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Sunday, September 19, 2004

Polyphonic Bliss

(Last Sunday my friends and I went to Mass at Old St. Mary's, and I felt compelled to write about the experience. Unfortunately, the compulsion didn't make me any more punctual than usual... for which I apologize.)

Old St. Mary's is grey and gothic, rising vertiginously between the flat-roofed buildings on either side and making you notice the sky. Inside it is a very straightforward church. There are statues around the back of the church, and votive candles (electric ones, I noticed with a shudder), but there are no side chapels or mysterious recesses. With its slender gothic columns it is like a long straight road with a line of trees on either side. The walls are a pale peach color and the columns are painted to look like colored marble. The ceiling is dark rose over the sanctuary and blue over the nave, and all bound up with white gothic tracery. The sanctuary itself is an "inexplicable splendor" of white and gold - the intricately carved marble altar rail, the mosaic floor, the tiered steps running up to the high altar and aspiring reredos. It's an ideal setting for the traditional Roman rite.


We had gotten lost in the city and so we arrived late, and we came in crestfallen at the beginning of the Epistle. I had been to Old St. Mary's once before, for a Sunday morning Low Mass. The windows had looked dark and watery, as portholes in the nave - the navis, the ship - still washed in the ebbing tide of night. Dim blue light beaded in the aisles like a chilly dew.

But now the windows were glowing saffron with the light of the setting sun, their saints crowding forward, suddenly imposing in their startling brightness. The church was warmer and all its colors were quickened. The Solemn High Mass was unfolding at the altar. Little by little we lost our shame and disappointment in the wonder of it.

Plainsong came drifting down from the choirloft and we took up the familiar Credo from the Missa de Angelis. After that, the schola gave way and a second choir began a massive chord that sent chills down my spine. Fiat sonus... The ordinary of the Mass (excepting the Credo) was a polyphonic setting by some master of the Renaissance, and there was more of it during the Canon and during Communion. Overwhelming... I came out of Mass blinking back tears.

It seems to me that such music is a figure of God's grace. All I could think after hearing it was "Domine, non sum dignus." That I could hear this music! Music that really was "praying twice." Music so powerful that I couldn't imagine an unbeliever listening to it and wanting to remain apart from the Faith a moment longer, if only for the time that he was in the church. Music that could not be paid for, music requiring no entrance fee, music demanding only our reverence and our inner participation in its supplications. Music that, by soaring over everyday things, gave me an inkling of how much more glorious God must be than everything we know - than even the music itself. That was a Mass to remember...

There are times when I become resigned to the ugliness of rap thudding down the street, to bleak concrete buildings, to crudeness of imagination and stinginess in ceremony. I become embarassed at expecting anything better. And then this beautiful polyphony, so generous, so full of richness and dignity. It cheered me to think that this music wasn't outmoded by the passage of time, that it wasn't denied even to deracinated moderns like myself. It seemed to say to us, "You are not doomed to be children of your age. You are not estranged from your ancestors. You are one with your fellow Christians throughout time. Your lives have the same eternal significance, the same weight. The world is more wonderful and dangerous than you know, and God is greater than all of it." Oh, we say we believe all that, but the music makes you feel it in your bones.

Chant and Renaissance polyphony. I know that the world of liturgical music is wider than those two staples, but I could live on that stuff for the rest of my life...

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