I am a snob when it comes to liturgical music. I am not afraid to admit it.
I have not always been this way. In fact, when I was a teenager and young(er) adult, I was fully in favor of “praise bands” in place of choirs and praise and worship music instead of the standard contents of a Catholic hymnal. However, as St. Paul says, "When I was a child, I reasoned as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things." Thus, towards the end of my time in graduate school and especially during the early years of my marriage, I learned how the Church defines “sacred music” and why certain music is not appropriate for use in Mass.
Unfortunately, I also learned that much of the standard contents of a Catholic hymnal do not actually fit the definition of “sacred music” as understood by the Church prior to the Second Vatican Council. This is not due only to lyrical content, which often puts more emphasis on the horizontal relationship between members of the Body of Christ rather than the vertical relationship between her members and her Head or sometimes speaks in the place of God, rather than as His People praising or crying out to Him. Rather, certain styles of “popular” music (more accurately, music that was popular in the 60s and 70s) are not appropriate for Mass, even if the lyrics qualify as “praise and worship,” because like all sacred things, sacred music is meant to be set apart for use in the liturgy. Thus, it should be categorically different than music that one hears in the secular sphere, rather than the same beats with the lyrics changed to sing about one’s love for Christ, rather than one’s love for a member of the opposite sex.
All of this is to give context to my feelings this morning at Ash Wednesday Mass. Since I am blessed to live in Louisiana, where Catholicism still permeates even the secular culture, Ash Wednesday is a state holiday (though my cynical side suspects that this is largely so employees can recover fully from the Mardi Gras festivities before returning to work). This means as a public school teacher, I have the day off. However, my eldest daughter attends a Catholic school, therefore, she had school today which gave me the rare opportunity to attend Mass with her. This was a blessing, of course, but it also meant that the music for Mass was not chosen by our recently hired music minister, who shares my sensibilities on sacred music, but by the organist, who has a much different viewpoint.
Therefore, I was certain that one of the hymns for Mass would be “Ashes” by Tom Conry. I use the term “hymn” loosely, of course, as this is one of the aforementioned contents of Catholic hymnals that I believe does not fit the classical Catholic understanding of what sacred music is meant to be and do. As others have rightly noted, the lyrics miss the point of Ash Wednesday entirely, as the ashes are not in any way an offering to God (otherwise what’s the point of imposing during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?) but a sign of repentance.
However, these words from the second verse struck me: We offer you our failures, we offer you attempts, the gifts not fully given, the dreams not fully dreamt. They had this effects due to events currently occurring in my personal and professional life. I have working in my current position as a public school social studies teachers for almost four years. Prior to that I worked as an academic advisor at the local university for a year. This did not pan out, which resulting in me taking my current job. However, I had taken the academic advisor position because I saw it as an escape from public school teaching, which I had done at that point for two years and only because I had not been accepted to any doctoral programs following my completion of my Master’s degree in History.
Now, I am a teacher during a time that the public education system, in my opinion at least, is on the brink of collapse. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, sometimes without a new job lined up. Having a wife and two young daughters to support, that is not an option, otherwise I would be joining them. Such is still my intent, and I have been applying to different jobs, but so far the only response I have received was a rejection. In fact, just yesterday, an offer of a contract I had received for a part-time gig was rescinded because I could not pass a quiz that was part of the on-boarding process in the allotted two attempts.
It probably goes without saying; therefore, that failures, attempts and “dreams not fully dreamt” have been at the forefront of my mind lately. While ashes are not an offering to God, the words of the hymn this morning reminded me that our failures and attempts can be. God wants our best, but that is the best we have to give, which sometimes isn’t all that great. And this morning, He reminded me of that with the words to a hymn that I honestly could not stand.
So, as this season of repentance begins, I will, in words of Job (42:6), “repent in dust and ashes” of my judgmental and at times Pharisaical attitude toward the standard contents of Catholic hymnals and those who enjoy them while thanking God for the unexpected ways He communicates His Truth to us.