Friday, July 22, 2011

Understanding what goes on at Mass, Opera, and Shakespeare

I recently re-tweeted a link to a nice blog post comparing the liturgy to Italian opera, quoting the narrator of the film The Shawshank Redemption, talking about the few minutes the film's hero gets control of a prison PA system to play a Mozart duet.

I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.

The blogger at 'Shameless Popery' says this tells us how important music is at Mass. Actually, it tells us much more than that. It tells us about the value of non-verbal participation.

'Red', the film narrator, doesn't even want to know what the words meant. The music and the sound of the Italian were expressive in a way that a translation could not be; one might add that offering the listener the meaning of the words at the time would have distracted him from listening. I am a big opera fan, and I'm not against 'surtitles' at the opera on balance, but one must acknowledge their disadvantages: one can easily end up staring at the words instead of looking at the singers, attending to the English and not listening to the song. It is the same with using a hand missal at Mass: Missals are good things, but sometimes one wants to put the thing down and engage with the Mass wordlessly.

Because you can engage with things in many different ways. This point has been driven home to me recently because I've started taking my eldest daughter to Shakespeare plays. She's seven years old, so it seemed the obvious thing to do. Every Summer there are many cheap productions in quirky venues in Oxford. We've been to Twelth Night in Blenheim Pleasure Gardens, Midsummer Night's Dream in Oxford Castle and As You Like it in the Bodleian. She has enjoyed them hugely, but she's clearly not understanding every word.

Now I'm in favour of people understanding what's happening at Mass. We have wonderful catechetical materials for this purpose. I'm in favour of understanding Shakespeare: we have a book explaining the plots and I have the BBC complete Shakespeare on DVD so we can watch them at home first. But having done a reasonable amount of preparation, you need to go along and let the experience reach you where you are.

The fact is, no-one at a Shakespeare play understands every word. No one at Mass understands every word. That is true of a liturgical expert attending a Mass in the vernacular where the translation has used baby-talk to get the message across, as much as a small child at the Traditional Mass. Great works of art and the liturgy are not sponges, to be sucked dry, but wells, from which one may draw water every time one experiences them. To experience them fully, it is necessary at a certain point to stop analysing, take one's nose of the book one is holding, and just let it sink in.
2011 05 29_9937
Children receiving 'first blessings' from Fr Matthew McCarthy FSSP in St William of York, Reading.

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