Monday, June 09, 2014

Can Comprehension Be a Disservice?

At Pentecost each year the Church reads the story of the Apostles being given the gift to speak so as to be heard in the languages of all the nations. One might view this as a kind of "exaltation of the vernacular": each group must hear the Gospel, the Good News of the death and resurrection of Christ, proclaimed in its own tongue. Obviously, the language of preaching needs to be accessible to the particular audience. But we should ask a further question. Is there a language of worship that reaches the human heart—a "universal vernacular of the sacred," if one might put it that way? Is there a unifying language that the Holy Spirit empowers the Church to speak to all the nations, ancient and modern?

Recent years have seen an increasing number of articles and stories that draw attention to the role of the traditional Latin Mass in the conversion or reversion of young people to the Catholic Faith, and, in particular, to the way that the “thickness” of the old liturgy (to adapt an expression of C. S. Lewis) better expresses the mysteries of that Faith—how its complex layers of prayer, symbolism, ceremony, and chant, even in their apparent foreignness, have the power to speak more directly to the soul. It is the paradox of a practice so dense that it becomes transparent, a reality so ineffable that it impresses itself unforgettably on the mind, a mystery so transcendent that it communicates a piercing message in this place and time. There can be a darkness that furnishes more light than our human light, a self-emptying ritual that enriches the soul with a more lasting and substantive content than our creativity and spontaneity could ever do.

Of many examples one could choose from, here is a first-person account I saw at NLM back in September 2013, written under the pen name Zita Mirzakhani:
Before flying back to the states from London, I was obliged to visit Oxford where my favorite authors who helped lead me to my conversion lived and taught. It was here where I first experienced the Mass in Latin. It was a solemn high Mass, and it was perhaps the most beautiful experience I have ever had. Though now I know the liturgy, understand what is happening upon the altar, and am familiar with the replies in Latin, in my ignorance on that happy day in Oxford I was able to experience that Mass as a blind child, imagining the angels singing from on high, as I was too embarrassed in this foreign place to turn my head back to get a glimpse of the choir loft. … There is an unsurpassed solemnity that the “old” rite carries. I am living proof that you do not need to be an expert in Latin to understand that something holy is happening; quite the contrary, it appears that wider use of this form of the Mass may be necessary today to regain the belief in the holy Eucharist and our Catholic identity.
Along these lines, I am pleased to share a letter I received from a reader some months ago.
Dr. Kwasniewski,
          I am a nineteen-year-old layman living in the Diocese of *******.  I am quite interested in things liturgical and theological, and so from time to time I stumble onto the New Liturgical Movement and Views from the Choir Loft.
          I just read your article “Nothing That Requires Explanation?” and found that it resonated with me. I have found that reading Sacrosanctum Concilium, as well as the rest of the Conciliar documents, really is at least as much an exercise in literary comprehension as in spirituality and theology. Often, the documents read more like spiritual treatises or semi-technical sermons than juridical documents outlining actions or reforms to be undertaken. We all know the Conciliar documents were intended to be just what they turned out to be in that sense, more meandering and lightly prodding than commanding and defining. But that cannot possibly be anything but a weakness in their ability to bring about what they do ask for. In my opinion, your article validates my observations. Half the time I think to myself when reading the documents, “What, exactly, does that even mean? What are they asking for? Do they not see the implications and the ways this can be exploited by the unscrupulous?”
          Now, I am not writing you to complain or find a sympathetic ear. Rather, one of my observations about the liturgical reality has been that, perhaps ironically, the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite is, in a certain way, more clear and understandable than the Ordinary Form. I first began to consider this because the sacred realities being lived out at Mass are, by their very nature, incomprehensible. The only way to even begin to bring a semblance of understanding of these realities to Catholic people is through symbols in the liturgy. So when one begins to remove signs and symbols and figurative language, the ability of the liturgy to speak for itself is reduced. It is strangely disconcerting to read side-by-side comparisons of the texts of the Extraordinary and Ordinary Forms, as there is a significantly reduced amount of figurative language in the latter as compared with its predecessor—so much so that this could practically be a conspiracy theorist’s dream! One need only think of the Offertory prayers.
          In your article you say, “To go further still, the traditional Roman liturgy is, in a way, far more transparent, far more immediately understandable, because it is more attentive to the majesty and solemnity of the sacrifice and does not attempt to simplify (and thereby cheapen) the contents of worship.” I agree completely. In a sense, the Extraordinary Form is clearer because it is less clear, and the Ordinary Form is less clear because it is more transparent.
*          *          *
In the traditional Mass there is a sublime integration of music, text, and silence, a coherent unity of elements, the simultaneity and hierarchical execution of which are a vivid reflection of the diverse and simultaneous layers of cosmic reality and of intelligible meaning—and which, on a purely practical level, respect and foster diverse ways of participation on the part of different members of the congregation.

Rationalism seeks the linguistification of reality, seeks to capture transcendent mystery in handy formulas, speaks on and on as though one could create an image of eternity if one only talks long enough. Catherine Pickstock is good at critiquing this aspect of the reform. The old liturgy knows better: the priest praying at the altar, primarily addressing himself to God on behalf of all; the schola chanting antiphons and psalms; the incense rising and bells ringing; the people following their missals or praying rosaries, singing the Creed or just watching, letting their souls be taught by images, sounds, motions—everyone is glued together by the complex simplicity and simple complexity of the divine mysteries, which are always somehow far beyond us and yet right there before us and inside us, at once transcendent and immanent.

Many Catholics today, however, are harassed with a simple simplicity (the banality of all-too-human utterance) combined with a complex complexity (since language as such, especially when it attempts to be “self-explanatory,” is often a distraction, a barrier, to the apprehension of inward meaning). Thus modern liturgical praxis re-instates unintelligibility precisely by insisting overmuch on intelligibility; contrary to the stated intentions of the reformers (“simplify, simplify”), the complexity is never actually reduced to an aesthetic-spiritual simplicity. Cardinal Ratzinger put his finger on this very problem:
More and more clearly we can discern the frightening impoverishment which takes place when people show beauty the door and devote themselves exclusively to “utility.” Experience has shown that the retreat to “intelligibility for all,” taken as the sole criterion, does not really make liturgies more intelligible and more open but only poorer. “Simple” liturgy does not mean poor or cheap liturgy: there is the simplicity of the banal and the simplicity that comes from spiritual, cultural, and historical wealth. (The Ratzinger Report, 128)
Or, as Fr. Mark Kirby, Prior at Silverstream, more recently observed:
There is a cold, reasonable, and altogether too “grown-up” form of religion that fails to address the needs of the heart. Chilly and cerebral, it is foreign to the spirit of the Gospel because it is so far removed from things that children need and understand. In many places, the past fifty years saw the imposition of a new iconoclasm, an elitist religion without warmth, a religion for the brain with precious little for the heart, a religion stripped of images and devoid of the sacred signs that penetrate deeply those places in the human person where mere discourse cannot go.
The classical liturgy is already simple in a profound way that comprises complexity of word, image, gesture, song, silence; it is simple in the way that a living animal is simple, in spite of an inconceivable multitude of parts, because it is a single whole, a unified center of action and suffering, a substance that sustains all predication. The modern liturgy is simple in the manner of reductionism, not in the manner of holism.

To set up a goal of complete transparency would mean the total evaporation of liturgical substance. Just as natural substance (not to mention the Blessed Sacrament!) is hidden behind accidents—rerum essentia sunt nobis ignotae—so the essence of the Holy Sacrifice is beyond the pale of human appearances, and yet glimpsed through them when they are not standing in the way.

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