Last night at St Mary’s the Mass of the Lord’s Supper was celebrated with great solemnity and beauty. The choir sang William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices. More on Byrd later, but for me it was all very moving for a different reason.
One of the things that attracted me to the Anglican Church was the great musical tradition. It is simply true that the Church of England has the finest ecclesiastical choral tradition in the world. The collegiate chapels and Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the cathedral choirs throughout the land, were funded with historic endowments. They were able to employ singers and offer scholarships to boys at their choir schools. The male voice choirs dated back to the Middle Ages and were venerable, professional, and sublime in the music they produced. Some of the greatest composers of ecclesiastical music came from this tradition.
Furthermore, still today despite the rot within the Anglican Church the choirs perform their liturgical music not in the concert hall, but in the daily and weekly routine of the liturgical life. Most choirs sing Evensong most days of the week. They are a working choir. They sing the Masses on Sundays and high holy days, and to top it all they do all this in breathtakingly beautiful collegiate chapels, cathedrals and the great parish churches of the land.
The creme de la creme is the choir of Kings College, Cambridge. I was lucky as an Anglican priest to have served as a curate in a parish church with a full traditional boys and mens choir, and after four years there, went to be chaplain at Kings College Cambridge. I worked at the choir school helping to educate and moderate the super talented boys who were choristers at the college. I attended Evensong daily, celebrated the Eucharist in the splendid chapel and joined in the worship there.
This was part of the church and the world in which I moved as an Anglican priest. Then in becoming a Catholic I had to give it up. The churches we attended were dull modern auditoria. Some of them not too bad, many of them awful. The liturgy was often the usual modern Catholic Howdy Doody show with felt banners, priests walking around with a hand held mike being folksy. The music was torture. Plump middle aged ladies strumming guitars, beardy weirdy men in sandals standing at a keyboard swaying to the beat. Bad music. Heretical words. Excruciating.
But we had to be Catholic. So we made the sacrifice. The beauty, the reverence, the dignity, the sublime music, the architecture, the learning, the glories of Anglicanism: all of it went on the altar.
For over ten years we lived with it. We did the best we could.
Then God calls us to return not only to the USA, but to Greenville, South Carolina. Now at St Mary’s, Greenville I am honored to be on the staff and serve with Fr Jay Scott Newman and Fr Bart Leon OSB. Last year the parish hired Dr Kevin Clarke as organist and choirmaster. Kevin is trained in the Anglican tradition, but is Catholic.
So last night, to the music of William Byrd, Gregorian chant, Durufle and Victoria we celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper–which is itself the celebration of sacrifice. At the altar the mystery of it all thundered through to me. I made a small sacrifice. So what. I gave up beauty to be Catholic.
But beauty was returned in a way I could never have foreseen. Now in a beautiful church with a beautiful liturgy and beautiful music, with congenial colleagues and a loving congregation God has given me both Catholicism and beauty.
This experience convinces me that whatever ever we sacrifice to God he returns magnified and blessed. This is one of the principles of sacrifice: that whatever we give to God he gives back in a greater and more magnificent way.
Here’s the final twist: it may not happen in this life. For me it has. I’ve seen this principle work and I know without a doubt that it is true. But even if it doesn’t happen in this life it will, as surely as God is almighty, happen in the next.
On that day all will be harvest. On that day every little seed that we have planted in sacrifice; every little action of love, every little prayer, every little self denial will blossom out and bear much rich fruit for all of eternity, and we will see it and know it and we will be amazed.
And we will fall down on our faces crying, Holy, Holy, Holy.