Monday, November 10, 2014

Organic: Endangered

In conversations on the liturgy, people often freely use the word “organic” to describe the kind of change that is agreed to be legitimate, necessary, and good, and to distinguish it from the violence of artificial alteration on the basis of ideology. But have we reflected sufficiently on what is meant by “organic”? For the following thoughts on the matter, I am indebted to an email exchange with a reader this past summer, which also inspired my earlier piece on Permanence and Change in the Liturgy.

There has been an increasing loss of any sense of the organic. The scientific, mechanistic mentality not only produced the age in which we live, but now shapes our way of interpreting the world. We rarely have to wait for fruit out of season; we live in enclosed, controlled environments, from little boxes on wheels where we are transported out of contact with the elements to stationary boxes we inhabit and work in. For most of us, everything is instant and prepared for our immediate consumption—food, entertainment, and even knowledge (not wisdom, but “brain content”). Even human relationships become subject to the same expectations. Very few people have had to wait for 60 or 75 days before they can harvest something to take to their table and eat. Many do not really prepare their own food, let alone provide the direct means to heat their homes or water or food, or appreciate clean potable water that they did not have to carry from an outside source. The things that really sustain us are far removed from our regular experience.

In short, we do not have to wait for things to grow; change based on my perceived wants or needs is expected to be instantaneous or nearly so; and the main metaphor we use to describe ourselves and our work is that of the machine that “runs” rather than the living thing that grows. But what is the contrast between the organic and the mechanical? One “takes” time and the other “makes” or saves time. But time is just a constant, is it not? How we use it affects our perception and appreciation of it, or our irritation and frustration with it. The farmer is not impatient with the wheat for taking its time, because he knows it must do so and cannot be rushed. The businessman is perhaps impatient with the train because it is a few minutes late and he is “running behind.” Time is (at least in part) in our perception, and a long time or a short time is entirely relative. Important, complex, personal, beautiful, or mysterious things should and often must take considerable time, and they will never save us time. Only a fool would think that we can find shortcuts. Or rather, when we make the shortcuts, we find that we have bypassed the experience.

Organic matter is never preserved unchanged. We attempt to preserve things that are dying or in danger of passing away and disintegrating. But organic things have a cycle all their own, living things have a cycle programmed into their very DNA—a component lacking in machines. Part of the organic development is the death of the plant itself, and, over its lifetime, the death of portions of it seasonally. The fig tree has to produce fruit to ensure the continuation of figs in the world. When the plant is not balanced or past its prime, it will not bear fruit but put its energy into the leaves and stalks. The expert vinedresser prunes, sometimes severely, in order that the vine may continue to produce good, healthy, abundant fruit. An inexperienced or careless gardener, in contrast, will often cut the plant back to where its very survival is suspect. It takes a great deal of patience and care to bring the plant back to life from its seemingly dead state and build it up so that it can once again produce fruit. For many people, however, when something appears dead or broken, it is tossed out. We just get a new one, an improved version.

The early liturgical reformers such as Romano Guardini and Josef Jungmann were asking how one might prune the vine of the glorious and very ancient Roman liturgy so as make it more healthy and more vibrant, renewing in it the capacity to transmit life and sustain vigorous growth and production. Did they arrive at prudent ways to do that? And even if they did, were they not elbowed out of the way by the careless, impatient gardeners who began to cut away until there was little left but the stump? And then the inept gardener did little to tend the plant, adding on a prosthesis instead of living grafts. Indeed, it is quite as if the gardener had decided to become a mechanical engineer, replacing the plants with machines that, externally, performed similar tasks: they unfolded pretty blooms at certain times of year, they released perfumes, they slowly rotated as the sun rotated, they registered temperature and hydration. But they were not alive. And the bees knew it. They never came to visit these fabricated flowers that could offer them no pollen.

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