What we really need, in Mass, is music to die forthat is, music
that is appropriate to the full depth of our experience of human suffering and
sin, the reality of death, and the promise of a glorious existence, as all bound up in Christ’s
crucifixion and resurrection.
What we tend to get is music appropriate to cheerfulness rather
than joy, balm for scratches rather than deep wounds, songs of contentment
rather than of peace which passes all understanding, music aimed more at giving
us a bit of a lift on Sunday morning, rather than drawing us into the perilous
drama of salvation so we can make it through the week and the rest of life.
I don’t want to spend the reader’s time singling out songs for
especial censure, or, by contrast, recommending music to take their place.
Instead, I want to talk about the kind
of music we need, and hope that this will inspire a change in what we hear.
So again, we need music to die for.
I don’t mean miserable music, or music about misery, but music
that is so good, so beautiful, so moving that we are drawn down to the depths
we need to experience to understand the real ravages of sin, and up to the ethereal
heights from which (as Dante said in the Paradiso
looking down from heaven) this
poor earth looks small.
Music that is so excruciatingly good it hurts to listen to it, yet
we would do anything to hear it again. Music which seems to come from somewhere
else, some place that after hearing it one would fear to enter that somewhere.
Not music that blends in seamlessly with what we’ve just heard on
the secular radio on the way to Mass.
Look at the statue of St. Teresa by Bernini. The smiling angel,
boyish in looks but ancient beyond all human reckoning, holding a near-deadly
arrow from heaven, an arrow tipped with heavenly joy so powerful, truth so
ravaging and pure, love burning so fresh and searing from the fires of the Holy
Spirit, that St. Teresa’s merely mortal frame is shaken to the edge of
shattering with each plunge into her heart.
Such is the Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila.
Where is the music that feels like that arrow? Where is the music
that nearly shatters the mortal frame? Where is the music delivered by such a
terrible creature as that angel?
This shaking of the human framehow to understand it, in an age
that would rather soothe, if not anesthetize?
The ancients and medieval had a kind of analogy to help capture
it. Our merely mortal eyes can only stand so much light, they noted. Therefore,
we cannot look directly at the sun. The direct, piercing rays would destroy our
merely human eyes.
The same is true for our earsthere are sounds so loud we cannot
bear them. For the sense of touch, there is heat so intense we must back away.
But there is still brighter light, greater sound, far more intense
heat than our merely mortal frame could ever bear. We cannot experience very
much of it without feeling the impending destruction if we try to bear too
Is there, then, the same thing in regard to the human soul? Is
there love that burns so hot that even to feel it in the slightest would leave
us scorchedin ecstasy? Is there joy so intense that merely to experience a
scratch from the tip of its arrow is unbearably painful, as if the joy once
entering our system through even the smallest opening is throwing itself
against the walls of our soul and trying to stretch it to breaking? Is there
truth so brilliant that even the glimpse caught by the eye of the soul brings
And so, is there music that is so painfully beautiful, so
unworldly and merciless in its penetration of this world from a world above,
that we almost fear to hear it? Music that very nearly unwinds the soul? Music
that takes over the church with a legion of arrow-plunging angels?
That would be music to die for, because it would be music nearly
to die from. It would not be music that merely lifts one up a little with the
beat, or music that carries one along for a few minutes with a catchy phrase.
It would not be music that jiggled the body, and thereby tickled the emotions.
That’s radio music. That’s our favorite music from our teen years.
That’s the sound track from our favorite movie. That’s background music for an
ordinary life where angels do not attack us from heaven (or demons attack us
from hell). That’s the music of this-worldly satisfaction.
We need music that breaks through from another world. Not teen
music, but music from eternity that draws us out of time. We need a soundtrack
that fits the real drama of human life where angels do battle just above our
heads and below our feet, and in and for our hearts, however numb and fat.
If you have heard even a mere snatch of such music, you’ll know
exactly what I mean by speaking of it as “music to die for.” But how to get at
it for those who haven’t?
It is something like the “stabs of joy” described by C.S. Lewis,
that suddenly erupt without our bidding, but reveal a momentary flash of
something so profoundly glorious as to dwarf our merely day-to-day experience.
Lewis recounted one such instance in his Surprised by Joy. One day his eyes happened to fall upon a picture
from Arthur Rackham’s illustration of Siegfried
and the Twilight of the Gods. In his words,
Pure “Northerness” engulfed me; a vision of
huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern
And with that plunge back into my own past
there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the
knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was
returning from exile and desert lands to my own country; and the distance of
the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both
unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and
loss.… And at once I knew…that to “have it again” was the supreme and only
important object of desire.
For Lewis, this taste of otherworldly joy, delivered through a
pagan source, ultimately brought him back to Christianity, to the ultimate
source of that Joy, to the supreme and only important object of desire, God.
Undoubtedly, St. Teresa’s “stab of Joy” was considerably more
potent. But our concern is not to compare these two, but to capture what we
must strive to have the music at Mass deliver.
Which is another way of saying, we must strive to have the music
deliver us to the Mass, to the stab of the crucifixion that brings the Joy of
We Catholics believe something so entirely strange that even to
utter it among ourselves should bring gasps of astonishment. The crucifixion
and resurrection are present in the Massnot presented again like a morality
play, not referred to politely by way of visual metaphor. Here, before our
eyes, in this Mass, time is broken into and out of, and we are standing in the
presence of the being-crucified Christ. We are as “there” as those for whom it
was, two millennia ago, “here and now.” The same is true of the resurrection.
The astounding event, like the crucifixion, is, for a moment, no longer
reported to us, but witnessed by usboth under a sacramental veil.
Now ask yourself. We have music in our movies that is intended to
heighten and deepen the experience of the dramatic scene. What is the music
that could accompany the actual crucifixion and resurrection? What musical arrow
could, for just a moment, deliver a stab of Joy so sharp as to pierce the
sacramental veil, tearing it enough to allow a glimpse of what is really going
on before our own eyes at the Mass?
Perhaps we might discover what it is by sorting through what it
isn’t. It could not be music that sounded exactly like popular secular music,
because the Mass is sacred. Just as the words said at Mass are entirely defined
by the Mass and can be uttered nowhere else, so also the music itself should be
so indelibly sacred. Form and function, we might say, must be inextricably
It could not be music of the day, music that is so identifiably
contemporary that (like fashions of the day) it soon passes into being
identifiably dated, as is, e.g., popular music from the 50s, 60s, or 70s. (One
of my Evangelical friends once kiddingly remarked, “The only place you can
still hear 70s folk music on a Saturday night is the Catholic anticipatory
Mass.”) It must be music that draws us away from our day to eternity.
It cannot be music that is merely cheerful, because we’ve got
enough of that offered to us outside the church in our all-too-ordinary lives.
must be music whose aim is to be extraordinary, in the way that a cathedral is
extraordinary, entirely defined by what is beyond the veil of ordinary life so
that we understand that even in our ordinary lives we are enmeshed in the great
drama of salvation. It must, to say it one last time, be music to die for.