Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Traditional Liturgy and the Shaping of the Self

If one were looking to mount a theological defense of the Church’s longstanding practice of ensuring rich vestments and paraments, splendid vessels, glorious architecture, elaborate ritual, and so forth for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Divine Office, one might consider this passage from St. Thomas Aquinas:
The chief purpose of the whole external worship is that man may give worship to God. Now man’s tendency is to reverence less those things which are common, and indistinct from other things; whereas he admires and reveres those things which are distinct from others in some point of excellence. Hence too it is customary among men for kings and princes, who ought to be reverenced by their subjects, to be clothed in more precious garments, and to possess vaster and more beautiful abodes. And for this reason it behooved special times, a special abode, special vessels, and special ministers to be appointed for the divine worship, so that thereby the soul of man might be brought to greater reverence for God. (Summa theologiae I-II, q. 102, a. 4)
“Greater reverence for God”: allow me to go beyond the letter of the Angelic Doctor by suggesting that we fallen human beings, in order to be moved to this reverence, need to be shaken out of our complacency by means of a certain assault on the comfortable confines and suppositions of our egos. Especially in modern times, we have managed to surround ourselves with a cocoon of assumptions and soothing lies about life, death, love, and the meaning of it all. As John Paul II said, the liturgy must be not only inculturated but also countercultural, since the culture we live in is anti-Christian and, needless to add, anti-sacramental, anti-liturgical, anti-sacral.

If the Mass, as we celebrate it, is a reflection of who and what we already are or what we already think and feel, it will not unsettle us; it may even cause our mental habits to ossify. When “inculturation” is carried too far, it ends up being accommodation to the pure present, which, in the today’s world, is likely to be a culture of suburban narcissism.
What must be re-ordered is not the sanctuary, the altar and tabernacle, the architecture and ornamentation, the readings, prayers, gestures, and customs. No, it is we ourselves, again and again, who must be reordered by the Lord whom we encounter in His sacraments. It is we who are out of date, old in our sins, antiquated in our stubborn resistance to spiritual renewal. And our external busyness, our pastoral teams and committees, our redesigning of churches and liturgies, are some of the many subtle ways in which, by remaining active and in charge, we can escape the life-and-death confrontation between the Pelagian ego and the crucified Savior.

In the spiritual life, peace comes to us through a relentless reshaping of the self. For this reshaping to occur, one does not need liturgical shock tactics, techniques for social consciousness-raising, or novelties to fabricate occasions for lay involvement. Quite the contrary: these things remain at a superficial level and do not penetrate into the murky depths of the soul where the first origins of desire and aversion faintly shimmer.

Good liturgy does not, in and of itself, set people in the right direction. More is required: a clergy devoted to prayer and zealous for souls, adequate catechesis for the people, hearts ready to receive the seed of the word. Liturgy has been done well at many places and in many historical periods, but at some places and in some periods it has produced what seem negligible good effects in the faithful. There is no magical recipe for success, but there is an instrument, namely, traditional liturgy, that we neglect at our peril, at the risk of a deadening of our sensitivity to the sacred and the transcendent. It is a congenial context for representing and assimilating the richness of the Christian mystery.

The Mass, in its hieratic formalism, is the optimal school of prayer. One would only need to add that all the aspects of liturgy have to be taken into account for this schooling of the Christian heart: the ritual, the music, the architecture, must evoke the distinctively sacred and shadow forth the mysteries of faith, and must do so with a searing intensity of seriousness. 

It isn’t as if saints are a guaranteed product of solemn liturgy. Formal, beautiful liturgy might be spiritually empty, while a threadbare liturgy could be the vehicle through which God sanctifies souls. Nothing argued here would require a complex liturgy, but only one which is taken seriously, a motivation quite compatible with simplicity and poverty. As Fr. John Baldovin acknowledged in a 2002 article in Antiphon, seriousness is, in a sense, the key question for the liturgy—the seriousness of purpose revealed in a spirit of adoration, in earnest pleading, signs of sacred dignity, augmentations of otherness and the proclamation of an ungraspable intimacy.
Hence, my observation does not touch upon the important question of novus ordo versus vetus ordo, but it does support the eastward stance of the celebrant, as well as the use of a hieratic, formal language, because these things augment the “otherness” of the liturgy, which in turn demands of us a deep and personal response, outside of our comfort zone. Let us put it this way: if everything in the liturgy is done in a way that is comfortable, contemporary, relevant, and socially sensitive, it doesn’t matter if we sing and clap and greet neighbors and get involved in all sorts of ways and exhibit a super-active participation; we will be looking in a mirror of our own making, and at the end of the day we will have offered worship to ourselves and our community, while the true God—the mysterious, hidden, demanding, and yet indescribably (and uncomfortably) intimate God—will have escaped unnoticed, patiently awaiting souls who will adore Him in spirit and in truth, souls mature enough to suffer the silence within themselves and to enter into a rhythm and ritual that stretches beyond them on all sides.

We are asleep and we must be awakened. It was with a keen instinct for spiritual realities that our forefathers, over many centuries, gently built up a liturgy that challenges our minds and hearts at every turn, confronting us with the known in the unknown, the unknown in the known, the impenetrable, inscrutable, and ineffable in the melismas of jubilation and the silences of searching prayer. I am grateful to countless saints and to the Holy Spirit, their guide, for having bequeathed even to us, in the desert of modernity, a liturgy that is inexhaustibly rich and profound, ever more life-giving, younger and fresher, as the worshiper comes to know it. And I am grateful to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI for having liberated this treasure of the Catholic Faith, “so that thereby the soul of man might be brought to greater reverence for God.”

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