3- Mystagogy (Singing the Mass)

Sacramental aesthetics

The 1-hour course on “Sacramental Aesthetics” is the first in a series of five on the “Theology of Beauty and the Sacred Liturgy” online class at the Liturgical Institute.


“Sacramental Aesthetics is the perception of spiritual realities.”

“Beauty is the revelation of the fullness of Truth.”

“We call a thing beautiful when it reveals its ontological truth” .

Note: If you are familiar with Thomas Aquinas’ definition of beauty as the intersection of Consonancia, Integritas and Claritas, notice the parallels: Beauty is the revelation (Consonancia) of the fullness (Integritas) of an ontological truth (Claritas).

Dr McNamara gives a simple definition of “ontological truth”: to add “-ness” to a word. For example, the “giraffeness” of a giraffe. “

“Ontological reality resides in the mind of God. ”

“Imagination is the faculty of representing to oneself sensible objects independently of an actual sense impression.”

“At Mass, the priest makes Christ present. “

“God is unknowable, but in the incarnation made himself present. Every sensible act in the liturgy must aim to make present the invisible reality of God. “

“Foundations of the Catholic liturgy:

The Incarnation:          matter can reveal God.

The Transfiguration:  matter can reveal the glory of God. “

Chant orders the soul

The effect of music is the internal harmony of the soul. This notion was expanded by Boethius in his definition of the three kinds of music: heavenly music, human music, and sounding music. Sounding music allows us to order human music, the internal motions of our souls; since they may have become disordered, music provides a model of order, of internal order. But what is even more important, those two kinds of music reflect heavenly music, the so-called music of the spheres. (…)

All of this is epitomized by the order of music. Various musics represent various kinds of order: chant represents the order of human speech, especially that of the scripture, and of the order of liturgical actions. Polyphony represents the order of the cosmos in the mutual coordination of parts, as well as the internal order of the soul. But in all of these, there is a harmony implicit: in chant, the harmonious relation of the pitches of melody; in polyphony, the purposeful order in the layout of polyphonic parts in imitation; in harmonized music, the directly perceivable simultaneous harmonies. In each of these cases, the listener internalizes the perceived harmonies, modeling his affections upon those of the music. When these harmonies are intrinsic to sacred compositions and when they set sacred texts, the ordering of the “courses of the soul” is a part of the liturgy, directing us to the worship of God.

“Why the liturgy should be sung” article by William Mahrt, July 2019

How is “human music” the motions of our soul? How does it reflect heavenly music? How is chant the order of human speech? Below are examples.

The Latin word for “breath” is spiritus. Breath and spirit are intertwined. This is why every religious practice in the world involves the breath (ex: Yoga, Zen meditation,..). When we train our body to control our breath, we align our will to the Spirit. Breath support and control are at the foundation of all beautiful singing. (see also “Quotes from Lamperti“).

When we sing a melody “a-cappella” (without the help of an instrument), the musical intervals that create that melody are pulled from inside ourselves, yet these intervals recreate the proportions that God created in the Cosmos. For example, the interval called a “perfect fifth” represents the proportion 3:2 (for details, see Wikipedia on Pythagorean intervals)

When we chant the Mass, our only raw materials are our breath (Spiritus) and the Word (Logos). Nothing can be simpler, clearer, and yet full of overtones. Our speech becomes rightly ordered.

Reordering our passions and the Liturgy

If it has been made adequately clear that in the ascetical tradition the word pathos (“passion”) usually means a disordered desire, then it should be equally clear that we cannot translate its opposite, apatheia, by the English word apathy. “Apathy” has come to mean inertness or indifference deriving from a general lack of interest, and the liturgical ascetic is certainly not apathetic about the redemption of creation and mankind and himself.
This is as true for the secular ascetic who remains in the world as for the desert ascetic who leaves it. In the ascetical tradition, the passions are whatever distort the image of God in anthropos, therefore the true opposite to pathos is an undistorted, proper, ordered relationship between God, spirit, body, and cosmos. “The word itself (apatheia] is indeed taken from the Stoic philosophers, where it had a long and venerable history…. It was taken over by the Christians early, long before Evagrius. Indeed, it was used by the most orthodox of Fathers and was applied to Christ himself. Ignatius of Antioch is the first to employ it in this way.”(John Bamberger, introduction to The Praktikos) (p102)

[Maximus] is aware of the danger of an apatheia that is merely disinterestedness: apatheia must be a purified love. He seeks to prevent misunderstanding here with his very definition of passion: “passion is an impulse of the soul contrary to nature” (Centuries on Love II.16). The
passions to be expelled are those that are contrary to nature: there are natural passions that are perfectly proper. Apatheia, then, is the restoration of what is natural (that is, what is in accordance with unfallen nature). But Maximus goes further than this. For him, detachment from the irrational parts of the soul is the aim of ascetic struggle, but only so that, in their purified state, they can be reincorporated in the whole human being, itself consumed by a passionate love for God. It is not so much detachment, as sublimation: “When the human intellect is constantly with God, the desire grows beyond all measure into an intense longing for God and the incensiveness is completely transformed into divine love” (Centuries on Love II.48). (From Louth, Maximus the Confessor, 41) (p 104)

The nearer the saint comes to apatheia, the more he or she is at peace with creation. There is much talk these days about the sacramentality of creation, which is fine enough, but recovery of the world’s sacramentality cannot be thought to rely on cognition alone, without askesis. It will require a liturgical asceticism. The restoration of sacramentality will not come from education, it will have to come
from uprooting the passions, since creation did not cease to be sacramental to Adam and Eve because they became stupider, but because they became passionate. (p 126)

Liturgy, theology, and asceticism interpenetrate. (1) Asceticism that is liturgical-theological is a battle with the passions so that we might be prepared for theological encounter with God. (2) Liturgy that is ascetical-theological works an adjustment in the mind that prepares the subject for theological encounter with God. (3) Theology that is liturgical-ascetical is the presence of deifying power whereby we experientially know God. These are three atoms in one molecular structure: remove and will not have the same Christian molecule. And if any element is isolated from the other two, it will no longer be the same, either. When the three are connected at the molecular level, then asceticism is more than morality, theology is more than a human science, and liturgy is more than human religious ceremony. (P 163)

On Liturgical Asceticism – David Fagerberg

In our church music ministries, instrumentalists, not singers, are usually in charge. This seems paradoxical when the voice is so central to the liturgy (“the Word”). But instrumentalists are generally better musicians: they practice more. Practicing a musical instrument is a form of asceticism (from askesis, practice). To chant the Mass, singers must step up and take charge. This requires apprenticeship, then practice. A lot of practice.

To acquire this conscious knowledge of mental and physical phenomena of song demands the utmost searching introspection.
Do not listen to yourself sing! Feel yourself sing!

Giovanni Battista Lamperti “Vocal Wisdom”

Singing the Mass does not require unbridled passion for the music we hear. Rather, it requires searching introspection. Practice (askesis). Chant grows from silence.

%d bloggers like this: