May 2, 2013 by lucieromarin
The relationship between servers and choristers is like the ancient rivalry between vampires and werewolves – two races equally legendary, equally unlike the mainstream society that views them both with suspicion, yet nonetheless engaged in an everlasting turf war that may never be resolved, except by a marriage – and perhaps not even then.
If this analogy is too grim, think of us as the cowboys and the farmers in the song from ‘Oklahoma!’ Innumerable enthusiastic voices may sing ‘the farmer and the cowboy should be friends,’ (as, after all, both choose vast prairie emptiness over the city lights, and both are scorned equally by cityfolk), but they’re not.
Well, I was going to write about burnout, and how to help someone though it. (I’m still going to). However, one of our community infants – a creature so young and small that he can’t see over the pew when he stands on the kneeler – was overheard pronouncing upon the superiority of servers over choristers, so I’ve thrown Woe to the winds, and am writing about this instead.
Servers versus choristers – who wins? It is undeniable that, of all roles available to the laity during Mass, the thurifer has the coolest job. He gets to make fire and clouds and swing a shiny object from a chain. The rest of the servers just look like men milling about, sometimes with candles and sometimes without.
The thurifer is also the only server whose mistakes can be readily noticed from the pew, and it is always very entertaining when the thurible hits something with a clang, or when the coals are so many that the fire leaps unnaturally high, and he has to step outside both elegantly and quickly to put it out, trying to look as though this was exactly what the rubrics called for.
When you consider that a server can rock up ten minutes before Mass (while the choristers have already been rehearsing for fifty minutes) and can expect his mistakes to go unnoticed by pretty much everyone, it seems that servers have the easiest job. Furthermore, the average punter fronts up to Mass with very few expectations about the quality of the serving, and rarely hunts down a server after Mass to criticise him. Choristers, however, can expect children of seven, tone-deaf pew-divas, and total strangers, to appear before them with comments along the lines of, “I noticed a mistake in the Gradual, I think. You sang some weird notes – or was that deliberate? I was just wondering.”
It must be admitted, though, that people are also more likely to thank choristers for beautiful music, while much excellent serving goes unremarked. It’s also true that, while the servers’ work is very ancient, our work is more ancient still – the words we chant were written by God Himself, and should not, therefore, be treated with the lightness of a ten-minutes-to arrival time. Sometimes, too, criticism is just. After all, bad singing is painful for everyone. Bad serving is only painful to the angels and to the other servers – and, at times, to the choristers, such as upon those occasions when they must lean over the choirloft making frantic gestures at the servers, who, oblivious to the waving arms, process out of the church with great solemnity, not knowing that the priest behind them has made a right turn to the side altar, because they were supposed to chant the novena there, and now he’s stuck with no servers and no incense, because they took it with them when they left him behind. It is also very trying when the servers forget to put the hymn number on the board, so that a chorister has to sneak downstairs during the homily, exit the church, run up to the secret door near the sanctuary, and try to summon the nearest server with a hiss that no one else is allowed to hear.
I suppose the turf war is intensified by the shared ‘backstage’ space. When choristers are rehearsing, they do not want enthusiastic boys calling to each other and commenting on the incense behind them. When the boys are getting dressed and undressed, they do not want a stampede of choristers – particularly of the female variety – suddenly cutting a path through their vesting area. Alas! It’s all the same space! So the rivalry remains.
Well, I know I can be rather “Subcultures! Grrrr!” at times, but I love this aspect of mine. This is the stuff of literature, and I love clergy-novels. They’re usually Anglican, though. When Catholics decide to write Literature they think it has to be about Big Issues, so they write novels about the Apocalypse, instead of about the eternal war over whose job it is to sweep up the bits of tassel that fall off the boys’ cinctures, and whether or not the boy at the end of the Mass who needs to hold up the little chant card to Father can manage to do so without making it look like a Black Panther salute.
This leads us to a very important question. Where does the organist fit in to all this? The poor thing – the organist is a species unto himself – a lone being of legend, in engaged in a solitary struggle of his own. Oh, golly – I guess that makes him Bigfoot.