Saturday, September 13, 2008

Regio Dissimilitudinis

" For Benedict, the words of the Psalm: coram angelis psallam Tibi, Domine – in the presence of the angels, I will sing your praise (cf. 138:1) – are the decisive rule governing the prayer and chant of the monks. What this expresses is the awareness that in communal prayer one is singing in the presence of the entire heavenly court, and is thereby measured according to the very highest standards: that one is praying and singing in such a way as to harmonize with the music of the noble spirits who were considered the originators of the harmony of the cosmos, the music of the spheres. From this perspective one can understand the seriousness of a remark by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who used an expression from the Platonic tradition handed down by Augustine, to pass judgement on the poor singing of monks, which for him was evidently very far from being a mishap of only minor importance. He describes the confusion resulting from a poorly executed chant as a falling into the “zone of dissimilarity” – the regio dissimilitudinis. Augustine had borrowed this phrase from Platonic philosophy, in order to designate his condition prior to conversion (cf. Confessions, VII, 10.16): man, who is created in God’s likeness, falls in his godforsakenness into the “zone of dissimilarity” – into a remoteness from God, in which he no longer reflects him, and so has become dissimilar not only to God, but to himself, to what being human truly is. Bernard is certainly putting it strongly when he uses this phrase, which indicates man’s falling away from himself, to describe bad singing by monks. But it shows how seriously he viewed the matter. It shows that the culture of singing is also the culture of being, and that the monks have to pray and sing in a manner commensurate with the grandeur of the word handed down to them, with its claim on true beauty. This intrinsic requirement of speaking with God and singing of him with words he himself has given, is what gave rise to the great tradition of Western music. It was not a form of private “creativity”, in which the individual leaves a memorial to himself and makes self-representation his essential criterion. Rather it is about vigilantly recognizing with the “ears of the heart” the inner laws of the music of creation, the archetypes of music that the Creator built into his world and into men, and thus discovering music that is worthy of God, and at the same time truly worthy of man, music whose worthiness resounds in purity."

From "The Origins of Western Theology and the Roots of European Culture," address to Representatives from the World of Culture, Sep 12, 2008


Go read the whole thing. And then get on your knees and thank God for Pope Benedict.


One of the reasons I have a deep fondness for Benedict's work is that he consistently transcends the disorders and schizophrenia that are rampant in the modern Church. His discussion here of liturgical music is a perfect example of this phenomena. In the modern Church, the topic of liturgical music is a common battleground for intelligent Catholics who take the Church seriously. On the one side, you have the "liberals" who see liturgical music as yet another religious form that must be updated to conform with the vagaries of modern culture. Hence the provenance of the liturgical crimes of Marty Haugen. On the other side, one has the conservatives, who insist that the Mass must be accompanied by beautiful music. They happily attend liturgies with chamber symphonies that perform classical German masses from the 18th and 19th century, or Renaissance polyphony, or some other brand of classical music.


In the midst of the logorrhea over that state of liturgical music in America, a crucial fact often gets overlooked: the liberal and conservative approaches to liturgical music are opposite sides of the same coin, and both represent a distorted view of the function of music within liturgy. A Schubert mass is no less of a distortion, liturgically speaking, than a work from David Haas' corpus. For both parties, music is seen as an accompaniment to the mass, as if it served an analogous function to a film score. For both camps, the primary reference for determining the suitability of a given piece of music is the Self. Whatever musical style is deemed most beautiful by the Self is therefore deemed to be most suitable for the liturgy. To see this phenomena for yourself, go into the conservative Catholic webforum of your choice and pose the question "what's so bad about Marty Haugen music?" I'm wiling to wager that he overwhelming number of responses will be something along the lines of "I don't think his music is very pretty, and we should have pretty music at Mass." Thus, the Self triumphs over all.


I think Benedict's brief remarks listed above show a way out of this mess. As Benedict makes clear, true liturgical music serves a theological purpose and is tied to the order of creation and the nature of the human person. Reclaiming Western liturgy is a much deeper project than simply ordering up a handful of talented singers to sing pretty music during Mass.

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