On Reverence and Reserve in the Holy Liturgy – A Meditation on an Instruction by St. Cyprian

Heiliger_CyprianusIn the Office of Readings we are currently sampling from a treatise on the Lord’s Prayer by St. Cyprian. One of those readings earlier this week offered some cautionary notes on what might be termed “reverential reserve” when celebrating the Sacred Liturgy.

Before quoting St. Cyprian, I’d like to make some observations regarding the role of culture and history. Of course, dear reader, you are free to skip my poor musings and jump right to the teaching of St. Cyprian, who outranks me substantially by being a bishop, a martyr, a Father of the Church, and a Saint!

St. Cyprian surely calls for some reserve in prayer, both private and public. But I wonder how to quantify reserve? And how is it related to respect? I have certainly seen and participated in worship experiences that were “over the top.” In such instances the music was too loud, the musicians were more in the role of performers, and the “house was “rocking” more so than praying. In gospel music there is a distinction between Church gospel and “performance gospel.” The first inspires prayer and praise while the second is designed more to please and excite the audience. Christian contemporary music has similar distinctions. Some pieces can be deeply prayerful or stirring works of praise, while others have more of a “listen to me!” quality or even a “pep rally” feel.

Even in more traditional forms like chant, polyphony, and orchestral Masses there have been excesses that the Church eventually weighed in on. Chant, though seemingly the least capable of excess, did have times and schools in which the use of proportional rhythm or overly extended melismata sometimes obscured the text. Gallican Chant was more florid than Roman, and during the late Middle Ages the people of Paris flocked to places like Saint Denis and Notre Dame to hear the increasingly musical chants now sung in organum. It was quite the rage.

During the Polyphonic Age the rich harmonies and often-complex intertwining of parts sometimes overshadowed the text. The borrowing of secular tunes was also problematic. The Church Palestrina helped lead the way back to a simpler form that emphasized the sacred text over the rich harmonies.

Orchestral Masses increasingly grew to resemble operas. The settings, quite musical and elaborate, wowed the worshippers. They were also quite lengthy: some Glorias and Creeds lasted more than twenty minutes. But here, too, some popes (e.g., Pius X) sought to set limits.

As you can see, excess is not just a modern phenomenon.

Searching even further back, we see that even in  biblical times worship was an often noisy affair. Nehemiah 8 describes a kind of Liturgy of the Word that featured the people shouting “Amen” during the preaching, falling to the ground, weeping, and so forth. Many of the Psalms directed the people to clap their hands and raise their voices with shouts of joy. Psalm 150 speaks of trumpets, lutes, cymbals, and many other loud instruments that were often used in worship.

Thus we see in all eras a tendency to a certain “excess,” if a respectful reserve is the norm. Indeed, there are some cultures in which sitting quietly to pray seems almost disrespectful. In the African-American congregations in which I have served, it is often said that “God is worthy of our praise!” or, “Hallelujah is the highest Praise,” or “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord … give Him the highest praise.” Charismatic worship has similar features and declarations.

But in every age some limits have had to be found. Even in the earliest days St. Paul had to caution the Corinthians and others to maintain decorum and to set limits on speaking in tongues, prophesying, and so forth. He says to them regarding the Liturgy, Let all things be done decently and in good order (1 Cor 14:40).

And all of this background finally leads us to St. Cyprian, who in the passage quoted below summons us to a kind of sober reserve as the norm for liturgy. In some ways Cyprian, though living in North Africa, displays a kind of Roman temperament and reserve. Latin was his native tongue. And there is, to be sure, a kind of sober reserve evident in the Roman Rite and the Roman prayers, especially the Collects, which are often terse, brief, and quite to-the-point. The whole shape of the Roman Rite is sober and brief. Other forms of this Rite, especially the Gallican and Mozarabic, were far more elaborate and elongated.

And thus St. Cyprian writes from this sort of experience—or so it would seem. But for all of us, his call for reserve can be salutary, even if there are cultural differences that might permit a more demonstrative worship. Consider the words of St. Cyprian as a good reminder that some boundaries are necessary:

Let our speech and our petition be kept under discipline when we pray, and let us preserve quietness and modesty–for, remember, we are standing in God’s sight. We must please God’s eyes both with the movements of our body and with the way we use our voices. For just as a shameless man will be noisy with his cries, so it is fitting for the modest to pray in a moderate way. …

When we meet together with the brethren in one place, and celebrate divine sacrifices with God’s priest, we should remember our modesty and discipline, not to broadcast our prayers at the tops of our voices, nor to throw before God, with undisciplined long-windedness, a petition that would be better made with more modesty: for after all God does not listen to the voice but to the heart, and he who sees our thoughts should not be pestered by our voices … And we read in the Psalms: Speak in your hearts and in your beds, and be pierced. Again, the Holy Spirit teaches the same things through Jeremiah, saying: But it is in the heart that you should be worshipped, O Lord.
Beloved brethren, let the worshipper not forget how the publican prayed with the Pharisee in the temple–not with his eyes boldly raised up to heaven, nor with hands held up in pride; but beating his breast and confessing the sins within, he implored the help of the divine mercy. … and he who pardons the humble heard his prayer.

(from the Commentary on the Our Father by St. Cyprian, bishop and martyr (Nn. 8-9: CSEL 3, 271-272))

To be sure, Cyprian wrote this as a true Roman. But it is a corrective, or at least a good reminder, for us all. Exuberance has its place, especially in certain cultures, but proper order is also essential. Again, as St. Paul says, Let all things be done decently and in good order (1 Cor 14:40). Amen.

15 Replies to “On Reverence and Reserve in the Holy Liturgy – A Meditation on an Instruction by St. Cyprian”

  1. When the Spirit moves the heart to sing, then that singing is the sound of the heart in concert with the love of God.

    This is likely rarely the case when a person’s soul is not properly prepared for the liturgy. It is also not likely the case when the choir director performs complicated music to be heard, not sung, when it is the People who should be singing, I.e., the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. Instead of singing and dwelling on the words in prayer, they listen and struggle to engage in prayer but cannot.

    1. Listening sometimes can be a form of prayer if it lifts the heart, mind and soul to the Lord. Although I don’t chant at the Latin Mass, I can still allow it to flood the deepest recesses of my heart and love the Lord through the beauty of someone else’s singing.

      1. I get that for the Ave Maria, a beautiful song. I do not get that for prayers which the faithful need to be able to actually pray while they sing. Often, the music can be so complicated that it disrupts instead of leads one to spiritual Union, Mathis is the truth.

        1. Darn spellcheck. I don’t know who Mathis is. I meant, “And that is the truth”

  2. The highest form of Praise is our obedience to God. What Good is it to Praise God in great concerts only to go out from there to hate our neighbor.

  3. Very interesting that there were perceived excesses back in history as well. I did not know that.

    1. Yes, well I guess its a human tendency. There are all kinds of funny legislation that emerged over the years in response to excesses. For example 18th Century there was a Roman Directive that forbade priests to leave the sanctuary during the singing of the Gloria or Credo. Many would leave for a smoke or to converse since the musical settings were getting so long. Another “abuse” in matter that was tolerated is that clergy were permitted to be seated, along with the congregation for the singing of the Gloria and Credo. Even to this day such a posture is still used in the EF of the Mass for longer settings.

  4. So……what are your feelings on the ” Teen Mass” where drums, guitars, and current ?Christian music are used? I hear some adults even “prefer” that to the traditional cantor, choir, and or music by the piano or organ?

  5. Thank you, Msgr.! This was indeed beautifully written and so needed. The more we give ourselves obediently, reverently, and humbly and the less attention we draw to ourselves at Mass, the more pleased our Lord God will be.

  6. In a way it is like the tempo of a song; people by nature, and to some extent dictated by the limitations of the body, have a sense for the proper tempo of a song, and in a similar way with prayer.

  7. Tangentially related, I sometimes wonder if, as a culture, we’ve become scared of silence. I think The Culture has been moving towards people equating silence with boring, and boring is something that just cannot be tolerated. Everything has to be loud, in motion and not boring. Maybe I’m just getting old :).

    During many of our masses every available moment must be filled with noise, be it music or spoken word. And mass must move quickly. There is barely a moment to meditate — especially after communion, when a second hymn (pre-packaged meditation?) must come immediately after the communion hymn lest there be an uncomfortable silence. Thankfully some priests still provide a few minutes to probe for the Lord in silence…

    I wonder if a poster with 1 Kings 19:11-13 on it might be a good thing to place on bulletin boards…

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