Recently, I had occasion to talk to a woman from another parish about the music in her parish. She made a comment that really resonated with me that I'd like to share. She said that sometimes she feels like she's just singing along instead of praying. This is a comment I also get from choir members as they are learning better vocal production techniques. Between remembering to hold your mouth just-so, and breathe from your diaphragm - not your shoulders, and relaxing your neck, but pulling your shoulders back, there's a lot to remember and the text gets crowded out.
I could make the case that by activating your brain to follow the words and your body to sing them, you are giving worship to God. But part of the prayer of singing a hymn or a psalm is, of course, understanding the words. That's why it is so important to enunciate your words clearly when singing - so that the congregation understands the content. It's also the reason chant developed the way it did. What's important here is the Word of God. Music is only the vehicle. Once the music takes supremacy, and we bend the words to fit the music, instead of the other way around, we've lost the primacy of the Word of God.
But, losing that sense of prayer happens all the time. When I am in the congregation, if I don't know the hymn, I get caught up in reading the music, or figuring out which syllable goes with which note. When I am directing, I will forget to pray the words sometimes and I get caught up in the mechanics of the sound or distracted by a fidgety person in the congregation. As is so often the case, the best defense is a good offense.
When I am planning the music for a Mass, I always take the time to read the text of the music I will be teaching. I just read it: no music, no rhythm (save the natural rhythm of the language). If it's in a foreign language, I find a translation so that I know what I am singing about. Then, I distill the text into an overall theme that I can easily meditate on while I sing. This does require some time spent in discovering the meaning of the poetry. I spend some time with the text and pray it. It is, after all, a prayer. In some sense, it's sort of like praying the rosary where you're praying the words of the prayer while meditating on the mysteries. And, once I know the piece well, I am better able to focus on the prayer contained in the actual words.
Even if you don't have a great deal of time to spend on translation and extended meditation, it helps to read through the words of the hymns and try to make sure you understand them before Mass begins. Arrive a bit early and take some time with them. Hymns are beautiful poems and often have a great deal to teach us about our lives as Christians. Unpacking this meaning can have a great impact on how you sing a hymn. If you're sight reading the words and the music for the first time as Father is coming up the aisle, you probably can't pray the song. A little preparation goes a long way toward greater understanding and better prayer.
Another thing that can help ease frustration among the congregation is the choice of hymns. Obviously, if the piece is a challenge to teach your choir, it's going to be tough for your congregation to sing and they will be frustrated. Think long and hard before introducing it as a part of your congregational hymn choices. When I run into something like this, (and it's really, really worth it,) I will teach it to the choir and have them sing it a few times as a choir piece. Then it's a little more familiar to the congregation when it's their turn to try their hand at it.
As with all forms of prayer, it is a spiritual battle. There will always be something to distract you, but the battle is won by continuing to fight and by being a little humble about not doing it well. With a little practice and perseverance, and a lot of help from the Holy Spirit, we can overcome the problem of just singing along and begin to pray in song instead.