Friday, July 24, 2009

Ars Celebrandi as it relates to the Usus Antiquior

Very often when we consider the question of the "ars celebrandi," or in other words, the proper and dignified celebration of the sacred liturgy, our mind turns to a consideration of how that may or may not be manifest in typical parish liturgy. For the most part, that will likewise put us into the context of the modern Roman liturgy. Perhaps in part because of this, and precisely because it is the predominant liturgical form in use, a not uncommon way of thinking that has developed amongst some of the liturgically-interested is that when one is considering poor manifestations of the celebration of the liturgy, including liturgical abuses, some might presume to think almost exclusively in terms of the modern liturgy.

However, while it is true that there is much grass-roots work to be done in re-enchanting our typical parish liturgies as well as eliminating "normalized" abuses; and while acknowledging there are deeper issues also to be considered as part of the reform of the reform at the scholarly and formal ecclesial levels, I believe it is important to challenge the potential assumption that, by contrast, poor ars celebrandi and, for that matter, poor experience of the liturgy itself, are somehow things from which the usus antiquior is more or less exempt, or which will not be experienced in that context.

Not only is this objectively not the case, I also believe this assumption stunts a much needed and conscious consideration of the way in which the usus antiquior is to be approached today, and (intentionally or unintentionally) skirts by many of the very most important and healthy objectives of the original Liturgical Movement -- particularly as represented by its early 20th century monastic proponents -- which should be taken up anew as part of a new liturgical movement in our own day.

We must recall that while all was not problematic as some today would tell the story, neither was all perfect with the celebration of the liturgy in the pre-conciliar age either; there were some real issues with the ars celebrandi as well as in general approach, which is why a Liturgical Movement came about. While it always prompts some debate within certain circles, many others would agree that the relative rarity of the Mass in its sung and solemn forms on Sundays and Feast days, the prominence of devotional activities over the liturgy proper, as well as various problems in the celebration of the liturgy (the "muttered" and rushed Mass and so forth) were certainly not desirable and were in need of rectification. These approaches are not aspects one should be emulating or seeking to revive today of course, and on a general level of principle, neither should an immobilistic restorationism be the goal, nor should a resistance of legitimate development be allowed to become embedded or fostered.

The liturgical situation prior to the Council was not immune from problems in its celebration then, and likewise, it should not be so considered now; the human factor is always present and active. Accordingly, the usus antiquior should not be thought of as necessarily or automatically beautifully and reverently done, as though the use of those particular liturgical books were some kind of near guarantee of edifying liturgy. It too can be celebrated in a way that is subject to abuse or unedifying; it too must be approached consciously and with care and diligence. To assume otherwise is actually a very great danger to it.

I must note that the point here is not to get into a comparison about how and to what level the one or the other might be abused or done poorly. This is not about the modern liturgy vs. the ancient liturgy, and while some manifestations of this problem can be the same, others will be quite different. The point is simply the fact of the possibility as it relates to the ancient liturgy, and it is a possibility which is not an abstract one, so one should be conscious of it.

To illustrate the point, it might be good to list a few considerations of how the usus antiquior might be celebrated in a way that can result in an unedifying liturgical experience so that all involved in the use of those liturgical books might be conscious of avoiding these things or rectifying them wherever they have become habitual, teaching and encouraging one another in this regard.

In terms of the ars celebrandi, an over-exaggerated or theatrical approach to the execution of the ceremonial actions of the liturgy is problematic on the one hand, as is rushing through the liturgical texts and ceremonies on the other; the rites should be celebrated with a gravitas which doesn't see them rushed of course, but there should also be a natural quality to them that isn't lethargic or ponderous. Poor execution of the chants and sacred music of the Mass can be a source of great and awkward distraction, as can the poor execution of the Latin. Finally, no matter how splendid the celebrant, poorly trained and disciplined servers can also greatly distract from the liturgy. (Evidently on all these fronts, we also need to take into consideration if inexperience is a factor. Clerics, servers and scholas new to these books should be given patient understanding and gentle encouragement.)

In terms of the ornaments of the liturgy, sometimes the altar is set up in a way that is untidy, such as crooked candles that could easily be straightened or unevenly spaced candlesticks that a few more minutes of preparation could rectify; unkempt vestments, altar linens, cassocks and surplices for servers are sometimes also in evidence, as are servers visibly wearing informal clothing beneath their cassock. One needn't be fussy, neurotic nor military about all of this, but we should at least be reasonably attentive to some principle of general order and care. (Some of these issues may also simply relate to the items that are available for use of course, and where communities only have the ability to "make due" with the supplies they have, that is a very different matter; but for those who have some facility beyond making due, or could with a little effort, they should try to pursue these matters as they can.)

All of these manifestations can give the impression of a certain carelessness with regard to the liturgy and should be avoided. Their implications are not merely aesthetic after all, but can affect our ability to been drawn inward into the depths of the sacred mysteries -- and for those who wish to help spread the availability and familiarity with the usus antiquior, it should be noted that this adversely affects those aspirations as well.

Of course, what we arrive at then is really just a matter of common sense: that there is a necessity to strive for the proper and dignified celebration of the sacred liturgy according to the usus antiquior just as there is for the modern Roman liturgy and every other liturgical rite or use.

Let all those who love those liturgical books accordingly not be overly-confident or unconscious in their regard then, but instead approach these rites, as all rites, with the attentiveness, love and care they deserve, lifting us to the worship of God and bringing us to some foretaste of the heavenly liturgy. Ad majorem Dei gloriam.

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