Did you happen to read the description of my talk?  It says, [2] “The liturgy we sing summons us to inexpressible, inexhaustible mystery!  How do we enter that mystery with Christ at the center?  How can all of us – ordained and lay ministers alike – lead the assembly to be sung into the mystery of the whole Christ, head and members?  How do we join ourselves with the offering of Christ?”

Notice those two adjectives: inexpressible and inexhaustible.  The mystery of God is indeed inexpressible – which means there’s no point talking about it.  And it is inexhaustible, which means we can’t stop talking about it.  As to explaining how we enter the mystery and lead others into it, well, they’ve given me 40 minutes.

So, I did the only logical thing.  I asked for a piano.  This talk will make three points.  [3] Number one: Notice the mystery.  Number two: Use the right tools.  Number three: Be the right person.  I will illustrate these points with excerpts from George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue.[1]


It’s beautiful music, isn’t it?  Like any jazz pianist, he’s looking for new notes between the only keys we have on a piano, and new rhythms beyond what a composer can describe on paper.  He gives you a theme, but you have to let it breathe and rest.  It isn’t enough just to play the notes – or just to follow the rubrics for that matter.  You have to enter the mystery.  But how?

Point number one: Notice the mystery.  What I mean by “mystery” here is “the presence of God.”  You can’t enter the mystery of God or lead other people to it until you notice that it’s there.  And it is there.  The mystery was there long before we ever start looking for it.  That’s why it’s the mystery.

Pope John Paul II – God rest his blessed soul – wrote, [4] “Christianity has its starting-point in the Incarnation of the Word.”[2]  He wrote this in 1994 in his apostolic letter, Tertio millennio adveniente, “On the Coming of the Third Millennium,” to help us prepare for the 2000th anniversary of the mystery of the Word made flesh.  [5] He said the incarnation is not simply a case of us seeking God, but of God who comes in Person – (Don’t you love John Paul’s description of Christmas? ‘God who comes in Person!’) – to speak to us about ourselves and to show us the path by which God may be reached.  God is already there, waiting to be noticed.

When Moses noticed the burning bush, he took off his shoes in respect for the holiness of the ground where he stood.  When he approached Mount Sinai, [6] the Book of Exodus says, “there were peals of thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. . . .  Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it in fire.  The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently.  The trumpet blast grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking and God answering him with thunder.”[3]

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t happen in our parish church.  Our worship is a lot more timid.  Most of us would be amazed if prayer happened that way.  What was Moses’ secret?  How did he enter the mystery?  Simple.  It came to him.

But the Letter to the Hebrews says that was nothing.  That was only Act I.  And we star in Act II. [7]  “Brothers and sisters,” Hebrews says, “You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them.  Indeed, so fearful was the spectacle that Moses said, ‘I am terrified and trembling.’  No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled Blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.”[4]

My brothers and sisters, in Christian worship, we approach something more than what Moses experienced.  He approached that which could be touched.  But we approach a mystery that lies beyond touch, beyond hearing and beyond sight – a mystery of incarnation but also of resurrection.  We approach this mystery through our senses, by what we see and hear, or by what we sing and play, but we should never mistake that for the mystery itself – which lies beyond.  When we notice the mystery, when we notice how deep is the mysterious presence of God in Christ, the mystery has come to us.  It brings us to silence; it is inexpressible.

[8] The mystery comes to us in a special way at Sunday mass.  Christ is present when we gather for eucharist.  He speaks to us in the Gospel.  We eat and drink his body and blood.  And we are the body of Christ.  The mystery has come to us and fills us.  When the priest says, “The Lord be with you,” it happens.  God is with us.  Emmanuel is here – in the whole assembly.

It’s taken a while for the other rubrics of the mass to catch up with this belief, but we are getting there.  Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the rubrics pretty much described what happened in the sanctuary.  Ever since the council, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal has done a better job of describing what everyone does at mass.  In fact, the first line in the Order of Mass used to begin with the words “Sacerdos paratus” – that is, “when the priest is ready.”  After the council the first words became “Populo congregato” – “when the people have gathered.”  Mass is not just about what the priest does – it is the action of the whole body of Christ.

Today the rubrics more carefully explain the postures and role of the people, but once in a while something still gets omitted.  For example, if the deacon says, “Let us offer a sign of peace,” the rubrics indicate that everyone should then signify their peace and communion with one another.  But if the deacon says, “Bow your heads and pray for God’s blessing,” the rubrics never indicate that people actually do so.  It makes you wonder if everyone is supposed to stare at the deacon, heads raised in defiance.  When the priest gives the final blessing at mass, everyone makes the sign of the cross, but that’s not in the missal either.  And when the deacon says, “Go in peace,” there’s no rubric that says you actually do.  So many of these omissions come at the end of the service it makes you wonder if the General Instruction assumes everyone really has left after communion.

There is another omission that I find especially provocative in the light of this theme of how the mystery comes to us at the eucharist.  Normally I assume these omissions are oversights, but I’m not sure about this one.  When incense is used during the preparation of the gifts, the rubrics say a minister may take the thurible, bow to the priest, swing it toward him, and bow again.  Then the same minister goes to the people, bows to them, swings the thurible, and bows again.  Now, let me ask you something.  What does the priest usually do when the thurifer bows to him?  In my experience, he bows back.  What do the people usually do when the thurifer bows to them?  Well, most congregations I know just sit there.  They don’t even stand.  But the rubrics never indicate that the people bow to the thurifer.  They don’t even indicate that the priest should bow to the thurifer.  Is it an oversight?  Maybe.  But it could also be something else.  It could be that the thurifer bows before incensing the people to show respect, just as the priest bows before incensing the altar and the cross.  The cross and the altar don’t bow back.  Perhaps the people don’t need to either.  Perhaps it is for the thurifer alone to bow to them, out of silent respect for the mystery of Christ present in his body gathered.  [9] When you notice you are in the presence of the mystery, it brings you to silence.  It is inexpressible.

There are several points in Rhapsody in Blue where Gershwin builds his themes and counter themes to a point where nothing more can be said but silence.  Like this one near the end. [progression] It’s a great chord progression, but it can go no further.  It leads to a  moment of silence.  Or this one much earlier.  [progression]  All that’s left is nothing.  A new theme has to emerge.  He also does this most beautifully in the middle of the piece in a slow section that comes to a brief moment of silence.  He’s going to let you hear the most romantic part of his music, and he wants you to notice it, to reverence it.  When you do, when you observe silence, when you finally get into the quiet heart of his music, the mystery comes to you, and you wish it would never end.  Listen to the silence before the theme.


Music is not just in the notes.  It’s in the silences.  The mystery is not just in the words or actions; it is also in the silences.  It is always there, all around us, in the sacred and even in the secular, if we tune into it.  The mystery comes to you.  Point number one: notice the mystery.

[10] Point number two: Develop the tools.  The two tools we need the most are centering and repetition.

Do you know this expression in sports, “in the zone”?  It refers to a heightened sense of awareness.  It is brought on by the situation in a game like basketball where action is fluid and the rhythm of the game is metered by a practice called absurdly by the most unathletic name, “dribbling”.  A player who is in the zone is completely centered on the game, the ball, the teammates, the opponents, and the basket.

In baseball they talk about pitchers putting on a “game face”.  Before a pitcher takes the mound he or she wears an intense expression on the face that comes from days of preparation.  A good pitcher is totally focused on the game before taking the field and remains centered on the game pitch by pitch.

Ever watch a kid play a video game?  Don’t disturb kids in the middle of this activity.  They are completely engrossed.  Hands and eyes close in on inches of territory.  Legs and feet are still as rocks.  Total concentration centers the kid on this activity.

If you’re busy at work, you don’t want to be interrupted by a phone call or an unexpected visitor.  It isn’t just a matter of organizing time; it’s a matter of getting centered on something, getting in the zone where all is beautiful and mystical.  Even work.

Multitasking creates its own zone, but if the tasks are too many and the demands too great, our performance becomes too loose, our satisfaction dissipates, and our kindness evaporates.  That is a nonproductive zone.

Cell phones make me nervous.  Whenever I see someone driving their car, cell phone in one ear, I stay away from that vehicle.  Driving takes concentration.  For safety’s sake, we all need to be “in the zone” whenever we drive a car.  The distraction of cell phones is enough to cause accidents, injury and death – because a good conversation will also bring us “in the zone” – and we cannot be fully present to some other activity when we are fully present to one.  In churches, the playing of a cell phone (they don’t ring anymore, they play) is disturbing to worshipers because it violates our common space, pulls us out of our zone, out of our place and time of worship and into another activity.  In my view, crying babies do not disturb worship as much as cell phones do.  Our churches don’t need cry rooms.  They need telephone booths.

Musicians know all about the zone.  You know what it is like to be completely centered on a piece of music.  My college organ teacher, Elizabeth Rounds, kept a quote about this on the music cabinet next to her piano at home.  She didn’t show it to me until after I’d graduated from college.  I’d gone back to visit her because I wanted her advice on some music I was practicing: the piano part of the Chopin cello sonata.  I sat down and played the first movement for her, and even though I knew I still had some problems to work out, I wanted to hear some adulation from a former teacher glad to know her student still enjoyed practicing.  I played the movement, then I lifted my hands from the keyboard and turned to her.  But I’d forgotten that what made Liz such a good teacher was not just her encouragement, but also her honesty.  She turned her head to the side, pursed her lips, then looked me in the eye and said, “You are going to fool a lot of people.”  Then she explained, “because it sounds so good.”

But it wasn’t so good, and she knew.  The quote she showed me was by Helmut Walcha, a decent early 20th century composer with a sadly unmelodic name.  [11] She kept it on a 3x5 card near the place where she practiced.  Liz died 15 years ago, but her husband still has not moved this card.  Here’s what it says: “What makes you know that you must be a musician are those secret and indescribable moments of transcendent joy which come upon you from time to time at the keyboard – in the deep absorption of long and lonely hours of practice.”

Practice not only helps us play better; it makes us who we are: musicians.  There are moments in a practice session when you finally get the music.  It opens its heart to you.  And you give it voice.  You may have practiced it dozens even hundreds of times, but suddenly the piece sounds fresh.  You have become one with the music.  Church musicians add another layer of meaning to music.  We’re not just channeling the spirit of the composer; the music becomes our vehicle for prayer.  In our centering we enter the mysterious presence of God in a way that gives voice to our faith.  Getting to the center is the first tool that helps us notice the mystery.

[12] Federico Zuccaro was one of the 16th century artists who painted the ceiling inside Filipo Brunelleschi’s dome for the cathedral in Florence.  Zuccaro believed “that the beauty of a work of art lay, not in its representation of the outside world, but in the idea in the artist’s mind, which derived from the mind of God.”[5]  We often look at a painting and think, “Isn’t that beautiful.  It looks just like real life.”  But Zuccaro says that’s not where the beauty is.  The beauty is the idea in the mind of the artist.  And that idea derived from God.  When you experience the beauty of a painting, you are experiencing the beauty of God working through the artist.

The same applies to our music.  We aren’t just trying to sing a piece the way the composer wrote it.  We are trying to get to the idea in the composer’s mind, and through that idea back to the God who planted it there.  Centering helps us do that, and a tool that helps us center is repetition.

Repetition has an honored place in Catholic piety.  Just ask anyone who prays the rosary every day.  Repetition helps them center.  Repetition is also essential for celebrating the eucharist, but it is the quality that makes the mass so difficult for teenagers especially to bear.  They live in a fast world, and their minds and bodies are capable of extraordinary variety.  Mass seems boring by comparison.  But repetition helps us enter the mystery.  Our young people understand this in other areas of their life.  If they have ever played tennis, jumped a skateboard, sent an instant message or downloaded an iPod, they know you can’t do these things right the first time.  You have to do them over and over.  If you want to play football, you have to practice the same things over and over.  Once you find your favorite music, you listen to it over and over.  Repetition is never boring if it is pulling us to the center.  If you repeat maneuvers in sports, you get benefits you can’t get by doing something only once.  Music comes alive under repetition.  So does belief.

Many people resist learning new music at mass.  The first time you sing a piece, it doesn’t grab you the way it does the 20th time.  But if you are going to get to the beauty of familiarity, you have to start sometime with music that is new.  Once you have a favorite song, you can’t get enough of it.  You repeat it.  And repeat it again.  Its mystery is inexhaustible.

There’s a place in Rhapsody in Blue where Gershwin takes a single note and repeats the living daylights out of it.  You hear a jazzy rhythm, you hear another melody trying to break through, but the effect works because of a single note, usually a c-sharp, repeated hundreds of times over the space of a few dozen measures.


Now, no one complains that the c-sharp is boring.  “Gershwin should use some other notes.”  No, once you accept the repetition, you can’t get enough of it.  The mystery is inexhaustible.

Musicians have an unusual opportunity to enter the mystery because the tool of repetition is so much a part of our lives.  We practice before we play.  The practice leads us into the spirit of the piece and close to the mind of God.  So, when we play at church, we need to bring the fruit of our repetition with us.  It’s not enough to center at practice; we also need to center at church.  We shouldn’t be singing the life out of music; we need to sing life into it.  We enter into music, and with it we enter the mystery.

There is a danger to choir lofts.  And I don’t mean the danger of falling out of them.  The danger is that no one can see you up there.  You can read a magazine, write a letter, visit with your friends, hunt for music, program a Blackberry – you can do all kinds of things that have nothing to do with the mass.  It’s different outside a loft, down below, where people can see you.  If people can see me when I’m the organist for a service, I’m very conscious about when I open the music, even when I stand up and sit down on the bench.  I try to do it in ways that do not disturb those who can see me, and in ways that I can stay centered on the prayer throughout the church.  If you lead music from the choir loft, people can’t see you.  And the temptation not to center is great and dangerous.

How do you lead other people into the mystery?  With every fiber of your being.  When you are at mass, you pray the mass.  And when you play or sing, it is a seamless action with the responses and silences of the whole body of Christ.  You have used the tool of repetition to assist your music.  Now, when you go to worship, be centered.  You be at prayer while you play and sing.  Others will follow.  [13] Point number one: Notice the mystery.  Point number two: Use the right tools.

Point number three: Be the right person.  The same piece of music will be sung or played by different people in different ways because we bring who we are to the music.  If we are people of integrity, we will be singers of integrity.  I sometimes preside for worship accompanied by musicians who lack refined skills, but they almost all possess something else: integrity as people, faith as believers, and their music, even when it has mistakes, can still be in harmony with God – because of who they are.  To be a good Christian musician, first you have to be a good Christian.  You have to stand before the people with a faith that shapes your life, with struggles of doubt and desires for justice.

In secular music, some of the greatest songs are love songs.  When you’re in love, words alone fail you.  Love needs action.  And love needs music.  If we are singing at church, our music comes alive when we are in love – in love with God and with the body of Christ – the babies who cry, the shy people afraid to sing, the bold people who sing too loud, and even the priest – we have to love everyone.  If we love the body of Christ, our music will take wing.

I have a Jewish friend who plays classical piano for a living.  He’s nearing retirement and getting more interested in religion.  He knows that something spiritual happens when musicians play and sing.  And he talks with them about what is going on.  He asks a very provocative question to other classical pianists.  Here it is: “What do you think about when you play?”  [14] It’s a very personal question.  But it’s a very important question.  Some musicians think about the notes, the phrasing and the beat.  But others work at the big picture.  Still others think about where they’re going right after the service.  I asked him what he thinks about.  He said he tries to express the music as if he were an actor reciting lines.  Even though you’ve rehearsed the lines, you have to say them in a way that makes it sound like you’re thinking them up on the spot, like you’re saying them for the very first time.  He wants to put himself inside the music.

I like that, but I also think the question could be rephrased.  It’s not just a matter of what you think about, but how you feel.  What do you feel when you play or sing?  [15] I think you should feel love.  If you are centered, you are at the mind of God, in the presence of the mystery, and the mystery of God is love.  Love is not just for us.  It transforms us into its messengers.  Through our talent and through our faith we are ambassadors of the love of God. [16] The kind of person we need to be is one who loves.

One morning early in 1924, George Gershwin opened the New York Herald-Tribune and saw an item announcing that he was working on a symphony for Paul Whiteman to perform at a concert for Lincoln’s birthday.  Gershwin was shocked.  He wasn’t writing a symphony.  He’d nearly forgotten that Whiteman had indeed asked for some music, but now with so little time, he set himself to the task.  He decided on a rhapsody, not a symphony, and in three weeks produced the score for Rhapsody in Blue.  How did he do it?  He lived in a world of jazz; he noticed the mystery of music.  He used the tools at his disposal – centering himself on his art for three intense weeks.  And as a person, he became an ambassador for the contribution jazz could make to the world of concert music.

My brothers and sisters, this is our task.  We don’t have to be specialists in rare arts.  We must be specialists in the common art of love.  To enter the mystery sometimes seems impossible, but it is very possible.  God made us for the mystery.  And God’s Spirit will bring us there.

[17] St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “The Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God. . . .  No one knows what pertains to God except the Spirit of God.  We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God.  And we speak about them not with words taught by human wisdom, but with words taught by the Spirit, describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms. . . .  We have the mind of Christ.”[6]

God has freely given us many things.  We discover the spirit of this world through activities like baseball, bratwurst, and Rhapsody in Blue.  But we have received the Spirit who is from God, the Spirit who scrutinizes everything, and who can use the things of the world to help us notice God.  We bring that experience of the world to worship.  And we bring our experience from worship back out to the world.  When that Spirit fills us we become partakers of the divine mystery.  We become the kind of people who bring Christ to the world.

The way we invite people into the mystery is by who we are.  We are Christ.  When we sing and when we play it is Christ who sings and Christ who plays.  We are the body of Christ, and when we abandon ourselves to his mysterious presence – in our prayer, in our work and in our play – our joy will be complete.


This talk was delivered at the national convention of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians in Milwaukee WI on Monday, June 27, 2005.


horizontal rule

[1] Rhapsody in Blue™ is a trade mark of the George Gershwin Family Trust.

[2] Apostolic Letter, On the Coming of the Third Millennium (Tertio millennio adveniente), November 10, 1994, #6.

[3] Exodus 19:16, 18-19.

[4] Hebrews 12:18-19, 21-24.

[5] Helen Langdon, Caravaggio: A Life, p. 258.

[6] 1 Cor 2:10b-16.