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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  • Posted by: - May. 04, 2006 11:25 PM ET USA

    Note the tragic fate of the fellow on the extreme right. No guitar and the poor fellow's deodorant has hardened on him. Stuck in the Orans posture with no guitar and gummy Arrid Extra Dry soiling his sports coat. Someone should start up a collection.

  • Posted by: - May. 03, 2006 11:54 AM ET USA

    You REALLY need to hear a good classical guitarist play. It is nothing like the pop guitar heard at most churches. Having been in several choirs, I can assure you that your local organist is no less egotistical than Jimmy Hendrix. The problem with a guitar is that it is small and portable. The ego is in full view. The lute was played in churches long before the organ. It is not "despotic instrument" but it might have a despotic guitarist. Guitars in Heaven - Yes. Guitarists - Maybe.

  • Posted by: Moneo - May. 03, 2006 4:44 AM ET USA

    Wasn't "Silent Night" originally composed for Christmas Eve by a guitarist in some German village when the organ broke down just before Midnight Mass? Seem to remember something about "praising God on the lyre and harp" in the OT as well. I agree that folk-rock masses are just BA-A-AAD. The beat is inappropriate and not conducive to prayer. But a classical guitarist playing sacred music is every bit as beautiful as an organ or piano, and just as capable of raising the mind and heart to God.

  • Posted by: - May. 02, 2006 1:09 AM ET USA

    Nichevo writes: "Wow, way to show some humility there. "Obscure and inappropriate"? You could stand a history lesson or two." I am misunderstood. 'Obscure hymns' as in 'few in the cong. know the hymn and, as a result, fail to participate - sometimes even the choir doesn't know the hymn'; and 'inappropriate hymns' as in 'singing the Alleluia during Lent.' It is sad that the comments 'humility' and 'history lesson' were personal and not on point.

  • Posted by: - May. 01, 2006 7:24 PM ET USA

    Cantor Rich, Keith Jarrett on Organ beats Al Dimeola on guitar: The albums consist of improvisations by Jarrett on the "Trinity Organ", the larger of the two Karl Joseph Riepp (1710-1755) Organs at the Benedictine Abbey Ottobeuren.

  • Posted by: Quadratus - May. 01, 2006 3:21 PM ET USA

    Somehow the “Folk Mass” of the sixties and early seventies became the rule as years passed after the Vatican II changes and the New Mass was established to replace the old Tridentine Rite. Today you will see baby boomers in their late fifties and mid sixties playing these guitars in Mass. I guess is a generational thing. In the confirmation class I teach, the youngsters think these old people playing guitars to soft pop music in Church, pretending their hip are ridiculous, I agree with them.

  • Posted by: - May. 01, 2006 2:35 PM ET USA

    My dear Diogenes, i don't know from which side of the bed you got up this a.m., but as one who once was a professional musician, I appreciate the guitar as a fine instrument(in the hands of a competent player). Oh, and I would defy anyone to listen to Paco deLucia or Al diMeola and equate them with 'sissies'. 'Though I must admit that, had I wanted to be a guitarist, I shouldn't have studied organ. And, I will admit, the organ is the perfect instrument for sacred liturgy.

  • Posted by: - May. 01, 2006 2:33 PM ET USA

    That's an interesting point about Roger Scruton. Scruton is also a fan of fox hunting and I can't help but observe that an armed honor guard at Mass could be used to enforce the message that guitarzan strumming Minstrelletos shall keep their musical contributions to themselves. Pull!

  • Posted by: - May. 01, 2006 1:55 PM ET USA

    Diogenes writes: "Spiritually, the guitar is the bedfellow of the kazoo." I could not possibly have put it better! Bravo! Diogenes you are my hero! I suffer with you all when I must attend these liturgical abuse ridden-horrible and distracting masses in order to fulfill my Sunday obligation when I travel from my home parish. Please God deliver us from musical liturgical abuses!

  • Posted by: - May. 01, 2006 1:54 PM ET USA

    two words "Silent Night"

  • Posted by: Charles134 - May. 01, 2006 10:06 AM ET USA

    Uncle Di, as a respite from all the flak you're drawing, might I suggest viewing the scene from Animal House where Stephen Bishop is sitting on the steps serenading some coeds with his guitar. Bluto (John Belushi), clad in a toga and laurel wreath, grabs the guitar out of Bishop's hands, smashes it against the wall, and hands the remains back. Then he just shrugs and offers an unconvincing "Sorry." THAT's how you solve this problem.

  • Posted by: - May. 01, 2006 9:59 AM ET USA

    Pakx writes: "We are ALWAYS better than our 'choir & organ' who sing obscure & inappropriate hymns, too high or too low, too fast or too slow, so that the cong. squirms - even groan - instead of worshipping." Wow, way to show some humility there. "Obscure and inappropriate"? You could stand a history lesson or two. Your attitude make Di's point.

  • Posted by: - May. 01, 2006 4:25 AM ET USA

    Sophistry! Our guitars play from the back. We attract no attention & our sole directive is to get the cong. to participate more fully in the Eucharist. We achieve this by balancing voices and guitars & by singing a wide variety of hymns & styles. We are ALWAYS better than our 'choir & organ' who sing obscure & inappropriate hymns, too high or too low, too fast or too slow, so that the cong. squirms - even groan - instead of worshipping. It is the 'how' that is to blame, not the instrument.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 11:37 PM ET USA

    Yesterday (4.29.06) we had the privilege of attending a day long rertreat seminar given by Father Joseph Fessio on the book The Spirit of the Liturgy written by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope. Read it, ingest it, devour it and all the questions and disputes here will be answered. I thought I had a deep appreciation of the liturgy.....I had barely an inkling. Father Fessio said he will go anywhere to give that seminar.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 10:36 PM ET USA

    I have a test. Go to the Goldberg Early Music site (quick google). Then look up Anatoly Grindenko and listen to some17th century chant from the Monastery of the Dormition of the Mother of God in Volokolamsk, one of the most important spiritual centres of Muscovite Russia. When you're done, and after you have passed out, see how strong your desire is to hear some guitar. I rest my case.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 10:34 PM ET USA

    In 'Modern Culture', Roger Scruton has a good discussion on the aesthetics of guitar. Like Uncle Di, he notes that while in classical music the performer is the means to the music, pop/folk/rock music switches that around - so that the music is the means to the cult of the performer. From memory (my copy is loaned out) he also says that in the guitar chord we do not hear six notes but rather one noise, and the music produced is incapable of subtlety or, for that matter reverence.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 8:20 PM ET USA

    "Accidental medium of the message"? I have four words for you: lex orandi, lex credendi

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 6:46 PM ET USA

    To two posters: Father Zechariah, who has said there’s "no room" for a silent Mass or a Latin Mass? No one. My own personal preference would be for silent Mass. Also, I do love the reverence of the Latin Mass. Still, would I ever ban the guitar or call it a distraction or a hindrance? No way. Jim E, I don’t exactly agree with you but I do certainly see your point. Do people think that they are on “neighborhood watch” when at Mass? What a waste of grace - and energy!

  • Posted by: parochus - Apr. 30, 2006 6:05 PM ET USA

    Somebody hacking D's account again?

  • Posted by: Sidonius - Apr. 30, 2006 5:59 PM ET USA

    The great R.A.Lafferty posited that at the last judgment nations as well as individuals will be judged. Saint Teresa of Avila will be judged for Spain - and Spain will be forgiven for inventing the guitar.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 5:51 PM ET USA

    I'm sorry. Whenever I see a guitar at Mass, I always think of Ray Stevens and Guitarzan -- he's a guitarman, all you can stand, guitarzan. Off to confession now.

  • Posted by: Te_Deum - Apr. 30, 2006 4:01 PM ET USA

    I spent a life time listening to, and even playing in folk bands at Church. The problem with the guitar music is that it is often all there is in many parishes. Or, the piano. How many parishes offer even one Mass weekly where there is sacred polyphony with organ? Or, heaven forbid, real Gregorian Chant? Is th Church big enough for guitar music? It's already over-saturated with it here in the US. I would ask, is there any room for sacred polyphony and Gregorian Chant?

  • Posted by: Jim E - Apr. 30, 2006 3:40 PM ET USA

    Wow! It is interesting to note how often that the two extremes meet and agree. The Holloween, clown priest and the conservative commentator both focus on the accidental medium of the message and miss the material substance of the Mass - the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Hate to tell you Di, but the Mass is all about Christ, not guitars, clown outfits, etc.. You and the anything goes clergy are really very much alike.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 3:35 PM ET USA

    Guitar music if it is delivered with a strong beat isnot appropriate for Mass. A classical guitarist --picking only individual notes softly can be acceptable for a Mass. Otherwise, leave the guitar out of the liturgy. Dancing likewise has NO place at Mass. Let the chant resume its place at liturgical celebrations.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 2:58 PM ET USA

    If you wish to make yourself popular next Sunday, suggest that a condom over the guitar would strike the right note. Cheri Blair will be glad to help.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 2:47 PM ET USA

    Here's some old Latin for you, frjimc, it's spelled DISPUTANDUM, not disputandEm.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 2:45 PM ET USA

    And as another "oh by the way" the most appropriate place for the choir and the other music ministers is in the choir loft where they can sing over us, not at the front of the church where they do nothing but "perform" and compete for our attention over against the Sacrifice taking place on the altar.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 2:42 PM ET USA

    In defense of Uncle Di, he did nail the soul of the issue. The guitar is a secular icon in our society, and the way it is played in most parishes venerates that icon. It goes hand in hand with the sappy, pop ditties that pass as sacred music today. Our kids today think "Gifts of finest wheat" is classical Catholic music, but have never heard "Ave verum corpus." I again refer you to the authoritative document "Musican Sacram" and "Sacrosanctum Concilium." These documents are definitive.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 2:22 PM ET USA

    The guitar (sanskrit "sitar", German "zither") has a lot of recent unfortunate baggage derived from its central role in the Volkslied movement and thence to the Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger movement. But, consider it is the only musical instrument mentioned in the Ordinary of the Mass: "Confitebor tibi in cithara Deus, Deus meus: quare tristes es anima mea et quare conturbas me?, etc." Hey, maybe that's why the anima is trista. Ya think?

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 2:19 PM ET USA

    One more voice against Di -very unusual for me! I have no prior prejudice against guitars, no negative associations; I have heard beautiful, inspiring religious music played to a guitar, and in a way that led the listener to focus on the LYRICS -which were uplifting and orthodox- not on the player. Di, this one's all about subjective feelings and personal preferences; there is NOTHING objectively wrong with a guitar at Mass -unless the priest is playing!!!

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 2:11 PM ET USA

    The guitar is capable of solemn music. If accompanying chant I would say that the organ is the clear winner over all others since it can hold a note without attentuation of the signal, but that doesn't detract from the ability of the other instruments. I've been to Mass where the guitar was done well and where it was done bad - same for the piano and organ. The key seems to be hiding the player in a choir loft or pit and make sure they are capable of the instrument before they ruin the Mass.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 1:34 PM ET USA

    If we belong to a big church, why isn't there room enough for a silent Mass and for a Latin Mass. Having heard all kinds of music, as the celbrant, I think there is more reverence to be found in silence.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 12:14 PM ET USA

    Diogenes - looks like some dues-paying members of the Guitar Player's Union have got you in their sights! Oh well, guitars are still for sissies . . . .

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 11:42 AM ET USA

    My guess is that the poster pays way too much attention to visual input at Mass. (Stop looking?) Ban guitars? Put sacks on the heads of guitarists and tie them into chairs? Come on, please. I couldn't tell you how any guitarist looked during the Masses I've attended. Like any portable, inexpensive instrument, the guitar can be used to add a musical component to Mass; without guitars there'd be no music ministry in some poorer parishes and regions of the Church. We belong to a BIG Church!

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 10:37 AM ET USA

    I get it - you don't like guitars. But your argument is classically fallacious. None of what you posit is fact; all of it is your personal feelings . . . and not a little of it is WILD projection on your part. Only God can KNOW the heart's interior, yet you claim that every guitarist is ego- and sex-driven. How arrogant is that? There's an old Latin saying: De gustibus non disputandem est. Figure it out, Di, and ask yourself as to whether it might be the soul of your objection to guitars.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 9:46 AM ET USA

    Yet another ridiculous diatribe from diogenes. You may not like the guitar but it has nothing to do with what direction the priest is facing while celebrating Mass. The same silly arguments were made against the organ when it was introduced. You need to find something else to worry about, like curing hunger or something.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 9:27 AM ET USA

    It's the face. The organist is intent on the music before him or on the keys of the instrument. The face is uninteresting. The guitarist, however, cannot help but assume various wistful or distracted facial expressions, eyeballs half-lidded, to demonstrate his/her deep soulfulness to the listeners while he plays. This face screams "Look at ME, see how SOULFUL I am! Can you FEEL what I FEEL as I play?" Oh, go away.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 9:23 AM ET USA

    Di, I can understand the emotions behind your diatribe. However, I also know that it is not the guitar (an inanimate instrument), but the way it is played, that drives you wild. I can tell you from personal experience, as an organist, that it is possible to combine the two sounds -- organ and acoustical guitar. The sound is nice particularly if the players are not performers, but simply assist other worshipers at Holy Mass. Electric guitar should be forbidden.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 9:01 AM ET USA

    I couldn't disagree more! Before I became Catholic, I grew up in churches that had guitar music. While it can be abused, it can also be used in such a way that it glorifies God. I don't believe that I or those I went to church with were concentrating on the guitarists, we were concentrating on the Lord! Be careful that not to let your misconceptions prejudice you against the possiblity of good in something. Just because Catholics can't seem to get music right, doesn't mean it can't be done.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 8:40 AM ET USA

    And by the way...I wish they'd ban it completely, too.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 8:39 AM ET USA

    The neglected citation, Uncle Di, is to Musicam Sacram which states that those in musical ministry must have attained to a high degree of technical skill. Throw a guy a guitar and teach him five or six chords and he can be strummin' along next Sunday. Unbelievable. If the guitar is to be used at Mass, it should be with the strict order that the instrument is to be finger picked with great technical skill, and never, ever strummed.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 8:33 AM ET USA

    "Liturgical music should not focus attention on itself and should focus even less on the performer." I agree. I also believe that the musical instrument should never be blamed for the antics of the instrumenalist. I kind of like the sound of a guitar, when played in a reverent way, during Mass.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 30, 2006 8:16 AM ET USA

    The guitar is the perfect instrument for Mass said facing the people; an organ, the perfect instrument for Mass said facing the Lord. As you can guess, I would like more facing the Lord and less (a lot less) facing the people. That said, Di Disses classical guitarists a mite excessively; I've eaten dinner to accompaniment by a trained classical guitarist (Spanish) and I, indeed, enjoyed it.