Monday, May 02, 2016

The Law of Liturgical Entropy

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer
It feels easier to walk downhill than to walk uphill, but it’s much harder on the knees. It feels harder to climb uphill, but the beautiful view at the top is always worth the effort.

As hikers often experience, you will be walking along on a narrow trail, perhaps in the midst of crowded trees, thinking the small thoughts that go with one step after another, and you turn a bend and suddenly the whole world opens up in a breathtaking vista that almost makes you feel dizzy, as if the beauty might subvert your muscles. That beauty was put there by God, not by you, and yet it took your effort to reach it. We make the trails, we walk on them, but the beauty is from above; it was there before we existed and it will long outlast our mortality.

The same is true of the liturgical tradition: it is God’s gift to us, it comes before us and goes beyond us, but we must work hard to preserve it and to be worthy of it. What we absolutely must not do is think that it would be better to create an alternative “tradition” and attempt to rejoice in it — that would be like planting a giant flat screen at the end of the trail and looking at a filmed sunset.

The notion that we need to make ourselves worthy of our liturgical tradition is one that is, I’m afraid, quite unfamiliar today, because of the decades-long bad habits induced by reformers, revisers, translators, and other committee members who place themselves over and above the tradition as its superiors, its judges, its improvers, its improvisers. This is not and cannot be the attitude of one who, conscious of his own limitations and of the narrowness of any age, people, or culture in and of itself, gratefully and humbly receives a noble inheritance, rejoices in its prayer-saturated beauty and stability, and delivers it integrally to his successors — perhaps embellished with additional signs of reverence and devotion, if he has been prompted to originate them.

A Catholic who is aware of himself, who senses the smallness of his vision and the greatness of the tradition that precedes and carries him, is, in fact, relieved that he does not have to make things up as he goes along; he need not second-guess the river along which he floats. He lets himself be the ready instrument of a far greater actor, the mouth through which the same word continues to sound, the hand or foot that executes the head’s bidding. He does not fear messing up that which was whole and safe and salvific before he even came to be and which will continue long after he is gone.

Nevertheless, there is something very important that the individual, the bishop, the priest, the deacon, the religious, the layman, must contribute in order that the tradition will not die out or shrivel up. True, he does not have to invent the tradition, but neither can he ignore it or treat it lightly. He must embrace it or else it will cease to exist.[1] In a famous interview published in The Latin Mass magazine, Alice von Hildebrand addressed this issue head on:
TLM: I cannot end the interview without asking your reaction to a well-worn canard. There are those critics of the ancient Latin Mass who point out that the crisis in the Church developed at a time when the Mass was offered throughout the world. Why should we then think its revival is intrinsic to the solution?
AVH: The devil hates the ancient Mass. He hates it because it is the most perfect reformulation of all the teachings of the Church. It was my husband who gave me this insight about the Mass. The problem that ushered in the present crisis was not the traditional Mass. The problem was that priests who offered it had already lost the sense of the supernatural and the transcendent. They rushed through the prayers, they mumbled and didn’t enunciate them. That is a sign that they had brought to the Mass their growing secularism. The ancient Mass does not abide irreverence, and that was why so many priests were just as happy to see it go.[2]
The law of entropy states that, left to itself, any system will lose order, will devolve or unwind. The tendency of the material world is towards unraveling. If order cannot somehow be re-introduced, decay is unavoidable.[3]

In the little universe of the liturgy, that necessary principle of order is reverence for traditional texts, music, rubrics, and decorum, sustained by Church authority properly exercised. These things can be contributed only by living human beings who correspond with the grace of the Holy Spirit. As long as they are supplied, and where they are present, the liturgy thrives and continues along its way, undiminished. Without them, however, it is doomed to disintegration.

Liturgical decadence, deviation, and disorder are, like the natural tendency of entropy, a downhill walk for fallen man. Left to himself, left without the guidance of the tradition willed by the Holy Spirit and the example of many saints who have shown us how to walk the often grueling uphill path of fidelity, fallen man will make liturgy conform to his own whims and wants, his own programs and purposes — something easier and more damaging. It is the uphill climb that leads to the magnificent vista, the glimpse of a vast and humbling beauty that can only come from the mind of the Creator.

[1] Along these lines, see the superb article of Joseph Shaw, "Does Tradition preserve us, or we the Tradition?"
[2] For the full text, see here; for some highlights, see here.
[3] I am aware that there is a lot more to the concept than this simplistic layman's version of it: see here. But in the popular imagination, entropy means a continuing decrease in order, and that is the rough sense in which I am using it.

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