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The Silent Night Effect, the Sacred Liturgy, and the Silences of Jesus Christ the Lord

John Kelleher

What do we think about while we are singing? What do we think about while we listen to someone else singing?

Whatever name we adopt for our conscious state while singing, or listening to singing, it may be a very different state from one we would consider normal; for I have reason to suspect we commonly make cognitive errors while singing or listening to singing which would cause us to be labeled mentally defective in most other contexts.

A case in point. As I write this, it is Advent, and the English translation of the Christmas carol, "Silent Night" comes to mind. This is easily one of the best-known songs in the United States. Can we even count the number of times each one of us has sung it, or listened to it sung? Yet I daresay few of us know what the song is about.

"About" meaning, "about in a textual or verbal sense". Let me represent on the page the way the first stanza registers on most of us:

Silent Night, Holy Night,
All is calm, all is bright.

Round yon Virgin, Mother and child,
Holy Infant, so tender and mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.

I hope you hummed along as you read it. The foregoing is an attempt to recreate the (as we shall see, exceedingly shallow) perception of the first stanza as I believe most people hear it. We hear the first two lines as connected to each other, the next two with each other, and the final two with each other. To paraphrase, it is a silent, holy night, where all is calm and bright. Near yon Virgin is the mother and child. The child is also the Holy Infant. Sleep in heavenly peace.

But wait a minute. How can the "mother and child" be "round yon virgin"? The virgin and the mother are the same person, aren't they? How can a person be near herself, who is "yon" (over there)? Here is a representation of the correct verbal meaning of the text:

Silent Night, Holy Night,
All is calm, all is bright round yon Virgin Mother and child.

Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

As can be seen, "all" is not calm and bright, only "all" that is "round yon Virgin Mother and child". Further, it is "Virgin Mother" (one person), not "Virgin, Mother" (two people!?). The line "Holy Infant" is direct address, speaking to the infant.

How can we have got so confused about a song we have heard so often? Clearly, no matter how many times we have heard it, the shallowness of our thinking (if we can even dignify it with that name) about the text of that first stanza never became manifest to us. (The present author assures you his own awakening about the matter came very late in life, and entirely by accident).

Is it possible that this is not an isolated incident? This is an important question. Can it be that there is something about setting words to music which, far from enhancing our comprehension of a text's meaning, actually works to cloud our understanding of it?

The question is important because it runs importantly contrary not to music in the Liturgy, a continuous tradition of worship in the Church that remains warmly recommended by the present bishops in communion with the Holy Father [CCC 1156-1158], but to our assumptions about it. It may be hard to find a single liturgical regulation, rite, or recommendation that has been promulgated with the argument that singing is good because it tends to make the text more obscure, and, what is more, makes it more obscure in an attractive way, so that we never notice that we have more or less lost our critical faculties. Can anyone imagine a directive from Rome to this effect:

We wholeheartedly support the practice of singing the sacred texts during the celebration of the sacramental mysteries, especially since the work of many eminent scientists has shown that such singing tends to make the faithful less aware of the true meaning of the texts by obscuring as it were the faithful's critical faculties.
In a moment, I will show that my example is not an isolated instance; that in another stanza of the very same carol, "Silent Night", is another example of a widespread misreading of the text. For now I will attempt to buttress an argument that putting music to a text may actively interfere with our understanding of it as a text.

There is a body of evidence within the field of cognitive psychology which suggests that what we remember of a text - a story, a homily, a reading - is its gist. In other words, we don't commonly remember exactly how it was said, we remember the point of what was said. When asked what Huckleberry Finn is about, we don't say, "You don't know me, without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer..."' and so on line-by-line to the end of the book; we give a more or less accurate synopsis of the plot. 1 Corinthians chapter 13 is about love. Father's sermon was about money. Generally speaking, we remember and understand a text from its gist, from What was said; and we remember only vaguely its form, exactly How it was said.

But is not our understanding, our memory, of music exactly the opposite? We remember music note-by-note; we don't commonly recall how to sing "Silent Night" by remembering the "point" of the melody and constructing our own version of it. How it goes, how "Silent Night" progresses from note to note, from moment to moment, is what we remember, and what people expect us to recall. It is quite proper to say "how does 'Silent Night' go?", but inappropriate to ask "how does Huckleberry Finn go?". We ask instead, "what is Huckleberry Finn about?".

It is possible (indeed, it is generally well-established) that doing whatever mental processing is necessary to attend to How something is said in many instances interferes with the mental processing necessary to determine What is being said. We only have so much attention to go around. Here is a reason that setting words to music might cause a dulling of what we commonly think of as our critical faculties - remembering what was said and making a judgment about its sensibleness. Any time spent attending to the music, in "How-mode", so to speak, may be time taken from "What-mode", wherein we encapsulate (and judge the sensibleness of) the verbal meaning of the text. We remember the How of "Silent Night", at the expense of the What.

This is not a scientific demonstration, by any means. But quick, what is "Silent Night" about? Do we even know - or do we need to sing the song in our heads from start to finish even to begin to answer that question? Do we not indeed sacrifice What for How?

Or consider a trivial extension of the present argument to another case in which How and What may conflict, memorized prayers. Quick, what is the "Hail, Mary" about? If your impulse is to recite it from beginning to end to give an answer, you may not "know", in the commonplace sense, what the "Hail, Mary" is about at all. You are remembering How it goes, not What it's about.

I promised another example from "Silent Night." "Beams" in the third stanza of "Silent Night" is - a verb! Here's how most people probably 'feel' the meaning of the third stanza of "Silent Night":

Silent Night, Holy Night,

Son of God,
[you are] Love's pure light.

[we see] Radiant beams [of light] from thy holy face,
With [at] the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

And here is a representation of the actual meaning of the text:

Silent Night, Holy Night,

Son of God, [direct address]
Love's pure light Radiant [love's pure light is radiant and it] beams [verb] from thy holy face,
With [at] the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

The "Silent Night Effect" is real. How and What do compete for our attention, and we have only so much attention to spare. More generally, the Silent Night Effect is only one example of divisions of attention inherent in the public worship of the Church.

For example, consider the Responsorial Psalm. Even if it is said rather than sung, so that no competition between words and music can result, its very form divides attention between remembering the response and listening to the psalm. Even if the response happens to be well known and no attention has to be diverted to recalling the text of the response while the verses are read, the interjected response automatically makes the overall meaning of the psalm harder to comprehend by regularly breaking up the reading of the verses.

There are large implications to these facts about the strengths and limitations of the human perceptual system. In the first place, the Silent Night Effect (which we are here defining to refer not only to the phenomenon whereby the addition of music to a text creates a competition for our attention between music and words, between How and What, but also and in general to our quite limited ability to attend to anything, and to any competition for our attention) stands in the way of any systematic effort to treat the sacraments as if they were "really" texts.

Even more generally, the Silent Night Effect makes mincemeat of any systematic effort to define the process of "clarifying" the Church's Liturgy as determining the 'point' or gist of each moment and then 'educating' the unlearned to comprehend that 'point.'

Yet to argue seriously in this way is fundamentally anti-sacramental, as if the sacraments required some firmer support than they themselves provide; and this is already to have found a different faith and different sacraments than those handed on by the Apostles and celebrated in the worship of the Catholic Church. So here I make explicit that the arguments herein are apologetic only, and are in no way attempts to buttress or protect the continual re-presentation of the sacred mystery of our redemption, which is its own, and our, sole buttress and protection. The Eucharist is its own protection, as surely as our Lord gives himself, Body and Blood, to his Bride.

The Silent Night Effect shows, just from a human point of view, the limitations of assumptions commonplace to much liturgical 'reform' promulgated by learned experts; two of those assumptions being that there is in fact, and not as a temporary abstraction, a 'point,' a What, to the liturgical actions of the Church, and that the purpose of liturgical 'reform' is to make this 'point' absolutely clear.

Even from a human point of view, the Silent Night Effect stands athwart any effort to reduce the Church's public worship to a 'point.' Over the last forty years, the exact content of that 'point' has been in dispute: some activists and scholars have assumed that the 'point' is historical, others have proposed that it is aesthetic, still others that it is political. Yet just by singing, or even hearing, "Silent Night" - let alone saying a prayer from memory, let alone proclaiming the Responsorial Psalm - we automatically prove that we are not given life in and through the Lord of History merely to comprehend, or manifest, or live out, a 'point' - historical, aesthetic, political, or any other.

Thus at the limit the Silent Night Effect proves that man is completely continuous with creation. We are not eternally-radiant pools of enlightened awareness, but rather, we are as continuous with creation as bread and wine. We are not 'most ourselves' in our 'intellection'; for our intellection is no special privileged 'spiritual' thing, and leads us to no special privileged 'spiritual' realm. The 'point' of the Sacred Liturgy is not intellectual, nor theological; neither is it historical, nor aesthetic, nor political. Indeed, the entire idea (however venerable) that Christ came to make a 'point' is contrary to faith. Otherwise the bishops in union with the Holy Father could not profess that

Christ's whole earthly life - his words and deeds, his silences and sufferings, indeed his manner of being and speaking - is Revelation of the Father. [CCC 516, emphasis original]
There is no 'point' - something more firm and true than He - to our Lord's Sacrifice. His very silences are freely meaningful. That is, they are not meaningful by being dependent or contingent on any other meaning or 'point' more eternal, more true, more firm than they themselves. To say it again, even his silences speak for themselves. There is nothing 'more true' than they, which necessitates or causes their meaningfulness.

Yet the Silent Night Effect asserts our creatureliness. Without reference to His Sacrifice, nothing about us speaks for itself. Our silences, even our singing - even our worship - does not self-create a 'point'. Jesus joined us in a world that in a fundamental sense, because of the Fall, no longer can speak for itself, no longer has a 'point.'

So, if our worship does not have a 'point,' is it thereby pointless? By being completely continuous with creation, are we thereby ridiculous? These are conundrums that for the honest pagan can lead only either to a 'celebration' of nothingness, of the Void, about which Nothing can be said, or to the subsumption of the One Sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, and all his sufferings, and all his silences - and (perforce) ourselves - into a 'point,' some Thing more eternal, more fundamental, more true, than our Lord himself and all his acts and Cross and Eucharist.

The agony of our complete continuity with terribly and decisively fallen creation can only be addressed optimistically in terms of the gratuity, the staggering freedom, of the Good Creation in Christ, and thus of our free redemption through his free suffering and death. So, every time we hear or sing "Silent Night," we find ourselves up against the mystery of absolute reality: "This is My Body"; "This is My Blood"; and we are free. Within the Eucharistic Event, and within it alone, obedience, rather than mere subservience, is possible, in the Blood of the Lamb.

Sadly, there may be even more here. There is a subtext to the arguments of many current liturgical experts, and to the writings of more than a few American bishops about the liturgy, a subtext in which there is a "point" to the liturgy, yet a point that is comprehended, perhaps not by any particular participant, but which is comprehended by the Master Watcher - one might say, the Chief Aesthetician, the Great Communicator, the Stage Director, or, as Aldous Huxley termed it in his sly transmogrification (in Brave New World), the "Arch-Community Songster."

A long time ago, the Master Watcher may have been thought of as God. This was gravely wrong, as it makes the worship of the Catholic Church into a detached Spectacle, and not an Event with her Bridegroom. To very directly extend St. Paul's relation of marriage to the relationship between Christ and his Church, the concept of a Master Watcher of the Sacred Liturgy is intrinsically pornographic, as it either assumes a distance between the Bride and Bridegroom that is a grave - a very grave - offense to their mutual and total self-donation, or it flatly assumes that Jesus is not really the Lord, such that another 'God,' the Father, is - to put this in the offensive terms it deserves - sitting on his throne, enjoying watching the Bride and His Son the Bridegroom (by the power of the Holy Spirit) getting it on.

Even worse, however, is the modern concept: we ourselves (if we are 'with it' enough) are the Master Watcher. The sacraments are a performance put on for Someone Special (perhaps, if we are 'with it' enough, ourselves) to watch. Thus we have to be 'careful' to 'have a quality liturgy'- meaning, a liturgy that the Arch-Community Songster would say was 'quality' if he happened to be watching it.

This is really the sum total of all efforts at 'liturgical reform' as efforts to create effects in ourselves. What they all come down to is the implicit insertion of a Master Watcher - ourselves individually or collectively, or another - who by Watching verifies that the intended 'points' have been made within the 'celebration.'

Leave aside the sheer protestantism behind this nominalization of ex opere operato, this implicit assumption that the sacraments are not sacramental unless we 'make' them so. Leave aside the implicit (if usually thoughtless) denial of the comprehensive nuptiality of the Most Holy Eucharist and its concomitant reduction to (someone's) pornography. Focus only on the unmitigated gall of these efforts. It is startling, but perhaps only if one has never read Brave New World, or a single thing by Dickens, Moliere, or Jane Austen.

They make sense in the least only under the assumption that the public worship of the Church is in fact not a Sacred Event of the Bride and Bridegroom (in which the very idea of a Watcher is more than merely absurd, it is gravely evil), but rather is a Spectacle, the property of the certifiably sophisticated, under the aegis of the bishop, and that the duty of sophisticates is to learn the proper 'point' of worship and to urge, and if necessary, enforce, the correct 'point' on everyone, lest - what? - the Lord will fail to appear? - a view that receives a kind of ghastly apotheosis in the two documents on the liturgy promulgated around the close of the twentieth century by a certain cardinal in a diocese on the West Coast of the United States, who in the first incorporates the Catechism 'by reference' and then gives it not another mention.

A long time ago, I knew variants of all those people. Ironically, these sophisticates were not sophisticated. Their artistry was questionable, their aesthetics out of date or even puerile, their politics naive, their theology glancing, their science non-existent. A single honest hearing of "Silent Night" would have given the lie to their entire project, such as it was. And yet, for such a long time, I wanted to be them. As the Liturgical Coordinator in a parish, I wanted to be the Chief Watcher in my own little bailiwick, to Watch the liturgy done by My People, and to See that it was Good.

The real horror of all of that - the sheer blasphemy, and I mean that literally - only very gradually dawned on me. I am very ashamed. I was too small-potatoes, too little of the Noble Artist, and too much of the honest tradesman rendering a service, to have done much harm; but I am ashamed of my temptations, and grateful that, mostly by accident, I did not too much yield to them.

I am also very aware that the practical alternative to these people very often were people who would be quite happy to eliminate the singing of "Silent Night", once I had proved to them that it couldn't possibly have a 'point'. For them, too, the Mass seemed to exist to make a 'point' - only for them it wasn't bodily, historical, aesthetic, or political, but intellectual or theological.

In fact, it was quite extraordinary to see people who formerly had been entirely on one side, by magic suddenly appearing on the other side. Looking back, I realize that for them it was still all about a 'point'. The point had changed from intellectual to bodily, but it was still a 'point.' The Eucharist was not a free Event, the impossible possibility of joining with our Lord as He gives Himself in our time right now in a perfect sacrifice to the Father. It was a 'point.' My all-time favorite example of this particular transformation is the canon lawyer who came up to me (the musician) after Mass and explained that if I "understood the theology" I would understand why the song "Amazing Grace" should not be sung at the end of Mass.

I said, "Yes, Father."

Sometimes now when I sing "Silent Night," I remember just how continous with the beasts I am. I am quite continuous with the ox and the ass in the stable, quite continous with the bread and wine that is being Offered as I sing. I know a great deal more now about how men arrange physical things symbolically - neurons, rocks, pencil marks, universities - to help them think and remember beyond their immediate physical means, but I still don't know what "Silent Night" is about. I still have to sing through each verse in my head, re-encounter it, to pretend that I 'know' what "Silent Night" is about.

We do not need to be angels. We do not need to be anything more than exactly what we are, if His silences speak for themselves, if He is Risen as He said, if "This is My Body" means exactly what the Catholic Church forever professes that it does. The thing that separates me from the beasts is not my 'intellection,' but my sins. That is something they can not do; and something I have done, over and over. And yet even in my sins I can find Him, for who but He by the power of the Spirit gave us by His Coming the terrible freedom to turn from his Father, the tears and the sacraments to return to Him, and the wonderful grace, even as we remain entirely limited and yet (in Him!) Good creatures, to sing "Silent Night" in union with his Bride the Church's worship in spirit and truth?

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