Saturday, April 16, 2016

Guest Article on Liturgical Law, Tradition, and Culture

A university student in the American Midwest sent in this guest article to NLM, which we are happy to share with our readership.

A Conceptual Tripod: Liturgical Law, Tradition, and Culture
by Aelredus Rievallensis
Recently reading Peter Kwasniewski’s article “Sacred Music vs. Praise & Worship—Does It Matter?”, which contains many points worth pondering, I was struck by the following paragraph:
The worst thing would be for a society to have no laws whatsoever. But the second worst thing is to have good laws and not to follow them, or even to know they exist. The latter is the current condition of the Catholic Church in regard to many aspects of her life. The consistent legislation on sacred music affords a notable example of law unknown, ignored, or held in contempt. A society whose members routinely violate its laws is in perilous condition and certainly cannot be said to be flourishing.
There’s a wonderful leisure about the old Mass that makes it almost indifferent to time as we usually experience it. The mechanical motion of the pendulum or watch-hand, mere action and reaction, cause and effect in strict logical progression, find no place here. Catching us up in its celestial rhythms, it frees the attention to wander from the directly sensible, concrete action at hand, to contemplate the eternal actions and mystical realities enveloping this changing world. Whether during the Gradual chant or the silent canon, or as the congregation files up (so inefficiently) for the Communion, I always seem to find room for fruitful meditations: on the nature of the Church at prayer, on the world of Scripture or the moral life, etc., that I wouldn’t find within a different liturgical ethos that constrained participants to a more reduced, one-track version of “active participation.”

This sort of contemplative “wandering” is not distraction, but actually the supreme goal of the liturgical ceremony; it is precisely the state in which that famous maxim is actualized: lex orandi, lex credendi. The believer takes on the mind and heart of the Church at prayer, which is the cosmic Christ, and where the sacred actions become like a transparent window through which the mysteries of the Trinitarian life stream in. The whole mystical reality of the Church is present and gathered together in Her liturgy, just as the whole person of Christ is present under the Eucharistic species. What take place as independent activities outside (preaching, teaching, governing, private prayer, etc.) collect themselves in liturgy, just as the Bride gathers up her whole train to approach Her Bridegroom.

The Adoration of the Trinity, also known as the Landauer Altarpiece, by Albrecht Dürer, 1509-11
In his Meditations Before Mass, Guardini is getting at something similar when speaking about the church building. The walls are not the real church. The real church is rather created inside the faithful congregation by the liturgy. If our hearts are still, then the Word speaking through the liturgy can become incarnate within us. Scripture sprouts there, the Holy Spirit blows freely, Christ is born in us, and we become new temples, or rather stones in the one Temple. By allowing the mystical Christ at work in liturgy to possess the soul, the congregation becomes the Church.

Something even a brief contemplation of the Church at prayer will uncover, is the importance of liturgical law. While looking around the little village of our amateur choir (complete with hosts of cherubs who do double duty as angel choirs and demons in distress), it struck me what an uncanny state of affairs we have at St. ----. In a tiny parish founded just a few months ago, composed mostly of working class townspeople, we have a fully functioning choir that sings some of the most sublime and religious music ever written by mankind. What’s more, we’re the only parish in the area with such a choir. What accounts for this astonishing fact? I glanced around at the singers: few have special vocal training, fewer still had ever sung modal music before. I turned to the choir director. The woman herself, for all her good will, moral fiber and ceaseless dedication, could never compose pieces like this. Few directors do. The explanation, I realized, did not lay in any of us at all.

The simple reason that our parish has exquisite music, while the surrounding parishes and cathedrals offer (sub)standard fare, is because our director obeys liturgical law. With crystal clarity and precision, the Church has legislated concerning the music most apt to accompany the divine services: chant and polyphony. The parish, priest and parishioners all, conform to the law eagerly and naturally. Why? Because they have a Catholic sense of liturgy. Because of the choir director’s self-abnegation in the face of tradition, and wholehearted devotion to it, and obedience to ecclesiastical law, this little parish resonates with the songs of the angels, while most of those round about vaguely ring with worn out hymns from saccharine hymnals whose spontaneous compositions perhaps once expressed a fresh, if immature personal experience of faith, but whose vitality has long exhausted itself in an impossible bid to be the Atlas of the Church’s great liturgical action.

But maybe our director has some unfair advantage over her colleagues in a neighboring parish. Perhaps she is paid more, runs longer practices, has singers who are more musically talented, or possesses a unique genius to determine the music most pleasing to our Eucharistic Lord? Probably none of these is true. She obeys liturgical law. What if she had been indisposed to do so? Considering the mediocre liturgical culture and lax rubrical discipline prevalent in many places, such Masses as we sing here would be entirely unthinkable, for a number of reasons. First, where would she get the moral authority to assert her choice for the music to be performed? Chant would be entirely unknown to her experience. Some other style would appeal more to her tastes. Even if she liked chant, how would she convince the pastor to replace the time-honored (and time-worn) hymns his congregation is accustomed to, exchanging the traditions of men with the law of Holy Church? Any argument in favor of the old would be relativized as a subjective “taste”, which even if it be magnanimously gratified, would be counter-balanced by the “tastes” of the majority. Who could she possibly convince to undertake the hardship of learning to sing modal and polyphonic music? That would require some deeply ingrained notion that proper celebration of the Mass requires us to sacrifice our personal preferences and allow ourselves to be formed by what has been handed on.

The difference is night and day, and hinges entirely on whether one has a Catholic sense of worship. Do I sing what I want, what I happen to find in a hymnal, or do I go ask Mother Church to tell me what I ought to sing?

Of course, nothing in the Novus Ordo or its rubrics rejects traditional musical forms. Current Church legislation supports them. Unfortunately, however, it only supports them equivocally, as one among a set of innumerable options. The liturgical culture fostered by episcopal negligence and the structural laxity of the NO rite itself makes the Mass a jostling marketplace of competing visions of the good, out of which only at best a hybrid can be hoped for, as many choir directors know from experience.

Let us rejoice that the classical Roman rite, together with the liturgical culture it fosters, is a bastion of stability and a monumental bulwark of the Church’s true heart. Let us embrace liturgical law, since we see how fruitful our devotion to it can be. It’s yoke is easy, and its burden light. In the Church’s Mass and its musical heritage we find a most exquisite worship. We find that here Christ’s Spirit has hovered over the waters and brought forth most choice expressions of his eternal love for the Father. Christ’s liturgical heart beats here, carefully ensconced in the bosom of firm liturgical law and organic liturgical tradition. Here is the green pasture where he leads his flocks to lay down, to graze and gaze on the treasures he has made, and thence to wander worshipfully with him towards the eternal fold.

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