Most of the sacred music in my childhood church— Our Lady of Czestochowa, a small Polish church in Massachusetts—was joyful. The words were frequently in Latin or Polish, but the melodies of the “Gloria” (sung over the ceaseless ringing of bells and gongs) and “Maryjo, Królowo Polski” (Mary, Queen of Poland) beautifully conveyed the triumph and peace of the light of faith, even at a time when I didn’t fully feel it or understand it.
But there were times when the music very consciously turned to the shadow side of that light, especially during Lent. Then the church would fill up with a very different sound: that of anguish and sadness. “Gorzkie Żale” (Bitter Lamentations) is an eighteenth century Polish devotion that reflects on the Passion of Christ and the sorrows of Mary. The opening words of the central hymn, translated to English, are as dark as you might expect:
Let us pray in contemplation,
While we sing this lamentation.
With eyes tearful, hearts repenting,
Let us grieve with no relenting.
Lo, the sun and stars are fading;
sadness, nature all pervading.
Host of Angels, sadly weeping,
Who’ll explain their deep bereaving?
Mountains, cliffs and rocks are crumbling;
Sealed tombs open, loudly thundering.
Why such sorrow, desolation
Overwhelming all creation?
Something about that really got my attention. But as the years went by, I realized that my little Polish church was the exception, not the rule. This kind of gothic music about sin, sacrifice, and suffering was scarce in most churches, even during penitential seasons. The unwritten rule for music was the same as for homiletics, religious education, and theology: accentuate the positive. The more sentimental strumming and warbling I heard, the more the plaintive sounds of my home church became a distant memory.
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