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.


2 thoughts on “On “Psalms and Silence”

  1. “Puritan singing was rarely beautiful. Indeed, by the early eighteenth century, congregational psalmody was cacophonous. For years, declining music literacy and isolation had led to the deterioration of musical ability in New England congregations. Individuals freely embellished the tunes. Congregations were undisciplined, not singing together, and singing more and more slowly. Usually the congregation waded through each psalm tune with each individual improvising his or her own variation.”

    I can’t help but read this as a metaphor for some kind of “essence” native to whatever it is that we call Protestantism. What’s enlightening here for me, though, is the idea that the impulse for individualizing isn’t something necessarily born out of a heart of rebellion, but rather is a result of a kind of iconoclasm/anti-sacramentalism.

    It’s like music, art, and community are are centered around the sacred. You remove the sacred, and you end up dissociating these things… and individuals have to fend for themselves.

    Which apparently leads to really crappy music.

    • Isn’t it fascinating? I guess given the place of music and musical ability in contemporary evangelicalism (plus historical Lutheranism, at least the German variety) I had imagined that dissent from sacramental worship and from the hierarchy equated to an emphasis on beautiful music… I think it does make sense, however, in that it has to do with the “sincere” paradigm (individual discursive expression of an inner state only truly known to and discoverable by the individual) in ritual worship. Everyone sings along in their own way, and God reads their heart; the external output that is shared by others around you is a distraction at best. The sacred is located ONLY within the heart and in God’s inaccessibility, not in sanctified things or human acts. That and the deemphasis on human tradition must have been part of the centrifugal force that spun Nonconformists out of the orbit of the English choral tradition and the training it takes to keep it alive. It makes me curious about when it was recovered and brought into the center of congregational worship…

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