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Stairway to Heaven

Presidential Blog by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia

Among church bloopers, this was always one of my favourites: "8 new choir robes are currently needed, due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones." This was only marginally more reassuring than the church bulletin that announced, "Today’s sermon: How Much Can a Man Drink? with hymns from a full choir." For as long as I can remember, music has always been a part of my church-going experience. As a young boy I marvelled at the power of Gregorian Chant, and had specific hymns that always made my heart sing. But it was our parish priest who helped me connect my own experience as a youth with the possibility of faith life, albeit through a failed experiment. I will never forget the day the priest hired a few of my friends to play what was ominously billed as the Electric Mass that left an entire congregation deaf for hours. I don’t think the priest ever imagined ‘Amazing Grace’ could be filtered through the heavy metal electric guitar riffs of Metallica.

In a recent book on St. Francis of Assisi by Lawrence Cunningham, I was surprised to read that in his misspent youth the saint had an "interest in subversive music". The author noted that Francis loved French chansons in particular, which in the 1100s meant songs about love and frolicking, war and heroic deeds. This got me to thinking about the role of music, both within and outside of faith, but also the ways that music has often both defined and defied "suitable" behaviour. As a young man, I remember my mother looking sourly at my interest in The Rolling Stones, and yet, not much earlier, she, like so many, had swooned over Elvis, so provocatively inappropriate at first that television stations refused to show him below the waist.

Music, youth and counterculture have always been linked. What appears scandalous now will surely be condemned as bland and dismissed by the next generation. But music, beyond this overly simplistic equation, abides. And it has been a deeply connected and controversial part of faith life as well. Mozart’s famous adaptation of Handel’s "Messiah", for example, so hated when first performed, is now unquestionably associated with sacred times and rightly understood to be a masterpiece. As J.S. Bach once noted: "Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with His gracious presence."

The Second Vatican Council specifically addressed the importance of music in liturgy in Musicam Sacram where we are told that there is nothing "more religious and more joyful in sacred celebrations than a whole congregation expressing its faith and devotion in song". Clearly they never heard me caterwaul. And while anyone listening to my teenage efforts to play "Stairway to Heaven" on the guitar would have run for the hills, for the most part music can be an enabling force, a community builder, and a pathway to spiritual understanding, even when we’re not all singing from the same song sheet. So, as St. Paul puts it, "Be filled with the spirit", and sing a song of praise.

 

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