On October 14 Austrian sky diver Felix Baumgartner broke the world’s record for free fall, jumping from a capsule attached to a helium balloon nearly 25 miles (128,100 feet) above the earth. Baumgartner not only broke the world’s record for the highest jump, he also broke the record for the fastest speed ever attained by a human in free fall – 834 miles per hour!
Baumgartner had done many dangerous jumps before: from cliffs, bridges, buildings and extreme altitudes. But none of them terrified him as much as his jump from the edge of space. The thing that frightened him the most was the sheer altitude. When he finally landed, the first thing he said was how good it was to be home again.
Most people have no interest in sky diving – from any height. Most of us prefer solid ground where we feel safe and secure. Heights make most people nervous, which helps explain, I think, why Mass often comes across as banal. Reaching for the stars sounds good in theory, but when it comes down to it we’d much rather keep our feet on the ground, liturgically speaking. That’s one reason why so-called ‘mega-churches’ are so popular – they look and feel just like a movie theater or a mall.
For the last 40 years or so, the horizontal dimension of worship in almost every Catholic parish has prevailed, while the vertical dimension has nearly disappeared. The accent has been on the people rather than God. The reason for accentuating the horizontal dimension was a noble one to be sure. It was meant to foster a greater sense of community, something many parishes lack. But here’s the thing: when the transcendent element is missing, there’s nothing to build a community on. Strengthen the transcendent and you strengthen the community. The Year of Faith is meant, in part, to correct this imbalance by accentuating the centrality of God and the transcendent dimension of life.
The vertical axis of worship is primary and should take precedence over the horizontal dimension. After all, the vertical beam of the cross supports the horizontal beam, not the other way around. If faith is to be elevated and the unity of the Church strengthened, we need to restore a much greater sense of the transcendent at Mass. And quickest way to do that, I believe, is through music, specifically through Gregorian chant.
The implementation of the new Roman missal, which has been in use now for a year, has greatly helped restore a sense of the sacred. Liturgical language is different from the language of the marketplace. The same is true for music which is, after all, a form of language too. If the musical language of the Mass is indistinguishable from the musical language in the marketplace, there’s little chance that it will lift us up out of ourselves and the quotidian realities of ordinary life. We live and die on earth, but we’re made for heaven. We’re destined to live among the stars. Whether it’s the “ordinary” or the “extraordinary” form of the Mass, every Mass should be out of this world. The Mass is the only place on earth where we get a foretaste of heaven.
The problem with contemporary society is that we’ve lost a sense of the transcendent. Life in the modern world has become increasingly two-dimensional, flat, fat, morbid and mundane. The only thing that excites people nowadays is sex and technology. Come to think of it, there’s not much difference between the two, except that technology really is exciting while sex has become monotonous and medicinal. Nothing’s left to the imagination. There’s hardly any magic or mystery left anymore. Technology at least has that going for it. We may unfortunately happen to live in a ‘flat earth society’ but that doesn’t mean we have to join the club.
We live in the world but we belong to Christ and His Church. “Since you have been raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). As Curtis Martin says “we’re not meant for comfort; we’re meant for greatness.” We’re ‘high altitude’ people. As Coloradans, we should know that.
Holy Mother Church has said repeatedly that Gregorian chant is the music especially suited to the Mass and should be given pride of place. But that’s rarely the case. Most parishes shun chant. Why? Because it’s more difficult to sing? Hardly. Chant is much easier to sing than many contemporary songs that are standard fare. And because of its simplicity, chant facilitates greater participation, which was one of the main goals of Vatican II. So why is chant shunned? Here’s my theory: It’s strange. It’s lofty. It’s from the edge of space; another world. People feel uncomfortable with chant for much the same reason they’re nervous about looking over a 1000 foot cliff or jumping out of an airplane or even just getting up on a ladder.
Chant takes us out of the ordinary world. Chant is obviously about God; obviously sacred; obviously transcendent. And that can be scary. As the letter to the Hebrews says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). Staying at lower elevations and keeping our feet on the ground is obviously more comfortable. But we’re not meant for comfort; we’re meant for greatness. Liturgy is meant to lift us up into the rarefied atmosphere of heavenly things and not be afraid.