a thing happened at Mass and I wrote a poem about it

At the Feast of the Annunciation
I heard him again:
the man with the voice
like unto a bellow in the furnace,
an unquiet, incorporeal reverberation
rising to the rafters.

At least a lag behind everyone else
his Amens resound into eternity,
a terrible trumpet blat
up from the rolling out belly of the earth,
a roar of horror, or an angel’s shout
shattering the vaults of dressed stone
we have considerately built to observe our worship.

The cantor is a professional;
she doesn’t miss a beat.
But others of us twitch toward the disrupt
after every antiphonal abuse
and I have thought to myself: I wonder
if he knows what he is doing, wonder
if he can hear himself at all
amidst the beauty of the choir, the obedient
lumbering from the pews,
the polyphonic pirouettes of Catholic artifice.

Before I’d only heard him, but today I saw
a man deaf, all numb to his noise, knuckled
hands gripping the pew in front.
A quiver in the angle of his head
made me imagine him an aged virtuoso
finding himself no longer the master of his
voice unrecognizable and uncontrolled,
Gabriel on a warped tape,
his tongue meeting his thoughts with nothing
hemming him, transparent as Mary’s mouth.

Hail, utterer of the word
I do not strain to hear you
but in heaven you cry in exquisite time
first, not last. Our songs there are delayed,
the rest of us, well habituated
to march in ancient notation,
but you groan the Spirit’s meter,
the voice of an old man or a ghost
dead as a monk to the world of sound,
in contemplation of the Virgin’s silence.

Speak, Lord, your servant is
a wind rending the mountains, a waxing fire,
a still small voice.


On “Psalms and Silence”

In lieu of a couple longer posts I’ve been ruminating over, I’m collecting my thoughts on a little piece of microhistory relevant to some of my liturgical interests:

Psalms and Silence: The Soundtrack of John Williams’s Captivity (by Glenda Goodman; the Appendix.)

Williams was a Puritan minister captured by a war band of French and Indian Catholics in the early 1700s. The record of his captivity in the Babylon of French Catholic Canada provides a little cutaway view of the yawning liturgical gap separating early 18th century Christians.

Not even two hundred years before, French and English Christians lived in the same world — one bristling with various local and particular traditions, but centered around the same Mass, the same prayers, the same calendar, the same music, and, more than that, the same experience of sacramental and ritual worship embedded in the same religious imagination. By Williams’ time, European (and by extension, American) Christianity was such that, for a Puritan, witnessing the Mass was a profoundly disturbing and incomprehensible experience:

“The third day at Fort Francis Williams was no longer able to avoid the church; his Indian captor dragged him there by force, just as the priests had warned. Williams sat as close to the door as possible, fascinated and repulsed by what he witnessed. He had never heard a Catholic Mass before, and what he “saw [was] a great confusion, instead of Gospel Order.” The elaborate liturgy, the polyphonic music, and the overabundance of priestly noises paired with the ungodly passivity of the silent congregation, were indeed far from a Gospel Order that privileges congregational comprehension and participation. One priest delivered the “Mass in a Tongue Unknown to the Savages”—what use was such a performance, Williams wondered, if those who listened couldn’t understand the words? What’s more, another priest was “singing Prayers among the Indians at the same time”—cacophony and nonsense! Williams grimly noted the ceaseless chanting as “many others were at the same time saying over their Pater Nosters, and Ave Mary, by tale from their … Beads on a String.” Compared to the simplicity and clarity of Puritan worship, the Catholic Mass was incomprehensible idolatry, the music aimed at seducing rather than inspiring sincere conversion. Williams was appalled.”

Of course, Williams’ account was born from and feeds into the history of deliberate exotification of the Mass by the Protestant world. There is much written on the shift from sacramental to nonsacramental worship and the ideological battle it took to accomplish it; by 1704, the status of word and song as “Protestant sacrament” had been firmly established in Williams’ world and even his parents’ world (if they were also nonconformists).

What strikes me on reading this article is not just the gap that separated Williams from pre-Reformation Christianity, but the gap that separates Williams from us.

Formed in a word-and-song tradition, I began learning the ropes of contemporary sacramental Catholicism during my first year in college, only to attend a Tridentine Mass and experience a confusion and detachment not unlike Williams’. Changes in the Mass over the past centuries, and particularly in the mid 20 century — including material changes to the language, gestures, and architecture of ritual compounded by coincidental shifts in the basic ritual understanding of many worshippers — move our typical Catholic worship experience a step away from the medieval and the modern Catholic experience. And, in fact, the word-and-song tradition is by no means immune to change: a Puritan service in 1704 would be easily as foreign and uncomfortable for most contemporary evangelicals, due to a deliberate change in form and content intended to overcome many of the same characteristics of “Gospel Order” cherished by Williams.

That said, there is more than just a family resemblance to distinguish the Catholic from the Nonconforming Protestant understanding of worship. How that continuity exists and is felt and lived is a bigger question that I will have to work to keep answering.

Finally, a couple of miscellaneous thoughts:

– I loved learning that Puritan congregational singing in North America was pretty awful due to a decline in musical literacy and formal musical training. Fascinating! And not the familiar image of a robust, preternaturally competent Protestant choral tradition.

– I wanted to draw out Williams’ refusal to enter or pray in a Catholic church — Nonconformist tradition of course rejected the idea of sacred space and the spiritual import of a church building based on sacramental use and the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, but he still considers it not quite neutral ground and has to be physically forced inside, as if the idolatry of the devil has more power to contaminate a place than God has to sanctify it.

– The author writes as if the Indians literally asked the captives to “Sing us one of Zion’s songs” — while this is possible, I suppose, it seems much more likely that Williams is reinterpreting this request (his audience fully in the know) in order to quote Psalm 137.

The Devil Plays Stupid Tricks (or How I Learned To Stop Making Myths)

The syllable count in the lyrics have meaning.

The battle over our hearts
it carries on in a new frame

The gods of old fell apart
But resurrected with new names

All of the disenchanting
All of our deconstructing
Nothing is stopping the war

All of our internalizing
Every product we’ve been buying
Everything has been done before

It’s just a trick up the sleeve
Because the magic still dwells here

We don’t know what to believe
As it builds up under pressure

Still the demons haunt me
Through my technology
They posses me through screens

We made a myth for our age
And so surprised that we bought it

We shed the heavens and earth
Now horrified that we’re caught in

Chasms that swallow us whole
No one has any has any control
Everyone is losing their grip

Building only to tear it down
Losing all of our solid ground
We don’t know how to handle it

Watch for the hero to come
Listen for the battle drums
He is bringing us back home