Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The Contribution of Catherine Pickstock to Liturgical Renewal

Strolling through St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, 7:00am when the priests are saying their Masses, I saw something very instructive. I counted among the side altars at least 4 extraordinary form Masses being said with attending pilgrims. There were more being said in the lower church as well.

It's a very gratifying thing to see. This whole time I was thinking: this was NOT how the world was supposed to turn from the vantage point of, say, 1969. A certain group of cock-sure liturgists and theologians had thought they had done away with the past, and didn't figure anyone would miss it. Those few who might miss it will be treated in the way they deserve.

And yet, here we are, all these years later, and while the Tridentine Missal of 1962 is not mainstream, it is no longer shocking, scandalous, considered rebellious  or otherwise put down as a hopeless museum piece. It is a living part of our liturgical reality.

We know of the many milestones that made this happen but a hugely important one is often overlooked. It was a book that appeared in 1997. The title is After Writing: The Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. The author: philosopher Catherine Pickstock. The book came as something of a shock, partially because of its brilliance and partially because, so little that is both new and true ever appears in any field. This book was both.

Here thesis spoke directly to the philosophical nihilism of our age, as channeled through the deconstructionist mode of thinking that began in mid-20th century and continues to this day. In this tradition of thought, much of what we believe has fixed meaning and consists of true propositions are really social and cultural fabrications filter through our own subjective understandings. Through this line of thinking, many categories of thought have been falling into the abyss: law, language, literature, sexual identity, and much more. And truly, this way of thinking is not entirely wrong. Look at law today. Is it the product of legislation or does it extend from what medieval thinkers called natural law? Literature is the same way: no reader of my own articles interprets what I say in the same exact way, and who am I to say with absolutely certainty which interpretation is correct in some final sense? We always understand through the veil of our own subjectively.

Now, you are following this line of thinking, you can easily become rather doubtful about religious teachings and institutions as well. Maybe they too are artificial, the products of privilege and power, the results of an unjustified push to objectify and immortalize what is really the belief of only an elite? In fact, this is the most common criticism of religion today.

Ok, so how does Pickstock fit in here? Pickstock's thesis was utterly unpredictable and stunningly brilliant. She is willing to concede every one of the deconstructionist arguments in every field in which they have traditionally been applied. But, she said, there is one field that this critique cannot apply: liturgy. Why? Because liturgy makes special claims that other fields do not make. It comes from God and is delivered back to God in forms that developed over time through the experience of many generations working through a system of belief that seeks to communicate out of the limits of time. Its forms borrow from revelation and seek to perfect the presentation in light of the lived prayer lives and rituals of countless people and over a period of time that extends beyond any existing regime of elites. Thus does it lack the arrogance of the truth claims that are made for law, literature, or even plain language. Liturgy is defined by its deference to what has come before, and it is improved only in small forward motions and always in the context of that striving for contact with the eternal.

In the course of the argument, she singled out the pre-Trent Roman Rite for special investigation. Her presentation ran probably 10,000 words, piece by piece, and she explained so much that we might otherwise take for granted. Reading that section created a kind of love in the reader that one might not have had before, and there was a serious critique of modern liturgy embedded here. Did the committees that slapped together the 1969/70 revision really understand? In one sense, they simply could not because, as Pickstock demonstrates, absolutely no one can fully understand. The full knowledge of the why and what of liturgy is actually inaccessible to one person and to even a whole generation or several

Ouch. I can tell you that this argument spoke to a generation. That book set the smart set in the Catholic world on fire. We held a symposium in New York -- as part of the series put together by another visionary liturgical thinker Fr. John Perricone -- on the book and invited the author. It was madness and joy all around. She was brilliant.

Now, here is some history that I don't think has been put into print. For the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, John Cardinal O'Connor, had already heard that this phenom was in town. So when we all went to Mass that Sunday, he was very excited to meet her. When they met, Pickstock and he spoke and spoke, but at some point she said gently to him: "I understand that you do not have the Tridentine form of the Missal at this Cathedral? Would you consider permitting it

His response came immediately: "Absolutely. Consider it done."

Then...to everyone's amazement...it was done. This was years before Summorum Pontificum but the decision had a huge influence on the changing culture of the Catholic liturgy. If St. Patrick's could do this, it was something permissible to do. I have no doubt that this moment helped pave the way. And of course this wonderful book changed the environment completely. It caused a completely rethinking of the way intellectuals think about liturgy. It made possible the currently liberality that is ours todays.

Sometimes great intellectuals change the world for the better. Catherine Pickstock is among those who have accomplished this.

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