In South America, music means something different. The melodies here gently sail from the delicate accompaniment a guitar, and channel human passion. When listening to the dance of fingers over the strings of a guitar, one begins to wonder, “Is it the cool of the night that causes the guitarist to play, or the guitarist who is causing the night to become cool?”
I arrived in Asunción, Paraguay today, where I am staying with old friends. This the second time that I have come to Paraguay, and a welcome embrace at the airport made me feel right at home. After greetings with my host family, and a few deep breaths to calm the mounting fear that I have of actually have in actually having to speak Spanish for the next four months, I spent a brief period of time putting together my pictures from the past two weeks in Brazil. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view my pictorial of all the parishes I visited in Brazil by clicking here.
I concluded the evening by attending Mass at the Shoenstatt Santuario de Jovens in Asunción, and am currently sitting in the Santuario during a late evening choral rehearsal which is accompanied by a chorus of guitars, gently intoned, hence my nostalgic meditation on the splendor of music.
American Catholics tend not use a great deal of music during our daily worship, at least in comparison to the rest of the world. I’ll never forget the first time I went to a daily Mass in Germany. The organ started pounding… and pounding… and five minutes into an enthusiastic fugue, people started singing. This was just an ordinary day for the German faithful, but I felt as if I was drenched in a torrent of music.
“Whew!” I thought to myself, “I guess that’s the way they do things here.”
Similarly, it is interesting to venture into the depths of Africa, where there are no organs, save small electronic pianos that provide a synthesized amalgamation of pop inspired harmonies to simple melodies. It is more typical to find a chorus of four or five drummers pounding out a polyphony of rhythm* under the rich voices of an African congregation.
(*OK… all of my music friends, just chill out, I know that polyphony and rhythm are different concepts all together, but I wrote what I meant… we can discuss the use of mixed concepts when I get home.)
But America Catholics are not so tolerant of the potentials of music in worship. There are many Catholic congregations defiantly curse one another for their different style and tastes. “Oh! You go to the ‘guitar’ Mass… I’d rather pray with the Catholics at the organ Mass!” “Oh… I don’t like the choir at the ten o’clock Mass, their belching tones make the Mass unbearable… I go to the morning Mass where no one sings. There I’m not as disturbed.” And “Why do we have to sing those Spanish songs? Church music should remain like we’ve always had in church… the music of the St. Louis Jesuits.”
Choosing which Mass to attend in many United States parishes has become an activity similar to choosing which flavor of ice cream a person likes. But since when does preferring Strawberry justify cursing anyone who likes Chocolate? The illusion that music is a just a choice with rights and wrongs has caused grave injury to the gift that music is to us in our worship. It saddens me that I know more than one person, and pastor, who will gladly write a letter the bishop asking for the excommunication of anyone who plays a guitar at Mass.
Such people should come to Paraguay.
It is hard to sit here, and not respect what an extraordinary place the guitar has in assisting us in the worship of God as the gentle arpeggio of the guitar lifts even higher the poetic beauty of prayer,. In Spanish, there is no word for “playing” a guitar. The musician does not play the instrument. The musician, “touches” the instrument. To play the guitar is said “Toca la guitara.” It literally means “to touch the guitar.” The difference, even in the words used to describe the activity, is significant. The touch of the guitarist transcends our isolation and somehow… touches the heart.
“Fertile are our hearts, where Christ is kept, and we put in them a small, humble, fervent fire of love. United in the strength of the Spirit. We offer you our hearts, O Lord. We collaborate with your plan. That the fire touching my soul may transform he bread and wine in the undivided devoted altar in my heart and bring abundant life.” These words are a bit cumbersome in English, but flow effortlessly when sung in Spanish, touched by the guitar that leads them.
The difference in music evident only a couple hours into my visit to Spanish-speaking Latin America, has reminded me that I am once again in a different part of the world, where different gifts by God are given to the people to be used in a different way. In Paraguay, it would be awkward to feel the overwhelming vibrations of the organ penetrate one’s body like happens in Germany, or feel the animated rhythm of drums one hears in Africa. For some reason, the mellowness of “touch” is all that is needed here.
In the argument of who is right and who is wrong in their style and preference of worship, there seems to be a key component missing in the conversation.
What gives glory to God?