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Report on Mr. Thomas Day's Book

John Kelleher

Land o'goshen! It's 2006, and I have recently been pondering the evidence that young, orthodox, believing, trying-to-do-the-right-thing Catholics have discovered the conveniences of thoughtlessness, the art of the prejudice, the consummate value of the sniff and the raised eyebrow, particularly accompanied by a reference to something written by a real author, and all the other instrumentality and characteristics of the knowledgeable, loving, truly faithful, sensitive, and discerning; in short, I have discovered that young Catholics can be just as full of dad-blamed foolishness as I was when I was a young fool, rather than the mature fool that I am now.

This is not A Good Thing, but the historical evidence is that it can not be helped. On the whole, forgetfulness in the young is vastly underrated as a social and religious good; we tend to underrate forgetfulness because it is so much more dangerous not to remember, and because we must always consciously take up the multi-generational burden of remembering, whereas forgetting is as natural as a leaf falling from a tree. Yet forgetfulness is wonderful in part because it requires the old to re-justify their antiquities to themselves in order to summon the energy to pass them on, thus sparing the young from some of them.

On the other hand, forgetfulness can rhyme with fecklessness; and none of us are immune. We will be rid of foolishness only on the last day, because there is no book with the answer to this question already written down: of all the things that our ancestors thought, which would be best to forget completely?

Without further ado, let me remind you young whipper-snapper Catholics: Yes, you are better than I am, and Yes, you are without a doubt holier than I am -- and I am serious -- but you are not necessarily smarter than I am.

So before you all begin referring to Thomas Day's book, Why Catholics Can't Sing, as something more than a Hallmark Card (as saying in a better way what you already feel); before every single blessed one of you begins to consider Mr. Day's essays to be definitive, incisive, penetrating, and learned, perhaps you might at least peruse the following, which I wrote to my pastors in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

In a way, dear hearts, it might be better for us all to be a certain kind of Orthodox; then we could all just say that the Sacred Liturgy came directly from St. John Chrysostom, and there the matter would end. But in the West we can just barely remember the immense quiet of centuries wherein the multitude of chants were composed, and dropped, and composed again, and finally 'stuck,' and the centuries in which they were nearly forgotten, and the great revival, both scholarly and practical, centered at Solesmes, and on and on, the great Masses and the lowly hymns, the nearly-unbroken tradition of American Catholic sentimental song, circa 1920 and circa 1970, and on and on, the work of prayer, contest, conflict, featuring saints and sinners, the craven and the creative, the weak and the strong, things that were unbearable, ugly, and wrong, and things that were great, beautiful, and right.

And most importantly, we usually got pretty much what we really wanted. In every generation, we -- approximately -- got the sacred music we deserved, and no matter how good it was, it was never, ever what He deserves.

Forget I said any of this. But somewhere inside you, don't quite forget.

You may also be interested in my learned development of the complete theory of Standard Quantized Singing Units.

Here follows a book report, very lightly edited, written for my pastors in the halcyon days when even the amoeba were young.

Report on Mr. Thomas Day's Book

Since both of you have talked about the book to me, I'll address this to both of you. This is also a way to thank you, Fr. [], for lending me the book. The first thing to say, I guess, is that the man's own grandfather was from Ireland, as is revealed in "that chapter". He also tells the story of his own family fleeing from church at the news that the next Mass was to be a High Mass. As I understand it, it's OK for the Irish to knock themselves, right? [Note to modern readers: my last name is Kelleher, and Fr. [] was Irish-American.]

Also, the book's provenance is in the main a bunch of magazine articles Day wrote over several years. You don't expect rigorous scholarship or blinding consistency with a provenance like that -- and you don't get it.

It's not clear to me that Day is really capable of such scholarship or such consistency, but I doubt he'll get to prove it, one way or another. In my view there exists no real scholarly community within which his insights and arguments could receive the kind of loving attention needed to nurture and correct them, and he himself says as much in the preface and in several other places in the book. He has been talking (maybe muttering) essentially to himself for years about it all, I imagine, saving up anecdotes, refining his bile, and he finally sent off some thoughts to a Catholic magazine, which were published, and he was off and running.

That's a pure, and maybe unfair, guess; but the whole book behaves like a socially-oriented person, too long separated from adult conversation, finally allowed a hearing: over-enthusiastic, inconsistent, trying to remember how this 'conversation' thing goes, struggling to be reasonable and judicious, handicapped by little recent experience of anyone being reasonable and judicious back.

The point of a scholarly community, from the individual scholar's point of view, is people who will really listen to what you say. And as von Bekesy (a physicist who became the 'parent' of the field of psycho-acoustics) liked to say, if you are very lucky, some of those people who are listening will hate what you say so passionately that they will make every effort to demolish your argument, piece by piece. In science, at least, that is wonderful, because then (continues von Bekesy) you have An Enemy: somebody who cares about your work maybe even more than you do, who will try like mad to see how close to the truth you've actually gotten. When the dust clears, von Bekesy concludes, you may even be disappointed to discover that your valuable Enemy has become a friend.

Day doesn't have any real enemies, people who are skillful enough and care enough to truly listen and powerfully demolish the things that are wrong with what he says (and thereby validate the things he says that are right). His common experience, as he says in the preface, is that the people who should be his enemies are too stupid or too unprepared or just too uncaring to really talk back to him, on the points he wants to talk about. For the purposes of discourse and investigation, he has no real enemies (though he has detractors); and I think he suspects that therefore (though he has admirers) he also has no real friends. And therefore, his arguments lack the consistency, refinement, and care forced on one when one is in a scholarly environment and can at least pretend that someone might really be listening.

That being said, what is he talking about? Well, it's a little hard to say. He is not (in my view, can not be) making a consistent, reasoned argument, since no human being can be consistent or reasonable without massive help, which only comes from interacting with a community of caring, skillful people. The best he can do is score points, scatter-shot. However, all in all he would probably find that what goes on at [the parish] is not too far off his mark.

He says, for example, there is "no other choice" (p. 106) than for parishes to be "liturgical boutiques" today, offering a variety of styles of music, including no music, at their masses, letting people find the mass that fits their style and even their mood. He basically thinks things are in the preliminary stages now, and he wants to make sure a lot of different things ('unity through diversity') are going on before the Musical Grand Consensus emerges (163). The thing he probably hates the most is people who say "never". Never sing chant, never Palestrina, never organ, never "clutter", never quiet....

He doesn't put it in quite this way, but he hints of some connection in impulse and world-view between all those whose pre- and pro-scriptions rely on the idea of a New Man, whether political, aesthetic -- or liturgical. Since the New Man is perfectly clear, understandable, logical, and congruent, and since there is only one way to be any of those, politics -- any way to disagree, really, whether individually or collectively -- becomes, not a process whereby people with real differences decide what to do, given their differences, but a question of "education": if people would simply understand what we are making them do/doing to them, they would agree with it. Of course, if they resist, we need to educate them even more passionately and persistently. If they still resist, they are invincibly ignorant, and perhaps main force is in order. Willful children need discipline, after all.

All in all, then, Day's basic impulses are: to respect diversity as truly Catholic and real and honorable [Note: the term 'diversity' had not yet been appropriated by unfaithful Catholics to mean 'dissent from Church teachings,' so I was free to use it -- and did use it -- in its ordinary sense, to refer to 'different ways to realize or express the same one, true, Catholic faith'. The 'experts' at the time were not into 'diversity'; they were into getting their way (cf. the previous paragraph).]; to see that what was necessary for salvation was present in the Catholic communities of the past as well as the present; to try to articulate what is good about both those past Catholic communities and other present ones he loves; to argue that the true Catholic impulse, of accepting that diversity is a necessary component of unity, also binds one to love (try to fit in, accept, celebrate) the admittedly different, admittedly imperfect, communities from our history; to argue for reasonableness and seeing what works over against unrealistic, unexamined, and possibly crypto-totalitarian theories; and to rip the living hell out of anybody who in deed or word does not really love diversity, or who in deed or word pretends the faith could scarcely have been present in the church and in the liturgy pre-1965, or who in deed or word prefers theories "about" people to people.

Of course, who really loves diversity? Tolerate would be more like it; and after all, at some point, to exclude is human, to include divine. No human community exists, as John Courtney Murray used to point out, without some common basis, within which argument can then take place. Still Day's basic impulse, however hard to achieve, is to love, to accept, to see the good in people, even the people you can't stand or don't understand. They may be trying to teach you something important you have forgotten or ignored. I admit it takes a very broad, very generous filter to find this in Day's book, which, detail by detail is full of criticism and some actual critique, rife with contradictions, anecdotal rather than discursive, and slip-shod in its scholarship. But this basically generous, reasonable, loving, accepting spirit is there; his attacks really arise out of the same impulse as a mother defending her cubs: something valuable is getting lost, or ignored, or vilified.

To give just an example of the problems with the book. Why don't Catholics sing? Because of a religious, social, and cultural breakdown of enormous proportions (3). Except that, they didn't sing in the "old days", but that wasn't any breakdown, that was the faith, expressed intensely just below the surface (THE chapter, passim).

They don't sing because they have very good reasons not to: the music is unsingable, it and the whole liturgical style is not "objective" enough, we have "lost the sense of ritual as a communal action" (44, sic). Of course, there are people who do sing the "unsingable" music, who "confuse objectivity with aloofness" (44), who don't respond to organ hymns, not because it's OK not to like that sort of thing, but because they are sick and confused, swept up in "the tendency to put 'me' in the center of the liturgical landscape" (51).

It is better that more people sing now than they did -- except when they're singing the wrong thing with the wrong music, then that's worse. And the old days, when almost nobody sang, that was worse, except, it was better because nobody was wrapped up in themselves at liturgies. And a lot of people still don't sing, and that's bad, except when people's refusal to sing shows just how stupid the music being sung really is -- then that's good.

Day even admits he himself deliberately has not sung certain songs at certain masses -- of course, he always has good reasons. If someone else decides not to sing a song Day himself likes, of course, it's Day's duty to discover what might be wrong with the poor sick soul.

What is wrong is that "objectivity" has been replaced by a liturgical style and a liturgical music which "oozes with indirect narcissism" (83). Of course, this narcissism has solid roots in the culture, which is the "breakdown" he talks about. It would be nice if someone could prove that a certain kind of music is "objective" and another is inherently "narcissistic", but it is a little hard to decide whether, say, C-sharp, is narcissistic or objective. So he mainly analyzes lyrics, not music (more about lyrics in a moment).

But I would be more confident that Day can demonstrate "objectivity" beyond "I know it when I see it" if his "good example of objectivity in place" (45) weren't such a bad example, even on his terms.

A reader of scripture at liturgy, says Day, should read in a neutral tone of voice, with no dramatic pauses, emphases, etc. Day simply asserts that these serve to amplify the reader, not the reading, and therefore they are narcissistic, not objective. Of course, Day would have no problem with chanting the text. The "words of ritual are artistically elevated in music" (33). He probably would not object even to a more elaborate musical setting of the text, even with accompaniment, a la Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

But he can't stand what is after all an essentially musical sub-text (changes in volume, tempo, pauses) added to spoken words. He finds it off-putting, and calls that "narcissistic", not "objective". How many people at [the parish] would have the same reaction to someone who sang a reading (especially not very well)? Day's example does not advance his argument. It does not help to define either "objective" or "narcissistic". It is merely, only, purely, an example of something which drives him nuts.

"Mr. Caruso", the solo amplified voice, discourages people from singing (52 passim). That is an hypothesis which could be verified or disputed empirically. One counter-example: Harry Caray grabs the microphone during every seventh inning stretch at Wrigley Field. That's the largest, most hyper-amplified voice ever. He starts singing, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game". The people at the ballpark sing their guts out.

"Mr. Caruso" singing by himself is putting on a show. But a choir singing by itself is "acting in the name of the assembly" (57). One voice amplified impedes congregational singing because people can't hear themselves sing. Full organ accompaniment, on the other hand, is an enormous help to congregational participation. It is presumably irrelevant that from time immemorial, organists have been drowning out their congregations -- almost, it might seem, as a matter of professional responsibility, part of the Organist Code of Ethics.

However, in Mr. Day's world, all organists are judicious, and all cantors, even those (and these are the vast majority) under the explicit control of the organist, are not. Or perhaps it is the amplification system itself, diabolically stuck on "maximum," which is truly at fault. As in many other instances, once one begins to probe beneath Mr. Day's complaints to his actual arguments, questions arise that are difficult to answer.

And should one refer delicately to the fact that nowadays, a large number of organs are electronically amplified? Then either the Amplification Rule applies and all these organs must be unplugged in the name of congregational participation, or Mr. Day has not quite put his finger on what exactly helps or hinders congregational singing.

A large and unstated assumption in Mr. Day's remarks in this section is that there exists an entity called "the congregation". There are not individual congregations, who (even if one could characterize each of them in the first place) might respond very differently to similar things; there is a convenient "they" whose responses are known and can be analyzed according to a particular theory, which theory is notable for not having a solid, rigorously tested, carefully empirical foundation. If you do this, "they" will sing; but if you do this other, "they" will not sing (or if they do anyway, "they" are psychologically immature). This is exactly the sort of reasoning Day himself rails against when it comes from the liturgical "experts".

In former times there was an "Unwritten Law" (57) that church composers followed: be creative, but do not clash with liturgical functions. But who actually decided when this "Unwritten Law" was being observed or violated? In fact, the "Unwritten Law" is a reification. Pastors, musicians, and people eventually arrived at something they all could live with; if they couldn't live with it, they fought, or left; that is the long and the short of the "Unwritten Law". Mr. Day just wants something heavy to hit over the heads of composers of church music he doesn't like. If there is an "Unwritten Law", and if Mr. Day is the one who gets to decide when it is being violated, it makes criticism of church music which even he admits at least some pastors and musicians and people like, much more -- convenient.

Day makes an enormous deal out of songs like "Here I Am, Lord", which has the congregation not only singing "I, I, I," (narcissism regnat) but also makes the congregation, in the verses, into the very Voice of God: "I the Lord of sea and sky...." Number one, he never explains who among the mere mortals present is actually appropriately anointed to do the Voice of God. Taken at the letter, Day's complaint disqualifies anyone from reciting, e.g., the Ten Commandments, which have the misfortune to begin, "I am the Lord your God...." Number two, he does admit that the Psalms, after all, have a lot of I, I, I, in them, but of course, in the old days the psalm a) was in Latin, and b) the music written to accompany the psalm "... would not sound like a presentation of individual 'I-me' emotions" (62). That's it; Q.E.D. The music Day likes sufficiently "distanced" the personalism of the psalm to make it suitable for public ritual; the music Day doesn't like doesn't have this effect. On anyone. Ever. People may assert to the contrary, but they're wrong, or maybe even ill.

If you don't see the big picture, it's all like this. Confused, contradictory, unrigorous, anecdotal -- a mishmash. In the end, though, it does come down to love. Day loves certain things about certain liturgies and certain musics past and present, and he wants to be in a church big and strong and caring and sensible and, well, Catholic, enough to make room for them, protect them, nurture them. In the end, he also sees that a church which makes room for the things he treasures will also be making room for things he doesn't exactly treasure, and, at the end of the Day (if you'll pardon me), that's all right with him.

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