Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Leave Well Enough Alone

Wheat and Tares of the Old Liturgical Movement as Seen Through the Treatment of the Altar and Tabernacle

It's hard not to look at the old Liturgical Movement of the '20s and '30s as we contemplate the Reform of the Reform. Much good was acomplished by noble-minded men like Pius Parsch, J.B. O'Connell, and Dom Roulin. But to characterize it as a golden age would be just as wrong as to characterize the eve-of-the-Council 1950s or the emigrant world of nineteenth-century American Catholicism as equally flawless. Each had their strengths and their flaws; in the case of the Liturgical Movement, there were some very great strengths and some frustrating flaws. I will be focusing on the flaws below--which is difficult, given the great admiration I possess for the good they accomplished.

A browse through any edition of Liturgical Arts Quarterly from its foundation in the '30s to its demise in the 1960s confirms this mixture of good and bad: articles on noble Gothic churches stand next to ugly, squat "liturgical" baptismal fonts and paens to the versus populum atar. The schitzophrenia one finds even in such classic works as J.B. O'Connell's Church Building and Furnishing: The Church's Way is baffling. After sage warnings against "coarse or barbaric" modernistic art, as well as a lengthy section on the importance of the veiled tabernacle as a sign of reverence to the reserved Sacrament, the reader finds himself contemplating a photo of a hideous plain box--completely unveiled--under a preposterous minimalist ciborium installed in some Gothic church in Trier. The Liturgical Movement produced the glorious blueprint of Sacrosanctum Concilium but it also is in part to blame for opening the door to kitsch-hip monstrosities like Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp.

The nourishing spirit of the early twentieth-century Liturgical Movement should inspire us as we go forward to re-enchant our experience of the Mass with the gilding of Tradition, but we shouldn't be blind to its flaws. The stylistic diversity--Gothic, Romanesque, even some of the modern--one finds in their work is in itself not bad. The problem is not that some of the Movement's supporters made peace with Modern art, but a tendency to opt for a priori logic and a deeper misunderstanding of the nature of the Church's many traditions one finds in their writings.

In a sense, they were incapable of leaving well enough alone. Everything in their writings is subjected to some sort of interrogation. Everything must be perfectly crystal-clear from the get-go. I'm reminded of a passage in one of the texts of the time where the author excoriates, in a remarkably unnecessary footnote, those who cross themselves with holy water upon exiting the church after mass because, having come from the Holy Sacrifice, there's no theological rationale for further cleansing.

This quibble illustrates the heart of the problem. On the surface, the author is largely in the right, and he is right to demand a certain theological correctness in our devotional practice--but there's a certain sharp-edged naivete at work here. It's easy to stop old devotional habits, hard to inculcate new ones. Furthermore, as fallen human beings, we need all the sacramentals and grace we can get. People are tempted at Mass just like anywhere else--tempted to doubt, to uncharity, and a million other things as your mind wanders. While some pious customs of the last century lurched towards excess and beared reform, that the author had nothing better to do than chastise old church ladies dipping their fingers in the font strikes me as weirdly petty. Occasionally, strategic apathy is not so bad: Leave well enough alone.

(Anyway, do we really need an a priori, perfectly logical reason for everything we do at Mass? There's some things in the old Rite that defy explanation, such as the mysterious minor ritual with the empty paten at the Libera nos. While not essential to the rite, there must have been a reason for it once, and even if it is not immediately clear, God and godly things are sometimes a little puzzling by their very nature.)

Another, more complex illustration of this lack of spiritual pragmatism and a respect for custom's role as modifying praxis is the way the men of the Movement approached the construction of the altar. Admitted, they had just come out of a period when altars were cluttered with Victorian flower-arrangements, imitation candles and illegal permanent exposition thrones; their desire for simplicity can be partially excused as a cry against the ubiquitous horror-vacuui of their immediate ancestors. (Some of these cluttered retablos I love, and some of them I have to admit were pretty awful. The problem was the men of the Movement seemed to condemn all of them in absentia without much of a trial.)

In many cases, the propositions the Liturgical Movement set forth regarding the altar are quite laudable: 1) a desire for liturgical correctness in the form of a veiled tabernacle and a canopy--both required by liturgical law; 2) an emphasis on the sacrificial character of the altar; 3) that the altar be fixed and permanent in accordance with church law; 4) it should not be too encumbered with superfluous additions; and 5) it should be visually striking and its significance easily grasped. The problem is, many liturgists of the period seemed to think these ideals required sacrificing complex beauty, grand reredoses and other visual foci, as well as downplaying the cultus of the reserved Sacrament. The false dichotomy is omnipresent in such texts as O'Connell's, and sadly colors much of his commentary.

For instance, O'Connell refers to the ages of the altar's development in ecclesiastical architecture under the nearly sarcastic headings of "the relic age" (the ninth to the fourteenth century, when reliquaries first encumbered the altar), "the Great Reredos Age," the nineteenth-century "Exposition Age" (in reference to the presumed ubiquity of Benediction) and the present day. His desires are praiseworthy, to make sure the altar is seen as the stone of sacrifice, the place where heaven and earth meet in the Mass.

But for some reason, he is gripped by a strange notion many liturgists hold today, that the people are incapable of holding two ideas in their head at once, that making the reredos and tabernacle a grand home for the Eucharist will somehow overwhelm the sacrificial nature of the altar. It's my own experience that I seldom think of the tabernacle at Mass. For one thing, no matter which way the priest is facing, he's usually blocking my view of it. We would probably have never worried about the purported conflict between the reserved Eucharist and the "active" Eucharist on the altar unless some busybody liturgist had pointed it out.

Maybe it did distract people; I wasn't alive then. But somehow I doubt it. Looking at the problem with hindsight, any action which lessens the dignity of the Eucharist, whatever the motive, is a supremely bad idea. The decline in belief in the Real Presence among Catholics was not helped by the lessening of ceremonial attention paid to Christ present in the tabernacle, and especially by its removal from the altar. Admitted, it is the altar, we are correctly reminded, not the tabernacle, that is the most important piece of furniture in a church, but the tabernacle contains a Person of universal importance. Leave well enough alone, once again. The reserved Eucharist may have been originally kept only for Viaticum, but it would be a heartless archaeologism that denies the importance of Eucharistic worship and pious adoration.

The mania for the uncluttered altar resulted in many unfortunate architectural choices; indeed, it resulted, unintentionally, in a diminution of the altar's dignity. O'Connell and others looked to church law and found the freestanding altar--used ad orientemin most cases--to be most correct, liturgically. They were right to say so; but there was a good reason in terms of praxis and custom that it had largely been abandoned by that time period, and without Rome shedding too many tears. Church law has always been interpreted by custom, and at the time those regulations were being written down, at the high water mark of the Tridentine age, the Church had a place for both freestanding and wall altars, as one can see from any visit to Rome.

A freestanding altar, even under a ciborium, is strangely naked, even when vested. The much-maligned reredos serves to give it stature and dignity. Rather than calling it a sideboard for flower arrangements, one might think of the wall altar as like a much-venerated statue of the Virgin armored head-to-toe with ex-votos and embroidered vestments. With the tabernacle in place at the center, we no longer are faced with the problem of conflicting visual foci. The faithful needn't be distracted by a tabernacle off on one side and the altar in the center, an arrangement much more distracting and detrimental than the supposedly troublesome situation it replaced. Ironically, in many churches that were "corrected" by pulling the altar out from the wall, the reredos is even more intrusive now that it's essentially little more than a backdrop for sacramental action.

The reformers were correct to remind us of more ancient models like the freestanding altar, that the Tridentine triumirate of altar, tabernacle and reredos had not always been there, but they were wrong to demand fealty to only their favorite models rather than embracing the best of the past and (their) present.

Laws must be interpreted in context of custom, and with a view towards pastoral needs. It is easy to blame the men of the Movement knowing what we do now, but we mustn't let their mistakes overshadow their many legitimate glories. But let us not forget the one principle they neglected, that sometimes one really ought to leave well enough alone.

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