back to church

Yesterday, for the first time in over a year, I attended mass in person.

If you had told me prior to the pandemic that I would ever go a year without going to church, I would not have believed it. I grew up Catholic and going to mass for Sundays and holydays was an important part of our faith practice. I was in church as a teen more than most because I became our small country church’s only organist in my second year of high school. I spent many years in music and liturgical ministries and, although I hadn’t been active in them in recent years, I still considered taking part in mass and receiving the Eucharist a vital part of my faith life.

Last March, when the severity of COVID was first becoming apparent, I decided not to go to mass for fear of exposing my father, one week before New York State went into lockdown and the churches temporarily closed. I began participating via televised mass as my mother had done when she was ill. Over time, churches here resumed services, first outdoors or broadcast to congregants in their cars in the parking lot. Later, indoor services were permitted with distancing, masking, temperature checks, pre-registration, and other measures in place, although the bishops have kept the dispensation from in-person attendance in place.

Because being part of a large group of people who are speaking and singing is inherently more risky than being at home or in a grocery store, I had made a personal decision not to attend mass in person until I was fully vaccinated. Last week, two weeks after my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, I called the church to make a reservation to attend the Saturday vigil mass yesterday.

I arrived early, knowing that there would be a check-in process and that we would need to maintain spacing. I was masked, of course, and gave my name to the volunteer at a table, who found my name and contact information on her list. They keep the information on file so they can call if a positive test is reported. There was a temperature check and the distribution of a leaflet with the day’s music. I was allowed to choose my own seat among the pews, although every other row was blocked off by purple cords draped around the end. I sat near the music ministers, so that I could watch my friend play the organ and see the cantor who would be leading the singing.

If I had to choose one word for the experience, it would be stark. This is partly a function of it being Lent, which is a penitential season. There are no flowers and the sanctuary is kept as simple as possible. What was striking to me, though, was the space between all the ministers. The priest, deacon, two lectors, and single altar server were in chairs scattered around the altar and ambo, which is necessary for viral reasons. It amplified my sense of separation from them and from the rest of the congregation. Only people from the same household can sit in a group, so many of us were sitting alone.

I felt most like I was part of the assembly when we were praying aloud together. Although we were masked and there were far fewer of us than our pre-pandemic numbers, our voices carried well and we could hear one another, ironically helped by the acoustics of the space without so many bodies to absorb the sound. This was, however, a double-edged sword. During the prelude, I was annoyed by a couple behind me discussing home improvement projects, no doubt unaware how well their masked voices carried in the space.

As often happens, there were emotional moments for me during the liturgy, although not when I had expected them. As part of the prelude, my friend improvised on the Irish hymn tune St. Columba, which is often used with the text “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”. It is one of my favorite tunes. Back in the days when I could play the organ and was practicing, it was one of the hymns I would sing as a personal prayer. I was very grateful to hear it yesterday.

When we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together, I was particularly drawn to the last phrase, “deliver us from evil.” I am still pondering the full implications of being drawn to that at this time. Like most Christians, I have prayed this prayer thousands of times. It is a testament to its strength that it reveals different aspects of faith as our circumstances change.

The third moment was that I choked up as we started to sing the Lamb of God. This simple text, which is placed in the liturgy shortly before communion, has long been my favorite prayer of the mass ordinary. Long ago, I set it in a choral anthem paired with a text from Isaiah. Again, a prayer that I have recited or sung thousands of times but that was somehow connecting with me in a new way.

Strangely, the thing that I expected to be very emotional was not and perhaps goes back to my feeling of starkness. In order to maintain distancing, communion was not distributed at the usual time. Instead, we prayed the concluding rite and then received communion. The priest and the deacon went to positions at the end of the far aisles and the congregants, keeping six feet of distance between them, filed up to receive the host, step away, briefly lower their mask to consume the host, then immediately process to the doors by a different route and exit, all while the communion hymn was being sung. Because I was near the front of the church, that meant exiting during the hymn without an opportunity to join in that prayer. Intellectually and from the public health viewpoint, this procedure for communion makes perfect sense. It keeps people from congregating in the building or around the exits and minimizes the chance of spreading the virus. From a liturgical perspective, though, it feels stark. The word Eucharist means thanksgiving and the word communion has the same roots as the word community; this more isolating experience feels counter to that. As someone who has study music and liturgy, it also was very difficult for me to leave while there was still sung prayer ongoing.

I was grateful to be able to attend in person but I don’t think that I will try to do it every week yet. Due to the cleaning protocols involved, there are only two masses per weekend; with fewer masses and reduced capacity, I don’t want to deprive other people from being there by taking up space myself on a regular basis. I do hope to go once during Holy Week, Easter Vigil if possible or Holy Thursday if the Vigil is in high demand.

Otherwise, I will continue to participate from home until our area progresses to the point where we can gather safely in large numbers again, when we can exchange a sign of peace, when things will not be so stark.

When we do get to that point, there will be another, more complex decision to make, which is how much of the politics and abuses of power in the church itself I can continue to tolerate. The clergy of the church continue to grapple with its own history and legacy of crimes, abuse, and sin, or worse, some grapple and some continue to deny. Meanwhile, lay people are not given the opportunity to fully use their gifts in service to the people and the church.

It’s exhausting.

The pandemic has blunted the effect of having this struggle before me every week. I haven’t decided yet if I can take it on so consistently again. I used to go to mass every week, even when I cried because of the pain. I did it because I couldn’t imagine being separated from the Eucharist. Because of the pandemic, I now know that spiritual communion is a reality, that I can feel close to Christ and to creation and all people, even when I’m not able to attend mass in person.

I don’t know what I will choose to do.

Another aspect of life in which I dwell in mystery.

the later verses

For some reason, yesterday the topic of the later verses of songs to which many know only the first verse well came up a couple of times. In a Binghamton Poetry Project session, we read Ada Limón’s poem “A New National Anthem” which quotes from and asks why we don’t sing the third verse of the “Star-Spangled Banner”. Last night, I was discussing the hymn “Amazing Grace” with a friend; I relate much better theologically with the ending verses than the opening ones, which are the ones most people recognize.

Although I am Catholic, much of my training as an organist was in a Protestant context. Unlike most Catholic churches, which often sing only two or three verses of a hymn, Protestant churches usually sing all the verses, which, as a poet and a liturgist, I find more proper. I sometimes choose a hymn specifically for a message in a later verse. I did this in choosing hymns for my father-in-law’s funeral, only to have the substitute organist truncate the hymn so we never got to verses that were connected to the occasion. I noticed the pastor giving a sidelong glance at the organist, but he didn’t take the hint.

Some of my favorite verses of hymns are later ones. In Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful”, I especially like the end of the second verse/stanza: 
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
We could really use some of that self-control these days. Interestingly, in researching the poem, I found that the version most of us know is the 1911 revision. The original 1893 version ends the third stanza with:
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!
We could really use that message now, too.

Sometimes, later verses are just fun because you get to sing words that your would not otherwise. For example, the second verse of the standard version of the United Kingdom National Anthem “God Save the Queen” which deals with the Queen’s enemies contains the lines “Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks”. It’s not often one gets to sing about “knavish tricks”!

Sometimes, especially in folk/protest songs, verses are included, excluded, or altered due to political circumstances or the audience. Woodie Guthrie’s original lyric of “The Land Is Your Land” contains a verse about private property and ends with a verse about hunger that closes “As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if this land was made for you and me.” Most people are familiar only with the verses that are a US travelogue, not these more challenging ones.

There are some hymns, such as “Sing a New Church” by Delores Dufner, OSB, that I love all the verses so much that I will sing omitted verses to myself if we don’t get to sing them all during the service.

My first college choral conductor, Rob Kolb, taught us that the hymn is the poem which is the text, as opposed to the tune, which is interchangeable with another of the same metric form. Because the hymn is the poem, you sing it as you would recite it, with its punctuation and word emphasis intact. You also honor the hymn as an entity, so you sing all the verses, as you would read or recite all the stanzas of a poem.

Some lessons stick with you for life.

a new civic/religious hymn

Since the Jubilee of 2000, I have belonged to NETWORK, a lobbying and educational organization dedicated to the principles of Catholic social justice and how they can be expressed through our democracy in the United States.

Their Lenten program this year is “Becoming Faith-Filled Voters.” In the introduction, the prayer segment was this new hymn. I was very moved by it and wanted to share it. While it is written in a religious context, I find that it invokes many principles that are shared by all people of good will.

A Hymn for a Time of National Crisis

O God of All the Nations
LLANGLOFFAN 7.6.7.6 D (“Lead On, O King Eternal”; “Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers”)

O God of all the nations, your ancient prophets saw
that kings and institutions are not above the law.
Integrity is precious, and truth will one day stand;
Your way is peace and justice, and love is your command.

O God, when times are troubled, when lies are seen as truth,
When power-hungry people draw praise and not reproof,
When greed is seen as greatness, when justice is abused,
We pray that those who lead us will know what they must choose.

We pray they’ll gather wisdom and lift up high ideals,
To guide our struggling nation along a path that heals.
We pray they’ll have the vision to value each good law,
To put aside ambition, to seek the best for all.

O God of all the nations, may those who lead us see
that justice is your blessing, that truth will set us free.
Give all of us the courage to seek the nobler way,
So in this land we cherish, the good will win the day.

Tune: Traditional Welsh melody, from Daniel Evans’ Hymnau a Thonau (Hymns and Tunes), 1865 (“Lead On, O King Eternal”; “Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers”)

Text: Copyright © December 19, 2019 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
Permission is given for free use of this hymn.

on the way out of town

This is the final post about my long weekend in Northampton, Massachusetts to sing Brahms at Smith College.

I was up early for breakfast with CK as my plan was to attend 8:00 mass on my way home. As in many other places, the Northampton-area Catholic churches have consolidated, so I was not very familiar with the church building itself.

As a former organist and church musician, I always pay particular attention to preludes and all the music. The organ was in a loft, so I couldn’t see the musicians. I noticed that there were mistakes in the prelude, but that isn’t uncommon, especially at early masses at Catholic churches, which sometimes fall to student organists or people who are trained as pianists rather than organists.

The cantor/songleader was also in the loft and announced the opening hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” – a very familiar hymn that is usually one of the first an organist learns. The introduction started as one expects but became increasingly atonal, ending in a cluster chord that was held for much longer than expected.

The voice of the cantor came over the microphone, asking for a doctor to come to the loft. A woman in the section of pews in front of me jumped over the back of a pew to reach the aisle more quickly and rushed to aid the organist.

The chord on the manuals stopped, although a bass note from the pedals remained. We could hear the parishioners who had gone to the loft asking questions, trying to get a response.

I’m sure I was not the only person in the congregation who immediately began praying.

After a couple of minutes, the priest came to the front of the church and led a “Hail Mary” for the organist. He told us an ambulance was on the way and that we would begin mass shortly. He said that she would be okay, although I am not sure how he could have known.

The organist’s name is Jeanne.

At some point, the long-held pedal note stopped, a bell rang from the front of the church, and we began mass.

You could hear the ambulance squad arrive and enter the loft. Jeanne must have still been on the organ bench because there was a pedal glissando as they lifted her off.

Between readings, an usher came to the front of the church and spoke to the priest, who excused himself and went back to her before she left for the hospital.

We continued the mass with no music. It turned out that it was the last weekend for the relatively-young-as-Catholic-priests-go pastoral associate who was being re-assigned to Pittsfield.

We did sing a verse of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” as he processed out to greet his parishioners for the last time.

It’s been two weeks now since that day. I read the bulletins and the church’s website for some mention of Jeanne, but there was none. I hope that the priest was correct – that she really was okay.

 

Desire of Nations

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, which my family celebrated at a vigil Mass yesterday, given that E and T will need to spend significant amounts of time at church this evening singing for late Christmas Eve mass.

In the readings and especially in the hymns, which included several different versions of the “O Antiphons,” there were calls for the endings of divisions among nations.

It is very difficult for me to have hope about this in the near term. I am filled with sorrow that my own country is sowing division rather than peace and harmony among nations and that, within our country, divisiveness is rife.

O come, Desire of Nations, bind in one the hearts of humankind. Bid our sad divisions cease and be for us the Prince of Peace.
~ translation from Latin of the 8th century hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” verse seven

Singing the “O Antiphons”

Last Sunday, I posted about how moved I was with the communion song at church.  This week, I am sharing again. I managed, barely, not to cry this week, though.

We sang all the verses of Dan Schutte’s “Christ, Circle Round Us”. Sadly, the recording below does not have all the verses.

Schutte based the tune on the chant melody for Salve Regina, giving it a sound that is both traditional and contemporary. The text is based on the “O Antiphons” which are traditionally sung in the last days of Advent. They use the language of the Hebrew Scriptures to evoke the coming of the Messiah. They also incorporate more universal themes of winter solstice, longing for light and new growth.

What strikes me especially this year is the emphasis on hope. Hope is not one of my stronger virtues, but it is one that I need to find in large measure now, with so many challenges facing us.

Sometimes, the right song helps.

Morning hymn

On my way to 7:30 mass this morning, I was listening to public radio. Early Sunday morning is reserved for organ and church music.

The drive is not terribly long but I did hear one piece in its entirety, an organ/choral setting of the hymn, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God Almighty!” [Tune: Nicaea], which was one of the first hymns I ever sang as a young child after Vatican II.  The organist was Gerre Hancock and the recording was from late in his career when he was in Texas.

When I was an undergrad at Smith, I had a friend who was pursuing his Master’s in Sacred Music from Yale and who studied organ with Gerre Hancock. It was a great privilege to attend one of my friend’s lessons, held at St. Thomas Episcopal in New York City, and a rehearsal of the choristers there. St. Thomas was the place where he spent most of his career and established himself as one of the finest organists and choir directors of his generation.

Mr. Hancock, while prodigiously talented as a musician and teacher, was a kind, generous, and polite gentleman. I remember that he addressed me as Miss Corey, which was a surprise to me as a college student coming, as it did, from the one of the best church musicians in the country.

The recording I heard this morning was magnificent. It opened with an extended organ introduction and included an artful modulatory interlude. (The modulation reminded me of talking with my daughter T last weekend, who recalled her favorite description of modulation, as voiced by someone at our church, as “that thing you do on the organ and then everybody sings louder.”) While I know that Mr. Hancock was fully capable of improvising these, I expect that for the purposes of making a recording, he had actually composed them in advance.

When mass began this morning, our entrance hymn was “Holy! Holy! Holy!”

The Summons

Church yesterday was unexpectedly difficult.

Our younger daughter Trinity was with me, which is a rare occurrence in the last year as she has been away from home for grad school and a summer internship. She pointed out that we were singing some of our favorite hymns, including “The Summons” which we were singing for entrance. (Text is at link; other sources list the author as John Bell.)

I love “The Summons.”  I love its message and its challenge. I love Kelvingrove, the lilting Scottish tune to which it is usually sung. I loved singing it. I loved conducting it during the years that I volunteered as accompanist with our youth and junior choirs.  (I usually accompanied anthems, but conducted hymns.) “The Summons” was an important part of an ordination and first Mass weekend for a member of our parish ten years ago last June.

And that is the problem.

That momentous celebration weekend was also our last with that parish, which had been my church home for over twenty years, where our daughters were baptized and made their first Eucharist, where I volunteered extensively with the music ministry and liturgy committee, where our daughters sang and cantored and rang handbells, where “The Summons” was an important call to mission, where I felt called to serve.

And it all fell apart.

The gospel reading yesterday spoke to what had happened. Someone in authority had fallen victim to an obsessive and slavish regard for the “laws of men” at the expense of love, justice, mercy, and compassion.  I believe that this person suffered from mental illness, but our bishop, to whom we had appealed, would not protect us.

After the ordination/first Mass weekend, we left the parish in solidarity with a staff member who had been unjustly terminated after decades of service.

Ten summers ago, Trinity was transitioning from 9th to 10th grade, which meant that she was in the middle of a two year sequence to prepare for the sacrament of confirmation.  In order to continue, we joined a parish near her school, so that she would already know some of the other students in her confirmation class. The circumstances surrounding our departure from our former parish had been soul-crushing for all of us, but she was in the most vulnerable position. She considered not being confirmed at all.  In the end, she did decide to request confirmation, which involved writing a personal letter to the very bishop who had refused us his protection.   The parish confirmation director told me the letter was honest and powerfully expressed Trinity’s feelings about what had happened.

I’m sure it did. I never saw it. I think that Trinity wanted to spare me any additional pain.

“The Summons” became a painful reminder of what we had all lost. Whenever it came up at Mass during the first six years, I would cry through it, unable to sing. Gradually, as some healing occurred, I found that I could sing it again, especially once Trinity had graduated from college and was singing with the choir at Holy Family.

I thought I was finally over attaching pain to hymn.

Until yesterday.

I was thinking  – it’s ten years. Trinity is beside me, she is strong spiritually, and she is singing this beautiful song of mission which we both love.

And I started crying. Not enough that I wasn’t able to still sing, albeit tremulously and missing a phrase here and there.

Some tears of loss and pain. Some tears of gratitude.

And some tears right now, while writing this…

Corpus Christi in Honolulu

Flowers and cross

Aloha! Today, Catholic churches celebrate the solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, still often called by its Latin name Corpus Christi. This celebration is close to my heart because for the many years that I belonged to Blessed Sacrament parish, we celebrated it as our parish name day. Even though that is no longer my parish, I still feel a special connection to the day.

This year was special because I got to attend mass at St. Patrick Church in Honolulu, where my daughter E and her husband were married and where they serve in the music ministry. My son-in-law is away doing research for his doctoral dissertation, but I attended the 8:30 mass at which their choir sings. The assigned cantor wasn’t able to make it, so E stepped in to do it, which was a lovely bonus for me.

One of the things that drew my attention today was the crucifix, which is carved wood. I was thinking about how appropriate that the corpus on the cross is brown, because Jesus’s skin would have been brown. So often, Jesus is depicted with light skin, which a Jewish man living in the sun-drenched Mediterranean would not have had. I also noticed, as always, the colorful floral arrangement. One of the brothers at the monastery arranges the flowers from their garden every week.

Father C, who presided at E and L’s wedding, presided and preached today. I love how he can say so much with so few words. He used the image of an open hand receiving the host at communion to explain how we should be open to God’s love.

Father C has a tremor disorder, which causes his hands, especially his right hand, to shake markedly when they are outstretched. Yet, when he was praying the Eucharistic prayer and raising the host and the cup, he was able to still his hands.

I appreciated the opportunity to be there to celebrate this special day, with Beth leading us in song. I especially enjoyed singing “Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether,” a favorite hymn which I have not had the occasion to sing for several years.  The third stanza of the poem by Percy Dreamer begins:

All our meals and all our living
make as sacraments of you,
that by caring, helping, giving,
we may be disciples true.

Amen!