Mysteriously Moved by Sacred Music

How did an electric-guitar player in a garage band become a chant instructor at a seminary?

Gregorian chant rehearsal at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Neb.
Gregorian chant rehearsal at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Neb. (photo: Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter)

Music has always been a part of Nicholas Lemme’s life. In his youth, he saw it as an expression of who he was. As his overall perspective on life changed, so did the music he identified with. It seemed only natural that a new outlook would be accompanied by a new art form, somewhat like a change of wardrobe being the outgrowth of a new lease on life.

Yet it has only been in the past four years that Lemme has come to see music not only as being expressive of his own beliefs, but also as influential in shaping, retaining and expanding those beliefs. Currently a member of the faculty at the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Neb., he now holds a conception of music that transcends mere aesthetic beauty and includes an almost unparalleled influence in daily life.

Nicholas Lemme recounted his story to Register correspondent Trent Beattie as the new school year was getting under way.


You didn’t grow up as a devout Catholic, did you?

I attended public schools and went to CCD [Confraternity of Christian Doctrine] classes on Sundays. That wasn’t really enough of a foundation for me to understand Church teaching. I basically lived as the rest of the culture lived — a very worldly existence focused on sense experience, to the exclusion of higher and nobler things.

By the time I enrolled in St. Thomas More High School in Rapid City, S.D., I was already headed down the wrong path. I was immersed in the grunge scene of the 1990s. Identifying with that music by playing in a garage band meant identifying with its accompanying hedonism.

Because the noisy, angst-filled grunge music was, in a way, a representation of my soul at the time, the fact that there were some good religion teachers in high school didn’t make a difference to me.

After graduating from high school in 1996, I went to the University of Wyoming and majored in music. The university choirs I sang in had a vast repertoire, including everything from Giovanni Palestrina to J.S. Bach to Samuel Barber. I can even recall a few snippets of chant.

I look back now and remember being moved every time I heard Barber’s Agnus Dei. This was before my conversion, when I was still closely identifying with rock music in general. I thought of music as expressing who I was and didn’t give too much thought to any effect it could have on me.


When did you start to consciously consider the influence music had on you?

That wouldn’t be until many years later. There was a lot that happened before then, starting with what I call a “subtle conversion” that took place after graduating from college and moving to Minneapolis. I was, in a sincere but slow and incoherent sort of way, getting closer to God. I started going to Mass every Sunday, but I was still far from living the faith outside of Sunday Mass.  

While at Mass, I couldn’t help but notice something about the music. It was generally a happy-clappy (yet sometimes pleasant) music, but it really seemed out of place. It was more deserving of being in a Disney film than in a church. It was what I had heard at Mass throughout childhood, so it wasn’t alarming in itself, but I did start to ask question like, “Why are we singing the beautiful works Palestrina had written for the Mass at secular universities and singing more worldly-sounding music at Mass?" It all seemed misplaced. 


When did your subtle conversion start to progress?

My subtle conversion became much stronger when I was introduced to the traditional Latin Mass. My parents had found a community staffed by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter in Rapid City. It was called the Community of St. Michael the Archangel, and they wanted to share the beauty they had experienced there.

It was quite fitting that Michael the Archangel was the name of the community, because Michael means “Who is like God?” in Hebrew. The name is meant to convey the fact that God has no equal, and that he is exalted far above our own comprehension. Such a distinction is supposed to be the occasion of our humble adoration, and this is what happened at the St. Michael community.

As you might expect, of all the various aspects of the extraordinary form of the Mass, I was particularly drawn to the musical patrimony of the Church. While I had heard some great pieces in the past, I was about to learn of the rich and abundant treasury of beautifully composed works for each day of the liturgical year, a treasury that composers have been expanding throughout the Church’s history. It was an entirely new and challenging musical world opening up to me.

I would later go to a colloquium and chant-intensive workshop sponsored by the Church Music Association of America. I was thrilled to learn a great deal — whether directly or indirectly — from Dr. William Mahrt, Scott Turkington and Jeffrey Tucker. These men and others helped me to better understand the glorious musical heritage we have in the Church.


How did you get to teach at the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter’s seminary in Denton, Neb.?

In 2009, I entered the seminary to explore a possible calling to the priesthood. While it was great to be with a group of men so dedicated to God, it became apparent after the first year that I didn’t have a priestly vocation. Yet I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do instead.

It was only a few weeks after departing the seminary that our rector, Father Josef Bisig, called and asked if I would like to teach music there. I happily accepted, started teaching in the 2010-2011 school year, and have been doing so ever since. In the meantime, I’ve also discovered a vocation to marriage. [Lemme was married Oct. 26.]


What courses do you teach at the seminary?

I primarily teach how to sing Gregorian chant, which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council state is to be given “pride of place” in the Church’s worship. My classes are mainly devoted to learning the Solesmes method of interpretation, but we also take a look at the history of chant, its function in the liturgy, its spirituality and its influence on other forms of Western music. In addition to this, I’ve recently started giving a class on the power of music in general. How that class was made possible is an interesting story.

I remembered that, during my “subtle conversion,” I had gradually stopped listening to the conventional rock music produced from the ’60s to the ’90s. The lyrics in those songs were filled with promotion of vices such as pride, disobedience, vanity and lust — none of which corresponded with the virtue I was hoping to acquire. Most of the records I had in my music library were removed in a very matter-of-fact way that seemed natural to me. I didn’t need to put a lot of reflection into it.

It wasn’t until my first year at the seminary (while discerning a vocation) that I discovered there might be more to the story. I had grown accustomed to the beautifully structured seminary life. We had regular times for prayer, manual work, study and recreation. During the times of prayer, we would chant the Divine Office, and, of course, there was also chant (and some polyphony) at Masses. We were enveloped in a beautifully mysterious atmosphere, where our minds and hearts were drawn upward into the realm of the Divine.

After four months of not listening to recorded music, I decided to do some recreational listening on my iPod. A heavy-hitting, rock-influenced jazz instrumental came on the mix. I was startled out of my little piece of heaven into an atmosphere of agitation. What was previously an almost temptation-free environment had become a battleground filled with anxiety.


You had already come to dislike rock, so what was new about this experience?

What really got me thinking was: There were no words to the song, so those were not the concern. The music itself was agitating me. Everyone, whether musically inclined or not, will agree that certain types of music tend to evoke certain emotions. The sentiments felt upon hearing Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries are assuredly not the same as those felt upon hearing Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina.

However, where the connection is often missing, as it had been for me, is from the specific emotions to specific vices or virtues. Take anger, as an example. Anger itself is not sinful, but once it has gained entrance into the soul, it is very difficult to control and can lead to sin.

So if the topic is presented, it should be done in a way that somehow engages the intellect. This is possible through Allegro of Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, but not through Metallica’s House of Puppets, which negates the intellect by its coarse, mindless grinding.

Once the emotion of anger is presented without any reference to rationality, its influence can easily lead to vice. An angry person finds it more difficult to pray and forgive or to be patient and generous. Christian living is impaired without the affected person even knowing how that came about.

This connection between emotion and virtue was a huge revelation to me, so I began reflecting on the topic and looking more deeply into it. I found that what was revealed to me was actually a concept that has been with us since antiquity.

Plato expressed the force of music in his Republic this way: “Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.”

Father Basil Nortz, ORC [Canons Regular of the Holy Cross], has written and spoken of how it is essential to realize that it is not only the lyrics of a song that will affect us. The music itself enters into the deepest recesses of the soul to influence us there even more profoundly than words. The reason for this is: Words must first be understood by the mind, but music is immediately grasped by the emotions, regardless of previous training or culture.


So you disagree with adding good lyrics to rock music?

Let me put in this way: I wouldn’t be moved in quite the same way by hearing the words of Agnus Dei set to a fast-paced, heavy drum beat. In reality, it would obliterate any positive influence the words would have had. The words really need to match the music; that’s good art.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote before his papacy in The Spirit of the Liturgy that, “Not every kind of music can have a place in Christian worship.” In order to determine what kinds of music do have a place, he gave this criterion: “Does it integrate man by drawing him to what is above, or does it cause his disintegration into formless intoxication or mere sensuality?”

Additionally, he stated in A New Song for the Lord that rock music is “thoroughly opposed to the Christian notion of redemption and of freedom.” Therefore, he continued, “Not for aesthetic reasons, not from reactionary obstinacy, not from historical immobility, but because of its very nature, music of this type must be excluded from the Church.”

The ontology (or the very being) of music should determine where that music is found. I have yet to find a culture or religion that does not have its representative music. Early on, rock music represented and shaped my own culture, or way of life. Now, I tend to be drawn, and to draw from, music that elevates the soul without negating the intellect. Gregorian chant seems to be the paradigm of this, but other examples can be found that encourage the pursuit of virtue as well.

This is a fascinating topic that will occupy my thoughts the rest of my life. There’s still so much for me to learn, but I’m grateful for having my eyes opened to it, and I hope to pass it along well to the seminarians.

I would consider the subject properly disseminated to them if they appreciate music’s power over their souls and live out what so many great thinkers have taught about music — not only from a liturgical standpoint, but from an ontological one as well.

There’s a mysterious and strong influence exerted through music, so we should delight in making the effort to seek out those types of music that ennoble and lift us higher. The ultimate goal is to sing the praises of almighty God in heaven, and we begin to do this on earth in a most notable way when we engage in reverent Christian worship.

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.