Sunday, January 05, 2014

Extraordinary Glory: On the Beauty of Nature, Plane Flights, and Obscure Rubrics - Faith and Tradition Series

This article originally appeared on the blog of the Dominican Students of the Western Province, To God, About God,  and is here reproduced with their  kind permission.
By Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.

"And when they came to threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God."(2 Sam 6.3)

I recently had the tremendous opportunity to fly in a single engine prop plane. A friend of mine with a pilot's license is part of a club that shares planes and resources and such, and had been inviting me to go up with him for some time. Stupendous. Majestic. Enthralling. Wonder-filled. Got me, naturally, thinking about liturgy! Specifically, about the ancient liturgy proper to my order, also known as the Dominican Rite.

The archdiocese of Miami posted a few months back one laywoman's account of experiencing the Extraordinary Form for the first time.1 She relates that, despite the preconceived notions about this mass she had imbibed from the media, her experience was remarkably enriching. She recounts an initial confusion, bridging into an entranced awe, and then a gradually free surrender to the beauty of a liturgy which was, on the one hand, entirely outside her experience, yet on the other, mysteriously and profoundly united with the saints in heaven and through history. Fr. Z linked her article on his blog, which seems to have spawned several more accounts (here, here, and here).

I add my voice to this growing and, as it were, polyphonic chorus. As a Gen-X convert to the Catholic Faith (raised Presbyterian, entered the Church in 2003), my exposure to any mass prior to about 2001 was rare, much less the old rite(s) of preconciliar days. The last thing on my mind upon initial conversion was the existence or possible importance of older liturgical forms. Although I did tend to drift towards more relatively sober and reverent liturgies, at that point most of my needy soul's gaze was inebriated with the riches of Sacred Tradition, the philosophical and theological patrimony of the Church, the gift of an ecclesial hierarchy that unites the Church's faith across space and time, and above all the supreme gift of the Blessed Sacrament. The more I have grown in my Catholic faith, however, the more I have come to realize the importance of liturgical form.

On this question, one often hears it said that the "externals" of liturgy are secondary to the really important thing, which is one's relationship with Christ. This is true in principle, but misleading. Outward forms matter for the same reason the Incarnation matters: as bodily creatures we perceive the invisible through the visible; the form through the accident, to use scholastic language. When the "accidents" of liturgical aesthetics are shoddy, undignified, or banal, this can implicitly communicate—especially through long repetition—false ideas about the character of God. But I get ahead of myself.

My first consistent encounter with the Extraordinary Form was on my "residency" year in Anchorage, Alaska (2010–11), where one mass every Sunday is offered according to the Dominican Rite, the ancient rite proper to the Order of Preachers.2 At the time these were Low Masses (no choir, one server, much silence) and my initial experience of it was a kind of dumb reverence. I sat and gazed inquisitively at the priest facing away from the congregation—or rather, towards the East(!), at the server bustling back and forth seeming to obey minute rubrics with military-like precision, and on certain intermittent occasions being graced with the priest's voice or direct address: a "Dominus vobiscum" here, a "nobis quoque peccatoribus" there.  The feel and flow of the Mass was unfamiliar but silent and rather unassuming. I was not distracted or paying much attention to the priest's personality quirks; I was not even so conscious of the words being spoken, except for trying to pick out a Latin phrase here or there. Yet it was all oddly entrancing. In a way I could hardly describe, I felt transported into a reverence for something mysterious I did not understand, but in which I sensed a profound unity, coherence, discipline, and depth.

The rhythms of the natural world come to mind. Some may have seen the excellent, excellent (did I say excellent?) BBC series Planet Earth. Transported to inner sancta of the jungles, deserts, ice plains, sea-depths, and mountain ranges of our world, one frequently wants to burst out while beholding the marvels, "this looks like another planet!" All manner of bizarre, enchanting, and startling phenomena carry themselves out day-to-day on earth, in an order mind-bogglingly elaborate, yet somehow reassuringly solid, steady, and consistently turning. Hamlet was right: there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Horatio's philosophy; or in anyone else's for that matter. Such expansive complexity overspreads every inch of the cosmos, yet underneath it a profound and awe-inspiring order shines through. God apparently was interested in aesthetics, in the "externals" of the cosmos, when He created it.

Which brings me back to the liturgy and planes. The wonder one experiences when Planet Earth occurs in concreto, as it were, by going up in a single-prop plane. Part of nature's power to evoke awe lies precisely in its lack of familiarity, in its uncontrollability, in the fact that it can bedazzle you (like this) but also spike your neck-hairs (like this). Part of the thrill of a plane flight, too, lies precisely in a certain "cost" paid up front: the danger of being thousands of feet up in the air, your life at the mercy of the human engineers who designed the plane, and the sheer know-how of the pilot guiding it. In other words, the experience of anything transcendent evokes a reverence for something other, unfamiliar, unpredictable, and even dangerous. It should not surprise us, then, that a Mass with centuries of venerable tradition behind it expresses the adoration of God in forms and appearances—governed by minute and complex rubrics—that are unfamiliar to our daily experience. If nature is complex, yet profoundly beautiful and ordered, all the more the outer-reaches of reality we peer into when the Triune God is adored at the Mass. God's exceeding beauty, goodness, and majesty would seem to call forth naturally—or supernaturally, as it were—liturgical forms that are unfamiliar to us, that enkindle the twin instincts of admiration and, well, something that makes your neck-hairs stand up.

To carry the plane analogy a bit further, I recall sitting on the runway before take-off that brisk early morning.  With a certain reverential wonder, I admired the symmetry of the plane's wings, the aerodynamic perfection of the body, the simple and compact yet, used rightly, wonderful winged potential of this piece of modern machinery sitting silently before me in the pre-dawn light. Awesome. So too, I was glad my friend Doug was scrupulous in checking the specs of the plane before flight (every door, tire, wing flap, and fluid level) since in a few moments this elaborate device would soar us into the heavens at the peril of our lives. His technical knowledge had to be quite elaborate, and his execution virtually flawless, in accordance with the greatness and difficulty of the task. Similarly, it is fitting that liturgy, which is ordered to offering the God of Heaven right worship and lifting souls to union with Him, should reflect the majesty of this God by being complex yet ordered, diverse in movement yet unified in purpose, highly detailed in rubric yet graceful and awe-evoking in overall appearance. If planes that launch bodies into both awe-inspiring and potentially dangerous physical flights require diligent and careful attention, even more the liturgy, the privileged flashpoint where Heaven itself shines through to us who dwell upon the earth.

In the last half-century it has been common to want and "design" liturgies that are more simple, common-place, and closer to the informal and popular customs of the surrounding culture. Whatever we want to say about the manner in which this "inculturation" occurs, what Newman called the "unutterable beauty" of the Mass hangs absolutely, I would assert, on the manner in which the liturgy respects and so reflects, God's simultaneous immanence and transcendence. God humbles Himself to appear as bread and wine, yes; God is closer to us than our inmost self, yes; God is compassionate, gentle, and forgiving, yes—thank God for our sakes that He would come so near to us! But He is also infinitely removed from our experience, and acts in unpredictable and often very politically incorrect ways. He zapped Uzzah for the apparently understandable action of trying to steady a tottering ark, since Uzzah was not a priest (2 Sam 6:3); He killed Nadab and Abihu for using the wrong type of incense for sacrifice (Lev 10:1); and He metes out punishment to those who would contravene His commands, even disciplining those he loves (cf. 1 Sm 15.3, Ex 12.2, Num 31.7–18; Heb 12.6). He is "good to all, and has compassion on all He has made" (Psalm 145:9), but is also a "consuming fire" whose holiness excludes anyone who is not themselves holy from seeing Him face-to-face in heaven (cf. Heb 12:29 and 12:14).

Today we are not used to thinking of God in these terms. But we cannot get God's immanence without respecting His transcendence. If we want the fullness of God's love, we must (by grace, of course) accord with the strictness of His justice. Adoring His infinite majesty is the condition for uniting with and growing in His intimate love. I have been drawn to the ancient rite proper to my order quite simply because there is a depth and beauty in it, experienced precisely through the complexity and "other-ness" of its outward form, that (for many reasons) is often not accessible in vast swaths of the Church today, where the new Mass was not implemented in a way that organically developed from the pre-Vatican II years.3 And it is precisely, in one sense, this outward and highly ordered complexity that kindles the twin instincts of admiration and fear, of astonishment with a hint of alarm, which one feels in the natural wonders of earth, or in the experience of flight. Instead of the "externals" of Mass being odd and annoying superfluities one must "get past" in order to focus on the really important thing, I have discovered rather that they are genuine reflections of the honor, attention, and dignity due the Triune God, as well as highly fitting for facilitating the individual believer's personal encounter with this God.

As my formation has proceeded (I look forward to ordination in May, 2014), my liturgical sensibilities have come to be deeply shaped by the Dominican Rite, with a practicum offered now in our formation by Fr. Augustine Thompson—perhaps the world expert on the rite—and plentiful opportunities for serving, both at our house of studies and in the Bay Area. It seems a wise proposal of Pope Emeritus Benedict that, for now, the two forms of the Mass—old and new—should exist side-by-side, that they may influence one another. The old rite needs to undergo legitimate, careful, and discerning reform; and the new mass needs to re-establish a more direct and organic continuity with the Church's sacred tradition and practice. I would go so far as to assert this sort of legitimate liturgical reform as "storm center" of the vaunted New Evangelization, insofar as John Paul II launched the latter in 1992 as a Eucharistically centered affair—but that would require another article. For now, we pray God would give all Catholics the fidelity, awareness of his Presence, and single-minded devotion to His glory upon the earth, to order our lives around worship in Spirit and in Truth.

All liturgical images above were taken at a Solemn High Mass recently celebrated, according to the Dominican Rite, at Star of the Sea parish in San Francisco, with Fr. Anselm Ramelow, O.P. presiding, and all other ministries served by student friars of the Western Dominican Province. They appear here courtesy of the Traditional Latin Mass Society of San Francisco.
1 Sometimes misnamed the "Latin Mass," since of course the new Mass can be done in Latin also.

2 See my confrere Fr. Augustine Thompson's website for the most comprehensive internet resource on the Dominican Rite. Incidentally, Holy Family Cathedral now has Missæ Cantatæ regularly and recently offered a Solemn High Mass.

3 To be clear, I do not assert the intrinsic superiority of the Extraordinary Form over the New Mass. The Holy Spirit evidently wanted, and still wants, a genuine liturgical reform to occur in the contemporary Church. My assertion is rather of a piece with Pope Emeritus Benedict's frequent observation through his career: liturgical reform was needed by the mid-20th century, but the way it happened in practice after the Council too often resulted in hasty decisions to jettison traditional forms, without respect for the internal dynamics of the liturgy that could have led to authentic development. Click here for a recent article by respected liturgical theologian Dom Alcuin Reid, O.S.B., on the ambiguities that lent Sacrosanctum Concilium to misinterpretation, and the positive seeds that are still to be nourished.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: