As human beings, we experience life through our senses. What we hear, taste, see, touch, and smell can have lasting effects on our psyche. The Catholic Mass should sound, taste, look, feel, and smell like something from another world, as it is from another world. The Mass is heaven coming down to touch earth. When you step off the street and into a Catholic Church, you should be transported to something far different from your ordinary life.
Music for the liturgy should embody an other-worldly nature. It should be counter-cultural. In 2007, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gave instruction to music directors: “The liturgy, though it must always be properly enculturated, must also be counter-cultural.” (Sing to the Lord, 12) Similarly, in 2019, Pope Francis spoke about liturgical music: “[Liturgical music] is not just any music, but holy music…Above all, clearly distinct and different from that used for other purposes.”
Liturgical music, at its best, expresses a beauty that draws us out of our current time/space/culture/etc. This music can lift us toward God, Who is outside of time and space. Such music nudges the spirit to make a leap toward eternity; one step closer to the beatific vision.
Enter Frodo and Sam: two Hobbits of the Shire from the fictional story, The Lord of the Rings, created by J.R.R. Tolkien. In the final book, Return of the King, Frodo and Sam are trudging through the dark land of Mordor, and the two become separated as Frodo is captured by orcs and taken to the Tower of Cirith Ungol. Sam makes a heroic effort to rescue his friend and master. He climbs to the top of the tower, evading many orcs, and finds no sign of Frodo:
“At last, weary, and feeling finally defeated, [Sam] sat on a step below the level of the passage-floor and bowed his head into his hands. It was quiet, horribly quiet. Then softly, to his own surprise, there at the vain end of his long journey and grief, moved by what thought in his heart he could not tell, Sam began to sing.”
Sam begins singing a folk song from the Shire. This song has no place in Mordor, and only a native Shire-dweller would recognize the tune. Unbeknownst to him, Sam has reached Frodo! Frodo is being held captive in an upper room just above where Sam is singing. Frodo hears the song, and the music leads to their reunification:
“’Beyond all towers strong and high,’ [Sam] began [to sing] again, and then he stopped short. He thought that he had heard a faint voice answering him.”
This is exactly the kind of music we sing at Mass. The songs we sing for worship should be counter-cultural and not of this world. It should be heavenly music sung to Our Heavenly Father. Like Sam, we sing this music as we climb the tower of our sinful lives, ever searching for our Creator who is just above us, and now made physically present to dwell with us in the Holy Eucharist. Pope Benedict XVI sums up this idea quite poignantly:
“A Church which only makes use of utility music, which has fallen for what is, in fact, useless and becomes useless herself. For her mission is a far higher one…The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it too glorious, beautiful, habitable and beloved” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report, 1985).
Music within the liturgy is the “folk song” of heaven. It should therefore be heavenly, and ever searching for God. May we be reunited with Him forever in the eternal upper room of Heaven.