Music is made sacred by its association to other, related factors, each of which is indispensable:
By association with the occasion (or purpose)
By association with a sacred text
By association with that which is set apart, or separate from the worldly or profane
By association with what is truly art
By association with a particular tradition
The term "art" comes to us from the Latin ars, or “skill.” In its general meaning within Western thought, art is a work of excellence produced by an intellectual, creative act.
Just as the recognition of the Sacred has receded in people's consciousness, so also has the recognition of the excellence of true, valid art. It is tempting to ascribe this phenomenon to the emergence of the mass communication/entertainment media, especially from the 1950s on through the technological development of radio, film and television. However, perhaps as strong a case could be made for the wrenching effect of the two World Wars upon the psyche of the Western world.
What is known with surety is the fact that art has always, from the beginning of history, been closely associated with religion. Two factors which explain this ubiquitous linkage are: 1) the creative element of art and 2) the use of art in ritual.
Longfellow alluded to the former when stating that:
Nature is a revelation of God.
Art is a revelation of man.1
God, in His bringing forth of creation, is not only a model for mankind, but in His infinite generosity He created a being with powers to, himself, "create" through the work of his hands and his mind. In applying his intellect to the arts, man truly shares in the creative powers of the Almighty.
Parenthetically, it is important to extend this paradigm to that of Mary, the primal Chantress of the New Testament, who through the activity of the Holy Spirit brought forth her Son, Jesus the Logos. Art through the centuries, whether it be visual or musical, found profound inspiration in its contemplation of Mary.
Art, as a creative essence, is good because God made us to be creative and because we ourselves are created beings. And art is valid, or true, if it implies the essence of goodness.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy laid down basic directions for the purpose of sacred art and music:
The fine arts are rightly classed among the noblest activities of man's genius; this is especially true of religious art and of its highest manifestation, sacred art. Of their nature the arts are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands. Their dedication to the increase of God's praise and of His glory is more complete, the more exclusively they are devoted to turning men's minds devoutly toward God. (emphasis: m.o.h.) 2
A particular function of art is its use in ritual. The more singularly music turns the faithful's minds devoutly toward God, then, the more it can be said to represent true art. Article 112 of Chapter VI (Sacred Music) even goes so far as to emphasize the pride of place music holds before all other arts:
The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of immeasurable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred melody united to words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.3
The role of music in ritual is indispensable. It gives focus and tangible concreteness to the rite, and clothes it in drama. It also gives oftentimes a conscious memory of the melody, the lasting power of which represents to the faithful the experience of the ritual to which the music had been inextricably linked. Music, finally, will abstract the otherwise ephemeral religious notions such as feelings and the transcendent; it will provide the means for their enfleshment and transmission.
Therefore sacred music increases in holiness to the degree that it is intimately linked with liturgical action, winningly expresses prayerfulness, promotes solidarity, and enriches sacred rites with heightened solemnity.4
Much of the music of Lucien Deiss provides fine examples of serious attempts at modern hymnody. Most well known of them are Priestly People, Keep in Mind, This Is the Day the Lord Has Made, as well as many of his compositions as yet untried. Their advantages are obvious: musical maturity; scriptural and doctrinal richness; objectivity in focusing on and directing the hearts of the faithful toward the service of God and the liturgy. A number of these hymns are standing the test of time: thirty years after their first use in our churches, each performance provides new insights, new depths of understanding to the faithful. There is an almost timeless quality to these hymns; they may well be just as fresh and unique 75 years from now as 30 years ago. There is little alloy of worldliness about this music; it is "set apart" from the secular. It truly seems to serve God, not Mammon.
The Church indeed approves of all forms of true art, and admits them into divine worship when they show appropriate qualities.5
The issue of glaring importance regarding music in our Catholic churches is this: How can the good, true art (sacred music) be distinguished from the bad, false art (or non-sacred, unworthy music)? Or, in the words of the elderly Leo Tolstoi a couple years before the turn of the century:
... I think it would be useful, first, to separate what really is art from what has no right to that name; and, secondly, taking what really is art, to distinguish what is important and good from what is insignificant and bad.The question of how and where to draw the line separating Art from Non-Art, and the good and important in art from the insignificant and evil, is one of enormous importance in life.6
The absolutes which governed recognition of art (such as goodness, truth, beauty and significance) are now rejected, much as the reality of the sacred has been rejected. Instead, a merely subjective definition of art (also, worthiness) has arrogantly redefined sacred music according to its own worldly, popular terms. The absolutes have given way to relativism.
Nowadays, subjective opinions and tastes represent the authoritative guiding principles used in the choice of church music; not objective judgment. Church music is valued by "how it affects me. If it means something to me, then it must be good." Inversely, "If I cannot 'relate' to it, then it has no meaning for me; therefore it has no meaning." There is no differentiation between "liking," which is an immediate sensory response (emotion), and approbation or "judgment" (intellect), which is rational and reflective.
The function of art in our Sacred Liturgies demands its excellence. Rather than upholding a standard which conforms to worship of the living God in our churches, graced by the sublime Eucharistic Presence, the popular entertainment music of the "world" masquerades as Sacred Music. The denigration and ignorance of true art in sacred music is an obvious sign of our hedonistic times.
1 Hyperion, 1839.
2 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Chapter 7, Article 122. Quoted in Karol Wojtyla, Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of Vatican II. (New York, New York) Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Translation by Harry J. Costello and Austin Flannery, OP, p.243.
3 Walter M. Abbott SJ, Gen. Ed., The Documents of Vatican II (The America Press/Association Press, 1966), p.171, par.1.
4 Ibid., p.171, par.3
5 Ibid., p.171, par.3
6 Albert William Levi, Varieties of Experience .New York, New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1957: p. 377.