Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Priestly Character of Ad Orientem Worship: Guest Article by Zachary Thomas (Part 3)

Click to read the earlier parts of this article: part 1, part 2.

At the Sermon on the Mount, in the Beatitudes, at the heart of Christ’s preaching, where he appears most merciful and gentle, where he is most incorrectly caricatured as a “nice guy” or modern peace activist, precisely here the Sinai prophecy is fulfilled, that when God comes among us we must die. How is this so? Because the Beatitudes lived so perfectly by Christ lead inexorably to the Cross, a reality foreshadowed in the last and longest part of that holy list: “Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you.”

Christ’s startling new revelation requires that every disciple take up his cross and die with him. Monastic asceticism just takes seriously the work of killing the old man. In other words, communion with Christ is essentially found on the cross, and there is nothing more terrifying to sinful flesh than that idea. In the old system, God’s mercy spared us and only the animal had to die, while we were left whole. Now, if we would truly follow Christ, we must follow all take up Isaac’s cross and follow a new Abraham to a new martyrdom on Calvary. A palpable fear on Sinai is now made a positive command: we must all be willing to die in Christ. It is literally required of some of us, more today than ever. Therefore, in the Beatitudes and the martyrdom that is signified by our Baptism, the sacrificial system is not actually abolished, but shown for what it always was: a proleptic participation in the sacrificial rites of Christ’s priesthood in the Church.

The Sacrifice of Abraham, depicted in fresco in a church in Raduil, Bulgaria. (Image from Wikimedia Common by Edal Anton Lefterov)
The great sacrifice of martyrdom—red or white—is something we are all called to accomplish, at least mystically, by putting on Christ; truly, it is the heart of the Christian mystery. Nothing has changed metaphysically since the Old Testament: we owe our very being to God, and so cannot dare to approach him without our whole being in our hands, without acceptance of our condition as creatures, which is our death. Therefore, what is enacted on the altar is precisely our own martyrdom, in the person of the priest, who stands in the person of Christ. All the gory reality of martyrdom is entailed in each and every “unbloody” renewal of Christ’s sacrifice, as much as we affluent Westerners must struggle to see it. The Copts surely see it. (see note below) We must see that when the priest stands up there on the altar, he is re-enacting a martyrdom, a terrible ritual murder that in a mysterious way is the source of our salvation. If contemplation of that reality doesn’t call for a terrible reverence, and a profound gratitude for the role of the priest who represents Christ dying for us, I’m not sure what does. It is this spirit of the fear of God, born of the clairvoyant creaturely feeling of absolute dependence upon our Lord, that fashioned the forms of the old rites, with all of their mysterious ritual elements.

In complete opposition to our fears about “clericalism,” and some peoples’ demands for more “lay participation” in clerical roles, the ancient Hebrew saw nothing attractive about the role of the priest. The job was terrifying. The priest-prophet had to stand in the breach and bear in full the anger of God directed against his sinful people. Because he was closer to God, the priest was constantly in mortal danger, and the Old Testament has more than one story of the destruction of attendant offending God’s presence in the tabernacle. Any Israelite was perfectly glad that someone else had that role, and wanted to stay as far away as possible!

“But that is the Old Dispensation – Christ’s followers need not fear, for they have a loving Father in heaven!” St. John Chrysostom sees it otherwise:

“For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances; and Fearful, indeed, and of most awful import, were the things which were used before the dispensation of grace, as the bells, the pomegranates, the stones on the breastplate and on the ephod, the girdle, the mitre, the long robe, the plate of gold, the holy of holies, the deep silence within.
very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers.

But if any one should examine the things which belong to the dispensation of grace, he will find that, small as they are, yet are they fearful and full of awe, and that what was spoken concerning the law is true in this case also, that what has been made glorious has no glory in this respect by reason of the glory which excels (2 Cor. 3:10). For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? Oh! What a marvel! What love of God to man! He who sits on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives Himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp Him. And this all do through the eyes of faith! Do these things seem to you fit to be despised, or such as to make it possible for any one to be uplifted against them?” (On the Priesthood, III.4)

This “casting off of every carnal thought” is the martyrdom of the flesh we are all called to. And we ought to be glad that we are not held to account as a priest standing in persona Christi, for we are not worthy, our faith is too little, our devotion too tepid. If his martyrdom were asked of us, could we take it up? Against whom will God’s judgment burn more intensely at the Judgment? Each time we allow the priest to go up to the altar of God, we confess again our unworthiness, our unreadiness and failure to enact our daily martyrdom. Each time the priest goes up to the altar to face God, confessing his unworthiness, it is a reminder of the great Substitution Christ made for our own sins, of his entry into the Holy of Holies to intercede on our behalf, and so an incitement to make the same total sacrifice, in imitation of him. Traditional liturgies forcibly present this drama of sacrifice to us in their ceremony, and thus allow us better to enter into the mysteries of our redemption.

In the modern ritual, we are scarcely permitted to think that the priest, and therefore the Christ that he represents, is doing any great work. He seems to be there, watching, approving; he has something to say to us in the homily. But there seems nothing of majestic instance, nothing awesome or indispensable about his presence. This insignificance of the priestly role reflects, of course, directly on our reverence for Christ and our perception of his work for us. If Father does not have a manly priestly role, I suppose Christ didn’t do much either! Why should he have to die anyway? All these doubts can fill the vacuum left by a ritual that no longer focuses on priestly mediation but on vague “participation” and “inclusion.” This ritual also removes all the expressions of unworthiness, fear, and reverence with which all traditional liturgies are replete—Confiteor, Domine non sum dignus, bows and genuflections and signs of the cross—in favor of a cool and casual confidence in the sanctuary.

The force of ritual symbolism ought to be mostly independent from the sanctity of the priest himself, which again leaves the priest free to be a sacramental channel instead of an imposer of liturgy. This is the genius of truly sacramental ritual, that by yielding to it we become effective sacramentals for one another, even if our own lives leave something to be desired. Many priests say the new Mass with presence of mind and true holiness. But before the denuded symbolic language of the modern rite, the people are entirely at the mercy of the celebrating priest, his personal holiness and charisma. That means many such masses are reverent and effective instruments of grace. But since this an accident of the celebrant’s charisma, not the internal logic of the forms themselves, we are still left with a dangerous clericalism that puts liturgical efficacy in the hands of an individual celebrant.


Therefore, the “priestly posture,” as we ought to call it, in opposition to the protestant “presider” posture, preserves the possibility of true fear of God, of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit perhaps the most under-valued in our day. It teaches us that God is not one to be treated lightly, by just anyone, in just any manner. Of course, he extends the offer of adoption to each and every person, his mercy endures forever, and he always knocking sweetly at the doors of our hearts. But this is not the whole picture; the God of mercies is also the God of judgments. The two truths must be held in tension.

So, let our priests turn East to face the Risen Lord. Let them turn to denounce theologies of merely political liberation and the sociological assembly that would reduce the Church to a social service organization at best, to political revolution at worst. But let them also face East to show that there is only One who dispenses the food that alone can satisfy all human thirst, only one Savior who brings us, all unworthy, the blessings of that divine life which is the only acceptable material for constructing God’s Kingdom on Earth.

Note: Fr. Roberto Spataro meditates on this connection between sacrifice and the widespread martyrdom of Christians today: “On the peripheries, or the eastern part of the world, especially where the majority, radical form of Islam holds sway, the believers ‘going forth’ and even those who prudently remain at home undergo a bloody or semi-bloody martyrdom caused by vexations of various kinds. According to trustworthy statistics, the numbers are horrifying: every five minutes a Christian is killed. As of this year, the word has acquired a new entry, with a sinister sense: Christianophobia. The Church ‘going forth’ of the twenty-first century is a Church of martyrdom.

It is unfortunate that even shepherds with grave responsibilities and Catholic intellectuals who have wide platforms—when according to their own tastes they design the profile of what they call, in a rather debatable expression, the ‘Church of Francis’—forget this drama that ought to have an absolute priority in the teaching and action of the Church ‘going forth’. True, the VO Missae—as we know well—is not that ‘happening’ party to which the Sacrifice of Christ on the altar is sometimes painfully reduced. It is the Mass in which we all rise mystically to Calvary and not just for a pleasant stroll. We are immersed in a story of persecution, that of the Holy Innocent par excellence, His blood is poured out, His Passion is renewed, the Martyr at the head of all the martyrs is immolated on the Altar. The believer is so escorted, admonished, prepared to confront his martyrdom, whether white or bloody. (From a lecture given at the conference ‘The Latin Mass for a Church Going Forth?’, held last 20th March in Lecce. Forthcoming in the May edition of Altare Dei magazine)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Latin Compline with Dominican Elements Booklet Now Available


I am pleased to announce that Dominican Liturgy Publications has now published a convenient booklet with the complete text of Compline from the Liturgia Horarum (Liturgy of the Hours) furnished with all the elements from the traditional Dominican Rite that were approved for use with the Proprium Officiorum Ordinis Prædicatorum: Liturgia Horarum (Romæ: Ad S. Sabinæ, 1982).

The Compline section of this Proprium was published as a pamphlet but only contained the Psalm and short reading for Compline after Sunday Second Vespers.  And that pamphlet has long been out of print.  This new edition contains the Psalms and readings for the entire week. It is a pocket-sized paperback and inexpensive. See or order it at Dominican Liturgy Publications.

If you want the same texts with all the Dominican chant music, do not order this item. Order this one or this one instead.

A Rogation Procession and Mass in Hungary

This past Monday, the “Community of St Philip Neri” (http://www.szentfulop.hu/) celebrated the first Rogation Day with a traditional procession and solemn Mass at Balatonederics, a small village located on the north shore of Lake Balaton in Hungary. The community was founded in 2016 by priests and faithful of the diocese of Veszprém to organize and promote celebrations of the traditional rite. Below we include a video of their Mass celebrated on the feast of the Annunciation this year, with some very nice music.






Reminder; Be a Benedictine Monk for 48 hours!

Here’s a reminder for an event I publicized earlier in the month.

Fr Dunstan and Fr Gregory of St Mary’s Benedictine Monastery in Petersham, Massachussetts, dropped me a line about their next monastic experience weekend, in which they hope to give people an experience of monastic life, and men the opportunity to explore a vocation to the religious life. One of the attendees from the last year’s event is now novice, so let’s hope for more.

It takes place on the weekend of June 2-4. For further information you can contact Father Gregory at monks@stmarysmonastery.org, or call him at 978–724–3350. For a printable flyer, click here.

St Mary’s Monastery is a contemplative Benedictine community of monks in Petersham, in central Massachusetts. They pray the office in Latin and...
live monastic life as described in the Rule of St. Benedict -- an ancient and proven way still vibrant in today’s world. It is a life of prayer and work within the monastery, radically centered on Christ, and structured around the Seven Hours of the Divine Office. We sing this great prayer in Latin using Gregorian Chant with the nuns of St. Scholastica Priory, our “twin community”. We are inviting single men (18-40 years old) for an opportunity to experience from within the rhythm and balance of Benedictine monastic prayer and community life in a house of Benedictine monks.

The Woman

In the Gospels we hear Jesus refer to his mother Mary as “Woman”. This reference should draw our attention to the woman mentioned in Genesis, as well as in the book of Revelation. But who is this “Woman”, and why is she so central in the history of Salvation?

The latest film from St Anthony Communications considers the Catholic teaching about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her important role in the Church and in the lives of Christians today. The dogmas of Mother of God, Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity, and Assumption are explained along with other traditional beliefs and devotions to Mary.

Insightful commentary is provided by Fr Marcus Holden, Fr Andrew Pinsent, Sr Mary of the Trinity, Fr Jeff Steel, and Joanna Bogle, along with a number of young people speaking about their faith and love of Our Blessed Lady.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Rogation Procession in Southern France

Our friends of the Fraternity of St Joseph the Guardian in La Londe Les Maures, France, were recently welcomed by a parishioner to his vineyard for a Rogation procession and Mass. For logistic reasons, the event had to be moved at the last minute from Rogation Monday to the previous Saturday, so the procession was held to invoke God’s blessing upon the fields, followed by the Mass of the day, St Bernardin of Siena. (Hence the white vestments.)





FSSP Ordinations Tomorrow on LiveMass and iMass

Tomorrow, May 26th, the feast of St Philip Neri, the Fraternity of St Peter’s North American seminary will celebrate the ordination of seven men to the priesthood, at the Parish of the North American Martyrs in Lincoln Nebraska. For those who are unable to attend in person, the ceremony will be broadcast over the FSSP’s LiveMass site, starting at 10 am Central time (11 am Eastern, 8 am Pacific.) It can also be watched via the iMass app on iTunes. The traditional ceremony for the rite of priestly ordination is an extraordinarily beautiful thing, well worth your time, even if you can only catch a part of it.


The Ascension of the Lord 2017

Truly it is fitting… though Christ our Lord. Who after the Resurrection, which is glorious unto all ages, appeared openly to His disciples, visible to their sight and palpable to the touch, unto the fortieth day, and was raised up unto heaven as they watched; from which time they did so profit, that what they believed might become more certain, and that they might learn more fully what to teach. Through the same Christ our Lord. (The Ambrosian Preface of the Ascension)

The Ascension of Christ, from an antiphonary decorated by Lorenzo Monaco, ca 1410
Vere quia dignum et justum est...per Christum, Dominum nostrum. Qui post resurrectionem sæculis omnibus gloriosam, discipulis suis visu conspicuus, tactuque palpabilis, usque in quadragesimum diem manifestus apparuit, ipsisque cernentibus, est elevatus in cælum: in id proficientibus intra has moras primitivas, ut et certius fìeret quod credidissent, et plenius dìscerent quod docérent. Per eundem Christum Dominum nostrum. Per quem majestatem tuam...

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Priestly Character of Ad Orientem Worship: Guest Article by Zachary Thomas (Part 2)

Click here to read the first part of this article.

The versus populum posture fashionable today suggests that the priest is there only to give, without first receiving something from God. And, since the laity must all “participate” in this activity-privileging event, we often have a whole sanctuary full of actors and givers who don’t seem to have received anything in the first place. It is no wonder, then, if the modern priesthood is in a crisis of identity and self-respect. The public ritual role he has been given, his highest responsibility, contradicts his essence at every point. Indeed, the usual ceremony provides precious little evidence of the awesome dignity and terrible responsibilities of his office, and often forces him to pawn off nearly all his functions on laymen in the democratic sanctuary, where he begins to look rather superfluous.

In sum, what the Novus Ordo needs is not only a renewed eschatological perspective, not only a more emphatic turning towards the Lord, but most basically a return to a priestly posture, through a more honest ritual actualization of the priest’s intercessory role, and a sacred choreography that better expresses the metaphysical reality of priesthood. Is the priest a true mediator like Christ and Moses, ascending and descending the mountain to stand in the breach before God, or is he a rebellious Aaron down below, cleaving to the people, fashioning for them a Golden Calf, the idol that always faces the people to give them what they want, because he dare not turn his face to God?


The comparison is not unjust; this foundational story is offered to warn us about the fundamental shape of all true worship of the Lord. The sacred authors all see Christ’s priestly ministry as a recapitulation of Old Testament models, and so should we. Just as Moses prays and toils on the mountain, entreating for his people in the cloud, so the Israelite priest ascended the Holy of Holies, and so also Christ does carry His cross to Golgotha to make His eternal sacrifice, and after death enter the true Holy of Holies. Scripture provides us these ancient models as the lens through which to understand Christ and Christian worship.

In contrast, there is idolatry. When we fear turning to the Lord, we make gods in our own image. The static, tame, and visible bull-idol is contrasted in Exodus with a fiery God shrouded in shadow, attended by a tireless Moses, who toils up and down the mountain, hidden in the cloud, descending without warning. This divine encounter at Sinai is the paradigm for all true worship of God: a matter of distance, holy fear, intercession, hopeful expectation. Salvation is never in our possession, but always a gift, radically dependent and contingent. The Israelites did not want to receive God’s frightful gift, and so they made their own gods, a laughable thought and a lie. Only God can reveal himself and the way He desires to be worshipped. (See Pope Benedict XVI’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.23)

In this respect, as in many others, the new Mass’s ritual forms as commonly practiced, statically versus populum, almost contra Deum, are a misrepresentation, a failure to recapitulate the divine economy of Christ the High Priest mediating and governing His Kingdom from the bosom of the Trinity. The harried priest relentlessly “engaging” his “assembly” is a ritual expression of the worried tyranny of the idolatrous soul, caught in a spiral of self-contemplation from which he cannot escape. This daily spectacle is harmful not only to the faithful, but to the priest’s own spiritual life and sense of self-worth.

This is not at all to say that when we worship with the new Mass, we necessarily fail to pray it with the proper spiritual dispositions, or must deny our dogmatic understanding of sacrificial action, or definitely receive less grace. Of course not! It is to say that the rite itself, as a structure of symbols and actions meant to guide our mind and heart toward the sacramental action at hand, simply fails to express its own interior nature and thus to weld us onto itself. Like a poorly acted drama that fails to engage our attention, it fails to dispose us properly to receive what it communicates: Christ himself. We may know what the action means notionally, and even be able to reproduce it, if we are well formed, in our own hearts; but we are not offered the awesome, stable, visual, physical expression of sacrifice that would be required for us to confess and enact it properly with our whole being, and thus cooperate most fully with the fountain of grace. The old Mass’s sacred choreography, combined with all the riches of its other forms of expression—music, text, artistic forms, etc.—is an awesome expression of the theology of sacrifice whose power for spiritual formation never ends.

I have suggested that the Old Testament, particularly the Sinai episode, offers models for understanding the proper shape of divine worship. The New Testament picks up on these references, and so did those who crafted the liturgical life of the various churches during their nursery period. It is the going-up to the altar of God, a holy place, on the part of a High Priest by Whose action we are saved. I propose therefore to explore the ways Scripture in which offers perennially valid orientations for Catholic worship, orientations expressed more richly in the ritual language of traditional rites than in those constructed by mid-20th century scholars.

“Noli me tangere”: Ad Orientem as Offense

Revelation and redemption both began with God’s offense to man. Placed in the garden of delights, Adam is given almost everything, “but of the tree in the middle of the garden you shall not eat.” Here is the smallest obstacle to Adam’s godlike dominion over the earth. When God prepared the way for his Son in the Church, he “called out” Abraham from the bosom of his family and made him a sojourner in a foreign land; later, he even asked him to kill his only son! From then on, one could read the whole fabric of Israelite religion as an attempt to preserve the nature of God as an offense to man: the presence of the Lord cannot be confined in idols, manipulated through ritual, detained within the nation-state (which thus becomes divine!), worshipped as we please. Under no circumstances is He to be touched. The God of Israel is a god of boundaries, which are meant to protect the Israelites from sacrilege, and teach them the true nature of the transcendent God in a world always guilty of bringing God down to its level.


Offense is inseparable from faith, because fallen man is incapable of true faith. He is too willing to believe the serpent’s whisper, that God is just a jealous man like us, or the grumblings of the people, who want nothing more from God in the end than the abundant flesh-pots of Egypt, even if that means a miserable slavery to passion. True freedom comes only when man renounces his graspings after God and adores Him in His transcendent majesty. Only after a long training in “offenses” can the people of Israel understand their God, and even then, it takes the rebukes of countless prophets to awaken them from their indifference.

This leads us to another Scriptural perspective on the priestly posture—and despite the expanded lectionary, our liturgical disorientation is at root a loss of Scriptural perspective—that is, its fearfulness. The Pharisee in the Gospel proudly faced the Lord in the Temple, sitting in the front row to be as close as possible to the holy forms; for what should stand between him who was so pure and the sacred? By contrast, the publican sat far to the rear, covered his head, and sighed over his own sinfulness. If a priest had descended from his place at the altar to come near to him, he might have fled away. In this parable, surely Our Lord was trying to teach us something about the proper attitude at Holy Mass? Surely He did not rebuke, because He was not displeased by, a sinner’s expression of fear at His approach: “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinner!”

In an age without comfort, in “the silent society [which] abandons [man] to himself: not one lesson, no advice, no support...”, it is good and right for the Church to emphasize Christ’s nearness, his mercy and all-embracing love. But we miss the mark, and fall into an even greater error, I think, if we do not also stress his remoteness as the Holy One of Israel, as the King of the Universe, as the High Priest in the Holy of Holies at the right hand of the Father. Without realizing God’s awesome distance from us—which is not incompatible with his tender closeness!—we risk collapsing Him into another piece of mental furniture in our comfortable existence, a therapeutic presence for the bad times, rather than a Lord, the majestic object of our religious devotion. Man’s initiative is first to fear and repent, God’s response is to heal and console; but the dramatic integrity of this exchange must be preserved. Christ never heals those who do not ask for it in faith and repentance, loathing their own spiritual leprosy and crying out “Save me, son of David!”


We could multiply examples of the “distant” Christ in the Gospels, who runs away from his parents, flees to the mountains, speaks in riddles and gets exasperated with his disciples, drives people out of the temple, and bitterly disappoints Messianic expectations by dying on the Cross. The whole Gospel of John is a sustained excursus in ironies and perpetual misunderstanding between one speaking “from above” to those “from below”! Just as much as the jealous God of the Old Testament, Christ resists being pigeon-holed or tied down to human conceptions, and his closest relationships are tinged with alienation.This is an important point of catechesis for our time. We are too willing to think that the religious worldview of the Old Testament has been largely abrogated and tossed out; but this is an error, and an ancient one at that. Rather, it was elevated and purified, as grace does to nature.

This dogmatic truth entails that all the basic attitudes and practices of the Old Testament are still valid and good, if understood in the light of Christ; further, they are an ineluctable part of the totus Christus. The fear of God apparent on every page of the Old Testament (and for that matter on the lips of all good ecclesiastical writers) is therefore still a Christian virtue. In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI observed that the perennial fear of the Israelites, that seeing God would bring death, was not proved invalid in Christ’s coming, but is precisely fulfilled by Our Lord.

Easter at St Peter’s Eastern Catholic Church in Ukiah, California

In the Byzantine tradition, the day before the Ascension is known as the “Leave-taking” of Easter; this is the official end of the Paschal season, marked by dropping certain features from the liturgy. (E.g., the famous chant which begins every Divine Liturgy in the Easter season, “Christ is risen from the dead; by death He trampled death...”, is discontinued after today.) I thought it would be good to mark the day with one last bit of unfinished business from our most recent photopost series. These photos of the major ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter were taken at St Peter’s Eastern Catholic Church in Ukiah, California, which labors mightily to make the richness and beauty of the Byzantine liturgical tradition accessible to all and sundry. The last few were taken on Bright Wednesday, when Fr David Anderson and his parish welcomed a visit from the Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa, they of the famous amice ties. Our thanks to Mr Philip Gilbert, a member of the parish who is now studying for the Greek-Catholic priesthood, for sending these in.

Good Friday Matins of the Passion Gospels

Royal Hours of Good Friday

Good Friday Vespers

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

EF Mass for the Vigil of the Ascension in the Bronx

The church of the Holy Rosary in the Bronx, New York City, will have a sung Mass on the Vigil of Ascension, Wednesday, May 24, at 7:30 pm; the church is located at 1510 Adee Avenue. Music for this Mass includes plainchant and two original motets by Holy Rosary’s music director, Eva Sze. Attendance at this Mass fulfills the obligation for Ascension Thursday; a reception will be held afterwards, to which all are invited.


Ephraim the Syrian and the World of Vampires, Werewolves and Zombies

I saw recently a scene in a TV sitcom in which a zombie movie was being made, and the pedantic and perfectionist director was permanently unhappy with his cast. In trying to get a more authentic performance out of his actors, he turned to one who had just completing a scene as a lowly extra, doing nothing but the characteristically stiff, stuttering zombie walk. “Richard,” he said, “Your performance...it’s good as far as it goes, but there’s still something missing. I’m getting lots of dead from you, plenty of dead, that’s great...But I'm not getting undead.”

This was a parody of a whole genre of movies that seems to be here to stay, and which seems to capitalize on the natural fascination of believers and unbelievers alike with our ultimate end and the desire for eternal life. Aside from the classic zombie movies, there are others on similar themes, vampire and werewolf films. Each has some twist on the themes of either spiritual death and immortality, or spiritual death and bodily resurrection


I admit that while I am not scandalized by such things, (perhaps I should be), I just find most of them pretty dull. I must be unusual in this respect, for they are popular, and many of them have earned a lot of money for the studios that produce them.

There are some that over the years I have enjoyed, such as An American Werewolf in London, which is in part a comedic spoof. There are others that have similar themes and which are not horror films at all; Highlander, for example, was somber, but not a horror film. Groundhog Day is another in which the protagonist cannot die; regardless of what happens to him, he rises again, spiritually dead but bodily resurrected, “undead”, in a manner of speaking. The optimism of Groundhog Day arises from the fact that it is made clear quite early on that a redemption is possible; the protagonist, played by Bill Murray, eventually breaks out the cycle of misery by becoming a virtuous, loving man. After countless failed attempts at getting the same day right, he finally succeeds by acting selflessly, and is permitted by the unidentified force that control this make-believe world to return to a familiar reality in which time moves forward.

Why are these films successful?

Prof Caleb Brown, whom I met recently, is a screen-playwright and teaches an online class in film appreciation called Christian Humanism in Modern Cinema. He told me that it is generally accepted that in the drama of film, the highest stake - what audiences fear most, generally speaking - is not death, but rather eternal damnation or eternal misery. This is, according to Hollywood, the audience’s greatest fear, regardless, it seems, of whether or not they acknowledge the existence of an afterlife.

This is part of a simple, deeper answer, which is true of any drama, which is to say, strange as it may seem, that these films speak in some way to our natural sense of the story of our own lives, which is as yet not fully realized. Any film will connect with an audience if it seems to strike a chord in response to the basic questions of life, even if only at a false or superficial level: where do I come from? Where am going? And Why?

The Christian film, in common with every aspect of the culture, evangelizes by illuminating the fact that the story of our own lives is a participation in the grand drama of salvation. This may be done explicitly or subtly, directly or indirectly, but this is what it must do. It stimulates the faculty in us to recognize our true story in the Faith and lead us to it. There is even a place for horror movies among them, provided that they portray a message of hope. Regardless of the terror that is portrayed, real or imaginary, if it is shown to be either redeemable or avoidable by some means analogous to God’s mercy, it can lead people in the right direction. Furthermore, because these are the fundamental questions that we all want answered, this can also be a film producers’ guide to greatest box office success.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says (CCC282) that the Bible tells us a story which relates to “the very foundations of human and Christian life.” This Biblical story is told most effectively in the context of the liturgy, as Fr Jean Danielou writes in his influential book The Bible and the Liturgy. I recently read Fr Robert Taft’s book, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, in which he makes a similar point;  in order to profit from praying the liturgy as a whole, including the Hours, as a school of prayer,
...one must be a person who prays and whose life is penetrated with the Scriptures. The Bible is a story of God’s ceaseless calling, drawing, gathering and of his people’s constant waywardness. And the Fathers and monks of the early Church, in their meditation on this ever-repeated story, know that they were Abraham, they were Moses. They were called forth out of Egypt. They were given a covenant. They knew the wandering across the desert to the Promised Land was the pilgrimage of their life too. The several levels of Israel, Christ, Church, us, are always there. And the themes of redemption, of exodus, of desert and faithful remnant and exile, of the Promised Land and the Holy City of Jerusalem, are all metaphors of the spiritual saga of our own lives. (p. 371)
The first three chapters of Genesis are crucial to this story. They express in unique way
the truths of creation - its origin and its end in God, its order and its goodness, the vocation of man and finally the drama of sin and salvation.” (CCC 289)
I recently heard of an interesting interpretation of the expulsion from Eden, as related in these early chapters of Genesis, by Ephraim the Syrian, a 4th century Doctor of the Church.


He suggests it took place not as a punishment, but as an act of mercy, to save mankind by preventing Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of the tree of life as fallen people. This would have condemned them, and us, permanently to an eternal life of misery without death.


Rather than allow that to happen, they were expelled from the Garden; then salvation was offered through Christ and His Church. Through the triple sacrament of Baptism, Confirmation and Communion, we die spiritually but then are raised up again spiritually, and partake of the fruit of the new tree of life, which is Christ. This tells us that the possibility of an eternal but miserable life without death is not even possible (so we don’t need to fear vampires!)

We can choose eternal misery after death, but through the mercy of God we never need to. This is the good news.

Just yesterday I read the following in the Office of Readings, from St Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on the Gospel of John, which relates to this:
When the life-giving Word of God dwelt in human flesh, he changed it into that good thing which is distinctively his, namely, life; and by being wholly united to the flesh in a way beyond our comprehension, he gave it the life-giving power which he has by his very nature. Therefore, the body of Christ gives life to those who receive it. Its presence in mortal men expels death and drives away corruption because it contains within itself in his entirety the Word who totally abolishes corruption. 
I don’t mind a portrayal of flesh-eating zombies or blood-sucking vampires, provided that they direct us to the flesh and blood that will genuinely give us eternal life. This is a story that is worth telling, and it is one that everyone wants to hear. We just have to tell it, and maybe the horror genre is one way to do it.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Sacred Music, the Need for Beauty, and the Beatific Vision

A few years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Fr. Jonathan Robinson of the Oratory deliver a lecture on beauty and the ars celebrandi in liturgy, with special reference to sacred music. Not one to spare his audience a pessimistic opening, Fr. Robinson argued that today the whole question of beauty has become increasingly irrelevant for many people. To Our Lord, Pilate cynically replied: “What is truth?”; today’s Christians could as easily say to their Master: “What is beauty?” Instead of being revered as an ancient witness to the awesome mysteries of Christ as well as their perennial adorable presence in our midst, liturgy is treated as a vehicle for acting out and celebrating a particular priest’s or community’s version of Christianity, usually in the form of moralistic therapeutic deism. Sincerity has replaced “making according to a rule” (the classical view of an art or skill). The results are plain for all to see and hear: verbosity, superficiality, sentimentalism, boredom, and randomness.

Art is a skilled performance; ars celebrandi refers to a skilled action done according to a true rule. No amount of distress for the poor, or openness to the world, or sincerity of opinion, can substitute for the lack of a true ars celebrandi, any more than a poet's good will and winsome personality can substitute for the discipline of learning how to write verse in rhyme and meter. This is what makes a celebrant do his work and do it well, and without it, the liturgy, as a human exercise and experience, becomes something between an embarrassment and a mockery. Because the liturgy is an exercise of the virtue of religion through which we offer fitting worship to God, and because it gives expression to our faith, mere sacramental validity can never make up for defective liturgical rites or for the lack of art in performing them.

If we were looking to capture post-modernity in a single word, we might choose “pluralism.” In the universities, in the fine arts, in religious practice, in every aspect of culture, there is an ever-increasing multiplication of choices, ways of life, identities, now even “genders,” without any axis or center around which they revolve and to which they might be tethered. Pluralism in liturgy, too, is connected with the post-modern view that there is no greater reality outside ourselves to which we must submit, and to which an appropriate response must be made: the response of the creature to the Creator, of the sinner to the Savior, of the child to the Father, of the adorer to the Holy One.

In spite of this inhospitable environment, the beautiful retains certain special qualities of its own. Beauty points beyond itself to something which is not reducible to the “true” or the “good.” When we ask whether something is true, we want to know if it corresponds to reality; when we ask whether something is good, we want to know if it is an object of desire or love. But when we ask whether something is beautiful, we are looking to its immediate captivating quality, its radiance in our eyes, its resounding in our ears. Beauty is disinterested, existing for its own sake, and needs no further justification. We delight in it because it simply is delightful. That which is beautiful exists to be seen or heard, and we rejoice in it just because of its splendor. This is why beauty reflects God, who exists for His own sake, and whom to see is to be blessed. Without beauty, the good loses its very attractiveness. Beauty is like a mask that guards, veils, and presents the face of the true and the good. They cannot stand on their own feet. Whoever banishes beauty will end up no longer being able to pray, nor, finally, to love. The beautiful cannot be banished without drawing into exile, sooner or later, the true and the good.

Do men, generally speaking, fall in love with ugly women? No — unless they find an invisible beauty that calls to the heart in a different way. It is always the beautiful that appeals and attracts, that awakens desire, that causes one to stop thinking of oneself and to be preoccupied with the other. The same is true for “modern man” and the liturgy of the Church. If the liturgy is ugly, it will not attract us, awaken our desire, or cause us to go out of ourselves and be caught up in the divine, so that we may become a Christian who is ready to go out of himself for the sake of others. This is why bad liturgy is, sooner or later, always connected with bad ethics. Bad liturgy is the single greatest cause of the collapse of the Church’s missionary and charitable activities, in the same way that the sinking or rotting or shifting of a building’s foundations compromises the entire structure.

My experience with priests formed in the 1970s is that they consider music in a purely utilitarian way: it is just a means to some further end, usually “active participation” understood in a reductive sense. It has no intrinsic value; it is not a holy thing; it is not “a moving image of eternity.” It is just something you do in order to be doing something religious together. This is why the music does not have to be of a high artistic quality. In fact, music of such quality would tend rather to thwart the end of general involvement than to promote it.[1] The implicit lesson of utility music is that liturgy is a pragmatic service to oneself, rather than a losing of oneself in something higher, greater, stranger, more demanding, and ultimately more wonderful than anything we can invent out of our immediate resources.

On a final exam, a student of mine wrote these words: “Sacred music … does not convey life on earth, it takes us into the afterlife. It makes us focus on the things of God. We meditate on Christ’s Incarnation, his earthly life, and His Passion and Death. We are brought to the angels in heaven and have a brief glimpse of the idea of a beatific vision.” This student has captured a key truth with admirable directness and childlike candor. The beauty of sacred music is a foretaste of the beatific vision in which we will rest in the fullest possible activity of gazing on the unveiled face of God, in whom is all our delight, to whom we will rapturously submit ourselves in a freedom that knows no limits, and whom we will love with all the power of our being because He is all-lovable and all-beautiful. Good liturgy initiates us — step by step, symbol by symbol, veiled glimpse by veiled glimpse — into this fearful and fascinating, stirring and stilling vision.


Note
[1] Sacro-pop music cannot truthfully be said to have achieved that “We Are the World” level of cooperative singing that was its sole justification. Meanwhile, we have had to suffer battery and siege on our eardrums, while the Muses scurried away for cover. We can be consoled at least by the inevitable operation of a divinely revealed law: the fashion of this world is passing away, and all that is conformed to this world will also pass away.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Pontifical Baptism in the Traditional Rite in Madison

Today, we bring you pictures from one of the rarest liturgies in practice, the pontifical baptism from the 1962 ritual books. The celebrant was His Excellency Bishop Robert Morlino; the ceremony occurred several weeks ago at St Patrick’s church, with a family from the Cathedral of Madison, Wisconsin.





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