Monday, September 12, 2016

Nothing Superfluous — A Masterful Spiritual Guide to the Traditional Mass

Nothing Superfluous: An Explanation of the Symbolism of the Rite of St. Gregory the Great [i.e., the traditional Latin Mass]. By the Rev. James W. Jackson, FSSP. Lincoln, NE: Redbrush, 2016. $17.95. Available from Fraternity Publishing.

This is a book whose publication I have been eagerly awaiting, ever since I saw the manuscript a couple of years ago and, subsequently, the tantalizing excerpts that have appeared each month in the newsletter of the North American district of the Fraternity of St. Peter.

Many readers will already be familiar with the genre of book to which this new one belongs: a running commentary on the parts and prayers of the traditional Latin Mass, probing their symbolism, looking into their theological depths, and offering suggestions for how one might enter into the great mystery of the Mass more consciously and obtain more spiritual fruit from it. There are many classics in this genre, particularly from the early and middle of the twentieth century, the heyday of the healthy Liturgical Movement.

This new book by Fr. Jackson, however — and I say it without hyperbole — is the best book of its kind I have ever read. Drawing upon centuries of commentarial tradition filtered through his long experience of offering the Holy Sacrifice with loving awe, Fr. Jackson is able to feed us with choice meat; there is no fluff here.

The book features two Forewords, one by Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, the other by Dom Phillip Anderson, Abbot of Clear Creek Monastery (neither of them strangers to readers of NLM).

Chapter 1 talks about the language of the liturgy and how it speaks to our hearts (and why its very density of symbolism and stability of form is the precondition for real participation in it); chapter 2 speaks of the church building, its characteristics, furnishings, and objects; chapter 3 is about the liturgy as "serious play," its leisureliness and relationship with wonder; chapter 4 looks into the sacristy and explains the different vestments; chapter 5 is on the ceremonies that precede the priest's ascent of the altar; chapter 6 is on the Mass of the Catechumens; chapter 7 delves into the Creed and the Offertory (and what a rich commentary on the traditional Offertory prayers we get!); chapter 8 is dedicated entirely to the Canon of the Mass; chapter 9 to all that follows, from the Lord's Prayer to the Last Gospel.

Appendix I is a substantial, detailed, and informative glossary of liturgical vocabulary; Appendix II explains and defends the use of Latin in the Roman liturgy; Appendix III speaks wisely of how the liturgy teaches most effectively when it is most fully itself, not when it busily sets about teaching people; Appendix IV is a short but convincing apologia for the traditional Requiem Mass in all its black-hued distinctiveness. The chapter headings are graced with old-school line drawings.

Every page glistens with gems of insight. For example, he throws down the gauntlet to those who would perpetually adapt the liturgy to modern man, changing it and strippping it down as they go along:
Does the fact that we no longer see shepherds and flocks every day mean that such images are no longer comprehensible? Is it because no one at our parish has ever met a seraph that the metaphorical power of this messenger no longer speaks to us? Half of all the poetry ever written makes use of images and terms that are not part of daily life. These words and symbols are a part of a biblical and liturgical mother tongue that simply cannot be replaced. It is a language that must be learned, not replaced. Divine realities only gradually yield their full significance. So understanding the liturgy is a lengthy and progressive process of becoming familiar with a particular reality. This is one of many reasons why the liturgy must have a great stability, not just in texts but also in gestures, vestments, and music. (2-3)
Fr. Jackson's treatment of how the seven utterances of "Dominus vobiscum" in the liturgy correspond to the seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost, and why they come in the places and the order in which they do (pp. 110-16), is a tour de force. The discussion of why precious articles are used in worship, and the particular symbolism of each vestment of the celebrant, including the liturgical colors (pp. 61-78), is so beautifully and aptly put that it succeeds in being not only informative but deeply moving. The explanation of each part of the church building, e.g., windows, steps, bells, altars (pp. 23-44), reveals layer after layer of rich symbolism; one who reads these pages will never think about or encounter these things in quite the same way.

As one would expect (and yet still rejoice!) to find in a disciple of the great John Senior and his colleagues of the Integrated Humanities Program, this marvelous book always combines the verum, the bonum, and the pulchrum  that is, the rationale behind a certain object or practice or text, the moral and spiritual goodness of it, and its beauty, its radiance or splendor. Fr. Jackson, more than any author I have seen, appreciates that the Mass as a "poem," the greatest poem our world has ever seen, a poem written by our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit over the course of twenty centuries. He brings out the drama of the liturgy as a solemn re-presentation of the sacred mysteries of the life, death, and resurrection of Our Lord and a participation in their inexhaustible dynamism. The traditional Mass is not simply holy (although it is that, to the maximum degree); it is not simply doctrinally pure, ample, and trustworthy (for it is that, too, without a doubt); it is above all beautiful, orderly, and harmonious, elevating the senses, the imagination, the memory, the intellect, the will above themselves and into the precincts of the heavenly Jerusalem. It has a peculiar power to do all this because of the depth and organic complexity of its manifold elements, which grew up together slowly, intermingling, mutually resonating, reflecting both the graced illuminations of the Church and the subtle needs of human nature.

There are so many wonderful lines in this book: "People usually enter the Church by one of two doors: the door of the intelligence or the door of beauty. The first is open to scholars and intellectuals. The second is open to anyone — especially those who see with childlike wonder" (47). "The priest's lifting up his hands has a profound human significance, as when a child reaches for his mother, or a friend sees an old friend, or a soldier puts his hands up as he surrenders" (139). Some of my favorite reflections have to do with silence:
The silence that the priest maintains here [at the foot of the altar] and in different places in the Sacred Liturgy is not an absence of sound. It has no gaps; it is a single great canticle, and the silence acts as an acoustic veil over the whole liturgy to reveal what the liturgy is. The Gregorian Rite has no artificial introduction of silence into the liturgy by the addition of pauses. When silence is at the beck and call of the celebrant, as opposed to the rite, the silence of the priest becomes the whole congregation waiting for him, wondering what is going to happen next. The silence in the Gregorian Rite is given as an integral part of the Mass, determined by the Church through two thousand years of development. And what often seems like silence in our rite is not quite silence; it is rather the priest praying to God in a low voice. (97)
The silence [of the Canon] also harmonizes with the mystery of Transubstantiation, in which the material elements of the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, without the senses perceiving it or the created mind able to comprehend it; the Real Presence and sacrificial life of the Savior under the sacramental species are concealed beyond all discernment. So the holy silence is quite suited to indicate and to recall the concealment and depth, the incomprehensibility and ineffableness of the wonderful mysteries enacted on the altar. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (Hab. 2:20)  (201)
I recommend this book without hesitation for every pastor (it could inspire many fine sermons), every educator (it is the ideal text for a high school or college liturgy practicum), every homeschooling parent — in truth, every faithful Catholic who wants to learn more about the mysteries of the Mass and how to enter more fully into them.

To purchase, visit Fraternity Publications.

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