Dona Nobis Pack Meeting: On the Sanctity of Ordinariness in LDS Worship

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Dona Nobis Pacem (Latin for “Grant us peace”) is a phrase in the Agnus Dei section of the Roman Catholic mass. The phrase has also been used as the name for a number of important choral works (examples here, here, and here).

 

I am coming to the end of an eight-year stint as a senior administrator at a Catholic university. One of the genuine pleasures of this position has been my frequent attendance at Catholic mass. I attend regularly in our university chapel, but have also attended mass in magnificent cathedrals, 500-year-old churches, and, on one occasion, a spectacular outdoor venue in Birmingham, England, celebrated by the Pope. The much more modest Easter service in our ward yesterday prompted me to reflect more deeply on the two forms of weekly worship that have been an important part of my life for nearly a decade.

I love the mass. It is a religious ceremony designed to create a sacred space for reflection and adoration. All of its traditional elements—the architecture of cathedrals, the elevated language, the ritual call-and-response, the beautiful music, the incense, the liturgical vestments—combine to separate parishioners from the ordinary world and make the religious experience something extraordinary and sacred. Latter-day Saints experience something similar when we attend the temple.

We do not, though, experience it in our weekly meetings, which are about as far from a Catholic mass as one can get while still staying within the genre of “worship service.” LDS buildings are functional, but not beautiful. People come to Church wearing normal business clothing and take turns giving conversational sermons and unrehearsed prayers. Nobody ever burns incense or says anything in Latin, and anyone bold enough to show up wearing a dalmatic or a chasuble would be asked to leave the building.

I am not complaining. Just as I love the extraordinariness of the mass, I love the ordinariness of the Sacrament Meeting. More specifically, I love the way that LDS worship conventions sanctify the ordinary by investing unexceptional buildings, talks, music, lessons, and prayers with extraordinary spiritual significance–as everybody who participates in these functions believes that they have been called by God, through inspiration, to fulfill some function in the body of Christ.

For just one example, let’s consider the music of worship. I have an almost fanatical love for the music of the traditional Latin mass—the five-part choral composition that sets the traditional Latin liturgy to music. Most of the great composers of the past 500 years have written such masses, which account for no small part of the Western canon of choral literature. For several years, I have listened to at least one choral mass every Sunday as part of my private devotion, and two of them (here and here) played a crucial role in my own observance of Easter this year. As far as I am concerned, this is the reason that God revealed Spotify.

However, I know with every fiber of my being that great music for the ages will never be produced in my ward’s priesthood opening exercises, where one of the youth regularly chooses a hymn that few people know and conducts without musical accompaniment while 30 high priests and elders struggle to find the melody line. Nor will such music come from the Cub Scout pack meetings in my previous ward, where the music director/den mother conducted with one hand while holding a toddler in the other. Bach would not have been Bach if he had been required to hold a screaming toddler in one hand every time that he tried to compose.

But that’s OK. The music in our services is not supposed to create an otherworldly sphere that sets the worship of God apart from all other human endeavors. That is not its job. It does something different, but no less valuable: it reminds us that we can find space for God in the middle of all of our daily chores—even if we can’t find the melody line or convince our children to stay still long enough for us to conduct a song. If we are going to become a people who pray always and worship God in all places, we are going to have to get used to doing so while a whole lot of other things are going on.

Mormon worship outside of the temple does not separate the sacred from the quotidian. Rather, it sanctifies the ordinary and reminds us that we do not need special rooms or dramatic spectacle for our worship to be acceptable to God. The most ordinary moments of our day can be as holy as our time in the temple.

Comments

  1. To much holy envy here to concur fully. I just can’t make the music in our services “no less valuable.” But what I can appreciate is that a low church service enhances the importance of each individual. It’s not the man or woman in robes standing in front who’s most important. (And maybe not even the God who stands behind the man or woman in robes??) But it’s the 13-year old young woman bearing her testimony who is in that moment seen as an important and valuable and treasured daughter of God.
    It’s not irrelevant that when we do separate the sacred from the quotidian, everybody’s in robes.

  2. Great post!

    I have never considered this perspective. I do agree though, that the ordinariness of our church service allows us to more readily relate to the divine in our daily lives.

    The Catholics have us beat on architecture though. No doubt about that.

  3. eponymous says:

    I don’t know, the dolmatic and the chasubles are no more exotic than some of the dresses I’ve seen some wear to Sacrament meeting. Pretty tame as a matter of fact. Last I checked we invite all to join us no matter how they are dressed. At least that’s how it works in our Ward.

  4. Hope Wiltfong says:

    Love your observations – thanks for sharing them.

  5. I appreciate this post very much; a new perspective to consider. Having converted to the church from a higher practicing United Methodist church, I often sit in sacrament meetings longing, begging, straining to encounter the divine. I miss the call and response, the choir and music and stirring tradition. I have spent too much time counting the minutes and saying silent prayers in attempts to survive rowdy sacrament meetings and mundane talks. This concept of melding the ‘ordinariness’ and sacredness is something I will ponder and make a practice. Thank you.

  6. Jason K. says:

    This high church Mormon thanks you for the perspective.

  7. The Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary offers these relevant definitions of “worship”:
    2:reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power; also: an act of expressing such reverence
    3: a form of religious practice with its creed and ritual

    You have noted that the Catholic mass can match the first of these two and provide a worship “experience [that is] extraordinary and sacred.” But, of course, as in the Cathedral-Basilica in Santa Fe, New Mexico, it can also fail to do so. There the parish insists on using music sung by a pop-singer with a poor voice amplified so loudly that it is painful to hear, while she is accompanied by piano (pounding rhythms and glissandi included), a drum set, and sometimes marimba. To me that music screams: “look at me trying to lead you in praising God with sounds so offensive and out-of-place that you should not come back.” My Catholic friends tell me such music is not a rarity in other parishes, though your experience has been different.

    You note that “Latter-day Saints experience something similar [to the extraordinary and sacred] when we attend the temple.” I have heard many such reports, but have struggled with our common term “temple worship” because I always had in mind “reverence offered” to God or “an act of expressing such reverence” when the primary definition for both LDS temples and sacrament meetings turns out to be “a form of religious practice [or] ritual.”

    There are also many reports of Latter-Day Saints who do not experience any such extraordinary or sacred worship in our temples. The temple ordinances are not focused on reverence offered to God. For some, the initiatory and endowment ordinances are depressingly akin to the trials and tribulations they endure in the world (not in worship), and, for worship purposes, are something to be endured in order to have moments of “reverence and communion] offered” to God in the celestial room, generally the only place in LDS buildings where quiet communion with the Lord is possible. When I feel a need for communal rather than individual worship in the first Merriam-Webster sense noted above, I must go find it at one of the local Lutheran or Methodist or Presbyterian churches or at the Episcopal cathedral where I may hear different, but no more, false doctrine than I do in my own LDS congregation. (Often I hear sermons that could be transplanted to sacrament meeting with no change and be more instructive and inspiring that what I commonly hear in sacrament meetings or stake conferences.)

    You note, “The music in our services is not supposed to create an otherworldly sphere that sets the worship of God apart from all other human endeavors.” There remains the question what it is supposed to do. It seems to serve some positive function for some, but for others like me it is usually something to be painfully endured. For some faithful Latter-Day Saints, “LDS worship conventions [do not] sanctify the ordinary by investing unexceptional buildings, talks, music, lessons, and prayers with extraordinary spiritual significance…” Instead, they are burdens to be suffered from duty, from desire to partake of the sacrament, or for love of the people trying to become a Zion community and to incorporate our “forms of religious practice” into their over-busy lives. If the idea that those conventions, “invest unexceptional buildings, talks, music, lessons, and prayers with extraordinary spiritual significance” helps you to endure the burden of poor talks, often on subjects irrelevant to worship in the sense of reverence to God, or to endure bad music badly done, and boringly repetitive, sophomoric lessons, then it is a useful idea. So far I have found it more helpful to reduce my expectation of a meaningful LDS worship experience to zero. Then I find that I am pleasantly surprised and inspired by at least something at church each Sunday, while finding my own worship experiences elsewhere. I’m going to try out your idea. Thanks.

  8. I like your perspective. As much as I complain about Mormon worship services, they are what make us us, and the bottom line is that I love us. Familiarity breeds fondness as well as contempt.

  9. I did not mean to end on “contempt,” though. I wish to emphasize the fondness today.

  10. This is from page 274 of Gail Godwin’s novel Father Melancholy’s Daughter:

    “There was a Jesuit studying with me in Zurich, at the Institute. I once asked him, ‘What if you as a priest stopped believing? What would you do then?’ ‘Make a fist in my pocket,’ he said, ‘and go on with the ritual.'”

    So, that’s one thing for which ritual is handy. Don’t knock it.

  11. gst: Wouldn’t dream of knocking it. I love ritual, of both the Mormon and Catholic variety. As to the priest who has stopped believing, are you familiar with Miguel de Unamuno’s novella, “Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr”? It was one of the stories that changed my life.

  12. Michael, I will seek it out, thanks.

    I did appreciate your post.

  13. Kristine says:

    Best. Title. Ever.

  14. This is a tough one for me. My training is as an organist, which has given me a good degree of exposure to church music and Christian traditions in general. I have even worked as a paid organist in other churches and have found that experience to be extremely fulfilling. I have a deep love of sacred organ and choral music and of hymns and hymn-singing. I am drawn to beauty and ritual and musical excellence. On a cognitive level, I understand and can even appreciate the way things are done in an LDS setting. I’ve had some personal insights comfort me in challenging moments as I’ve remembered that the Lord appreciates the Widow’s Mite over the more obvious riches of those who appear to be more talented and worthy than others, and this humbles me as I strive to appreciate the gifts of everyone who is asked to serve in the Church.

    With that said, Sacrament Meeting is hard for me. I can handle the lack of visual adornments in our chapels (though it sure would help my daughter with adhd to have something to look at). I can handle the variety of speaking abilities. I can even handle the relatively casual atmosphere, although I adore ritual–I love the entire concept of liturgy and think it so beautiful. But I struggle to handle the musical mediocrity that surrounds me. By that, I don’t mean that everything should be absolute perfection. I don’t mean that we need to have a semi-professional choir or organist for the music to be meaningful. I just mean that we should care more about it and put more effort into it. Music is the primary vehicle for me to feel the Spirit, and 90% of the time, it falls flat. It starts with things as basic as hymn selection. When I see a hymnal filled with beautiful, poetic texts and inspiring tunes, yet we sing week after week nothing but catchy “sunshine songs”, I want to cry. I want to cry for what I am missing and for what we as a congregation could have. I want to cry that our congregation has no choir (even though we could support one–I have even offered to lead one, but the leaders don’t seem interested in pursuing the idea). I want to cry that we have no special musical selections, although there are plenty of people in our congregation that would be capable of providing them. This is not a talent issue, this is a leadership and organizational issue. We have some talent, and there is also room for people to grow who have potential but may currently lack skills. But someone with a vision has to care enough to want it to happen. And I have not seen that in our current branch, nor our previous ward where we lived for ten years. I feel like my hands are tied; that unless I am called to a position of responsibility over music, there is not much I can do without appearing to be pushy.

    I do want my Sacrament Meeting music experience to be “other-worldly” and to “set the worship of God apart from all other human endeavors”. The temple experience does not provide that, probably because there is no opportunity for the worshiper to participate in the music offering there and also because the temple music isn’t really all that great.

  15. Only 90% failure?! You’re lucky. Our Church occasionally preaches the importance of music in our worship services, but with rare exceptions (most notably the Tabernacle and the Conference Center), we need to face the fact that it is not important — or at least less important than every other Church program, meeting, etc. Importance can be measured by the resources dedicated to it in time, building use, training, and choir budget. In most wards I’ve seen, it is simply not important at all. I am grateful for the exceptions, though they come and go in my ward depending upon who the ward music chairman and the choir director are.

  16. Hehe, JR. I was being generous when I said 90%. Amen to the rest of your post. In my last stake, I offered several times over the years to conduct organ training courses. I had three years’ experience in graduate school teaching group organ classes designed for LDS organists. I had the know-how to do this and do it effectively. Every time I was told no by our stake leaders People are too busy, we can’t impose on their time for one more thing. Yet I would go down to the church on a Saturday afternoon and hear the poor, struggling organist practicing and not really improving. She was putting in the time. She was obviously not too busy, and she obviously cared about her calling. So why deprive her of the opportunity to learn how to be more effective at it? I also knew that a neighboring stake with similar demographics to our had hosted a 8-week organ course and had over 20 people complete it. I did not buy the excuse that people were not interested or would be too busy. It was just not a priority for our stake leaders. I stopped offering because it was clear they didn’t think it important, and to continue to push the issue would feel out-of-line.

  17. I should clarify that the organist in question was not in my ward, and I had never met her, therefore I didn’t feel comfortable barging in and saying, “Hey, let me show you some things.” In my own ward, I did teach and help people privately.

  18. Michael, could you please explain, briefly, how you are using the masses in your private devotions?