A Hindrance To Religion
By DOM BERNARD MeELLIGOTT Father Vitry (U.S.A.), in the September Oratre Fratres, writes to an imaginary priest friend as follows: Not only do you realize that the dull sentimentalism of present day musical taste, as manifested in our services, is a real hindrance in matters of religion, but you have visualized how the atmosphere created by the chant . . . once restored, will promote a much truer concept of Christianity."
This diagnosis comes home to us across the Atlantic. We have to confess that much of the music at Mass (to say nothing of Benediction) in our churches is of the meaningless sentimental kind. And we are becoming more and more aware that it is sentimental. But what is taking us longer to realize is that sentimental music in church is a real hindance to religion. It is so because it flatters ourselves and our own emotions instead of uplifting our minds and hearts in objective praise of God. We like sentimental music because it soothes the nerves without requiring any mental or spiritual effort from us. It does not help us to stand, take our attention away from ourselves, and fasten it upon our united offering of the Sacrifice.
On the contrary it induces mental inertia or day-dreaming. Sentimentality is really pretending. It is using a worked-up emotion as an escape from reality; and to bring it into religion is to use religion as a dope.
There is some delightful music which is none the less delightful for being light. Pieces by people like Coleridge-Taylor, Bizet, Delibes, German, Kreisler, are deservedly popular. They are the work of masters of their trade, whose aim in making them was not to flatter us, but by making something well to please us without sentimentality. They are popular and distinguished at the same time. Even so, we do not bring them into church. We relegate them instead to café bands and the tinkle of teaspoons. Occasionally we are lucky enough to hear them in the ideal surroundings of a Table under a Tree.
But into our churches, even at the hour of solemn worship, we bring shoddy or pretentious stuff which is neither popular nor distinguished. Instead of using the real music of the Church, which is both, we have to listen to this often wretched fustian, which besides preventing the people from singing the Mass, often puts an effectual stop even to private prayer.
There is a great deal to be said, as religious music, for Bach's B Minor Mass, or the magnificent Beethoven Missa Solennis in D, or the Coronation Mass of Mozart; though they fail in certain liturgical requirements. In one true sense, all sincere music is religious. But what can be said for music that is full of effects without meaning, of twiddley bits that don't twiddle anything, of cliches that say nothing?
Sentimental music is often imported into church on the ground that " it pleases the people." (I have heard an organist play Saint-Saens' "Le Cygne," sacred to Pavlova, with considerable tremolo while the congregation went to Holy Communion at
Midnight Mass.) It is highly doubtful whether it does. please us. But the purpose of music in church is not to please us. It is not there for our pleasure. It is there primarily to sustain our voices in the Church's praise of God. It is there not for entertainment, but for religion. As Mr. G, K. Chesterton says: " We are not merely comparing pleasures or merely pleasing ourselves; for to us a child is born."
We can all draw a clear distinction be
tween tenderness and sentimentality, even between sentimentality and sentiment. We might say that one is feeling for other people or things, genuine feeling; the other is self-love or self-pity only pretending to be objective. At any rate we know the difference in practice. One of the greatest endowments of Mr. Chesterton, for instance, was a huge tenderness towards his fellow-men that informed all he wrote, and was worlds away from sentimentality.
The liturgy is full lot this tenderness; the tenderness of Christ the Head for us His members, and of Christians for each other and for non-Christians. The chant of the Church, with its grave sweetness, is expressive of such true feeling, and of the consolation it brings.
The Veni Sancie Spiritus, the Sequence for Pentecost, is a superb instance of this. Here is true Catholic sentiment, healing our wounds and inspiring an answering tenderness in ourselves because it is based on doctrinal truth and reality. It is therefore truly religious.
But the sentimentality that literally disfigures much of the Mass and Benediction music we use, is not a clear reflection of doctrinal truth. It is a cloudy mirror More of our own emotions than of the goodness and beauty and truth of God. Where our music descends below the level of genuine sentiment (anchored to truth) into sentimentality, it is " a hindrance to religion," and therefore irreligious. The job of music in church, at Mass particularly, is to lift and brace our thought and feeling. It should be a tonic, not a narcotic.
The question of English hymns is a thorny one. But here most of us would agree that a little more play of fancy and sometimes a direct emotional appeal is in place. We do not ask vernacular hymns to show the same concentration of purpose. They are a kind of relaxation, and do not make the same demands as the offering of Mass.
But the same principle applies. The sentiment must be linked to dogmatic truth
and sincerity. Sentimentality, saying we feel so-and-so when we don't feel it at all, or self-pity masquerading as penitence, immediately destroys the religious value of hymns.
Perhaps English hymns ought not to be too traditional. Language natural to one generation becomes affected in the next. A form of expression suited to our grandfathers may be to us blush-making and false. 1 believe each generation ought to write and sing its own hymns; keeping of course, and holding in great honour, a number that have stood the test, whose sentiment and language ring true from one age of Catholics to another.
The clearness and simplicity of liturgical sentiment is the model. Surely it is a great mistake to imagine that " the people" prefer the sentimental in church, when they can get true sentiment wedded to true thought. And must we not admit that many of the hymns in our too various hymn-books have not escaped the pitfalls of sentimentality?
Nor can it be right to suggest that the liturgy is too complicated for ordinary people, and that a sentimental kind of music is more " simple." Rather the reverse is true: you don't achieve simplicity by way of the sentimental. By refusing liturgical prayer and liturgical music you don't arrive at simplicity, but only at a deranged com plexity. To quote Mr. Chesterton once more: " Simplicity is not so simple as it looks."