No, I’m not talking about Salsa or the Tango.
Growing up, my exposure to Sacred/Latin Liturgical Music was very limited. I never heard it in Catholic School, most definitely. The only one that I remember is the Tantum Ergo that was sung during Holy Hour to which my mom dragged me every First Friday. Being part of the choir, there would be the occasional Latin piece, (the one that comes to mind is a song we sing at Christmastime that goes Hodie Christus natus est, which to this day I do not know the meaning of), but I paid more attention to my part in the harmony, and pronouncing my C’s as CH’s, J’s as Y’s, rather than praying with the song, or even bothering to find out what the words actually meant.
But over the years, I’ve somehow come to appreciate listening to, and singing, Sacred Liturgical Music. Considering myself a musician, I find it a blessing that I have the capacity to appreciate different genres, classical music included. But more than talking about the beauty of the melodies of these songs (they aren’t considered classics for nothing), allow me to make a short list of reasons why I can close my eyes and easily lose myself in Latin Music.
Because they’re old. And because they’re old, they carry so much history. How many saints have sung this very hymn, and have had encounters with the Divine while praying it? Just as Church Tradition ties us with centuries of believers, these songs help us stay connected to our Church’s past, as well as our Church’s universality (our being catholic!). Now, I’m not one to oppose the use of more modern music inside the church. But just as newer, contemporary songs have a place in liturgy, there must be a place kept for Sacred Music. They are a part of our History, the same one that dates back to the time of the apostles, and sets us apart from all other Christian denominations. Would we really let this part of our Tradition die without giving it a chance?
Sacred Music not only carries centuries of Church history, but it can bear our personal history as well, if we let it. I remember a college professor telling us a story of this bureaucrat who had spent many years abroad. As he was welcomed in yet another country for a visit, they played the Philippine National Anthem in a simple ceremony. Unexpectedly, he found himself crying as the band played the familiar march. When asked for the reason behind his tears, he replied, “I remembered my country, and all my fellow Filipinos whom I have left behind. I cry in shame for not having done enough for my people.” Music, if used repeatedly and appropriately, can trigger memories that can subsequently stir our emotions. I mentioned earlier the context in which I used to sing Tantum Ergo as a child, and to this day, I get goose bumps whenever I hear it sung (not often enough, I’m afraid). Because it tells me it’s time to bow my head because Christ is physically before me, that it is time for reverent adoration.
Because they’re unusual in this day and age. And because it’s not something most of us are used to, it takes extra effort on our part to use it in prayer. It is a formal language, set to formal music. And sometimes, I think we need a little bit of formal when praying to the God of the Universe. Does He not deserve that little extra effort? (I’ve written a previous post about involving our whole beings in celebrating Mass. You might want to revisit that post here.)
Because they’re Sacred. Years ago, I was invited to attend a “closed” retreat, which is essentially a weekend where you’re not allowed to speak with anyone (even during meals). I wasn’t at all intimidated by the thought of silent prayer for a whole weekend; in fact, I was quite excited to dive into it. But this congregation (not “charismatic,” let me be clear) apparently had a different way of conducting silent retreats than what I was used to. Where I expected to sit down for a short talk that would give some sort of guide for prayer, then be given time for personal prayer at a sacred space of my choosing, I found myself following a strict schedule of communal prayer–rosary, way of the cross, bible reflection (led by a priest–he was the only one reflecting), rosary again, confession, rosary again, spiritual reading (retreatants taking turns reading aloud from a book), and a final rosary before going to bed. As we said our last prayers together at around 9PM, I was excited to get some personal prayer in at the chapel. Barely 5 minutes into my time alone, the facilitator gently taps me on the shoulder, “Lights out in 10 minutes.” Great.
Not that I have an aversion to traditional prayers and hymns. But I must admit, having a whole weekend FULL of tradition was something different.
A song I learned during the course of that retreat was the traditional music to Regina Coeli. At this point, I hadn’t really memorized even the English text of this traditional Easter prayer, but I knew enough Latin to know that this was about Mary, our Queen. So as I settled in my room to pray when I got home that weekend, I excitedly said to Mary, “Oh, I learned a new song for you, and it’s in Latin! I don’t really understand it, but let me sing it for you. Here goes!”
Regina coeli…(sniff)…Laetare…(sob, sob)…Alleluia…
I couldn’t even get through the song. Suddenly, Mary was undeniably there beside me, just as excited to listen as I was to sing this song for her. These songs, these prayers, have been set apart, made holy, and have stood the test of time because of that.
I guess what I really want to say in this post is this: Give Sacred Music a chance. I’ve seen and heard many who just automatically shut down at the first sound of a song sung in Latin. At once, they’re distracted, impatient, uncomfortable, perhaps even rolling their eyes in exasperation. To them I’d like to say: try to imagine your favorite saint having sung this very song, or how it has called millions to prayer over the centuries, or how this music has been touched by the very hand of God, anointed by His Spirit. Instead of closing your mind and heart, try closing your eyes, and give the music a chance to move you, and transport you to heaven.
You don’t have to be a lover of music, just a lover of the God the music is about. And sometimes, that’s all you really need.