Wednesday, May 07, 2014

"Liturgy that requires ecstasy": McLuhan Meets Ratzinger

I don't know how I managed to miss this superb article, "The Mode in Which We Go to Mass," by Marc Barnes. Credit goes to Musings of a Pertinacious Papist for alerting me to it. The article is just wonderful: it strikes me as a blending of key ideas from Marshall McLuhan and Joseph Ratzinger, among others. Here are some excerpts:
The mode in which a message is delivered has the power to negate the content of the message. ... Catholics have, for the past 60 years or so, tended towards presenting the Divine Liturgy in a mode of similarity. We want to “get people to come,” and so we strive to make our liturgies similar to other experiences, to provide that condition by which some one may enter comfortably into its presence, as I am comfortable to be in the presence of someone I already know, comfortable to engage a conversation with people who have similar interests, similar views.
          The music of the Mass is made similar to the music of our culture. The demeanor of the Mass is made similar to the “Christian services” of our culture. The clothing we wear to Mass is made similar to our everyday clothing. The posture, structure, language, architecture, the position of priest to people — all this, and nearly anything that can be presented in a mode of similarity is thus presented. And, in a sense, it works. People come. But what does the mode of similarity do to the way in which people encounter the Mass? What does the mode do to the message?
          To understand this, we need a deeper understanding of similarity and dissimilarity. Similarity may be a condition for comfort, but dissimilarity is the necessary condition for love. Because a boy and a girl have “something in common” they can meet, comfortably enter into each other’s presence, and strike up a conversation, but only because of the fact that they are not ”in common” can they fall in love, can she — utterly dissimilar to him — and he — dissimilar to her — strive for personal communion — that difficult, wonderful embrace of two entirely unique and dissimilar lives.
          Because I am used to something, I am not afraid to participate in it, and in this sense, a liturgy of similarity succeeds. But because I am not used to something, because it is utterly other, I am pulled into the heart of a mystery. Similarity may provide the occasion for a meeting and a grouping, but dissimilarity provides the occasion for a binding. Because I do not know her, I strive to understand. Because I cannot fathom her, I gaze all the longer. ...
          What good is it if the mode of similarity brings every man in the world to the Divine Liturgy, if by the very mode that it brings them there, it undoes the entire point, which is not simply being there, but being in love? Similarity engenders comfort because it requires nothing of us. If a person is just like me in every respect, then there is no effort required of me to get to know them, to strive after them. There is no ecstasy, that is, no getting beyond myself. The fact that something is similar may just as well be an occasion for boredom as for unity — and hasn’t millennial boredom with the liturgy been an equally observable outcome of the mode of similarity as millennial presence at the liturgy?
          To say something is similar is to say it is already known, but the point of the Divine Liturgy is that it is the Pascal Mystery, the Pascal Unknown, and precisely because it remains unknown, it remains something worth applying the passion of our entire lives towards, to strive towards knowing.If the point of the Church is to make her children comfortable with God, a liturgy of similarity that “meets people where they are” make sense. If the point of the Church is to call her children to love God, to strive after him and to seek intimate communion with him, then a liturgy that opposes us makes sense, a liturgy drenched in a dissimilarity that accentuates the mysteries that we cannot understand — and thus must strive for, bow before, and commit our lives to surge towards. In short, what is needed is a liturgy that requires ecstasy of us. This reconciles itself in a series of paradoxes, that the unrelatable is the most relatable, the irrelevant is the most relevant, and the unfamiliar the greatest source of our desire for familiarity, for intimacy, and for union.
          ... The good news is that we are not caught between the choice of attracting people to Mass and letting the Mass be precisely what it is, in all its incens-y, ringing, silent, dark, unbearably bright and grotesque mystery, its complex simplicity and its simple complexity. For precisely by letting the Mass be what it is, and indeed, working hard to reveal the Mass as the Paschal Mystery in accordance with the rubrics and teachings of the Church, we attract, for dissimilarity is always a more attractive and binding force than similarity. An intentionally dissimilar liturgy may be more uncomfortable, but we were not made for comfort. We were made for love, that wonderful, uncomfortable ecstasy towards that which we are not.
The points made here are fundamental to the divide—a growing divide, it seems—between the modernizers of liturgy (whose main concerns are inculturation, relevance, immediacy, vernacularity, accessibility, familiarity, fellowship, etc.) and the lovers of traditional liturgy (whose main concerns are loyalty, fidelity, identity, mystery, silence, sacrifice, sacredness, beauty, transcendence, etc.). Properly understood, of course, many of these opposing qualities can and should be reconciled, but only if one begins from the right first principles that are capable of ordering into a unity the liturgy's complex elements. The horizontal dimensions of the liturgy emerge spontaneously and indeed more powerfully when we unambiguously prioritize the vertical dimensions—if, in short, we seek first God's kingdom and His righteousness, so that all these other things can be added unto us (cf. Mt 6:33). In contrast, if we look first to the horizontal, the doors to the transcendent are shut upon us by a kind of divine jealousy that brooks no divided mind.

Part of what appealed to me in Barnes' article was the use of the concept of ecstasy, which, properly understood, is an extremely powerful tool for understanding how the liturgy "works" on the human soul, by drawing it outwards and upwards into mystery. Some years ago I published an article in the journal Nova & Vetera entitled "Aquinas on Eucharistic Ecstasy: From Self-Alienation to Gift of Self," which mounted an argument comparable to Barnes':
The solemnity [of the liturgy] draws attention to, and keeps attention on, the symbolic representation of our being loved as no one else loves us, our being taken hold of and carried into something totally beyond our ken, yet offered to us through ordinary things which in turn provoke us to reconsider how we relate to the world itself. … [T]he avoidance of merely “common” modes of speaking and acting in the liturgy is by design, to help us break free from a profane mindset, to awaken us to the Presence that surrounds and penetrates the entire world. Hence, making the liturgy more common, more everyday, casual, horizontal, is self-defeating; it obliterates the liturgical as such, exactly where it cultivates the holy, the divine, the Other who is more myself than I. Ironically, too, a liturgy stripped of its mysterious alteritas would be reduced to the place of last among worldly equals, for it cannot compete against the secular on the latter’s terms. And so, it would be effectively sterilized in its power to fecundate outlying culture, prevented from casting an otherworldly light on the potential sacredness of the ordinary elements of this-worldly life.
          … Liturgical worship offers us an opening or clearing in which to practice, and thus to make our own, a sacred mode of thinking, feeling, acting, receiving—a mode that challenges our profane assumptions, the worldliness in which we tend to lose ourselves if we are not careful to cling to Christ. … If the liturgy ever became fully domesticated, if it ever struck us as perfectly clear and distinct, it would ipso facto cease to be a provocation to the shattered, alienated mentality of fallen “enlightened” man that pretends to be sweet reasonableness.
          … The true “unsettling” of which Preston speaks is accomplished primarily by a confrontation with the purest ritual manifestation of both the divine otherness and the divine condescension, a paradox that is vividly communicated in traditional liturgical rites—in their prayers, gestures, trappings, and overall complexion. …
          Without a mystagogical focus, liturgy will do little more than validate a community’s collective conceit, when it does not drive away the congregation from sheer boredom.
This link will take the reader to the full article at

Meanwhile, I also encourage you to go over and read the whole article by Barnes.

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