Practising the presence of us II

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

More about how to participate in worship when you have a special role to play. In an earlier post, Practising the presence of us, we looked at distractions and anxieties that prevent you from attending to what’s going on throughout the service. But what about when carrying out your role physically prevents you from participating in a part of the service?

angelic musicians depicted on the Ghent Altarpiece

angelic musicians depicted on the Ghent Altarpiece

Instrumentalists and singers find themselves in this situation often. Recently I was to sing during a ritual that involved taking a small stone and laying it down. Before the start of the service, everyone was handed a stone; as I held a stone in my hand I realised that I’d be unable to participate in the same way. I handed it back, saying, “I’ll have to let the song do this for me.”

If I’d thought about it beforehand, I could also have let the song perform this act for me in the days in which I prepared and practised. The authors of Weekly Prayer for Music Ministers observe that “it is sometimes hard for choir members to fully participate in the ritual gifted to the community,” and advise:

If your contribution to the ritual is only through the song you sing, allow the words and notes to wash your feet, to become feast for your heart before you receive the Eucharist. Our need to be nourished is just as vital as those we minister to; be blessed uniquely as you sing.[1]

We could not only expect our preparation time with the music and the words to nourish us, but we could act to claim that nourishment as we practice.

It’s significant that the suggestion above is to let the music act on us, even though we might often think that we do all the work and the music is the product. The philosopher John Dewey recognised that art – if it is to be experienced fully – involves both doing and undergoing, in balanced relationship.[2]

There’s a clue here to a good way to approach practice if we want the music to nourish us while we prepare it. In the balance Dewey speaks of, there is an organic interrelationship between artistic making and aesthetic receiving [sensing]. It lies between the extremes of aimless indulgence and rigidly imposing ourselves on the subject matter. In other words, if you are too passive with the music, your experience is incoherent; and if you try to beat the music into submission, or if you approach it in a grudging way and avoid engaging with it, your experience is impoverished. At either extreme, the experience is robbed of meaning.

In balance, though, we work lovingly with the subject matter, and the feedback we receive as we do so enlivens our senses. It involves surrender, but requires us also to extend our energy into the experience. We exert skill and control, but we also yield ourselves when the music speaks back to us. This kind of practice would be an ideal channel for us, not only to prepare to minister to others when it comes to the hour of the service, but in the meantime to allow the music to minister to us.

Has your role in worship kept you from participating in parts of it? What ways have worked for you in meeting your need to be nourished?

[1] Mary Catherine Craige et al., Weekly Prayer for Music Ministers 2015 (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2014), 28.

[2] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Putnam, 1934).

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