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 why 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 vegetables 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 is 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.