Monday, January 23, 2017

The Fixity of Liturgical Forms as an Incentive to Prayer and Lectio Divina

Catholics who assist at the traditional liturgy of the Church quickly come to love one monumental fact about it: its stability, regularity, constancy. With a few exceptions due to local calendars or unannounced votive Masses, one can come to any usus antiquior liturgy and know within moments which Mass in the missal is being celebrated—and then know, with certainty, exactly how that Mass will unfold for the remaining half-hour or hour, since everything is fixed in place.

What a consolation to know that the celebrant is not being asked to exhibit the state of his mind in extemporaneous remarks, or his pastoral judgment in choices between this or that prayer! The Mass is simply the Mass—older, greater, stronger, and steadier than any of us mere mortals, and we gratefully submit ourselves to its lofty spiritual pedagogy and accumulated wisdom. We are not the drivers but the passengers. The driver is Christ our Lord, and never once in the liturgy (except perhaps in the homily) are we confronted with a jarring disjunct between the principal celebrant and His intelligent instrument.

People who have practiced lectio divina know that it benefits from the slow assimilation of a chosen text. One must mortify the desire to read too much or to skip all over the place. One often has to re-read and re-read a passage before it penetrates the mind. In just the same way, the great strength of the one-year lectionary contained in the traditional Missale Romanum is that it affords the worshiper time to absorb a certain set of luminous biblical passages, extremely well chosen for their liturgical purpose. Meeting these texts repeatedly, one puts them on like a garment, or assimilates them like food and drink. One begins to think and pray in their phrases.

What happens with the lectionary happens, in turn, with the entire liturgy. The fixity of the usus antiquior from top to bottom, from collect to postcommunion, from Psalm 42 to the Prologue of John, faciliates a liturgical lectio divina that can range over the words of the entire missal, in both its repeated (Ordinary) and changing (Proper) parts.

To have the light and warmth of contemplation, you first need the fire of prayer; to fuel prayer, you need the wood of meditation; and to have meditation, there has to be reading. Reading presupposes something fixed and stable to be read, internalized, remembered, pondered. Any improvisation at this level, or any overwhelming quantity of text or a constantly changing text, will tend to thwart the slow and steady building of memory, the shaping of the imagination, and the fertilizing of the intellect. If you throw too much wood on the fire, you put it out. If the wood is green, the fire smokes. And if there is no kindling and no match, the fire can’t be started.

All of these things have to be in place: the right ingredients in the right order, with the right proportions and the right timing. Fifteen hundred years of slow and highly conservative liturgical development produced the right content, the right order, the right proportions, and the right timing. Because the new liturgy has vastly more content and the way things play out is subject to the choices of celebrant and musicians, the proportion of parts is quite malleable and liable to enormous imbalance, and the pacing or feel of the liturgy is not comfortingly invariable and focused.

This, then, is the fundamental problem with praying the new liturgy: it is too pluriform, too gigantic, and too mutable to sustain a meditative or lectio divina engagement with the texts, chants, and gestures. One cannot simply surrender to it and take on its own identity, since the wills and intellects of various secondary agents are too much in play, making its identity like the chameleon’s color. “Will the real Novus Ordo please stand up?”

In the traditional liturgy, the daily stability of the Mass and its relatively limited selection of readings, together with the recurrence of the psalms in the weekly cursus of the Divine Office, strongly supports a liturgical lectio divina that is decisive in deepening the spiritual life of clergy and laity. In particular, one profits from the immensely powerful correlation of the antiphons and readings of the Office with those of the Mass.[1] It would be hard to deny that there are correlations between the character of the revised liturgical books, the customary crowd-oriented ars celebrandi, the lack of ascetical-mystical life among so large a part of the clergy, and the shallowness, if not heterodoxy, of preaching. All these things reinforce one another; there is little to oppose them from within the form of the liturgy itself.

Moreover, the overwhelming fixity of traditional liturgical forms makes the times when there are differences in the prescribed liturgy so much more striking. The omission of Psalm 42 and the doxologies during Passiontide makes us feel we are being stripped and humiliated with Christ. The dona eis requiem of the Agnus Dei at the Mass for the Dead reminds us (as do so many other details of the Requiem Mass) that we are offering up our prayers for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed and not thinking of ourselves.[2] One thinks of the rare times in the year when genuflections are called for during the course of a Tract or a Gospel, such as during the octave of Epiphany or during Lent[3]; one thinks of the peculiarities of the Divine Office on All Souls or in Holy Week—examples are numerous. These changes in an otherwise monolithic and highly determined pattern can be shattering in their psychological effect. It is like a great composer who knows how to use a touch of sharp dissonance that makes the prevailing consonance all the more powerful, or a great painter who adds a touch of bright red to an otherwise subdued canvas. The old liturgy shows a masterful grasp of how human psychology works.

The same rationalistic instinct that multiplied the quantity of texts also abolished almost all such unique features and differentiations, so that there was a simultaneous flattening of rites into uniformity and an uncontrolled expansion of material in the lectionary and missal. Sadly, we can note that both the uniformity and the expansion are characteristic of industrial methods of mass production. Indeed, the word “mass” in contemporary English has two meanings: the density of matter and a widespread group of similarly-minded individuals. The modern Mass exhibits excess of material as well as a democratic leveling of difference within that material. This phenomenon has been demonstrated with regard to the revised lectionary, which, although many times larger than the old one-year lectionary, nevertheless contains less of the total breadth of Scripture’s actual message because of its studied avoidance of any passages that could “offend” or be “misunderstood.”[4]

But we have reason today to be of good cheer, for these problems are more and more widely acknowledged, and the only sensible solution to them—the restoration of the fullness of traditional Catholic worship—is gaining ground, even in spite of semi-official resistance. What will happen when the last barriers fall down is not difficult to predict. The traditional liturgy—both the Missale Romanum and the Divinum Officium—is ideal for the life of prayer to which we are all called by God, and to which our baptism invisibly impels us. As a locus of lectio divina, the classic Roman rite stirs us to ponder and linger over particular phrases of Scripture or particular liturgical prayers hallowed by tradition and to make them the basis of a most fruitful meditation and preparation for Holy Communion. It will continue to gain ground, one prayerful soul after another, one seminarian, priest, or bishop at a time, one altar and parish to the next.


[1] I speak here from personal experience. Although I had already attended the usus antiquior Mass and had fallen in love with it at Thomas Aquinas College, I really came to know it well when, at the International Theological Institute in Austria, I was able to attend a daily 6:00 am Low Mass for several years—something, alas, that has not been possible for the past 10 years, and how I miss it! Going through that cycle day by day profoundly formed me and won my heart and mind over completely to the old prayers and calendar. I believe it would do the same for any serious Catholic who was given the grace of such consistent exposure. Later on, as I began to pray the old Divine Office, the connections were a cause of continual delight and strengthened my life of prayer. I know that a similar discovery happened for the monks of Norcia years ago when they finally saw that there was too much of a disjunct between the monastic office and the Novus Ordo Missae. In order to achieve an internal “reconciliation” of all their daily prayer, they chose the Vetus Ordo, albeit retaining an openness to celebrating the Novus Ordo when assisting local clergy or certain groups of pilgrims.

[2] This in contrast to post-conciliar funerals and Masses for the dead, which are almost entirely focused on the living who are present, due to the assumption (often stated explicitly) that the deceased requires no prayers and is already rejoicing with all his friends and relatives in heaven. The traditional Requiem Mass in a severe manner orders the entire service to the benefit of the deceased soul, which is no doubt why it was particularly loathed by the reformers, both in the 16th century and in the 20th.

[3] As I noticed in my article “In Defense of Preserving Readings in Latin”: “Among the most moving and beautiful signs of the latreutic or adorational function of the readings in the usus antiquior are those times in the course of the liturgical year when the priest, ministers, and faithful genuflect during the reading of the Gospel at a passage that narrates some reality that cries out for the total response of the believer, in body and soul. Thus, on Epiphany and during its octave, when the priest reads or chants that the Magi fell down and worshiped the Christ-child, he, and everyone with him, bends the knee in silent adoration. In Lenten Masses the priest kneels at the Tract Adiuva nos; on the second Passion Sunday, the Finding of the Holy Cross, and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, at the Epistle (‘ut in nomine Jesu omne genu flectatur’); and on a number of other occasions, such as at the third Mass of Christmas, when the Prologue of John is read; at the end of the Gospel for Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent (Jn 9:1-38); during the Alleluia before the Veni, Sancte Spiritus sequence; and at votive Masses of the Holy Spirit, the Passion of the Lord, and Deliverance from Mortality.”

[4] See my article “A Tale of Two Lectionaries: Quality versus Quantity” and the further references given there.

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