How to Listen at Mass

When I was an undergraduate, we were privileged to have in our dorm an upperclassman named Jerry Hawhee. Jerry was nearly blind and had to tap with a cane as he walked to make sure he didn’t bump into anything. But what Jerry taught us was how to listen to great music: sitting on the edge of your seat, fully attentive, literally leaning in.

Perhaps because his sight was lacking and his other senses were relatively more sensitive, Jerry loved to listen to music. When you looked at his face, it seemed as though he was savoring each and every note, every phrase, every chord progression. His hand would move up and down marking the tempo of the music as though he was directing it himself.

And yet, although he certainly heard everything – if you talked to him later, he could tell you how well or badly the bassoon section had played – he didn’t listen for mistakes. He was totally aware and alert to the special presence of Mozart, Bach, or Handel. When there was a bad note, it registered on his face, as if to say: “Ooh, that’s not quite it.” But what he was more attentive to was the spirit of the composer communicated in and through the musicians –something present in that hall at that time and in that place.

You might have applied to him, at that moment, T. S. Eliot’s famous comment in “The Dry Salvages”:

music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

I’ve been thinking recently about that face in rapt attention listening to what were not always the best performances of classical music on our humble college campus as an example of how we should listen at Mass. We too should be sitting on the edges of our seats, listening attentively, leaning in. It is not without reason that our Eastern Orthodox brethren announce before the Gospels the admonition: “Wisdom! Be attentive!”

St. Dominic (founder of the Order of Preachers) by Claudio Coello, c. 1685 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]
St. Dominic (founder of the Order of Preachers) by Claudio Coello, c. 1685 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]

One of the sad things about Mass is that, after the introductory rites are over, and the congregation sits down for the readings, you can see (and feel in yourself) the energy go out like air out of a balloon. Often enough, if you try to remember what the first reading was when the Gospel is being read, you can’t. And the first reading was no more than four or so minutes earlier.

Imagine watching someone talk to Jesus Christ, and then walking up to him afterward and asking: “What did He tell you?” and having him say: “You know, I really can’t remember. I wasn’t really listening.” You weren’t listening? To God? There was something more important on your cell phone than God? If Warren Buffet were giving out stock advice, would you say, “Well, my mind started wandering, and I decided to look up a recipe for apple pie”? Is your stock portfolio more important than your soul?

My friend Jerry was totally aware and alert to the special presence of Mozart, Bach, or Handel when he listened to performances, even rather poor ones; so too we should be listening for the special genius of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and all the biblical writers, for they were the wind instruments through which the Spirit blew and produced a symphony of voices as profound and moving as those of any angelic choir. We should attend to these words as though they were the music of heaven, for that is what they are. We should be listening for the voice of our Lord speaking in and through them.

When I’m forced to suffer through another dreadful homily – ill-prepared, self-referential (why must there always be a story from the preacher’s past?), and full of the sort of sentimentality that Flannery O’Connor once described as being to religion what pornography is to art – I try to think of Jerry. During those college concerts, while most of the rest of us were listening to notes; Jerry was listening for that special genius, that distinctive “voice” of the composers whose music he knew like other people know best friends. In the midst of what was sometimes a disturbing cacophony of sound, he would hear it: “Ah, there’s my old friend.” And he would smile and lean in.

It would help if we could convince homilists to have faith in the word. People like pop tunes. They’re easy. They don’t make demands. But for that reason people also tire of them easily. They don’t feed the spirit.

Which is why I recommend that preachers get themselves out of the way. Work to let the people hear the voices of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as musicians work to let the people hear the “voices” of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn. Virtuosity is judged not by communicating oneself, but by effectively communicating them. When people start hearing those voices again – the voices they recognize like sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd – then they’ll begin to listen attentively again. They’ll not even notice the off notes and the jumbled phrasing as long as, in the end, they recognize the voice of their Lord calling them.

We who must suffer through what is sometimes a disturbing cacophony of words should listen intently for that voice and when we would hear it, we should say to ourselves: “There’s my old friend.” And then we should smile and lean in.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.