Nothing in Heaven Functions as It Ought

Timothy Dusenbury, graduate student in liturgical music at Saint John’s University School of Theology•Seminary, sent in this poem. It’s dedicated to all of us liturgical perfectionists who want the liturgy to be a foretaste of heaven. – awr

Nothing in Heaven functions as it ought:
Peter’s bifocals, blindly sat on, crack;
His gates lurch wide with the cackle of a cock,
Not turn with a hush of gold as Milton had thought;
Gangs of the slaughtered innocents keep huffing
The nimbus off the Venerable Bede
Like that of an old dandelion gone to seed;
And the beatific choir keep breaking up, coughing.
But Hell, sleek Hell, hath no freewheeling part:
None takes his own sweet time, none quickens pace.
Ask anyone, “How come you here, poor heart?”—
And he will slot a quarter through his face.
You’ll hear an instant click, a tear will start
Imprinted with an abstract of his case.

– X.J. Kennedy


  1. Two years ago I had to opportunity to attend daily Mass in St. Peter’s every day for a week. 7 AM each day, and the altars were already abuzz with Masses. One could hear alternately Dominus vobiscum, pregate fratelli e sorelle …, praeceptis salutaribus moniti …, il Signore Dio vi benedica …, as a pleasant liturgical cacophony settled over the basilica. Laypersons and clergy both walked among the side altars chatting not-so-softly; tourists pointed and clicked cameras. All the while, I stood close to the altar as the priest recited the Offertory quietly and with some haste, as perhaps he had a class right after Mass. Indeed, his Masses ended at precisely the same time every day.

    The haphazard display of Masses in St. Peters, combined with basilica’s emotional and spiritual gravity, reminds me why I have always had great difficulty with the segment of the liturgical movement which wishes to engineer every moment of the Mass. Did I sin when, on the second day, I took my rosary out at the beginning of Mass only to stop to hear the readings? No! My whispered beads added to the great and profound liturgical turba of the great church. I did not need a worship resource or hymn lyrics projected onto a screen to more fully participate. All that I needed to participate in the center of the Catholic liturgical universe were listening ears and focused eyes.

    Mass calls out for much less perfection than some expect of it. Indeed, Mass should be a blessedly unprogrammed experience. I, with my rosary, another with his or her prayerbook — knowledge is often not found just in responses and singing alone. Why must all display piety in the same way as we all stand around Calvary?

  2. Funny to read this post today… During the opening hymn at weekday mass this morning, there was a strange slinky-effect as the organist played the hymn as printed in 4/4, while the miked vocalist did her best to sing it in 3/4 (equal measures, not equal quarter notes). (At the concluding hymn, they pulled themselves together to execute “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness” flawlessly in the printed 5/4, go figure.)

    I was there to pray for my brother-in-law, today having his third radiation treatment for brain tumors. (Maybe some of you will be kind enough to pray for him too.) The prayer of the congregation was none the worse for the musical mishap. Mass (like much of human life) is not only about executing triple jumps and “sticking the landing.”

  3. A fine and fun companion for Emily Dickinson’s “Why—do they shut Me out of Heaven? Did I sing—too loud?”

  4. I dropped in to Mary Major’s Basilica here in Rome last Saturday evening and Mass was about to begin. When it finally did it was singularly uninspiring on an aesthetic level. The sister organist/cantoress began the Italian version of “Praise to the Lord, the almighty, the King of Creation” (Lobe den Herrn). Every time she reached the fifth bar of the 1st and 2nd lines of each and every stanza (corresponding with the “a” of Creation) she made it a 2/4 bar instead of a 3/4 bar which jarred unbelievably badly, you have no idea, and upset the people’s ability to sing along easily. The liturgy there must be one of the best organised in the city of Rome, but on a Saturday evening with that and the priest reading out rubric after rubric and none of the Ordinary sung…oh well. Far from “perfect”.

  5. So, just what is everyone’s idea — which of course will differ from person to person — of heavenly liturgy that is perfect?

  6. Fergus Ryan – I’ve heard that jarring practice once before, on a radio broadcast. I speculate it must be some sort of now-obsolete practice or variant. I don’t know the history of the hymn tune but maybe the version we all know has been “regularized”?

    1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #6:

      Indeed. Many German chorale tunes have rhythmic versions as well as isometric or, to use Jim’s word, “regularized” versions. Perhaps the most famous of these is EIN FESTE BURG, Luther’s tune for “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Twenty-eight years ago GIA included both versions in Worship III. Only the regularized tune made it into Worship IV.

      I’m not aware that any current denominational hymnal in the USA uses the rhythmic version of LOBE DEN HERREN (“Praise to the Lord”). However, it does exist. Check the following site, third line of musical scores, the third item with the two staves:

  7. I just remembered a memory from my youth. I still laugh about it.

    The organist and cantor were singing “Be Not Afraid.” However, they weren’t singing what was written. Instead of singing the normal notation, they decided to even out all the notes; all the words were sung as if people were marching.

  8. I just remembered a memory from my youth. I still laugh about it.

    The organist and cantor were singing “Be Not Afraid.” However, they weren’t singing the normal music notation.. Instead of singing the normal notation, they decided to even out all the notes; all the words were sung as if people were marching.

    Being an “exceptional” good Catholic family at the time, we sat in the last pew, right next to the door. I still remember people’s head bobbing up and down as they were singing. “IF-YOU-PASS- THROUGH- RAG-ING-WA-TERS-IN-THE-SEA (breathe 2, 3)- YOUSHALLNOTDROWN (breathe 2, 3)…”

    Heck, at least we were singing.

  9. @ Ron Krisman @ Jim Pauwels. It was nothing like that. She was just plain wrong, wrong, wrong! I’m convinced she was playing from memory or at least from the very basic national directory repertoire that actually exists in Italy but got it wrong!

    1. @Fergus Ryan – comment #10:

      “She was just plain wrong, wrong, wrong!”

      Or perhaps her rendition was intended as a foretaste of heaven where nothing functions as it ought.


      Out of tune music in the liturgy doesn’t bother me so much (not sure what that says about my musicality); I just need to do my best to keep self from giggling out too loud when it happens.

      It’s much harder to shrug/laugh off certain, out of tune homilies, though, which can and do ruin the whole experience for my poor heart.

  10. To an extent, we modern-day liturgists have caved into the modern tendency of imaging the heavenly liturgy (of which we are ALREADY a part, not merely REHEARSING for!!) in terms of having our personal tastes gratified. This keeps in step with the ongoing language of heaven being the place where I can eat all the pizza I want, play the never-ending , get to meet Mozart/St. Francis/Fanny Brice, etc. I suppose it’s part of the Sin of Eden – in which we re-image God in our image – to make heaven in our image as much as we do everything.
    Isn’t the heavenly liturgy everyone joined in praise of the divine glory for all eternity? That can ONLY function properly!

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