Monday, January 22, 2018

“Where Has God Gone?”: The Pressure of Horror Vacui

Horror Vacui (1980) by Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)
In a famous passage in Joyous Wisdom, “the parable of the madman,” Friedrich Nietzsche writes:
“Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? … Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? … God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves?[1]
I was corresponding with a gentleman recently who wrote the following to me (and I reproduce it here with his permission):
Maybe I’m a babe in the woods, but last night I had the shock of my life. I went on YouTube and looked up an Orthodox monastery in Romania that I visited during communism. Some man had apparently been there and taken some pictures, and now he’s posted a slide show to YouTube. He wrote in the description that he’d used “Gregorian music” in the background, and as my dad used to say, I pretty near dropped my teeth. Someone had apparently had people sing Gregorian chant in a studio, added a drum track and a little bit of synthesizer, and had a woman’s voice intruding whispering little slogans about peace and other things. The biggest shock to me, though, was that the man who posted this — who was no spring chicken — actually thought this was Gregorian chant. There are probably lots of Catholics who think the same thing, but it’s Gregorian chant distorted for New Age purposes. I’d never heard anything like that before!
          It comes close to one of my universal laws about food: Anything that is beautiful and subtle will eventually have fruit flavoring or corn syrup added. People always feel a compulsion to add something. But they never take anything away.
          Recently I had to attend Mass at my neighborhood parish, and I discovered that what is really wrong — besides all the other things that are wrong — is what in art school we were taught to call horror vacui, fear of empty space. A typical amateur artist wants to fill every millimeter of space on a canvas with some kind of image, so the whole painting fights with itself. Good artists know how to use empty space. At this parish there’s not a second of silence from a half hour before Mass starts until after the crowd leaves. If you want quiet time to prepare for Mass, you have to arrive about two hours early. About ten minutes before Mass starts, the chatter has swelled to the volume of a pavilion at the state fair, and then once Mass starts, the musicians will not leave a second of quiet without twanging. Not even after communion. When I was a kid, the very same church was solemn and tranquil before Mass. No one breathed a word. Now people confuse church with a meetin’ hall and Mass with a TV show. Just the simple fact that the musicians don’t see the importance of receding at certain points during the liturgy is bothersome to me as someone with a visual arts background.
This colorful and all-too-true catalog of horrors, of the horror vacui sort, is one more indication of the unfathomable level of cultural regression and religious ignorance at this time in Western history. Apart from particular causes of regression and ignorance, there is a general cause, laid over all like a stifling blanket, that prevents us from recognizing our situation for the abysmal prodigy it is: the arrogance of modern man, who is supposed to be so “advanced” and to have progressed beyond all other ages. In reality, as Pope Pius XII once said, “the technical age will accomplish its monstrous masterpiece of transforming man into a giant of the physical world at the expense of his spirit, which is reduced to that of a pygmy in the supernatural and eternal world.”[2]

Pope Francis recently spoke in a general audience about the importance of observing moments of silence in the Mass, but he failed to show any awareness of two obvious facts.

First, silence in the new rite is artificial and barren of ritual significance. It does not arise because the priest is busy doing something else quietly, so that a natural span of silence results for everyone else, nor does it arise from the schola cantorum’s chanting of the Gradual and Alleluia. Inasmuch as this novum silentium is at the beck and call of the celebrant, it becomes a subtle mechanism for enhancing his “presidential status,” since he decides when to start and stop it. In that way, it is more like yoga meditation under the direction of a guru than it is Christian liturgical prayer.

Second, silence before, during, and after Mass has been killed, and its assassin is the liturgical reform in every decade of its implementation. For decades, the GIRM has been practically a dead letter when it comes to the actual liturgical life of most parishes. The progressives have been only too happy to push along countless practices that go explicitly against the GIRM, using the sponge of their hegemony to wipe away the entire horizon and unchain the earth from its sun, and no one has seriously attempted to correct them, even after Redemptionis Sacramentum, which did little or nothing to reverse the perpetual falling of liturgy “backward, sideward, forward, in all directions.” Pardon me, therefore, if I cough like Jeeves whenever someone with a Bertie Wooster grasp of liturgy invokes the GIRM as a reference point.

Before his humiliation by Pope Francis and his (voluntary or involuntary?) radio silence, Cardinal Sarah was constantly reminding people, like a voice crying in the wilderness, that nothing is more urgent than the serious protection and promotion of silence in our lives — not just in our liturgical worship, but in our personal prayer, even in our leisure and recreation. Without this empty space, there can be no interiority, no contemplation, no actual worship as opposed to “busy work,” the sort that substitute teachers give their fidgeting pupils while the real teachers are absent. We seem to be crushed by horror vacui, and it is only getting worse with the rapid inundation of all manner of pocketable or wearble devices, which fill every waking moment of our lives with the noise of information and entertainment . . . “the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God.”

At this strange moment in history, the new liturgical movement is also going to have to be a movement for natural, normal, face-to-face human interaction, sans distracting digital demons; for time spent making and repairing things with one’s own hands; for the stabilitas loci that comes from being quiet in a chair, at a table, in a room, by a window, with a book and nothing else. Such things are the natural analogues of the intimate contact with intangible beauty that comes from singing or hearing plainchant at Mass, smelling the incense, seeing the glittering gold on cope and chalice, becoming aware of one’s breathing or heartbeart in the silent Canon.

Some questions we must ask: What are the cultural preconditions — the personal prerequisites — for being able to respond from the depths of one’s soul to the needs and demands of the liturgy; for recognizing that in liturgy we walk fearfully on holy ground, as we enter a charged space filled with angels; for awakening to the sense of divine presence that would infallibly guide us back to our traditional modes of worship, abandoning with a sigh of relief all the modern claptrap that burdens us?

Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

[1] Cf. The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (n.p.: Viking Press, 1968), 95.
[2] “…l’era tecnica compirà il suo mostruoso capolavoro di trasformare l’uomo in un gigante del mondo fisico a spese del suo spirito ridotto a pigmeo del mondo soprannaturale ed eterno.” Retrieved here.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: