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guitar as liturgical abomination

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Apr 30, 2006

Like many Catholics, I detest the use of a guitar at Mass. Yet my loathing is unconnected to strong feelings about the (extra-liturgical) instrument itself or to revulsion or attraction regarding the music actually performed. Perhaps I'm not alone in this either. What is it about the guitar that makes it so wrong?

A very partial and unsatisfactory answer has to do with its pedigree. Most of us became aware of guitars not through the chamber music of Segovia and Bream but through the culture of pop, rock, folk. This music is inseparable from a political culture, an ideology, that is dismissive of, where not actively hostile to, the virtues of purity, temperance, piety, obedience, &c. that most of us want foregrounded in church as part of an atmosphere of devotion. Regardless of the hymn accompanied, the sight of the "minister of music" lapsing into that chin-back rock star mode with the conventional pelvic nudge to the guitar is not conducive to worship.

Yet the folk guitar is also a symbol of soulful pacifism (iconically, within pop culture, it stands for a kind of anti-rifle) which is not itself intrinsically destructive of religion. Thus we have to dig deeper to explain how it is that even a veiled and habited nun, seated on her folding chair as she plays, is tolerable on the school lawn surrounded by kindergarteners but insufferable at Mass. To my ear, at least, there's something undetachably juvenile about the sounds produced by a guitar, ignorable only in Bach instrumental pieces and not always then. That means whatever is being communicated by the music cannot be understood as serious or important. Spiritually, the guitar is the bedfellow of the kazoo.

But most importantly (and most mysteriously), the guitar calls attention to the performer in a way true of no other instrument. I find it a baffling but undeniable fact that the person of the guitarist is front-and-center even when he is not visible to his audience. Think of it this way: you can imagine a restaurant in which a pianist plays background music while the diners quietly chat to one another. It couldn't happen with a guitar, because the guitar is a despotic instrument. The audience might sing along or might offer silent appreciation, but to give only partial attention to a performing guitarist would be an insult: either he would brow-beat his hearers into silence or he would leave in a huff. Again, this is puzzling because it seems unconnected to the personal vanity or humility of the musician. The busker playing a saxophone on the street corner doesn't notice when you walk by him talking to your companion; walk past a guitarist while you're chatting and he glares at you.

And that's as close as I can get to pinpointing the wrongness of the guitar. Liturgical music should not focus attention on itself and should focus even less on the performer. It should be transparent in the sense of allowing attention to pass through itself so as to fix on something beyond. It should be an aid to the congregation in lifting its thoughts to God: not in competition with, but subsumed by, the sacred action of the Mass. Yet the guitar is by nature insubordinate. It won't let itself be subsumed. It won't take second place to anything but the guitarist. No matter how humble or holy the person who takes it in hand, the guitar is the Altar of the Self-Exalting Autonomous Ego, and that's why it doesn't belong in church. It can't fit with the altar already there.

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