Sunday, August 26, 2012


Looking at the wedding photos on Facebook of someone who was once a good friend, who was prominently featured at my own wedding, but whose nuptials I was not invited to.

Singing at funerals for which we don't get to choose the music, even though the family has no special requests.  I know that I could have given them much better music--music that will actually be a prayer for the deceased as well as comfort to the living--but I wasn't allowed to.  Fortunately, for the second funeral of the week my husband chose the music.  It was far more prayerful and dignified.

Being offered a set of medals blessed by Pope John Paul II by a well-meaning fellow parishioner, who believes that the medals will bring safe delivery for pregnant mothers.
"Didn't someone tell me that you're pregnant?" she asks.  "I'm not," I reply.
Her face falls and she looks confused.
I rush to add, "But I hope to be!"
She seems a little reluctant to let me keep the medals, but I'm not willing to let them go.
Maybe they will help.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Social Justice Hymns

Today's musical commentary brought to you today by the letters O, C, and P, and the following hymn lyrics:

"Let us lay down our weapons of might.
Stockpiles but lead to terror and fright.
Wealth that is wasted, anger unfurled.
Let bombs be changed to bread for the world."
(Suzanne Toolan, RSM. Copyright 2004.)

Folk songs can definitely be a force for good under certain circumstances.  For example, some of the songs of Tommy Sands materially contributed to the lessening of hostilities in Northern Ireland, and some songs can still serve as ways of telling history, remembering important names and dates, and conveying other information. The singer Robbie O'Connell frequently performs what might be Sands' most famous composition, "There Were Roses."  In the original version of the song, the names were the names of two real boys who died, young men that Sands knew.  The names have since been changed at the request of the families.  But Robbie tells a story from several years ago when he still sang the song with the real names and performed it on stage in California.  After the show, an immigrant from Northern Ireland approached Robbie and asked if the song was true.  When he confirmed that it was, the audience member thanked him for singing the song and said that she used to know those young men, but had not stayed in touch with folks back home and had never heard about their sad fate before.

Nevertheless, the type of protest song typified by the hymn lyrics above is not appropriate during Mass.  On the one hand, the Scriptures do tell us that peacemakers are blessed (and I'm pretty sure Our Lord wasn't talking about the Colt Peacemaker), and that one day swords will be beaten into plowshares.  The popes and bishops tell us that we have an obligation to work for peace.

However, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that there will ever be a true and lasting peace in this world, this vale of tears.  Human nature is fallen, and although Christ has redeemed us, we are still subject to concupiscence and Satan is still at large, bringing chaos and seeking the ruin of souls.  Only when Christ comes again will wars truly cease.  As Christians, our work for peace has the possibility of mitigating the effects of war but never totally eradicating it, just as we can never totally eradicate poverty (which Our Lord has also told us: "The poor you will always have with you").  This eradication of poverty is also a frequent theme of "social justice" hymns. Somehow, mystically, our actions of charity will contribute to the ultimate eradication of poverty at the end of the world, but we will not see the full realization and completion of our work in cooperating with Christ until that day and it is not in keeping with the Church's understanding of Scripture to claim otherwise.

Because of this reality, the suggestion that we should all entirely lay down our weapons is a bit bizarre, in light of the Church's teaching that we have the right, and sometimes duty, to defend ourselves and others against attacks on life and limb.  Weapons even the odds between me and potential attackers who may be much larger and stronger than I am, and this is true on both a personal level and on the level of nations.  From this perspective, to call for everyone to give up the tools of physical warfare is not appropriate.  Ultimately, yes, we will all lay down our weapons, and we ought to look forward to that day, and not delight in the necessity or action of self-defense, but you cannot deny the reality of this world or pretend that peace will come in our time unless it be through the Second Coming of Christ.

September Is Catholic Speakers Month

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Perfect Sunday

Yesterday--Saturday--didn't start off well. I slept late, didn't get my chores done, and had to choose between grocery shopping and going to confession because I couldn't fit both in before I sang at the 5:30 Mass. I chose confession. Even that didn't start off auspiciously.  My husband and I both prefer as much anonymity as we can get in the confessional, so we go to our territorial parish rather than the church where he works and where all the priests know us quite well.

We arrived very early so as to be first in line, so we could make it down to the other church where we were going to Mass. Just after confessions were to start, the nun who works at the parish came into the church and announced that she didn't think the substitute priest had been told about confessions, and she didn't have his phone number.

Great. Now I had to either skip--not an option, as I really needed confession--or go to a priest who knows me, the thought of which made me feel sick to my stomach. (Yes, I know I have a problem. I am working on it.) We drove down to the church, I stood in line, I managed not to throw up, and I made my confession. I sang at Mass, received the Eucharist, and felt pretty good.

I could have slept in today and spent my day mostly at home, but something prompted me to go to Divine Liturgy at the Byzantine parish this morning. So, I got up at 6am (5.5 hours of sleep), got my husband out the door to work and got ready for Liturgy. One of my friends, who has five children, sat in the pew with me. Her husband wasn't able to come today and she was really struggling with her two littlest ones this morning. I was able to hold the baby while she wrangled the toddler. It was nice to be so useful. The homily, about the virtue of prudence, was really good. I stayed almost two hours after Liturgy chatting with friends. Even then, I still managed to do the shopping, laundry and dishes I should have done the day before, cook a tasty and healthy dinner, and enjoy a quiet evening by the fire with my husband.

And all that on less than six hours sleep and with only a yogurt for breakfast and a blueberry muffin and some coffee for lunch. It all started with confession yesterday. Be brave, friends, and go to confession. It is really difficult at times, but God's grace is magnificent and He will reward your courage.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Kids and Chant

Here are two videos of three-year-old girls, the first singing the Requiem Sanctus and the second singing the Pater noster.  Both have a general idea of pitch and a good grasp of the words.

Our Latin Mass choir here has, counting myself and my husband, three men and eight women.  The oldest person in the choir is about 40, or not much older, four of us are in our 20s, and four are teenagers.

In contrast, there is currently no one in the parish choir, that sings at the main English-language Mass of the day, who is under 50.

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Speaking of Propers... are some recordings you might want to have a listen to at the end of your Assumption Day.

1904 recording of Dom Pothier directing the Choir of the Benedictines of San Anselmo singing "Gaudeamus omnes," the ancient Introit for the Assumption (changed after 1950 to "Signum magnum" but now both are options).

Master Leonin of Paris, "Propter Veritatem," before 1950 the Gradual chant of the day.

And just for the heck of it, some Ordinaries appropriate for today's Solemnity:

Have a blessed feast day!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Multiple Sets of Propers for Feasts

Tonight we are celebrating the Vigil of the Assumption in the Dominican Rite.  The priest will be vested in purple, and there is no Alleluia for the vigil.

This has prompted some discussion among my friends about how we observe vigils and feasts, and how current observation of vigils and feasts differs between the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite, and between the West and East.  There are many differences, and I don't really have time to meditate on them now, but I just want to say that I really deplore the practice of using the readings for the feast day if vigil readings are available, and of using Mass at Dawn or Mass During the Day propers for all the Masses of Christmas or Easter instead of using the correct set of propers for the time of day.

This got me thinking a little about life here in Alaska.  The Church's rules for Masses linked to a time of day often have to be fudged a little because of our extremes of daylight and darkness.  For instance, in most places, Christmas Mass at Dawn would be your 7AM Mass and the 9:30 would be Mass During the Day.  But here, 9:30 would be Mass at Dawn and 7AM would be...what?  There isn't a provision for Mass between midnight and sunrise, but the sun comes up really, really late at that time of year in Anchorage.  And in some places in Alaska, the sun doesn't come up at all on Christmas Day.

I know that the archbishop here makes a yearly decision about when the Easter Vigil can start.  If we waited for "sunset" by some standards, especially if Easter is in mid-April, the sun won't be going down until 10PM.  I don't have an objection to Mass that late--I've twice been to Russian Catholic Pascha services that started at midnight and went until 4AM and loved it!  But it can be really hard for priests who are elderly or in ill-health to manage late-night Masses, so we make concessions.  I don't know if he does the same for Christmas.  As I said, it's not as big a concern in the Archdiocese of Anchorage as it is for the Diocese of Fairbanks.  But I will be interested, as we get nearer Christmas, to find out exactly how we do things here in the frozen north.

In the meantime, I will enjoy the sunshine and the remaining summer weather.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Things to Love About Alaska #4

These spectacular fairytale mushrooms are all in my backyard!

Here are two growing together.

I thought this one was a tomato that someone had thrown into our yard, until I got a closer look.  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Things to Love About Alaska #3...

...the need to carry bear spray while walking the dog.  A black bear, estimated at about 300 lbs, has been seen in several places in our neighborhood in the last few days, mostly in the early morning.  All the sightings are assumed to be of the same bear.

Be careful out there!  There's a reason Anchorage's city motto is "Big Wild Life."  Life here is big and wild, and the wildlife is big.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Voice Lessons and Very Young Singers

Every decade or so, a young kid, usually a girl, appears singing some sacred favorites, folk songs, and a little bit of opera.  She is hailed as a miniature opera singer and makes a lot of money touring around and selling CDs and appearing on television.

Some of them continue to have singing careers as adults.


Others burn out.

Charlotte Church was very famous as a child singer when I was a kid (she's a year younger than I am). She had a "classical" career from 1998-2002.  She then tried to transition into a pop career, releasing an album in 2005 and another in 2010, along with several singles.  This has brought her nowhere near the success of the semi-classical music, to the extent that a lot of Americans who loved her early stuff now have no idea that she's still working.

Jackie Evancho is the latest young sensation.  Her vocal technique is very wonky--just look how her jaw wobbles when she sings!--but her fans insist that her team of coaches, doctors, and promoters will make sure she doesn't injure her young vocal apparatus.  Personally I think they'll just make lots of money off her while they still can.

A lot of professional musicians look at the likes of Jackie Evancho and offer her up as an example of why children shouldn't start voice lessons.  The vocal apparatus of a child is delicate and working on repertoire intended for adults can seriously--perhaps permanently--damage a child's voice.  However, I think that the right kind of vocal training is good for a child.  Sensitive training of the child's ears, sense of rhythm, sight-singing ability, breathing and posture is more likely to prevent problems later than allowing a child to sing any which way until the age of sixteen or seventeen, since a child who wants voice lessons IS going to sing regardless of whether they receive lessons.  Singing along with the radio might help develop a child's musical sensibilities, but, especially depending on what they're listening to, it might be harmful to the actual vocal chords and create a lot of bad habits that will have to be unlearned later.  Better to develop good habits early than have to unlearn bad ones.

My parents called several voice teachers when I was nine years old.  Most of them wouldn't take me.  They eventually found one who agreed to meet me, hear me sing, and then make her decision.  She took me on, and I'm really glad she did.  Lisa was my voice teacher for eight years and I know I wouldn't be the musician I am today without her.  She also taught me a lot about life, people, and not taking myself too seriously, particularly when I suddenly got shy as a teenager ("The song is called 'I'm Just a Girl Who Cain't Say No,' WHY are you singing it like a nun?").  She guided my young voice in the way it should go and made sure that I learned good breathing, used my head voice, and didn't try to sing like a 35-year-old jazz singer when I was 11 (I listened to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald in those days).

I would have been singing anyway.  When I was 12, I was in three choirs.  I was developing an interest in Irish folk songs.  I had an almost insatiable appetite for listening to music (it was probably a good thing for my school grades that YouTube hadn't been invented yet).  I could have done myself a mischief if not for Lisa's excellent instruction.  I hope I can provide that service for some other youngsters in the future.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

St. Dominic's Day

Could there be any better way to celebrate the Feast of St. Dominic than to attend a High Mass in the Dominican Rite?

Well, I guess it could have been Solemn High Mass.

The Mass was lovely.  It wasn't perfect, there are things that I'm sure will go better next time, but it was very good and the church was packed.  It was a full hour and a half long, and almost everyone stayed until the last strain of the closing hymn.  The new recruits in the schola sang well.  I've had a cold/sinus infection and have been voiceless for a week, but I really look forward to singing with all the new schola members at our next Dominican Rite High Mass, for the Vigil of the Assumption.

We've previously had High Mass every Sunday, but are taking a break and having mostly Low Masses in July and August because so many of the schola and altar servers keep disappearing on vacation.  We'll resume the regular schedule again soon, and I know it's going to be great!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Things to Love About Alaska #2

Alaska has a uniquely integrated state symbolism.  Most states have a flag, a motto, a song, a state flower, etc. and none of these things has much to do with any of the others.  In Alaska, the state flag came first, designed in 1927 by then-13-year-old Benny Benson as part of a contest for school children.

Benny described his inspiration for the flag.  "The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower.  The North Star is for the future state of Alaska, the most northerly in the union.  The Dipper is for the Great Bear--symbolizing strength."

In 1935, Marie Drake wrote a poem inspired by the flag design.  Entitled "Alaska's Flag," it was set to music two years later by Elinor Dusenbury, and in 1955 the song was adopted as the official state song.

The forget-me-not, one of the inspirations for the color of the flag, had been the official flower when Alaska was still a territory, and continues as the official state flower.  The motto "North to the Future" was adopted in 1965 and echoes Benny's explanation for his inclusion of the North Star in the emblem.  There are lots of things that don't fit with the flag, song, motto, and flower--for instance, although a constellation representing a bear is on the flag, the state land mammal is the moose--but it is nice that at least four symbols of the state are linked in this way. 

My home state, California, does have a link between its flag and the official state animal, the grizzly bear.  Unfortunately, the animal is extinct in the state that it represents.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Netflix Recommendation

Are you looking for a family-friendly television series?  Do you have a Netflix subscription?  I recommend that you check out "Bless Me, Father."

There are 21 half-hour episodes, currently available either streaming or on DVD.  The series originally ran 1978-1981 and centers on the parish of St. Jude in suburban London.  The main characters are Fr. Duddleswell, the pastor (played by Arthur Lowe, who also starred in the better-known "Dad's Army"), Fr. Boyd, the young curate, and Mrs. Pring, the housekeeper.  Other recurring characters are the hard-drinking Dr. Daley, the nightclub owner and rectory neighbor Billy Buzzle, and the formidable Reverend Mother Stephen.  Most of the action takes place in the rectory and church.  Fr. Duddleswell spends much of his time trying to get more money for the parish, often involving himself in questionable schemes.  He is rarely successful.  Fr. Boyd is still learning the ropes as a priest, and some episodes feature Fr. Boyd's first experiences hearing confessions, instructing converts, and having his commitment to priestly celibacy tested (this issue is handled with surprising sensitivity).  Any Catholic will probably recognize people and situations they've known in this series, perhaps especially in the relationship between Fr. Duddleswell and Fr. Boyd.

I hadn't heard of this series until it came up in my Netflix recommendations, but I'm glad I gave it a chance.  The plots are simple, the jokes are gentle but funny, and I think many families would enjoy this series.