Crap speaks to crap: Conjoined twins in liturgical music

As a bona fide music snob, I’ll open by sheepishly admitting that I kind of like the Dan Schutte’s “Gloria.” Yes, the My Little Pony one. It’s not very good music, but it’s fun to sing, and it’s cheerful, which, mysteriously, not all Glorias are.

If you missed the fun when it came out, here’s the Gloria side by side with the MLP song:

I feel pretty strongly about lousy church music, but I also feel pretty strongly that, when there’s nothing you can do about the music, that’s your signal to be glad the sacraments are efficacious no matter how many banjos are present.

However, I woke up this morning mit brennender sorge about “Shepherd Me, O God.” Specifically, in my head it kept merging in and out of a song which I believe to be its aesthetic equal: “I’m Moving On” by Yoko Ono. Have a listen:

and here’s its spiffy little twin:

EH? EH? And yes, this is the one where she makes that coughing bird noise at the end! Haugen, take note.

Speaking of moving on, here’s “Come Sail Away” by Styx:

and HERE is its soulmate, “We Are Called”:

But wait, there’s more! “Pure Imagination” sounds like this:

which, if you’re patient, melds seamlessly with this:

What else? How about “Gather Us In”

which is clearly keeping a secret “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” locked up in the attic?

Now we’ll switch things up a bit and start with a small little turd of a worship song: “Lord Reign In Me”

and here’s what happens when you write this same song, but not turdly:

In conclusion, I’d like to point out that “Go Make a Difference”

is almost indistinguishable from this:

and I would be happy to sing it at Mass. Because it speaks to me! Who are you to say that it doesn’t belong at Mass, if it speaks to me? Pbbbbbbt.

Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=490547

When is parish shopping fair game?

There’s such a thing as deciding to get over yourself, and remembering that the Mass is not about you. But we can also understand our own limitations, and work with them. You could make the case that it’s all right to leave one parish and find one that suits you better, even if you don’t have impressionable children.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

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Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

Making ashes out of you and me

What a shame that Ash Wednesday comes but once a year. For many of us, that’s the only opportunity we have to experience what many people consider the lyrical poet Thomas Conry’s masterwork. Let’s take a closer look.

The first lines are something of a ruse, are they not? Listen:

We rise again from ashes,
from the good we’ve failed to do.
We rise again from ashes,
to create ourselves anew.
If all our world is ashes,
then must our lives be true,
an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

We are lulled by the conventional rhyme scheme, ABABABB, into expecting that the theme will be conventional, as well.  The speaker cannily completes the rhyme by using the same word, “ashes,” three times, as if to signal, “Nothing new here, no  particular reason to pay attention.” Even the finial sounds of the words, “ashes,” “do,” “ashes,” “anew,” and once again “ashes,” followed by “true” and “you” — do you hear it?  the “sh” followed by “oo” . . . it almost sounds like the soft, untroubled breath of a sleeper. “Shh . . .ooo.”  Our narrator appears almost to be snoring, does he not? He is deliberately lulling us to sleep.

But a surprise awaits us in the second stanza.

We offer you our failures,
we offer you attempts,
the gifts not fully given,
the dreams not fully dreamt.
Give our stumblings direction,
give our visions wider view,
an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

Gone are the soft sibilants of the previous lines, and instead, we are confronted with deliberately jarring plosives (/b/ /p/ /t/ /d/) in  “Gifts not fully given, / … dreams not fully dreamt.” Not fully, indeed.  The very percussive violence of the sound is a statement:  the speaker has awoken, and he is in distress, perhaps stuttering and spluttering like a confused patient who was supposed to be etherised upon a table, but they ran out of ether. “Give our stumblings direction,” he haltingly pleads – but then subsides again into the inarticulate vagueness, perhaps experiencing a swollen tongue:  “give our visions wider view,” he mouths with a wagging jaw, in an achingly poignant parody of the semi-conscious man struggling to make sense of a world where significance seems always to be verging on the horizon.

Notice that in this second stanza, the rhyme scheme has subtly shifted from the pedestrian ABABABB to the chaotic and freewheeling ABCBDEE. This indicates that the speaker is confused.

The third stanza seems to find the speaker in a contemplative mood, lapsing again into what appears, at first, to be conventional, even clichéd imagery:  rising from ashes, sunshine turning to rain, and so on:

Then rise again from ashes,
let healing come to pain,
though spring has turned to winter,
and sunshine turned to rain.
The rain we’ll use for growing,
and create the world anew
from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

But what are we to make of those troublesome conjunctions “then” and “though”? They can’t merely be metric placeholders, can they, with no intrinsic significance?  Don’t you believe it. Every syllable in this concise little jewel of a work is freighted with meaning. Some of the meaning is so subtle, it would wither under the strong light of scrutiny, much like a seedling which is brought to light in the springtime which, in an unprecedented meteorological event possible only in poetry, turns to winter, and then is sunny, and then rainy, and then becomes ashes, or possibly used to be ashes. Delicate seedlings just can’t take that kind of abuse; and so it is with conjunctions in the hands of the poet Conry. Exquisite.

And now the tour de force:  the final stanza.  Here we discover at last the full blown expression of the hints and murmuring suggestions sprinkled like so many ashes throughout the rest of the poem.  The speaker proclaims in triumph:

Thanks be to the Father,
who made us like himself.
Thanks be to his Son,
who saved us by his death.
Thanks be to the Spirit
who creates the world anew
from an offering of ashes, an offering to you.

Do you see?  Do you see?  It was the ashes all along. Ashes!

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This essay originally ran in the National Catholic Register at some point, I forget when
photo credit: mkorsakov Asche via photopin (license)