Liturgy and Tradition: Liturgical Wisdom from an Unexpected Quarter

I recently came across a 2009 interview with John Darnielle, the frontman (and, at times, only member) of the low-fi/folk/punk/whatever group the Mountain Goats. The interview focuses on their then-recent album The Life of the World to Come, on which each song title is a biblical citation, to which the songs are sometimes more, sometimes less, connected. But what really stood out to me in the interview were Darnielle’s remarks about Catholic liturgy.

When asked about his church-going habits, Darnielle, who describes himself as “about the worst Catholic who ever breathed” (I know a few who could give him a run for his money, including myself on my bad days), notes that he is somewhat irregular in his church-going, and doesn’t always go to Catholic churches, sometimes preferring the more rocking storefront churches one finds in the American south. But then the interviewer asks:

You don’t find Catholic services stultifying? In that you know every single little piece of it and everything that’s coming up next?

Darnielle replies:

Oh, I love it. I love it. I tell you, I think it’s the greatest. It’s like a song you know, but you know it even better. Seriously, I get weak in the knees when we go into the Apostles’ Creed. I think it’s the greatest thing. I grew up with the Vatican II Mass, and you hear songs like “On Eagles’ Wings”…I adore that song. All these hippie 60s Catholicism songs….

That’s the thing about going to the service, if you read it the way that I do. I don’t go to Catholic services as much as I go to the other ones. But if you go, even if you’ve heard it a million times, that challenges you to find something else in it. Because I really, firmly believe–and I don’t think I’m the only one–that your perception of something is limited only by your creative power. Anything you look at or listen to that you say, “Well, I’ve heard all there is to hear about it,” I doubt it. I bet, if you look harder, if you read again, you can find something new. I bet you that’s true week after week after week, if you keep searching–that you can apply a text, a song, a creed to your situation on a given Sunday, every week, for your entire life in a way that just broadens and envelops. And to me, that’s just kind of interesting.

What struck me about Darnielle’s remarks was how much even a self-professed “bad Catholic” can understand about the nature of the liturgy. He senses that it is about a repetition that never grows stultifying but that deepens with time. It is about words and music that sink into your bones and become part of you, not restricting your freedom and creativity but enabling it. It is about an experience that is inexhaustible in its depth and always invites us to seek more. It is about what we bring to the liturgy in terms of out attentiveness and engagement, but it is also about getting swept up in something much, much larger than ourselves: a communally experienced divine energy.

It also seems to me that he recognizes that this is something different (though not entirely divorced) from an aesthetic experience. His enthusiasm for the “hippie 60s Catholicism songs” (most of which are actually from the 70s and early 80s, but never mind that) is not necessarily based on their musical quality, but on the way in which they can stir memory or unite a group of disparate individuals into a single body. In this, it seems to me, that he has a keen appreciation of tradition, not as something learned from books, but as a communally embodied force.

For me, at least, his remarks resonated with my own experience of being suddenly struck by a phrase in liturgy I’ve heard or spoke literally a thousand times, of enthusiastically singing songs that I don’t actually like very much but which mean something to those around me, of finding a home in the liturgy even among those toward whom I might otherwise feel quite alienated by politics, taste, or depth of belief. I like the thought that some Sunday I might find myself standing next to John Darnielle, brothers in bad Catholicism, enthusiastically belting out “Gather us In.”


  1. Wow, Fritz, that’s great. I have to say I subscribe to this GMHopkins’ sort of riff myself, deep, deep down.
    “Everything old is new again.”
    “I make all things new again.”
    What’s so on point is that under this sort of philosophical maxim, genres, styles, forms and all pedagogies sort of become irrelevant. And he’s putting the onus of receptivity not solely upon performer/minister, but upon each congregant. Nice, nice.

  2. Good to know a lyricist can get enthusiastic about the content of the mass. Psalmists and biblical writers mostly demonstrated good mind-hand coordination in knocking out their texts. The cannon of the mass is lyrical too on good days, and yes, every so often the Author, Himself manages to take one by surprise when a familiar word or phrase is heard and somehow feels like it never has before. Bravo!

  3. Wow; this guy’s insight seems to echo unwittingly David Tracy’s definition of the analogical imagination. He gets the Catholic “it.” From the online Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology: “analogical language [is] an interpretation of real-similarities-in-real-difference that focuses on a primary meaning or analogue in its manifestation and seeks to articulate the harmony of meaning in this event in relation to the whole of reality and in particular in relation to the realities of God, the self, other selves, and the world. The harmony achieved in such reflection is not forced and is not a static and univocal uniformity. It is rather a unity-in-difference, always involving negations of any claim to full adequacy, yet perceiving nonetheless an emerging harmony” (Tracy, 1981, 408-13)

  4. He also appreciates the subtle artistry of professional wrestlers such as Macho Man Randy Savage, whose pre-match rants ought, he says, to be “studied the way we study Shakespearean sonnets”:

    Those familiar with hipsters and their penchant for irony and postmodernism will understand John Darnielle’s professed appreciation for “On Eagle’s Wings” for what it is, and perhaps even share this kind of appreciation. We shouldn’t confuse it with profound sincerity, and certainly not with wisdom.

    1. @Robert Bruce:
      I think you might be conflating verbal irony with situational irony. While I have no doubt that Darnielle appreciates the situational irony of finding himself moved by singing “hippie 60s Catholicism songs” in Church, I also have no reason to think that he is anything but sincere in professing to be so moved.

  5. Dusty Rhodes is a worthier subject of study, but he’s spot on about Macho Man. RIP to them both.

    P.S. Hate this dude’s music.

  6. “If you go, even if you’ve heard it a million times, that challenges you to find something else in it.”
    That’s why I (if I’m being good!) keep all books shut while I listen to the readings at Mass. I hardly ever “find something else” in them if I’m reading along.

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