Recently I purchased an Avanti-brand greeting card and sent it to a friend. The front of the card depicts a very grouchy cat on a yoga mat, doing stretches. The inside of the card reads, “I meditate, I do yoga, I chant … and I still want to smack someone!”
The other day I was driving a morning’s distance and listening to the XM classical station. In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, the station played the new recording, conducted by Marin Alsop, of Bernstein’s “Mass.”
I still have my LP set, conducted by Bernstein, purchased around 1975. I believe I first heard the piece via a production on our area PBS station. I played those records a lot during college. But the set became worse for wear and I never replaced it. So I’d not heard the piece since perhaps the early 1980s.
Listening to an hour-and-a-half piece while driving in one’s car is not exactly an “experience,” but I was quite moved all over again by the Mass. I’ve not heard the other two versions (besides Bernstein’s) but Alsop’s is very fresh, and Jubilant Sykes is an emotional, affecting Celebrant. Hearing the entire piece uninterrupted was valuable. Mile after mile, I enjoyed the favorite passages: “A Simple Song,” which a friend used at her ordination …the jazzy "In Domine Patris"… the skeptical, honest “I Don’t Know”… the pretty “Gloria Tibi” … the fearful “World Without End”… the hopeful “Our Father”/”I Go On” … the most beautiful and uplifting song (in my opinion), “Sanctus” …the stomping, sarcastic (!) “Agnus Dei” … the “mad scene” “Things Get Broken”… and finally the hushed conclusion.
The XM host called attention to the Mass’s early 70s, Vietnam-era origins, but I did not think Mass betrayed much of its Zeitgeist, any more than “West Side Story” sounds like a specifically 50s piece. In fact, allowing for a few “groovy” lyrics, the music and Stephen Schwartz's words sound quite contemporary. When I enjoyed my Bernstein LPs years ago, I didn’t realize I was listening to “music of the future” (the way I didn’t realize the significance of “Sgt. Pepper” and “Dark Side of the Moon” when I heard those records). In other words, Bernstein’s intermingling of musical high- and pop-styles seemed distracting and inappropriate to critics at the time but seems entirely appropriate today.
What struck me especially was the role of the Celebrant. Mass follows the Tridentine Latin rite, but “street singers” persist in interrupting the service with complaints, faith-struggles, questions about God’s concern for the world, blasphemies, and ultimately threats of violence. I thought of Job and his friends, but in this case, the “friends” complain about God’s supposed goodness rather than upholding it. Amid a protest march (the cacophonous, 6/8 “Dona Nobis Pacem”), the Celebrant has his own crisis of faith and breakdown, smashing the consecrated host. Following a long solo (reminiscent of the last act of Britten’s "Peter Grimes"), the street people return to quiet songs of praises. They bring the Celebrant back into their group (whispering "pax tecum"), and with a benediction, the mass ends.
Before, I thought the Celebrant had been discouraged and broken by the protests of the street people. Lord knows enough pastors, unintentionally isolated within their calling, become disillusioned and wearied by the endless needs of congregations. I think this happens to the Celebrant, but now I wonder (considering the way peace is restored to the people following his breakdown) whether his suffering is intended to be vicarious. He takes the people's struggles and doubts into himself. When he drops the cup, shocking though his “accident” is, Christ’s blood is shed. At the end, we may not have the world peace demanded in the "Dona Nobis Pacem," but we have a "secret song," the peace of fellowship and reconciliation.
I was not raised Roman Catholic, and when I purchased the album, it became the way I learned the classic, beautiful language of the Latin rite. What a way to learn sacred words, you might think! But in the intervening years, I’ve heard those words so many timess: baroque pieces, the Vivaldi's Gloria, the requiems of Brahms and Faure, John Rutter's music, and numerous others. Hearing the words as I'd first learned them was a jolt.
They are wonderful words. The church, being both divine and human, may sometimes contain politics, empty gestures, and false-seeming pieties. But the liturgical words are not empty. They speak truth. Set to music, they bring you all the more close to God.
But … faith is a struggle, and although the words are true, we may have no idea how to understand and “live” those truths. A few years ago the media reported that Mother Theresa had had severe doubts and concerns in her faith and ministry. I thought … Well, duh. The deeper you go into real faith (as opposed to a kind of shallow respectability) you may encounter dark places and questions you can’t answer. In the words of my greeting card, you do all the correct religious things … but sometimes you still feel badly. Sometimes you still want to slap someone. Sometimes God seems far away. Sometimes you accuse God. Read Psalm 42, 143, and others, and you know that such feelings aren’t alien to Holy Scripture. Bernstein and Schwartz and their extragant, Talmudic commentary on the Latin mass invite us to think, doubt, and feel--within the context of worship.