Monday, June 30, 2014

Incense in Art and Worship

It has often seemed to me bizarre in the extreme that incense is so rarely encountered in so many Catholic churches. Incense appears everywhere in Scripture—in the law of Moses, in the books about Temple worship, in the Psalms where it serves as a primary symbol for prayers rising up to God, in the Gospel account of Zechariah, in scenes of heaven from both Testaments. The sweet-smelling smoke was always there in Hebrew worship and became even more prevalent in Christian worship, where, in contrast with the animal sacrifices of the old covenant, it fittingly represented the rational worship of a mind raised up to God in union with Christ, Himself the pleasing oblation par excellence. The importance of it is well captured by one of the antiphons for Lauds on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, found in the Roman Breviary, the Monastic Office, and the modern Liturgy of the Hours: Sacerdotes sancti incensum et panes offerunt Deo, alleluia, "The holy priests offer incense and bread to God, alleluia."

And then there is the subjective experience of the worshiper. Every time incense is used at Mass, it just feels like Mass: something very special is happening here that no words or songs can convey by themselves, someone is present who deserves the treatment owed to a king or a god. The fragrance surrounds you, gets into your hair and your clothing, and pretty soon your field of vision is permeated with a hanging haze, which subconsciously says: You are in the midst of mysteries that cannot be clearly seen but must be worshiped on bended knee. When the embers are glowing well and the grains are heaped on with abandon, those clouds of incense make everything hazy, as if seen through a veil—a drifting image of the pilgrimage of the Christian’s life, as he passes through this vale of tears.

When visiting friends in Austria this past May, I was able to accompany one of them to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where I was dazzled by many great paintings. One room that surprised me was the Rubens room. I had developed a sort of prejudice against Rubens on account of the almost gushing fleshliness of his figures and the extravagant sensuality of his scenes. But this time, when I first walked in to the gallery, I saw from a distance how he softens all the hard edges and bathes the whole of his scenes in a kind of muted light. It looked like the scenes themselves, even the secular ones, had been enveloped in incense, made into an offering to God. It was Counter-Reformation theology in colors and shapes: the good creation of God, taken on by the Son of God in his wondrous Incarnation—matter and mankind assumed, healed, elevated, destined for immortality.

You’ll have to take my word for it or go to see the paintings yourself, because none of the reproductions available in books or online do justice to this very subtle lighting effect that I saw (or at least imagined I saw).

Years ago I read a magnificent commentary on the Song of Songs called The Cantata of Love. Its author, Blaise Arminjon, often speaks about the meaning of the “sensualism” of the text. At the time, I remember realizing with a pang that the antiphons and lections of the new Mass have been purged almost entirely not only of verses from the Song of Songs, but of the whole spiritual sensualism it conveys. The prayers, the sequence of readings, the gestures, were somehow diminished with the padding of orderliness and rational propriety. Little “warm touches” in the calendar, the kind of colorful riot of detail that Rubens exulted in—for example, the reading of the Gospel about faith moving mountains on the Feast of Gregory Thaumaturgas (November 18) because he was a saint famous for having literally moved a mountain, or the Offertory antiphon of the Mass for St. Rita (May 22) that applies to her husband and sons a verse from Genesis about three budding branches bringing forth grapes—were taken away. A whole intricate network of connections between antiphons, readings, orations, and the sacrifice itself seemed to disappear. The old crinkled map, marking groves, streams, ruins, and holloways, was replaced with a crisp new rational map showing motorways and their exits. All such “simplifications” had but one overall long-term effect: to cut the Mass off from the human heart, from culture, from the bodily world outside and the affective world inside.

In this Manichaean era of contempt for the flesh—contempt for historical embodiment, the authority of tradition, the law of nature and the narrative of grace—I say we need Rubens, and all that he represents, more than ever; we need the Song of Songs more than ever; we need the traditional Mass more than ever.

* * *
The crypt in the basilica of Norcia, birthplace of SS. Benedict & Scholastica

Not long after visiting the Kunsthistorisches Museum, I was in the little town of Norcia, a sort of Italian Nazareth—out of the way, rather insignificant in worldly terms. But there are the monks and their chanting of the divine praises night and day, and this makes Norcia, like Nazareth, a place from which a hidden power streams forth. In the crypt is found the rooms of the Roman house where, in a decrepit and decadent age, the future saints Benedict and Scholastica were born.

As I joined the monks in the basilica built over the crypt and heard the gentle modulations of their choral prayer, I also had the experience of, at certain moments, not knowing just what the monks were singing—and of not caring, because the soaring beauty of their songs, rising up to God like musical incense, carried me with them and lifted my heart to God. I had exactly the experience St. Thomas Aquinas mentions in an article of the Summa. To an objection that singing hinders praise both because it draws the attention of the singers to the music rather than the words and because it makes the words harder for other people to understand, he replies:
The soul is distracted from that which is sung by a chant that is employed for the purpose of giving pleasure. But if the singer chant for the sake of devotion, he pays more attention to what he says, both because he lingers more thereon, and because, as Augustine remarks, “each affection of our spirit, according to its variety, has its own appropriate measure in the voice and in singing, by some hidden correspondence wherewith it is stirred” (Confessions x, 33). The same applies to the hearers, for even if some of them understand not what is sung, yet they understand why it is sung, namely, for God’s glory; and this is enough to arouse their devotion.
My devotion was soaring even when my intellect had been left behind. Is that not, in a way, the lesson that incense teaches us—that there are things we can never understand, can never put into words, or even into music, and yet we must do something to reach up to them and connect ourselves with them? We burn something valuable and sweet-smelling. We send up our sighs with the smoke. Hidden correspondences are stirred up, affections aroused, a shapeless shape is given to devotion, and we quietly give way to God’s glory.

* * *
There is a poignant scene in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop where Bishop Latour hears the confession of an old beaten-up maidservant who has not been allowed by her Protestant employers to go into the church for nineteen years. When parting, the Bishop gives her a medal as a keepsake:
Happily Father Latour bethought him of a little silver medal, with a figure of the Virgin, he had in his pocket. He gave it to her, telling her that it had been blessed by the Holy Father himself. Now she would have a treasure to hide and guard, to adore while her watchers slept. Ah, he thought, for one who cannot read—or think—the Image, the physical form of Love!
“The Image, the physical form of Love.” On Sundays in Norcia, many local people come to the basilica for Vespers and Benediction. I, too, have attended, and have been moved to the depths of my soul by what I have witnessed; I have seen how attentive and quiet the people are, gazing intently upon the Blessed Sacrament. There are doubtless not a few who cannot understand the Latin or think “high” theological thoughts—but the majesty and mystery of the reality of God is powerfully evident to them in a way that no amount of discourse in their own language about the Faith could have produced, and in a way that exceeds the finest flights of intellect. We are immersed in the very activity that the arch-rationalist Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel dismisses as “the unhappy consciousness”:
[I]t is only a movement towards thinking, and so is devotion. Its thinking as such is no more than the chaotic jingling of bells, or a mist of warm incense, a musical thinking that does not get as far as the Notion, which would be the sole, immanent objective mode of thought. . . . What we have here, then, is the inward movement of the pure heart which feels itself, but itself as agonizingly self-divided, the movement of an infinite yearning . . . . At the same time, however, this essence is the unattainable beyond which, in being laid hold of, flees, or rather has already flown. (Phenomenology of Spirit, §217)
Unlike Hegel and his latter-day rationalist disciples, Catholics have not forgotten that symbolic actions and ancient melodies are a language of their own, with a power to touch the soul immediately, at a level far beyond words. Not everything has to be explained; not everything admits of explanation; and words, after a point, are boring. The deeper need is to see the beautiful and to hear the beautiful: these remind me of Him whom my soul loves. For Him, I long with an infinite yearning, and yet I know He is attainable. The incense flees and has already flown, like my soul, to God, who is not some abstract Notion, but our Father in heaven.

Peter Paul Rubens (1557-1640), The Miracles of St. Ignatius of Loyola (ca. 1617)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

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