Monday, July 28, 2014

Conforming Our Secular Selves to Sacred Signs

In the movie Into Great Silence there is a great moment when a group of monks are talking and one of them mentions that another monastery has dropped a bunch of its practices in order to adapt to the times. An elderly monk says:
Our entire life, the whole liturgy, and everything ceremonial are symbols. If you abolish the symbols, then you tear down the walls of your own house. When we abolish the signs, we lose our orientation. Instead, we should search for their meaning … one should unfold the core of the symbols. … The signs are not to be questioned, we are.
That is monastic wisdom, pure and simple.

It furnishes us a lesson that may, in fact, be the most important lesson of all in our age of constant change, planned obsolescence, the myth of progress, the seductions of postmodern pluralism. The liturgy, like the divine revelation out of which it emerges and to which it ministers, is our lifeline to God, giving nourishment to our faith, oil to the fire of our charity. If we lose our hold on the sacred symbols that come to us from the cosmos and from revelation, we will indeed lose our orientation to God; we will tear down the walls that surround us, and will lose our faith, our charity, even ourselves. We must not adapt the signs to ourselves, for that will bring about nothing more than an echo chamber, a hall of mirrors that reflects only us. We must rather conform ourselves to the sacred signs, and be molded by them, for they are tools used by the potter’s hands.

For this reason, it is a sovereign, non-negotiable, utterly fixed principle that if a certain long-standing practice has (as people will say) “lost its meaning,” we do not get rid of it—we rediscover its meaning, and perhaps, as our ancestors often did, we even invest it with a new meaning. Under no circumstances do we abolish it. As Fr. Guido Rodheudt says, apropos the "gigantic purge of traditional treasures" in the 1960s:
Astonishingly, it never occurred to anyone to attempt to encounter what had been forgotten by remembering or to regain the lost understanding, or with the devotion of a child for his grandparents to have the past recounted anew so as to understand it or to learn to love it, because in the tales told by the elderly we have a guarantee that what once was must never sink into oblivion, because it is vitally necessary for today. Especially when—as with liturgical treasures—it is a question of forms that developed in this way and only in this way, so that they might timelessly unite man with the eternal, regardless of where and how he lives. (The Sacred Liturgy, ed. A. Reid, p. 279)
In reality, nothing “automatically means” this or that: human beings still have to learn the language of symbols, just as an infant has to learn how to breastfeed, then crawl, walk, speak words—even if all of this is natural to us and will usually happen in due course. Because we are aesthetic-linguistic creatures, the use and recognition of symbols together with a certain delight in them is certainly natural to us, but the sheer variety, subtlety, and density of symbols, together with supervenient meanings established by convention, requires a lengthy education, or better, initiation. It is for this reason, among others, that so much great literature of the past is becoming increasingly inaccessible to modern young people: they do not have the intellectual equipment, or sometimes the first-hand experiences, required for relating to the elements and connecting them into a coherent whole. They don’t “get it”; it doesn’t “speak to them.”

By the modern logic of cutting out symbols that no longer speak to our contemporaries, one might very well end up with nothing left. “Candles? Oh yes, those were important to people before electricity. But since we now have other sources of light, candles don’t really speak to us anymore.”

“An altar? Oh yes, that was fine when people still had primitive ideas about sacrificing to angry gods and that kind of thing, but now we know that Jesus just wants a family meal, we should really have a table in the center that people can gather around.”

“Incense? Oh yes, people used to imagine prayer rising up like smoke to God in the heavens, but that’s a naïve idea that modern astronomy has proved false. God is everywhere and he knows our hearts, so we don’t need to burn perfume to him.”

Listen to what William Durand, the great 13th-century commentator on the liturgy, says at the start of his magnum opus, the Rationale Divinorum:
Whatever belongs to the liturgical offices, objects, and furnishings of the Church is full of signs of the divine and the sacred mysteries, and each of them overflows with a celestial sweetness when it is encountered by a diligent observer who can extract honey from rock and oil from the stoniest ground (Deut 32:13). . . . I, William, bishop of the holy church of Mende, by the indulgence of God alone, knocking at the door, will continue to knock, until the key of David deigns to open it for me (Rev 3:20), so that the king might bring me into his cellar where he stores his wine (Song 2:4).
What Bishop William is saying (and goes on to say at some length) is that he knows the liturgy is a treasure trove of mystical meaning, a means of purification, illumination, and communion, and so he will knock continually at the door of the Lord, with all diligence and zeal, until he understands everything he can, turning it to his own advantage and that of the flock he shepherds. Now this is an attitude of true humility, of trust in the ways of Providence, of heartfelt surrender to the sacred liturgy so that it may shape us through and through, unto the image of the New Adam.

And this, too, is the reason why a full parish life is required to sustain the liturgy and to initiate generation after generation into this sacred inheritance. The formation of the New Adam is a formation of the whole person—the imagination as well as the intellect, the child as well as the man, the family as well as the individual, from cradle to tomb, before and beyond. As a gem shines more beautifully when set in gold or silver, the traditional Mass is but a part—the most important part—of a whole that surrounds it and endows it with maximal power to form the Christian.

The Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter produced a lovely booklet for their silver jubilee, which contained several statements of just this point:
All the activity of the parish life are a preparation for the Holy Sacrifice, or a flowering of it. Because of the sacred nature of the Mass and Holy Eucharist, Catholics require a strong doctrinal and spiritual formation. … Within these [sodalities and confraternities], the faithful have a greater sense of the parish as the locus of their participation in the Mystical Body of Christ. … The parish life in a Fraternity apostolate may be characterized as imbuing Catholic families with a true Catholic identity. … The parish today must also be a bright beacon of light, a sign of contradiction, and a haven for hungry souls in an ever-secularizing world. This mission is carried out first and foremost by the outward expression of its worship of God.
Dom Alcuin Reid has often made a related point: the most curiously neglected passages of Sacrosanctum Concilium are those in which the Council Fathers indicate that the only way liturgical reform will be fruitful is if the clergy and the faithful are profoundly immersed in the spirit of the liturgy. Only by a true formation in and by the sacred liturgy in all its objectivity and splendor can there be authentic Christian renewal and, with it, prudent liturgical reform, as Guardini before the Council and Ratzinger after the Council recognized.

This is what the Liturgical Movement was all about; this is what the New Liturgical Movement is also about. We should never forget either our central aim or our primary means—the aim of glorifying the Triune God and saving souls, through the fullest, deepest participation of the faithful in the sacred liturgy. It seems only fitting to give St. Pius X the last word:
Filled as We are with a most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish in every respect and be preserved by all the faithful, We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church. And it is vain to hope that the blessing of heaven will descend abundantly upon us, when our homage to the Most High, instead of ascending in the odor of sweetness, puts into the hand of the Lord the scourges wherewith of old the Divine Redeemer drove the unworthy profaners from the Temple. (Motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini)

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