Thursday, March 08, 2018

“The Fingers that Hold God”: The Priestly Benefits of ‘Liturgical Digits’: Historical, Theological, and Liturgical Conclusions

In this last part of the series (links to parts 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5), I would like to offer some thoughts that emerge from reflecting on the nineteen priests’ responses to my questions.

According to Jungmann, the custom of holding finger and thumb together arose in the Middle Ages, about the eleventh century, when
we begin to find, hand in hand with an increased care for everything connected with the Sacrament, the first signs of a new attitude. According to the Cluniac Customary, written about 1068 by the monk Bernhard, the priest at the consecration should hold the host quattuor primis digitis ad hoc ipsum ablutis. After the consecration, even when praying with outstretched arms, some priests began to hold those fingers which had “touched” the Lord’s Body, pressed together; others even began this at the ablution of the fingers at the offertory. In one form or another the idea soon became a general rule.[1]
Jungmann also notes that the increased theological attention paid to the Real Presence from the eleventh century onwards, particularly in response to the heresy of Berengarius of Tours (d. 1088) who reduced the Eucharist to a symbol of the Lord’s Body and Blood, prompted ever greater care:
Here [in clerical circles], in any case, and especially in the monasteries, the greatest care was from this time on devoted to the forms with which the Sacrament was surrounded; prescriptions about the choice and preparation of the materials, the custom of keeping the fingers together which—after a special cleansing [at the Lavabo]—had touched the Sacrament, the detailed rules for the ablution of the fingers and of the vessels after Communion.[2]
It is unquestionably true that the gradual rise in devotion to and theological understanding of the Most Blessed Sacrament spontaneously and organically prompted the development of all the many “forms with which the Sacrament was surrounded,” the customs that promoted due care and reverence for this most awesome mystery. The holding together of the thumb and finger is exactly what we would expect to find in a rite in which the priest really believes he is handling the very Body and Blood of God Incarnate, from the moment he begins to handle it until the moment he has washed his fingers in wine and water, restoring them, so to speak, to ordinary use.[3]

What, then, should we say about the almost flippant abolition of this practice on May 4, 1967? In the Second Instruction on the Orderly Carrying Out of the Constitution on the Liturgy Tres Abhinc Annos, published by the Sacred Congregation of Rites, we read (alongside dozens of other deformations of the rite of Mass): “After the Consecration, the celebrant need not join thumb and forefinger; should any particle of the host have remained on his fingers, he rubs his fingers together over the paten”[4]—with no explanation as to why a custom of at least 800 years’ standing should be discontinued. Humanly speaking, the 1967 “simplification” probably resulted from the general spirit of antinomianism among the liturgical reformers, animated as they were by a false conception of “simplicity” and “naturalness.”

If we take seriously the responses of the surveyed priests, and if we trust common sense, the Church’s faith in the Real Presence is objectively demonstrated and subjectively sustained by just such practices as these. It follows that the desire to abolish this custom, and the actual abolition and cessation thereof, has as its root cause the loss of faith in transubstantiation and the Real Presence. The custom’s absence has become one more factor that supports a culture of unbelief in these mysteries, even as its unexpected reappearance—not only in the usus antiquior, where it remains obligatory, but in the usus recentior, where it is making a comeback—has the opposite effect of heightening the priest’s awareness of the awesome mysteries he, though unworthy, is handling in persona Christi. 

A lex orandi that would strip away this and analogous customs (the many kissings of the altar, the many genuflections) is nothing other than a falsification and a denigration of the faith of the Church as it unfolded under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 16:13), promoted by the dupes of fallen angels and wearing away the faith of the clergy and the people as acid rain wears away great monuments of art and architecture.

Fr. John Hunwicke reminded us that we have seen such anti-rubrical, anti-Catholic antics before:
After the regime of Edward Tudor had imposed the First Prayer Book upon the suffering clergy and people of England, the tyrants discovered that the clergy were assimilating the service as closely as possible to the Sarum Mass. So draft Articles of Visitation ordered “For a uniformity, that no minister do counterfeit the popish mass, as to kiss the Lord’s table; washing his fingers at every time in the communion; blessing his eyes with the paten, or sudary; or crossing his head with the paten; shifting of the book from one place to another; laying down and licking the chalice of the communion; holding up his fingers, hands, or thumbs, joined towards his temples; breathing upon the the bread or chalice; showing the sacrament openly before the distribution of the communion; ringing of sacrying bells; or setting any light upon the Lord’s board...”.[5]
In general, the Church over the centuries adds to the liturgy prayers, chants, and ceremonies expressive of the sacred mysteries. She does not take away deeply-planted, obviously meaningful legitimate customs; she does not deprive God of the reasonable homage owed to Him.[6] The holding together of the fingers from the consecration to the ablutions is not only a practice that should be kept, but one whose abolition should be protested and resisted by any who still believe in the de fide Eucharistic dogma of the Council of Trent. That such resistance did not occur widely in 1967 is a sign of the lobotomizing effects of neo-hyperultramontanism, where any command, however irrational and impious, is accepted “under obedience.”

* * *
The rubric of holding thumb and forefinger together is not what might be called a “major” rubric. It is probably not noticed by many of the faithful, especially in churches where the high altar is some distance away. Anyone familiar with liturgy could cite numerous other rubrics that seem to be more intrinsic to the Mass or more central to its devout celebration. Nevertheless, our series has vindicated the custom as a simultaneously practical, mnemonic, and symbolic gesture:
  • It is practical because it prevents loss of sacramental particles and avoids the careless handling of other objects with the same fingers that have held and hold the species of bread. 
  • It is mnemonic in the sense that the slight awkwardness of it, coupled with the fact that fingers are never held together like this at any other time or for any other reason, prompts the priest to have a heightened alertness as to what he is doing. 
  • It is symbolic in that it makes of the joined thumb and finger a sign of the One before whom the priest stands—a sign given by the Church who decreed the rubric; a sign of reverence offered to Christ Himself, the Eternal High Priest, whose instrument the ministerial priest is; a sign given by the priest to other ministers around him and to any of the faithful who happen to notice; a sign of the coherence and consistency of the lex orandi.
The priest respondents (for whom we offer God our thanks) help us to see the value of every rubric, including the “little” ones, for cultivating and preserving a sense of awe, awareness, carefulness, priestly identity, doctrinal consistency, in everything that pertains to the handling of the Most Blessed Sacrament—the handling of the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, under the appearances of bread and wine, present wherever those appearances may be.

In the spiritual life, nothing little is merely little—no more than a fertilized egg is less human or more dispensable than a newborn baby or a fully-grown man. As I argued in the lecture I gave last summer at Silverstream Priory, “Liturgical Obedience, the Imitation of Christ, and the Seductions of Autonomy,” the salutary discipline of the liturgy, at once ascetical and mystical, consists in its demand that the practioner of it deny himself, take up the cross of ceremonial, textual, and musical obedience, and follow the Lord in the path His Bride has traced out in black and red letters—black of self-abnegating ashes, red of self-surrendering blood. “Do the red, say the black” translates spiritually into “Pour out the blood of your time, your energy,  your life, into the Church’s rites; become ashes to your self-will.” A genuine liturgy submerges the individuality of the celebrant in a manner of acting and suffering that belongs more properly to another than to himself; he serves as an instrument in the hands of the master—an intelligent instrument, to be sure, but one that uses its intelligence precisely to submit, to adore, to adhere, and to protect what has been given.

In the book In Sinu Jesu, which has nourished the prayer life of so many priests (may it do so for many more!), there is a striking passage in which Our Lord speaks to the monk about rubrics. These words seem particularly germane to “minor” rubrics, which are more easily neglected—or, sadly and scandalously, even abolished by “reformers” acting on utilitarian and minimalist principles.
The loss of faith that afflicts so many souls is incompatible with a life of adoration. Souls do not stop adoring because they have lost their faith; they lose their faith because they have stopped adoring Me. This is why I would have you hold fast even to the outward forms of adoration. When even these things are cast aside, there is nothing left to invite the soul to the inward adoration in spirit and in truth by which I am glorified. I speak here of the genuflection, the prostration, the profound bow and all the other marks of attention to My presence that provide the soul with a language in which she can express her faith and her desire to adore Me.
          Again, it is for this reason that I call My priests to learn and to practice faithfully the humble rubrics of the sacred liturgy. They are not important in themselves, but they are important in that they contain and express all the sentiments towards Me and towards My sacrifice with which I have endowed My Bride, the Church. One who dispenses himself easily from such practices is guilty of a sin of pride that opens the door of the soul to the cold and hostile winds that would extinguish the flame of faith within.
          Show yourself humble and obedient to My Church, and invite your brother priests to the same joyful fidelity, even in little things. I will reward them with an increase of faith, of hope, and of charity, and reveal to them the mysteries that My Father and I hide from those who think themselves learned and clever according to the world.[7]

[1] Joseph A. Jungmann, S.J., The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development, trans. Francis A. Brunner (Notre Dame: Christian Classics, n.d.), 2:205. And: “Durandus enjoins that thumb and forefinger may be parted after the consecration only quando oportet hostiam tangi vel signa fieri,” that is, for either handling the host or making signs of the cross (ibid., n. 21).

[2] Ibid., 1:119.

[3] The objection that Byzantine clergy do not observe this custom is quite beside the point. They do not have the ‘canonical digits’ in the Western mode, but they are very careful about particles. One often sees the priests lick their hands and fingers to make sure that nothing is lost or dropped. The care with which I have watched Ruthenian, Ukrainian, and Romanian clergy handling the Sacrament and cleansing vessels and fingers is thoroughly edifying and far in excess of what one sees in all too many Roman Catholic settings.

[4]; see n. 12.

[5] I asssume the last is a reference to the Sanctus candle. For the quotation, see Are we not seeing again today both “suffering clergy…assimilating the service [viz., the Novus Ordo] as closely as possible to the [Vetus Ordo],” and the ever-growing opposition to this Ratzingerian trend on the part of the old guard who stand for Law and Order—of a reductive modern sort?

[6] Even if there were practices of which people had lost the original understanding, it makes more sense to keep them and invest them with a new meaning, as the great medieval allegorical commentators on the liturgy did. This is the true spirit of receptivity rather than the Promethean spirit of revisionism.

[7] In Sinu Jesu: The Journal of a Priest at Prayer (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2016), 87–88.

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