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?
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.”