A Path into the Realm of Silence

Sacred Music and Approaching the Divine

By Fr. Ian Andrew Palko, SSPX

The devil, in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, informs his interlocutor that while heaven is full of either music or silence, “no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise.”1 St. Augustine would be in agreement, writing that “[t]he peace of the heavenly city is the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God, and of one another in God,” and that “peace…is the tranquility of order.” The joy of heaven then is expressed in the harmony of which music is a perfect analogy, and silence, in which there is such perfection that nothing can quite express this perfection except a silent awe and adoration.

As opposed to this “infernal noise” of Hell, writes Joseph Pieper, “music is alone in creating a particular kind of silence,” for “[i]t makes a listening silence possible.” Music “opens up a great, perfectly dimensioned space of silence within which, when things come about happily, a reality can dawn which ranks higher than music.”2

Philosophers have long understood the importance of the contemplation of transcendent beauty as expressed in art, in particular in the fine art called music. Plato writes that “[b]eginning from obvious beauties man must for the sake of that highest beauty be ever climbing aloft…at last to that particular study which is concerned with the beautiful itself and that alone.”3 By this, he says, man comes to know what is Essential Beauty—that is, the Divinity itself. “In that state of life above all others… a man finds it truly worthwhile to live, as he contemplates essential beauty.”4

While the philosophers are concerned with essential beauty, “music prompts the philosopher’s continued interest because it is by its nature so close to the fundamentals of human existence.5

The Church has long also understood the role music plays in man’s contemplation of God with the fourth pope, St. Clement, already laying down rules for the right use of sacred music.6 So important was this topic that popes addressed it early and often, despite persecutions, and well ahead of even the solutions to fundamental theological problems such as the two natures of Christ, human and divine. Since before the end of the first century, popes have frequently given instruction on the use of music in the Church, principally to encourage the contemplation it engenders and to preserve the liturgy from artistic influences that might interfere with said contemplation. They have wanted to well order this fundamental part of Christian worship so that there is harmony, and thus, peace—so that the image of the Heavenly Jerusalem, “Blessed City of Peace,” is symbolized in the liturgy in each church.

The Purpose of Sacred Music in the Liturgy

Music is an almost essential property of the Christian soul, because of the contemplation of beauty that it engenders. “Christians,” said Dom Guéranger, “are a singing people who feel things deeply; they cannot be content to recite things; they must sing them.” In a Christian soul, “there is no sad life, no prosaic existence…”7 While good art in general lifts up the mind to the contemplation of God as Beauty Himself, music does so in a particular manner that unifies those singing. St. Benedict, for instance, invites his monks to sing, writing, “So let us chant in common that mind and voice may accord together.”8

Pius XII would quote the monastic rule, adding that “[i]t is not merely a question of recitation or of singing which, however perfect according to norms of music and the sacred rites, only reaches the ear, but it is especially a question of the ascent of the mind and heart to God so that, united with Christ, we may completely dedicate ourselves and all our actions to Him.”9 Sacred music, then, is not merely a way to highlight or embellish the liturgy, but it is meant to cause this dedication and devotion.

It is for this reason that the typical and normal form of the Catholic liturgy is the Solemn Mass where priest, deacon, subdeacon, clergy, and faithful sing their praises of God, and offer to God the Father, in a Sacramental manner, the Sacrifice of God the Son. Such a function involves, necessarily, the singing of the Propers by at least the clergy (or a schola cantorum substituting), the Kyriale and responses by all present, the Epistle by the subdeacon, the Gospel by the deacon, and the Prayers and Preface by the priest.

This division of labor provides a distinction and harmony between the various parts of the Mass, highlighting their respective importance, dignity, and purpose. The more ordinary simple parts are shared in common with all, so all may be united in their common devotion. The more complex chants are restricted to the clerical choir, which allows for deeper contemplation, practically impossible through chants simple enough for all to sing. The prophets’ messages are entrusted to a Lector in a simple tone, as if in preparation for the deep theology of the Apostles, and St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles are given to the subdeacon in a joyous and exuberant tone. The Gospel, then, sung by the deacon in a more serious tone (or Passion in its own special tone) provides the sober teaching of Christ Himself by word or action. Only the priest, however, sings the official prayers, directs others to pray by his invitation, and surrounds the silence of the “Holy of Holies” into which he enters during the Canon, for strictly priestly prayers, with the Preface and Pater Noster. Highly symbolic, the division is also eminently practical in showing the distinction of all of these roles, and the musical and artistic abilities of each group.

The Practicality of Catholic Principles on Sacred Music

A true artist will be the first to admit that there are objective principles for what is beautiful, even if legislating such principles becomes difficult. In the same vein, the Church has long tried to enunciate principles of Catholic music but finds it easier to say more specifically what is forbidden than what is allowed. Thus, the papal legislation on music is often general in its positive precepts and more specific in its prohibitions.

Nevertheless, the Church has been at pains, especially in the last 200 years—given the artistic excesses of the Renaissance, Baroque, and Romantic eras—to legislate on sacred music. Such laws were not merely recommendations as can be evidenced by laws under Leo XII, Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII commanding fines be paid by choir directors who would violate the liturgical law by, for instance, employing secular music in the Church, or even allowing the organ to play when forbidden.

Behind such regulations was a great practical sense, because in a church where the liturgical laws are respected, a natural contrast and proportion is produced both during the ceremony in question and also as regards the liturgical year.

During most of the year, for instance, the use of the organ is permitted both for accompanying the singers and being played on its own. Thus, an organist can play a grand Processional or Recessional or accompany a hymn. He could play solo during the Offertory and Communion but also accompany the Kyriale and even the Propers. The only thing forbidden during the majority of the year was the use of secular music, and an attempt to accompany the subdeacon, deacon, or priest in their singing (which must be their own).10

During certain parts of the year, however, the use of the organ was forbidden, or highly restricted, principally to create a harmonious contrast of music and silence. During the penitential days and seasons (Advent, Lent, Ember Days, Rogation Masses, and Vigils) as well as the Masses and Offices for the Dead, the organ was prohibited. The only exception was where singers were unable to adequately sustain the chant, in which case the organ could be tolerated in accompany them, but only for support.11

The organ was then employed in a somewhat triumphant manner on Maundy Thursday at the Gloria of the Vesperal Mass, then silenced entirely until the Gloria of the Paschal Vigil.

This produces a stark contrast. The organ, being a symbol of joy but an unnecessary addition, a sudden turn to only a cappella—unaccompanied—singing communicates restraint and a message that something is missing. In other words, it naturally produces a sense of penance and seriousness. Proportion being a necessary element of beauty, the use of the symbols of joy is proportioned to the degree of joy. During Lent, the joy of Easter is far off and necessitates a penitential preparation by the restraint of the passions. At Easter, the joy of the resurrection then prompts and even necessitates these extra signs of joy, as Dom Guéranger alludes, writing:

The providence of God, who has established harmony between the visible world and the supernatural work of grace, willed that the Resurrection of our Lord should take place at that particular season of the year when even Nature herself seems to rise from the grave. The meadows give forth their verdure, the trees resume their foliage, the birds fill the air with their songs.12

While fines are unlikely to result, as they did in the 1800s, when such liturgical laws are ignored by Catholic musicians, the faithful will sense no difference between Christmas Day and Passion Sunday, or between Easter Sunday and a Requiem Mass. There is no natural longing for the melody and harmonies of the organ or any sense of restraint or proportion. For the faithful, writes Dom Guéranger, “Easter comes upon them as a feast—it may even be a great feast—but that is all; they experience little of that thrilling joy with fills the heart of the Church during this season, and which she evinces in everything she does.”13

The Sublimity of Sacred Music

Among the common themes of the papal legislation on sacred music throughout the eighteenth to twentieth centuries is the condemnation of “profane” music, and an effort to distinguish what is fitting for the Church. As with the legislation on things such as the use of the organ or other instruments, this is an eminently practical approach to beauty and proportion.

Writing in response to a request for commentary by Leo XIII, Cardinal-Patriarch of Venice Giuseppe Sarto—the future Pope St. Pius X—replied that there “certainly must be an intrinsic difference between theatrical music and sacred music.” A composer of music for the church, he writes, must “express the feeling of the sacred text without using forms which are customary to express profane love in the theater, and without the intention of entertaining a profane gathering.”14

For the Cardinal, the reason the abuse of using theatrical music has crept in is that “these compositions do have a particular enjoyment to the listener who does not have a good and sound music formation,” however,

the enjoyment that these compositions give has never been the criterion that justifies sacred things…The mysteries and liturgical dramas that were so common during the Middle Ages were certainly more pleasing than the liturgical functions, but it was for this very reason that they were forbidden.15

Because music is meant to help contemplate beauty, and in particular lead to the “essential beauty,” sacred music needs to be different. The liturgy is about the worship of God, not the pleasure of man, even if it must be adapted to men.

It was for such reasons that the Church Music Association of America, and various musical societies under the patronage of St. Cecilia, produced “blacklists” of commonly used music which were not suitable for the Church. A prime example of aesthetically-pleasing music unfit for the church—thus found on such blacklists—is the so-called Ave Maria by Franz Schubert, frequently heard at weddings, and sung in public concerts to the text of the Latin prayer. This piece is, in fact, part of a Liederzyklus, or secular song cycle. Schubert took a German translation of Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake and set this theatrical song-cycle text to his new melody. As beautiful as the song is, it is not suitable for the church because it was composed for secular performances and entertainment.

As Cardinal Sarto would write in a pastoral letter in Venice, such music “contains nothing in common with the Gregorian and more serious forms of polyphony.” For such theatrical music, “its end is pleasure of sense and hence it aims at merely musical effect … [and] worse still, it has often happened that the very melodies have been taken from the theaters and badly adapted to the sacred texts.”16

Similarly, the so-called Bach-Gounod Ave Maria is the application of a religious text to J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which is meant for the theater, even if it is good music. Various “Wedding Marches” from operas are also excluded, as would be Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei, which is a resetting of his Adagio for Strings. Without questioning the musical value of these pieces, the Church’s mind is to make a clear separation between secular and sacred music, so music intended for the worship of God is unique and uniquely evokes the contemplation of the Divinity.

It was for such reasons that the law on sacred music generally excludes the singing of solos in the church.17 Such a style departs from the Gregorian style and easily begins to imitate the operatic and theatrical. In addition, it detracts from the communal aspect of the liturgical function (which is not mere private, singular devotion).

The Simplicity, Depth, and Practicality of Gregorian Chant

Chant is both sublime and simple at the same time. In the simple forms of the psalm tones and Kyriale, it allows even those untrained in music to join, while in its more complex forms, as can be found in the various responsories, graduals, tracts, and Alleluias, it presents a rich harmony and proportion. It was for this reason that Pope St. Pius X proclaimed this form of music to be the model for all sacred music, even obliging the use of only Gregorian chant when a choir lacks the skill to execute sacred polyphony well.18

Chant has simplicity with depth. Without needing chordal harmonies to play on the emotions, selections such as the Communion Antiphon for the Fifth Sunday after Easter, by their mode, movement, and text, exude with expression. Here, in the second mode (the “minor” scale), the faithful hear, as it were, the Apostles singing a joyful text (“Sing to the Lord, Alleluia!”) in a somber, dark, almost mournful tone. The words of Our Lord have finally hit home, and they understand He is leaving them so the Holy Ghost can come, and yet, He is still with them for just a little longer, so there is joy in their sorrow. A deep farewell, expressed in a single selection of Gregorian chant, should lead the faithful to contemplate Our Lord’s presence in their soul, and the desire that He stay with the soul throughout life.

Gregorian melodies can also paint poetry with their movements, such as the Vespers Antiphon for Easter, which speaks of the stone being rolled back. The melody starts low, ascends to a height, then returns low again, as if the stone is being rolled back as the faithful sing this antiphon.

Beyond the artistic symbolism, practically, Chant makes the text intelligible by unifying the voices in one, unlike Sacred Polyphony, where sometimes the text can become more obscured by contrapuntal movements. It far exceeds the often unintelligible mixture of voices found in the grand orchestral settings of sacred texts.

Chant also admits of a great practicality in that it can be sung without the organ, or easily receive accompaniment from the organ. This allows a distinction between the feasts, where the organ might be played more loudly for the Gloria of Easter so all may sing with gusto, or played more quietly for an average Sunday, or not at all during Lent.

Finally, Gregorian chant allows for the integration of portions of Sacred Polyphony, for instance, in alternative verses of a hymn, or responsory. This can make Chant something of a launchpad for polyphonic music, something that even Pope St. Pius X recommends.

The Danger of Passivity

In seeing the practicality and sublimity of the Church’s legislation on music, and the importance she places on the beauty and uniqueness of this art, one particular danger presents itself in the modern era. The development of audio recording and the progress of technology have produced a creature never before seen: the passive listener.

Music is an art. St. Thomas defines art as recta ratio factibilium—right reason employed in the production of a thing.19 As art concerns the making of a thing, or the human skill in making, so music concerns the active production of a thing, and the active contemplation of what is produced, which leads to the contemplation of essential beauty.

Music therefore is meant to be actively made and actively contemplated. Passivity in the face of music has never been, until the last 150 years, even possible. Before recordings one would need to be actively present at a concert or in the liturgical service in which this art was being produced, so at least a minimal activity was needed simply by being present at the very act of making music. Not so once the phonograph and later the “streaming service” provided endless hours of passive absorption of music.

While beyond the scope of this article, the question of “what music to listen to” already suggests this passivity, even before considering so-called “bad” or “good” music. It also implies a wrong approach to art, as if it should be experienced without the contemplation it is meant to engender. The danger is greater with sacred music than with other genres of music.

As noted above, the Church has wanted to distinguish music employed for entertainment and sensory pleasure from music fit for the Church. While sacred music often does provide this pleasure accidentally, its essential purpose is the production of the contemplation of God in the liturgy, so this sacred art needs to stand apart as truly consecrated—set apart—for God.

While this author does not recommend people stop listening to Gregorian chant, Sacred Polyphony, or other sacred music outside of the liturgy, it does seem appropriate not to treat these arts merely as tools for entertainment or as background noise, as some do. Recall that in heaven there is the making of music (an art) and silence, but not noise.

Treating sacred music as background noise or entertainment puts a consecrated art on the same level as the music passively ingested for relaxation and entertainment that the world provides, be it the latest pop star or J.S. Bach. At the very least, recorded sacred music should present an opportunity for active contemplation, as Holy Mother the Church wishes that it do in the liturgy.


1 Lewis, C.S. Screwtape Letters, ch. 22.

2 Pieper, Josef. Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation (1990). Ignatius Press, p. 55-56.

3 Plato. Symposium. 211b-c.

4 Ibid. 211d.

5 Pieper, Josef. Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, p. 39.

6 Pope St. Clement, in his Epistle to the Corinthians (c. A.D. 96), commands the singing of the liturgical offices and forbids the use of psalms and liturgical hymns outside of the liturgy itself.

7 Soltner, Louis. Solesmes and Dom Guéranger, p. 95.

8 St. Benedict. Rule, ch. 19.

9 Pius XII. Mediator Dei, §145.

10 Cf. St. Pius X. Tra le sollicitudini, §12.

11 Cf. Sacred Congregation of Rites. De musica sacra et sacra liturgia (1958), no. 80.

12 Guéranger, Prosper. The Liturgical Year. vol. 7, p. 15-6.

13 Guéranger, Prosper. The Liturgical Year. vol. 7, p. 21.

14 Cardinal Sarto in his Votum of 1893, as quoted in Papal Legislation on Sacred Music, p. 208.

15 Cardinal Sarto in his Votum of 1893, as quoted in Papal Legislation on Sacred Music, p. 209.

16 Ibid., p. 214.

17 Cf. St. Pius X, Tra le solicitudini, §12.

18 Ibid. §3; also Cardinal Sarto, Pastoral Letter (Nov. 22, 1894), as quoted in Papal Legislation on Sacred Music, p. 218.

19 Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I:II, q. 57, a. 3, 4; Prologue of II:II; Summa Contra Gentiles, I, c. 93.