A Thing Worth Doing Badly

Stepping into a strange church for Sunday Mass is invariably an adventure that evokes no little amount of trepidation; it is extremely difficult to know what to expect. So, two weeks ago, as a visitor in a strange town, I found myself wondering rather nervously what kind of Mass I had walked into. Would there be a borderline heretical homily? Sketchy changes to the words of the Mass? Liturgical dancers?

At first it seemed like it would be middle-of-the-road: a quiet Midwestern parish with a school attached. The interior had obviously been built or redone in the ‘60’s, but there was nothing out of the ordinary, and it looked like the Mass would be conducted fairly well.

Until the music started.

From the opening hymn to the recessional, the entire Mass was accompanied by a lone soprano pounding bravely away on an electric organ, backed up by a heavy-handed snare drum. The hymns were all from the ‘70s and ‘80s: something about peace, and celebrating, and justice, and we are one people, and harmony—all punctuated by loud raps on the drum. “Let us build the city of God (BOOM-chh-BOOM) may our tears be turned into dancing (BOOM BOOM).”

I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes, and strained all my attention to focus on the readings, the homily (which was decent), and the holy sacrifice of the Mass—all to no avail. When the final “Thanks be to God” was muttered—full of genuine gratitude, on my part, that it was over—and the congregation crowded quickly out of their pews and into the parking lot, I staggered out into the sunshine feeling as though I’d just been subjected to the very dregs of liturgical artistry.

Now, come to think of it, I have heard some genuinely dreadful liturgical music in my time, both lyrically painful (“Lord of the Dance,” anyone?) and musically inappropriate (saxophone jazz at the Easter Vigil), but this Mass marked a particularly depressing milestone in my experience. It wasn’t just the inane lyrics; it wasn’t just the Disney-esque, vague ‘70s melody; it was the fact that, in addition to already being bad music, it was done so badly.

I wondered if this fact was what had made the music so distracting and frustrating to me, and I remembered that “a thing worth doing,” as G.K. Chesterton once said, “is worth doing badly.” This essentially means that if something is worth doing, then it is still worth doing even if we’re not very good at doing it. Take, for instance, my kitchen garden. It’s not acres of rich, abundantly fruitful lands that yield bucket-loads of harvest; it’s a little square of Southern clay with a few scraggly vegetable vines and a berry bush or two. But growing a garden, planting seeds and reaping the fruit of your own labor is a thing worth doing, so it’s worth doing even if one is not wildly successful at it.  Learning how to paint is something worth doing—even if the artist isn’t a Rembrandt or Michelangelo. Writing is likewise something worth doing, even if it’s done rather badly—which is my excuse, anyway.

But, on the other hand, I think it would be safe to propose a corollary to Chesterton’s principle: if a thing worth doing is worth doing badly, then a thing not worth doing is not worth doing badly. It’s not worth it to fight a war over a mile of territory; it is doubly idiotic to wage such a war badly. It’s not worth doing to plant a tree in the middle of the desert where it does not belong; it would be even less of a worthy task to badly botch the job of planting the tree.

I would not have minded the mind-numbingly-mediocre music at Mass half so much, I think, had it been good music done badly. If the most a parish could get was a cantor singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” a capella, then very well: singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” is a thing worth doing. If all that the music ministry has to offer, however, is bad music done badly, then it would be better to have no music at all. Insipid liturgical hymns from the ‘60s onward are not worth doing, nor are they made any better by a snare drum snapping an electric organ into meter. Why, then, must we have these things at all? Would not a reverent silence be far more conducive to prayer, to raising the mind and heart to God?

Such, at least, were my thoughts as the last pounding strains of “Here In This Place” faded away and I exited the Mass that Sunday, hoping desperately that somehow the Church will see a renewal of beautiful liturgical music—done well—in my lifetime. It will mean something of a revolution: throwing out the banal hymnals and the drums; putting more time and greater effort into seeking out good musicians, and cultivating the taste of younger generations to appreciate more traditional hymns. Meanwhile, I am resolved to stoke the fires of that revolution, by making it clear that the bad music done poorly has to go: give me good music at Mass (even done badly) or give me death—I mean, silence.

Lauren Enk

By

Lauren Enk is a student at Christendom College in Front Royal, VA, where she plans to major in English and minor in Philosophy. She writes as an editor for Christendom’s student newspaper, The Rambler, regularly posts opinion articles at her own blog, God’s Spies, and is a regular contributor to The Catholic Young Woman Blog.

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  • Bruce in Kansas

    Very nice piece. If I recall, the Chesterton quote was in the context of preferring the amateur over the professional. Things like building an airplane, wiring an elevator, and so forth are, of course, worth doing very well by experts with special skills, but they are not necessary. You could go through your whole life without stepping in an elevator and be perfectly happy. The important things, like writing a birthday card, comforting a mourner, and changing a diaper can and ought to be done by an amateur. I’m with you on the music – chant can be done beautifully with no specialized training. Mass is an important thing.

  • dove4near

    While there is much truth to what the writer is saying, I believe that there is still room for at least some of the “older” songs in our liturgy, done well of course. Music, like fashion, is being geared more to the younger generation and forgetting, like fashion, that there are still those of us who are a “little bit older” who maybe would like a mix of both. Being 75 myself, I grew up from the old Latin Mass, through the “folk song” style, into the 60′s and 70′s and now the new century.
    While we must be careful to include the younger generation, they too should be sensitive to the likes and dislikes of those who are older.
    The main consideration is – are we praising God in our music?
    God bless you and continue making music!

  • Germaine

    There is one thing the writer obviously neglected to take into consideration after describing the state of the little Midwestern Church and that is that more than likely they are not exactly affluent. Unfortunately this could explain the lack of some newer music. They did the best they could. However, I will always prefer the older music, even if it isn’t done in the most professional way to a Mass that has “a borderline heretical homily, scetchy changes to the words of the Mass or Liturgical dancers.”

  • Victoria

    I confess to being a musical ignoramus. I have no problem with the songs that the author abhors. But seriously  . .. the readings, the decent homily, and the holy sacrifice of the mass, were not enough to make her experience valuable? C.S. Lewis says that God enjoys “the ragged bawling of untutored hearts” over a practiced and indifferent choir. He repents in that essay of his tendencies toward elitist snobbery: something we all might work on.

  • Laermaja

    I agree with everything written here.  The reason that the music went the way it did in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s is because of a growing cultural focus on self.  The music of popular taste, the disregard of tradition, the breakdown of formality in any form, of respect for higher authority… all contributors to societal whims, fancies, and movements, and the sad infiltration into the Church.  The publishing companies of Oregon Catholic Press and GIA are equally to blame for giving Haugen, Schutte, Joncas and the like the contracts they so undeserved.  The singer’s voice in the first person, often, taking on the voice of God, the belting voice on the amplification devices — a feast for self.  The loss of a vertical sense of theology, the architecture of Presbyterians, the hippies hired as music directors: the state of the American Catholic Church and music has been a very sad scene for decades.   All things are not equal when it comes to music and art in Church.  To think otherwise underscores the pervasive roots of relativism in our culture.

  • James Stagg

    In one way, perhaps, Ms. Enk, you should get out into the “hinterlands” more often.  I have heard good and bad music, most done earnestly, if not musically.

    But, truly, you have not lived till you thrill to the very good sounds of a LifeTeen Mass, or to two (acoustic) guitars with Cajun voices, lifted in a small Mississippi church, or the sounds of an old Hammond, somewhat squealing and screeching out some (negotiable) Catholic-Protestant hymns in rural Alabama.

    There are few parishes which were as fortunate as one we helped found in rural Georgia, where the PAID Minister of Music was an accomplished musician, who normally played the organ or piano for three different choirs on Saturday and Sunday, and handed over the 8 AM Mass to a noted guitarist with a knack for psalmody and chant.  

    Those were the good old days, and my present parish comes nowhere near those memorable experiences.  I’m afraid I may be in a sister parish to the one you attended.  

  • James H

    I suppose I’m just lucky – I’ve seldom been in a church where the ‘new’ music has been done badly. That drum sounds awful, and to have it with an organ is a double no-no!

    I’ve been in masses where people were moved to tears by John Michael Talbot songs, done quietly and smoothly, with amplification (since the singers weren’t professional). I think we’ve forgotten just how bad the music had got before they started to allow guitars in church. I haven’t! I would rather hear enthusiastic, well-sung music with guitars than a warbling soprano slowly meandering through ‘Praise my soul the King of Heaven’ (ick!) while an organ puffs and wheezes the accompaniment. And well-practiced choirs mincing their way through classics in Latin don’t move me to devotion much, I’m afraid. It sounds like it’s just a job to them, and for all I know, that’s all it is.

  • Katie OFS

    I am sorry that the music ruined a perfectly good Mass for you.  It is sad that you have to come to Mass with such high expectations and only to have them all dashed because of us “small midwestern community” folk who do the best we can to raise a joyful prayeful noise.  I am glad for you that you know the difference, I am sad for you that you are afraid to go to Mass for fear it won’t (sermon, liiturgy, or music) meet your expectations.

  • Laermaja

    The focus here is on the music, not a geographic area or a people.  Sadly, bad music and poorly run music programs are widespread.  The expectations are those of Holy Mother Church, and they have been misunderstood and discarded by a large portion of the population and special interest groups within the Church in an agenda of distortion since Vatican II.  The author’s expectations are not too high.  At the holy sacrifice of the Mass we encounter God through Jesus.  Music should be prepared and performed suitable for a King – Christ THE King.  Instead, the lounge singers and folk groups have taken stage to secularize the sacred.  Mediocrity becomes the standard when we take the lowest common denominator.  The focus of this conversation is not on the people performing, but on a greater issue at hand — the corpus of “contemporary” music of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and into the ’90s to the present, the distorted theology it exploits, and the secular intrumentation and lens through which it permeates.

  • Charlene

    This was an interesting post…it made me think of King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant~playing instruments, singing at the top of his lungs and putting his whole heart into the JOY he was feeling before the Lord.  I doubt his songs came from any sort of approved list…his voice and musical ability may have been terrible, but God saw into his heart and knew the source of his song.  I LOVE good music at Mass, but Mass isn’t for me to be entertained.  One of the saddest stories I’ve heard of late is of a priest in an elderly community, who so struggled with the off-key voices of the members that he has chosen to not have music at Mass.  I agree with Chesterton that “a thing worth doing, is worth doing badly.”   

  • Guest

    Thank you for this well-written piece.  I agree with everything that you said.  I love the fact that Pope Benedict is trying to surgically remove the musical drivel that we have had to put up with for years on end.  Let’s have a return to musical beauty that enhances the liturgy and moves us with the sheer beauty of it – helps us to feel the presence of God.  Music is art and just like our beautiful old cathedrals with their beautiful artwork, we can be drawn closer to God through this beauty.  If done badly, with guitars and drums and lyrics that replace Father, Son, and “Him”, “His” and “Thee” and “Thine” and “Thou” with “I”, “You”, “Me”, and “God’s”, then in essence, we are destroying the beauty of the original art and more importantly destroying or eliminating a reverence for God our Father and Jesus His Son.  I think music companies supplying music and hymnals for Catholic churches got it all wrong when they started tinkering with our old hymns and shoveling more and more drivel and banal, politically-correct, inclusive language songs into the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  These songs do not inspire, do not lift one’s thoughts to God, and serve only to punish us with their mediocrity.  I would LOVE to see a return to architectural beauty, beauty in art, beauty in our statues and paintings, and beauty in our music.  Give me true reverence, not applause for a “performance” at the end of Mass!

  • Katie OFS

    My response is pointed to the fact that we do not all have access to educated liturgist, virtuoso musicians.  Small community and rural parishes have limited resources and we do what we can with what we have.  Educated liturgist and and virtuoso musicians cost a lot of money, We have volunteers, some parishes may be gifted with talent, others may not.  Music, art, and a good homily add to the glory of the Mass but they do not detract from the glory of the Mass.  They may distract US.  The blog post was elitist. She was worried about what she was going to get in the “small rural community.”   I am a member of one of those.  We love each other, we celebrate our faith, we may do so with weak voices and  poor talent.  God loves us, too.  

  • Apilgrimsoldier

    I am so glad to see your response. The late William F. Buckley said  that he wished the Church would provide ear plugs at the door. Actually I think he meant for use during the homily as well as the music at the time. We love God. We should want to use our best to honor Him. I too cringe when I’ve heard the drums and caterwalling I’ve heard at some Catholic Churches. I suffer and believe the saints and even God himself do as well because the leaders at these churches have not done their job. In His house we can be particular when it comes to what is presented to glorify Him.

    I’m elderly and my voice doesn’t always do as well as I would like but with better voices leading (give them a microphone for goodness sake) I have found I can do a better job of controlling my voice. If I sound like a chicken that day I just mouth the words while letting my heart sing.  

  • James D

    If you read it carefully. You will see that she was not saying that we  need an educated liturgist or a virtuoso of musicians. That all we need is better music than the music  that we are given from the 70s and 80s.  Even if it was person singing badly if the music (aka the songs) were good it wouldn’t matter because it is worth doing badly. If you didn’t catch that I suggest you re-read the article before calling someone an elitist. 

  • Jeep43130

    I like reverent music as much as the next guy but at the same time, I recognize that the skill of distinguishing between good music and sappy music is a skill that not everyone possesses, just as not everyone possesses the skill to perform the music well.  Not everyone posesses the skill to know that a snare drum in mass is distracting.  The fact is, these musicians are giving all they have, believe it or not.  Kind of like the widow’s mite.

  • Katie OFS

    I meant the post was elitist, not the blogger.  Sincere apologies to the writer.   “I would not have minded the mind-numbingly-mediocre music at Mass half so much, I think, had it been good music done badly”   “From the opening hymn to the recessional, the entire Mass was accompanied by a lone soprano pounding bravely away on an electric organ, backed up by a heavy-handed snare drum.”    “I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes, and strained all my attention to focus on the readings, the homily (which was decent), and the holy sacrifice of the Mass—all to no avail”  (all from the blog)  Kind of hard for me to ignore that it was not just about the music.

  • Weeksma

    Has anyone else ever heard “Amazing Grace” set to the Eagles?  It makes my spouse and I cringe, then smile, and then pray for them…  ;)

  • Rachel

    I agree with Charlene’s comment.  Having moved around a lot and lived in different countries, I haven’t always understood the music, but I have tried to join along and sing praise to the best of my ability, most likely not perfect, but to my best.  I also have learned to try to enjoy all styles – as much as I disliked the old tunes to the hymns we sang in Germany when I first lived there, I find that I would love to be singing those now.  I think a very important thing in music is to get ALL the people singing, even if they can’t hold a tune.  It all sounds beautiful to God, I’m sure.

  • Sad flutist

    Sadly, the Catholic church does not always pay enough for someone fully qualified to accept a position there, now do those who have the training and skills seem to appreciate anything beyond organ and skilled singers. I’m a trained musician, and I know from personal experience.

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