Monday, December 07, 2015

Beat Your Own Breast

Even if Advent is not a penitential season in quite the same way Lent is, nevertheless, a penitential note has always been struck in this time of preparation and expectancy, in the weeks that lead up to the great feast of Christmas. In keeping therefore with the hopeful asceticism of the season, and the many Scriptural readings that call us to vigilance, I would like to have a look at one of the “lost gestures” of the Roman Rite which, thanks be to God, is now making a comeback.

Why do we beat our breasts? Many years ago, Fr. Cassian Folsom, O.S.B., prior of the Monastery of Norcia, wrote a lovely article entitled “Sacred Signs and Active Participation at Mass: What Do These Actions Mean, and Why Are They So Important?” Apropos our topic, Fr. Cassian says:
This is a sign of repentance, of humility, like the parable of the Pharisee and publican in the Gospel: “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Lk 18:13). In the Missal of Pius V, the rubric for this gesture was very specific: “He strikes his breast three times, saying: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” The rubric in the Missal of Paul VI is less precise. It simply says: “Striking themselves on the breast they say mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” … The words express our repentance verbally. Striking the breast expresses our repentance physically, in body language.
Fr. Cassian continues, quoting one of my favorite books, Guardini’s Sacred Signs:
Guardini has something to say about this gesture too. He asks the question: “What is the significance of this striking the breast? All its meaning lies in its being rightly done. To brush one’s clothes with the tip of one’s fingers is not to strike the breast. We should beat upon our breasts with our closed fists. In the old picture of Saint Jerome in the desert he is kneeling on the ground and striking his breast with a stone. It is an honest blow, not an elegant gesture. To strike the breast is to beat against the gates of our inner world in order to shatter them. This is its significance.” … The gesture of striking the breast, made carefully and with full awareness, can communicate to ourselves and to others more than mere words can say, that we recognize our sinfulness and publicly declare our sorrow for our sins. … Try it yourself. The rib cage is like an echo chamber. If you strike your breast properly, you’ll hear the sound of it: like the sound of thunder.
This, then, is why we have this gesture and why it is important not to let it slip away into a manner of worship that is too verbal and not sufficiently physical and interior.

I don’t know if others have done the same, but ever since the new translation of the Roman Missal appeared, I’ve been wondering if the People of God in my neighborhood would start beating their breasts as they say: “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” After all, this rhythmic repetition, evidently not a useless repetition but a highly necessary one, almost begs to be accompanied by some bodily action: “through my fault (thump), through my fault (thump), through my most grievous fault (thump).”

The results seem to be mixed so far. The younger people pick it up quickly: they are natural imitators, they delight in ritual observances, and as soon as they see a few adults who do it, they start to emulate. But those who have lived a very long time without the beating of the breast — which was, I’m afraid, lost during the confusion of “the changes” — for the most part do not seem to have resumed the custom, and, alas, I cannot remember a single homily in which the custom was mentioned, either to explain it, or to encourage it.

Still, there’s hope. The beating of the breast will come back, for three reasons: firstly, the increasing number of Catholics who attend the Extraordinary Form cannot avoid seeing it happening many times (and, perchance, reading it in their missals); secondly, members of the younger generation who are liturgically conscientious are taking it up again at both the Ordinary and Extraoridnary Forms; thirdly and most deeply, it is a profoundly human, natural, humble, and effective sign, of which we always stand in need. This gives it a kind of elemental claim on us that easily reasserts itself in spite of decades of abeyance. One sees the same thing with the reintroduction of kneeling for communion, the use of incense, the Benedictine altar arrangement, ad orientem, and lots of other examples. They may have been totally unfamiliar in a certain community, but when they reappear on the watch of a pastor more attuned to Catholic tradition, they make such intuitive sense in worship that the reaction of many is: “Ah, yes — that’s what we’ve been missing.”

* * *
There is also a practical issue that a reader once raised with me, in connection with the traditional Latin Mass. He wrote:
At the the Agnus Dei (Angelus Press Missal, pp. 906–7; Lasance, p. 788; Saint Andrew, p. 981), I have noticed that people in the pews strike their breast three times. They often do the same at the Communion of the Priest (Angelus Press Missal, pp. 910–11; Lasance, p. 790; Saint Andrew, p. 983). My understanding, perhaps mistaken, is that at these two points in the Mass, the priest is the only person who should be doing this, while the faithful in the pews are supposed to do it only at the Communion of the Faithful (Angelus Press, pp. 912–13; Lasance, p. 791; Saint Andrew, p. 984). There seems to be some confusion about this amongst those of us in the pews. I’d appreciate it if you could let me know what is correct.
It’s a good question, and similar to many other questions that people can and do raise about posture and customs at the TLM. In response, let me mention a few points:

1. As surprising as it may seem, what the laity are supposed to do in the old Mass is nowhere explicitly determined. There are no obligatory rubrics for the laity. There are customs and expectations, but no instructions. (In this regard it is different from the Novus Ordo, which specifies what the congregation is supposed to do at every stage of the liturgy. When Fr. Cassian said above that the old rubric is more precise than the new, he was of course referring to the old rubric for the priest and server; there was none for the laity in attendance. The new rubric is less precise about how many times to beat the breast, but it is more inclusive in that it prescribes the action for all present.) Accordingly, it cannot be “right” or “wrong” to beat one’s breast at any point during the traditional Mass. Granted, if someone were to beat his breast so often and so loudly that it became a distraction to his neighbors, that could well be a venial sin against charity. Otherwise, whether you sit, stand, kneel, pray the Rosary, read your missal, etc., is all up to you.

2. That being said, certain customs are so widespread and longstanding, e.g., standing during the Gospel or kneeling during the Canon, that departing from them would be strange. To kneel during the Gospel or to stand during the Canon would be symbolically unfitting and certainly a huge distraction to others. Frankly, it’s very rare to find a community that is not united around such obvious symbols.

3. But then there is the realm of local customs that prevail in a given region or country, in a given parish or chapel, or in a given religious order that may be in charge of the liturgy you attend. There are bound to be some consistent customs, and, if you are new or visiting, it is wisest to follow St. Augustine’s advice in his famous Letter 54 to Januarius to fall in with local custom if there is nothing inherently evil in it. (One of his examples is which days to fast on: if in a place you are newly residing the choice of days is different from the choice you are accustomed to, you should not stubbornly maintain your past practice but adopt the one of your new locale.)

4. Now, I would have to do more research to find out about how widespread is the custom of beating the breast three times at the Agnus Dei. Still, the Agnus Dei is a part of the Mass Ordinary, which belongs (at High Mass) to the people to sing. Why should they not strike their breasts, too? Indeed, one might infer that this custom had been around before the Council because one almost always sees some people today at OF Masses striking their breast during the Agnus Dei — which is certainly not something mentioned in the new rubrics and could be a carry-over from the past. When, on the other hand, the priest strikes his breast at his “Domine, non sum dignus,” it would not make equal sense for the people to do so, because he is preparing for his own communion, and shortly afterwards, when he raises the host and says “Ecce Agnus Dei,” the people have their own opportunity to say “Domine, non sum dignus” three times and to strike their own breasts, as is right and fitting.

Thus, in my opinion, people shouldn’t do this at the priest’s communion, but they should do it at the Agnus Dei and for their own communion. But this is merely my opinion, since there are no official rubrics for the people’s postures and gestures. (And let's not forget all the other wonderful opportunities for striking one's breast that the traditional liturgy offers — active participation to the max!)

As we move towards the season of Christmas revelry, when people are apt to celebrate more and more, let’s not forget the Catholic B.Y.O.B.: Beat Your Own Breast.

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