Bilingual Worship: Entering Into the Experience of the Other
Do you know when Christ Church Cathedral celebrated the first bilingual mass? Were you there? Were you excited? Or did it feel like a tense stretch saying the Lord’s Prayer in two different languages at the same time?
I found out that our community at Christ Church Cathedral started coming together to bilingual worship about 8 years ago, on the occasion of Pentecost. Eight years is not a long time, although if you had come to our last bilingual service on Twelfth Night 2016, you would have thought we have been doing this for twenty years already!
Bilingual Music: an invention from needs
We put much care into planning these liturgies, and we count on the excitement and support of lay leaders willing to learn, teach, and be there. There are many aspects of a bilingual service that need to be taken care of while we plan it. Without a doubt, music is one of the most important, because it is directly related to our spiritual identity. And this is as much true for Americans, as it is true for Latinos/Hispanos.
As Episcopalians, our music is a spiritual reflection of who we are, whether we are from the Hoosier state, or from Bucaramanga in Colombia.
We put much care into planning these liturgies, and we count on the excitement and support of lay leaders willing to learn, teach, and be there. There are many aspects of a bilingual service that need to be taken care of while we plan it. Without a doubt, music is one of the most important, because it is directly related to our spiritual identity. And this is as much true for Americans, as it is true for Latinos/Hispanos. As Episcopalians, our music is a spiritual reflection of who we are, weather we are from the Hoosier state, or from Bucaramanga in Colombia.
Many of the musical proposals Dr. Boney and I create are constricted by the number of people we have in both choirs, and the space needed for the choirs to perform. In that sense, and depending on the occasion, we decide whether we are going to treat our congregation to a mass with one bilingual choir, or to a service with two choirs that perform almost in an antiphonal fashion. We also try to balance the amount of English, Spanish and Latin music.
Of all those things, the most challenging task is to find the repertoire that fits a bilingual service, probably because the musical and liturgical resources are limited. But as my mom used to say, “need is the mother of invention”, so we have found ourselves in the amazing position of having to create these resources ourselves.
Now, because music is so intrinsic to identity in worship, we have learned that it is very important to respect our choirs’ “musical personalities”. We have also learned to successfully use common grounds that we can later stretch in a musical way. These common grounds could be rhythm, harmony, form, instrumentation, and the results of the stretch have been, most of the times, very successful.
Creating bilingual music is a two-way road.
Sometimes, we go from English lyrics to Spanish lyrics, and vice versa. For instance, if the text is biblical, then we have faithful sources for text, as in psalms. We just compare the texts in actual printed or digital versions of the bible, depending on when the text dates from. That is how we know if we want to use King James or a more modern translation.
Other times, when the texts come from different poetic sources, then we go back to older hymnals and compare the texts and rhymes. In this last instance, then we do a contextual translation. This means that the translation will not be literal, but more within the appropriate feeling of the poetry.
This is the kind of treatment we did when we sang “We three kings” on our last Twelfth Night celebration. We kept the verses in English, and changed the refrain to Spanish. It was very helpful to have a copy of the Himnario 1961 (Hymnal 1961) handy. Within this kind of effort, it was necessary to have the means to re-write the music and lyrics (computer programs such as Sibelius or Finale). In that way, when our singers were reading the music, it looked as it had always been that way, and since reading music does not require us to be fluent in English or Spanish, it was a much easier way to bring our choirs together.
Other times we allow ourselves to play with rhythm and meter. For instance, do you remember that Alleluia we usually sing for Easter, Hymnal 1982, 178- Alleluia! Give thanks to the risen Lord? That is a simple, very singable melody, it moves mostly in stepwise motion, and it is written in ¾, with a descant in the refrain.
For one of our bilingual masses, we took this Alleluia, and changed the meter to a 2/4 meter, we tried singing it to a samba rhythm for guitars and percussion, and it worked well! We kept the melody exactly the same, and we syncopated the descant to match the bass drum of the samba. The result was an Anglican hymn easy to the ears, with a Brazilian/Latin American character, something people of both cultures can relate to and sing. It was performed in Spanish, maintaining the dignity of the choir (the legato line and the bel canto technique). It was a total hit, and it was fun to sing!
Other times, we have played with elements of form, adding improvisation, and also with elements of texture, for instance, adding subtle organ harmonization, or guitars to the baroque pieces, always with the objective of adding to the beauty without overpowering other vocal or instrumental forces. But why to go through so much work, and why does it matter?
Searching for our identity in music, in mission, in God
In the light of our own Christ Church mission, we can say we are Widening the Circle of God’s Embrace with Heart and Voice. As our Dean sometimes says, it feels more like a neck stretch than a widening of embraces, but I also like to think of this effort as our own search journey.
It is the search for our own identity, cultural and spiritual, in both our English and Spanish expressions, and in unity with the Holy Spirit.
In the light of Franciscan theology, I like to call this “Entering Into the Experience of the Other”, which is a concept I came across while researching Franciscan theology of identity. This made me think that, sometimes, if we can relate to the music we are listening to in a cultural way, then our hearts are more open and vulnerable to the work of the Holy Spirit. And once inhabited by the Holy Spirit, we are able to realize that “our identity is no longer found in the exterior, but in the interior, where we, as Francis, are inhabited by nothing less than the Spirit of God. As expressed in Paul’s letter to the Colossians 3:3, “Your real life is hidden with Christ in God.”
The power of bilingual worship.
During Bilingual or multicultural worship, we share our differences in a dynamic experience of entering into our neighbor’s identity, or as Thomas Piolata explains it, “entering into the other’s experience”, an experience that culminates in the full expression of our mission, where God also enters our own “otherness”. In Franciscan theology, this mission is the fundamental quality of Christian Discipleship, that mission which defines our identity within Christ, and as children of God despite our origins. And I would add, it is the same mission that defines us as members of our congregation at Christ Church Cathedral.
That is the power of bilingual worship, which brings us to a realization of our individual identity, our congregational identity, and ultimately our identity within God.
Yet, mere identity traits and musical aesthetics are not enough. We come to offer ourselves as we are: some of us come with hymns and some with songs, some with organ and some with guitars and drums, some playing on the beat and some with syncopation, some sing in English and some in Spanish. But even with all those different languages, and instruments and rhythms, that is not what makes “the miracle” happen. Just like Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If I speak the tongues of men or angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” 1 Cor. 13:1
What really makes this a divine experience, and what makes us experiment the power of the Holy Spirit in bilingual worship, is the love with which we pour ourselves into each other, and into God. This is a dynamic experience where we maintain our identity as we coalesce with the life of the congregation and of the liturgy.
Thomas Piolata explains it as follows: “We could think of this in the same way as St. Francis explains it in his Regula non Bullata: “Et pro eius [Christ] amore debent se exponere inimicis tam visibilibus quam invisibilibus.” [For love of Him, they must make themselves vulnerable to their enemies, both visible and invisible.] (RegNB 16, 11). To “Exponere” may be translated as “to put out into the open,” “to expose,” or even “to make available.”
I believe this “exposing ourselves to” out of love, is what is crucial in making this dynamic exchange with each other work. This is what gives us the ability to realize one mission and one identity with Christ.
Thus, I invite you to enter into our bilingual worship experience at Christ Church Cathedral. Let others enter into your own experience, and let the result be an authentic expression of yours and our identity at Christ Church.
As St. Francis himself wrote it to his friars: “With our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, with our whole strength and fortitude, with our whole understanding, with all our powers, with every effort, every affection, every feeling, every desire and wish, let us all love the Lord God.” That is the power of bilingual worship, and that is how, through music, we accomplish our mission and identity at Christ Church Cathedral: Widening the Circle of God’s Embrace with Heart and Voice.