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.