Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Formed in the Spirit and Power of the Traditional Latin Mass: On the Eighth Anniversary of Summorum Pontificum

In her magnificent book Cistercian Europe: Architecture of Contemplation, Terryl Kinder describes how medieval Cistercian architecture, seemingly simple and humble, is actually extremely subtle in its relationship to the cosmos and particularly the light of the sun:
What there is in a Cistercian abbey—and in abundance—is the presence and the play of light. It is sunlight that animates the buildings by day, outlining every protuberance and recession, giving full value to architectural detail. When trying to understand light in an abbey, the role of silence needs to be underlined, for speaking draws attention away from visual subtleties. In order to experience fully the movement of light and shadow in a Cisterician church, one needs to be present throughout the day from morning until evening, in winter and in summer, at dawn, when it is raining, and in the reflected light of snow. The evolving luminous effect is most apparent when one is sitting in the same stall, the very slowness of the moving light providing a perfect backdrop to contemplative life. Then the subtlety of the architecture and its detail may gradually reveal itself to those who have grown aware and can see it.[1]
In other words, you have to live patiently and attentively with this architecture before it reveals its secrets to you, and once you have learned its language, you are ushered into a world of spiritual symbolism that echoes and amplifies the longings and thoughts of your own prayer.

This example from the Middle Ages reminds me of certain striking words Pope Benedict XVI addressed to bishops in the letter accompanying the publication of Summorum Pontificum:
The fear was expressed in discussions about the awaited Motu Proprio, that the possibility of a wider use of the 1962 Missal would lead to disarray or even divisions within parish communities. This fear also strikes me as quite unfounded. The use of the old Missal presupposes a certain degree of liturgical formation and some knowledge of the Latin language; neither of these is found very often.[2]
In noting how a “certain degree of liturgical formation” and “some knowledge of Latin” are required for the usus antiquior, Pope Benedict voiced a polite but stinging critique of the paucity and superficiality of liturgical formation found among many Catholics today as well as the pathetic and scandalous lack of Latinity among the clergy, contrary to the express requirements of Canon Law.[3] It is as if he said: You need not fear a sudden disarray in the Church, since the use of the classical Roman Rite, which presupposes the very things that the original Liturgical Movement and then Vatican II called for—namely, sound liturgical formation and the retention of Latin—are hardly to be found nowadays. Things are so bad that the old Mass, with its very great goods, will not immediately be able to spring back to life and take over.

Can we not see this as an implicit critique of the Novus Ordo, which, according to its architects’ express intentions, was meant to require little in the way of formation? It was designed to be self-explanatory, an “instant liturgy” like the instant coffees and dehydrated foods popularized in the Space Age. After all, in one of the most embarrassing sentences ever consigned to the text of an ecumenical council, we read in Sacrosanctum Concilium: “The rites … should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation” (34).

Never mind the fact that the people’s powers of comprehension have to be deliberately formed and informed in order for anything liturgical to make sense, and never mind the fact that the mysteries into which we are thrown are permanently and unfathomably mysterious, comprehensible and explicable only to a certain point, beyond which they dazzle and humble the human mind with their unapproachable light. As Benedict XVI frequently said in his homilies, man is not naturally Christian; we are not born redeemed; we must be born anew in water and the Holy Spirit, we must receive instruction and nurture our faith all our lives. Part of this process of becoming Christian is learning assiduously the vocabulary of the sacred, the language of the supernatural, the symbolism of the liturgy.

It is true, as Guardini reminds us, that many of the signs and gestures used by the Church have their origin in the order of creation, which speaks (or can speak) to man at the level of nature. But something like making the sign of the Cross or burning incense before the Blessed Sacrament is simply not intelligible apart from catechesis. Three conclusions suggest themselves: (1) taken in its totality, the Christian liturgy is not and can never be within the sphere of the people’s powers of comprehension in the absence of “formation in the spirit and power of the liturgy,” as Sacrosanctum Concilium recognizes elsewhere (n. 14). (2) Normally, and especially for modern man who spends his life deracinated from nature and culture, the liturgy will require much explanation. (3) Lastly, the worst place to attempt to explain liturgy is within the liturgy, even though this has been the constant trend for the past 50 years.

Tools of the trade: missals for the faithful
The original Liturgical Movement wanted serious formation of the clergy and the faithful so that they could yield themselves intelligently and willingly to the profound riches of the rites handed down to us, with their ultimately impenetrable mysteriousness that was the secret of their magnetism for devout souls. The Consilium decided instead on a horizontalized and transparent meeting format in which business is conducted in a linear fashion, “no congregant left behind,” with no residue of unintelligibility, no need for outside effort or inward suffering, and no submission to cultural forms that transcend our age as God transcends the entire created order—Latin being, perhaps, the most notable symbol of such a cultural form.

In fact, it is not difficult to see a certain pattern among those who discover the traditional Latin Mass and begin to attend it regularly. As a Catholic becomes more educated in both the Roman liturgy and the spiritual life, he or she comes to find the Novus Ordo less satisfactory. One notices more and more its thin rationalism, its openings for egoism, its heavy-handed didacticism, its lack of tranquility, its surprising distance from the interior world of the great spiritual masters. The classical Roman liturgy expresses to perfection all the great themes that the spiritual masters are always pursuing, and does so with a beauty, clarity, and forcefulness that is refreshing, invigorating, and habit-forming. Juventutem chapters and Fraternity parishes will recognize immediately the phenomenon I am describing here. It seems as if young people in particular, when serious about their faith, are quick to recognize the strengths of the old and the weaknesses of the new.[4]

Whether one realizes it or not, to seek to be formed “in the spirit and power of the liturgy” is, ipso facto, to become suited for the traditional Latin Mass, prepared to benefit from the feast it spreads before us. To become more prayerful, more accustomed to meditation, is to be in motion towards the usus antiquior—at least in the best of circumstances, when this trajectory can be peacefully completed. Tragically, as with storm-tossed ships too far from shore to find a safe harbor, there are many Catholics who cannot discover our liturgical heritage because it is simply not readily available to them. They will do what they can with the poverty of prayer forms they are offered, but it will be like poor children who cannot flourish on a meager diet, or who can do so only by special divine intervention and favor, outside of the ordinary course of things.

Let us return to the lines from Pope Benedict XVI’s letter to bishops of July 7, 2007. Having quoted these very lines, a commentator then went on to say:
The extraordinary form is difficult in the way that anything that’s rewarding but exacting is difficult, like classical music when what we know is mainly popular music. At Mass in the ordinary form, we experience it as something that projects itself from the sanctuary into the pews: it meets us halfway. At Mass in the extraordinary form, “Introibo ad altare Dei,” I will go to the altar of God. In the United States, a number of Catholics higher than anyone might have predicted from a survey of Catholics worldwide prefer to do the harder thing.[5]
The classical liturgy begins, in a sense, with the inner man and works from there to the outer man. This is why it is a harder, more demanding way, a more deeply transformative way—one that is, for that very reason, more full of joy and more productive of fierce devotion. This liturgy demands of us that we be formed and educated, otherwise we can make no sense of it. It prompts the development of new faculties of seeing and hearing; it requires an exodus from our surroundings of pop culture and intellectual fashion; it calls us to a strange land, like Abram being summoned from Ur to Canaan. Latin is the intuitive symbol of this stripping of oneself and donning a new garment, fit for standing in the presence of the Lord.[6] When Latin was de facto abolished, a potent and efficacious sign of the transcendence of God (the object of worship), of man (the subject of worship), and of the activity of worship itself (the mediating sacrifice), was lost, with immensely damaging consequences.

“What there is in a Cistercian abbey—and in abundance—is the presence and the play of light.” This, indeed, is what we find in the traditional Latin Mass and throughout the Roman liturgy as a whole: the presence and play of a divine light that illuminates man’s total condition, as a sinner redeemed in Christ, destined for immortality and fighting the battle of good and evil. It is this irresistible presence and liberating play of light, worlds removed from anthropocentric spontaneity and creativity, that we have discovered in the Mass of the Ages and everything that goes with it. With a shock of joy, we have embraced that gift, or rather, yielded ourselves to it, with all the fervor of young love, the foretaste of eternal blessedness.

Architecture, liturgy, and nature in perfect harmony


[1] Terryl N. Kinder, Cistercian Europe: Architecture of Contemplation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2000), 385–86.

[2] The full text may be found here.

[3] See Fr. John Hunwicke for the canonical requirements and kindred matters.

[4] For example, a college student wrote in an essay: “We do not immerse ourselves in the Mass [viz., the Ordinary Form] as much. It is more rushed and there is less concern with what every movement and every item means.”

[5] Nicholas Frankovich, First Things, September 26, 2013, “It’s Extraordinary.”

[6] This kind of stripping of the ego happens in the vernacular Byzantine liturgy in a variety of ways that do not have their exact parallels in the Western liturgy. But that would be another subject to pursue.

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