restricted access 3. Larsen and Religion: The Tie That Binds

From: Libby Larsen

University of Illinois Press colophon
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3 Larsen and Religion The Tie That Binds When I asked the composer to identify the most powerful influences in her life, Larsen unhesitatingly named “religion” and, more specifically , “growing up Catholic” among the first. But many conversations later, it was clear that the word religion did not capture all she was thinking of; Spirituality, the composer suggested, might come closer.1 Religion for Larsen is larger than any single organized system of beliefs shared by a community of believers and practiced in a social setting. Better terms than religion or spirituality might be faith practices or belief system, but I’ll stick with the word religion simply because of its economy, and it was the one Larsen used first. Religion in Larsen’s world is inextricably tied with nature, with gender and feminism, with a range of institutions, and back to her family. There is no corner of her life untouched by religion, or more broadly, by her unique spirituality. Seismic changes in the Roman Catholic Church when Larsen was a young teen, a time that she has described as “our wonder years,” presented the always ruminative child with her first opportunity to reconsider, question, challenge, and eventually reject the most influential system she knew outside her family: the church. Systems become a recurring theme in what follows. Larsen admitted to questioning the Ten Commandments one by one as a fourth grader, especially number 4, “Honor thy Father and thy Mother,” and pressing for answers to the contradiction she perceived in the church’s assurance of a god that was all-merciful and its insistence upon the existence of hell. In retrospect she feels for “poor Sister Naomi, bless her heart,” but “the incongruities of systematized religion, full of the barnacles of a culture” troubled the ten-year-old.2 As Larsen explains, “The mystical part of spirituality was pretty much put in a box on a shelf in sixth grade. Vatican II is the defining moment in my life and consequently in my work.”3 Larsen’s reaction to Vatican II reforms, the changes prescribed in Sancrosanctum Conciliium, was not singular or unusual, although its lingering impact may be more obvious (and audible) given the broad dissemination of her ideas through 34  chapter 3 her music. Similar feelings were shared by many Catholics for whom the mysterious, sensory, transporting aspects of the traditional ritual had been what they sought in religion. Rituals, more generally, were among the most palpable manifestations of religion for the school-age Larsen. First through eighth grade, the rituals for how one walks in the halls, how we walked to the church, which was just across the parking lot from the school, how we filed into pews, the physical manifestations of genuflecting, or bowing of the head, in other words, it’s what I’ve come to think of as medieval rituals of silence . . . they were the first and foremost and most consistent of the active ways in which religion really made itself known to all of us. That Figure 3.1. Libby Larsen with her sisters Luanne and Molly and Sister Colette at her first communion, April 1960. Reproduced with the kind permission of the composer. Larsen and Religion 35 we as a group [were] not to be individuals, but rather to be part of an ancient ritual. At least three or four times a week we would practice these things.4 For unbelievers in an increasingly secular society, it may be hard to fathom the sense of confusion and betrayal that visited so many Catholics worldwide upon the sudden disappearance of medieval practices that accompanied the conciliar reforms, but that makes the feelings no less real, or their loss no less traumatic for the faithful. In the intervening decades, post-conciliar scholarship has become a specialty all its own with practitioners from an array of disciplines including religious studies, cultural history, sociology, and institutional psychology exploring the effects of the 1960’s council. Among the most recent studies in the field is one written by a musicologist. In Vincent E. Rone’s 2014 dissertation on the response of the French Organ School to the radical changes implemented by Vatican II, he references theologian David Torevell’s observations that “church leaders after the Council largely ignored the transcendent dimensions of the liturgy, which led to the loss of features like reverence, mystery, and awe.”5 Rone observes that chant had been woven into the fabric of church ritual over millennia; it resisted identification...


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