeasurably helped by liturgical services which are (on a human level) filled with a celestial beauty that irrigates the parched soul. On the other hand, the same people are painfully hampered by services that rely for their appeal on a subjective experience not taking place. And in proportion as the subjective experience of the congregation diminishes, the efforts to revive it become more gimmicky and unreal. The resulting tackiness and aesthetic mediocrity can seriously oppress the soul who is longing to be supported in her efforts to transcend herself and remember her first love.

Likewise, those who are wide awake spiritually find more and more that some music, by its beauty, its majesty, its solemnity or its quiet dignity represents an offering more consonant with spiritual realities than music, which, if not simply ugly, is at least obviously earth-bound, and incapable of transporting us into the throne room of heaven.

It seems to me then, that in the interests, not only of having our worship become more worthy a sacrifice, but of assisting each other in entering more fully into the mysteries of the Mass, it is incumbent on us as a community to stretch ourselves, bend our ears more closely to the “still small whisper,” and cultivate new heights of liturgical music—heights that embody all the freshness and ardor of the charismatic renewal, with all the depth and majesty of the tradition. If we could manage this (and “with God, nothing is impossible”), what hearts would not rejoice to “offer to God a sacrifice of praise” at the altars of Franciscan University?

Kathleen van Schaijik is an alumna of the class of ‘88 and Editor-in-chief of the Concourse.

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