Last week I went to see the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at St. Paul’s Basilica in Toronto. The program was essentially taken from Orthodox and Catholic and worship. One new piece, commissioned for the evening, consisted of the first three parts of the Rosary: The Sign of the Cross, the Credo and the Our Father.
Much of classical music is essentially the elements of the Mass, biblical readings and prayer. Nothing new in that; Bach was doing it centuries ago.
The choir is best known for its work with the Estonian composer Arvo Part, a brilliant modern-day composer and a deeply Orthodox Christian whose music belies his faith.
It was a stunning concert, full of holiness and beauty.
There was, however, one glitch. It was not enough to spoil my evening but enough to cause a minor irritation — like an itch on a part of my back that my arms could not reach.
I apologize for not knowing the name of the man who came up to introduce the program. He represented the Toronto company that put on the production. He seemed a gentleman, truly enthusiastic about the music to come.
He began by reminding everyone that we were on sacred ground.
For a moment I thought he might make reference to the place the concert was held, St. Paul’s Basilica. To me as a Catholic, this is sacred space. To others it may not have been their holy space but surely everyone present must obviously have noticed the physical homage to God.
Instead, this gentleman talked about the sacred space we were on, which was once native land. He mentioned several tribes and moved on. My buddy who came with me and is involved in a lot of the arts in Toronto told me this tip-of-the hat to the original native groups has become standard operating procedure with local arts events.
I have no problem with that. Reminding people of who came before seems a wonderful thing to do.
But I do have a problem with him not acknowledging the sacred space that we were in on that day. I should not have been surprised. So many people treat religion today as a hobby or some weird pastime practiced by slightly dim adults and their unfortunate brainwashed children.
What he should have done, not out of any false religiosity but out of simple respect for the surroundings and for the people who love the Church, was given a quick visual tour of why this church, any church, is truly sacred.
He could have taken a moment to point out the red candle above the tabernacle indicating where the Blessed Sacrament was being kept and that for those who believe, those consecrated hosts are indeed the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. He might have pointed his finger around the basilica to note the Stations of the Cross or some piece of holy art, such as the gigantic mural of Saul being struck down on his way to Damascus. He could have read the words below the mural, too: “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me.”
During the intermission, I turned to the person on my left who mentioned she was of Finnish background. She mentioned that Finns and Estonians have much in common. So I asked her whether any of the words that were sung before the intermission were ever sung in Lutheran churches, which dominate the Baltic region. She looked a bit bemused and she said, “I’ve been to a lot of Lutheran services but it’s all “blah, blah, blah to me.”
I heard a couple behind me trying to figure out why the creed was being sung twice and what the creed was. I explained that one was the Apostle’s Creed and the other the Nicene. They were genuinely interested and the woman said to me, “My father used to know all this stuff.” Dear old Dad. So quaint.
So many people treat religion as a hobby or an antique, that I was not really surprised. But still I wondered what has happened to people’s curiosity and their sense of the divine.
The concert was beautiful. The holy words of the music easily climbed above the morass of ignorance. It is just too bad that so many in attendance were hearing blah, blah, blah instead of, “I believe in God…”
Charles Lewis is a regular contributor to The Catholic Register and a board member of the Catholic Civil Rights League. He has been writing for 36 years. He was also the religion reporter for the National Post until January 2014.
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