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Online Edition - Vol. VIII, No. 8: November 2002

Some Reflections on the Art of "Lectoring"

by Allen Brings

When his colleagues saw Saint Ambrose reading silently to himself, they thought he was hiding something from them; they thought he was being secretive. Until then, it seems, all reading, even if only to oneself, was done aloud. When a letter from Paul of Tarsus (or one written in his name) was addressed to Timothy or to the Christian community in Corinth, copies weren't distributed at the church door so that the members of the congregation could read it at their leisure; rather, Paul expected that the community, most of which was not able to read, would gather to hear it proclaimed by one whom we would recognize today as a lector.

These letters, or epistles, were read many times so that some members of the community were able to quote large portions of them from memory. The very language itself, with its vivid images, sense of urgency, and turns of phrase so typical of Paul, became an integral part of their verbal consciousness. These words became, in fact, their own words, words that they could recite whenever the spirit moved them.

Would these words have been uttered as if they were of no greater consequence than a quarterly earnings report? Or, rather, wouldn't they have been read as if Paul himself had been there to read them, cajoling at one moment, stressing with all the force at his command at another? With his grasp of the principles of Greco-Roman rhetoric, having himself no doubt read the orations of Cicero in the original Latin, Paul would have delivered his letters orally in a way that would astound us today. Who among us can recall having heard a real orator except perhaps for a few seconds in an old newsreel or someone like Jesse Jackson or, before him, Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Proclaiming Sacred Scripture

Like the best poetry, which family members used to read to one another in generations past, Sacred Scripture has always been an oral tradition, often sung, but at least spoken aloud. As long as the Word of God remained letters fixed on a page, it did not live. When proclaimed aloud, or sung, it took flight and only then rose to God. Singing, even speaking, enlists the entire being, body and spirit; it is when we sing or speak that we are most completely engaged in the celebration of the Liturgy.

Few of us are aware that the theater as we know it has its origins in the sometimes hyperemotional rites of the ancient Greek god Dionysus. The Mass bears some similarities to theater. It has a script, actors, a set, costumes, even choreography and music. For centuries the movements of the priest have been prescribed as if he were on a stage by rubrics supplied in his "script", the Missal. Indeed priests spend many hours in the seminary practicing their "lines" and rehearsing their movements before they are allowed in the Sanctuary, that is, on the "stage" to "perform" for the first time. While lectors' responsibilities at Mass are not comparable in scope to priests', should their preparation be any less rigorous; should they not measure up to a high standard? How can this standard be determined, and how should it be maintained?

Unless bishops are willing to establish programs such as weekend retreats to train lectors before they qualify to read at Mass, the burden will remain on pastors who are concerned with how well the Divine Word is being communicated to the faithful during the celebration of the Liturgy. Sad to say, however, priests -- possibly because of deficiencies in their seminary training -- are themselves often lacking in the basic techniques of effective public reading. They will often read successive lines, for example, each with contrasting meanings, in exactly the same way, or won't take their eyes off the page for long periods of time, as if they were reading the Sunday paper.

If pastors are unaware that there are problems with how some of the lectors (or readers) who serve with them are performing their duties, then parishioners themselves should to bring these problems to their attention.

Other pastors might enlist the aid of parishioners who are known for their public speaking skills or who have had acting experience on the stage, where lines must be delivered, not merely read, and where the public address system is still the exception rather than the rule.

There might be a teacher in the local school system or in a nearby university, even if not a Catholic, who has had experience teaching classes of fifty or more students (the more the better) and who might be willing to coach lectors and readers.

Last of all, there are lectors themselves. The difficulty here is that -- human nature being what it is -- poor lectors are unlikely to acknowledge their inadequacies or even be aware of them, and may not submit willingly to correction by their colleagues. Some might even regard serving as a lector as a right and demand to exercise it! Even if instruction were limited to prospective rather than to established readers, few of us are ready to admit that we cannot "read".

Preparation is key to reading well

The problem is real but not insoluble. Even those readers who have already been accepted to serve can be expected to prepare conscientiously before arriving at Mass by rehearsing their lines, not silently, but aloud, varying inflections and pace, by hearing, not merely seeing, which variations best convey the meanings of the words. They could be encouraged to practice with a tape recorder, preferably one that does not automatically set its own volume level so that dynamic fluctuations will be perceptible.

Some lectors should be invited to come to the church when it is not being used and read while a friend or family member sits in the rear to report whether the words can be understood, or will it be necessary for the congregation to reach for its missalettes to read along in order to understand? The reader should read both with and without a microphone, listening for the sounds of his voice as they are reflected back to him. Is the sound of his voice continuous until the next required pause, like a singer's, or is the flow frequently interrupted or allowed at the ends of certain words to drop below a volume level that can reach his listeners? Are final unvoiced consonants like t's and p's audible, or do they need to be exaggerated a bit? A stage performer always remembers that things that seem exaggerated on stage will not seem so when it has crossed the footlights.

Reading in public is not like conversing with a friend, even when at times it seems appropriate to assume an apparently intimate or informal tone, as Saint Paul himself often does. (Experienced public speakers will tell you that, even when they seem to be extemporizing, that is, speaking without a script or notes, everything they say and the way they say it has been thought out in advance, sometimes in considerable detail; nothing done in public must be left to chance.)

To read as Paul would have read, or, for that matter, Jeremiah or Isaiah, means that for a short time each Sunday you may not be yourself, that, however briefly, you must become Paul, Paul writing from prison, Paul chiding, Paul exhorting, Paul expressing his hopes for the future of the vulnerable new Christian communities. Your fellow parishioners come not to see and hear you; they come to hear, if not actually to see, Paul. You must sound as if Paul is truly in their midst yet -- and this is perhaps the most difficult part -- never seeming to be acting.

A useful way to learn how to do this is to observe professional actors. Just as writers and composers learn by studying great literature, actors learn by observing the performances of great actors. Just what is it that Laurence Olivier does during his famous "winter of our discontent" soliloquy in the first act of Richard III? Certainly it has something to do with the malevolent look he casts in our direction when he turns his head to the audience to reveal his ugly profile. But now close your eyes and listen, as keenly as you can, to how he inflects Shakespeare's lines, as if he were setting them to music, by the rise and fall of his voice, by his subtly varying rhythm and pace. Hear how much he reveals about Richard's character by how each of the several consonants in the word "discontent" explodes on our ears. Here is Sir Laurence as murderous pretender to the throne, not as Sir Laurence himself.

We who read at Mass must on occasion be the sophisticated Paul, citizen of Rome; the simple Jewish fisherman Peter; the aging John having visions; the chronicler relating, as a storyteller would, how David assembled all Israel in Jerusalem; father Abraham, bargaining with God Himself to spare the small handful of innocent Sodomites. If we read Isaiah's words "Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her, all you who love her/Exult, exult with her, all you who were mourning over her", we ourselves must rejoice and exult too, even when at times we don't feel like it.

Just as great actors and actresses seem to be able to sublimate their own personalities in order to portray the roles they are given, so we who are given the task of proclaiming the Word of God at Mass must be able to shed our own skins and assume the masks of Peter, Paul, Abraham, and, whenever necessary, even the Lord God, as when Ezekiel and others write "Thus says the Lord God!"

To read Sacred Scripture to the members of the Christian community is to cultivate -- and by cultivating to carry on -- a tradition many thousands of years old. What we do is more than a privilege; it is a responsibility that demands our ablest efforts. When we walk to the ambo to read, all else pales when compared with what we are about to do. Yet, though the task may sometimes seem a bit awesome, never doubt that you are equal to it.

As you open the Lectionary, always remember to take a deep breath and, as you read, exhale slowly. Don't lock your knees; keep them slightly bent. Before beginning, select a few people in the congregation to look at directly. And, above all, take your time; in "performance" each second seems like a minute, but it is, after all, only a second.

Now, are you ready?

Begin!

***

Allen Brings is professor of music at the Aaron Copeland School of Music at Queens College of the City University of New York, and a director of the Weston Music Center and School of the Performing Arts in Weston, Connecticut. His article "About Making Music" appeared in in the September/October 2000 AB.

***

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