Wednesday, March 14, 2018

“Liturgy, Orality, and Rubricism”: Article by Samuel Nyom

This article by Samuel Nyom is reproduced here from the website Pro Liturgia with his permission, translated from the original French by Zachary Thomas. This essay certainly provides interesting food for thought, but we do not present it as the last or only possible word on the subject; please act accordingly in the combox.

It is very profitable to read Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980). A Canadian and former professor of literature who specialized in the subject of communication, he said some very interesting things that can help us find explanations for the liturgical crisis that ultimately rests on a very profound anthropological crisis.

His works are very numerous and detailed, and require a careful reflection. On a first reading, we have noted that he had the same intuition as many others about the faith and the liturgy. He remarks, I think very truly, that our passage from a traditional civilization founded on orality and oral tradition toward a modern civilization founded on a culture of writing may not have initiated the sort of substantial progress that we are so often sold on.

In this regard, a military officer tells the following anecdote: “During a common meal in the regiment, the printed lyrics of the songs we sing have to be put on the table because almost no one knows them by heart anymore, especially not the youngest. This reliance on writing reveals that a tradition has been interrupted and is thus in some way ‘dead.’ But it wasn’t always that way. The songs used to flow spontaneously during the meal. Today the soldiers sing without joy, without conviction, their eyes riveted on the words written on the sheets provided for each of them. It seems that in just a few years, there will no longer be any singing during these moments of conviviality.” In other words, from orality we pass to writing, and from writing we pass to the loss of the tradition in the noble sense of the term. The same thing came to pass when the staff and notes permitting the transcription of Gregorian chant were invented: memory became lax and the nature of Gregorian chant went out the window. And this event was closely followed by the loss of the melodies of “the chant proper to the Roman liturgy”, and their replacement by polyphony, plainchant, and songs…

All truly vibrant traditional cultures have been oral cultures. It was in this context that Christianity and its liturgy developed.
The beginning of an antiphonary for the Roman Rite, known from the scribe’s name as the Codex Hartker; San Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. San. 339. (CC BY-NC 4.0)
In the Gospels, Christ calls upon us to hear, to listen to the Word of God and remember it. Jesus wrote nothing. Or rather: he wrote a few words… in the sand. They were quickly erased. The Rule of Saint Benedict begins “Listen, my son…” and not “read” or “copy.” This is because the Gospels, just like the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Christian liturgy itself, were originally inscribed into this culture of orality in which chant, psalmody, and melodic-verbal rhythm, united to the “anthropology of gesture”, played a preponderant role. (cf. Father Marcel Jousse, SJ) Even in our own day, the liturgy restored by Vatican II is supposed to be entirely chanted—including the Canon, the readings, and the Gospel—at least recto tono. And why? Because a chanted liturgy allows the sacred words to be raised to a superhuman level, the only level that permits us to grasp their supernatural dimension, something that the simple tone used for a reading or historical narration does not permit. There are very few places where this is understood and practiced.

In the Eastern liturgies, everything is sung: it is not possible to conceive of an office that is not sung because the liturgy must be performed in the mode of proclamation and not of simple reading. In fact, the simple reading in some respect “chains” the sacred words to a written text, while the chanted proclamation renders the word (Biblical or liturgical) living, as if liberated from the written word which is nothing but their material support. One can never be reminded too much that authentic Christianity is not a “religion of the book” but a religion of the Word. At the Mass, after the proclamation of the Gospel, the priest or deacon chants “The Word of the Lord” and not “the book…” The one who goes to proclaim the divine Word raises the Gospel Book very slightly. The same for the entry procession at the beginning of Mass: the deacon who carries the Gospel book raises it very slightly and never over his head (cf. the General Instruction of the Roman Missal).

Thus Martin Luther’s “sola Scriptura” might be something of an error: “Verba sola” would be more in conformity with the teachings contained in the Gospels and the Apostolic Letters…

These considerations lead us to think that in the history of the Western Church, there is a very ancient source (beginning at the end of the Middle Ages, essentially with nominalism) that explains the present crisis. It is possible, as McLuhan thinks, that the printing press accelerated the crisis.

From the 15th century, we perceive the pressing urge to codify, to put in writing, to “fix” the liturgy, because it was thought to be threatened by the false philosophies and dubious theologies that were spreading at that time. This fixing may be designated by the expression “politics of the corset.” In sum, something about the liturgy, its connection with life, with the living Word, was lost. Couldn’t this be the sense of Christ’s warning: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life?” In the immediate aftermath of this phenomenon, we begin to see the aberrations characteristic of the extreme codification of ritual inherited from the Council of Trent, which led to the normalization of the “Low” or “read” Mass. (how can the sacrifice of the Cross be “read”? Mustn't it be celebrated and lived?), then the “High Mass” which is actually a Low Mass on which a mass chanted by the faithful and the choir is artificially superimposed, thus breaking the unity of the celebration and creating a rift between the celebrant and the people. We point out in passing that in the first missal manuscripts, before Trent, rubrics are very rare… and this did not prevent the liturgy from being respected and faithfully transmitted.

This question of writing naturally poses the question of liturgical books: in the West, priests and faithful feel like they are lost if they don’t have their eyes fixed on some piece of writing: a missal, a Mass leaflet, a booklet, etc. This leads to some very strange attitudes during Latin and Gregorian masses celebrated in certain monasteries (Solesmes, for example, but not only there): at the entry procession, instead of turning toward the rite that is taking place and soaking up the liturgy, everyone “plunges” into his book and pays no attention to what is happening in the choir…

Now take a look at the Orthodox liturgies: there are very few books for the clergy (only the strict minimum, even though their liturgy is much more complicated) and for the faithful, nothing at all. This is explained by the fact that the celebrants know the most important prayers by heart (especially the Eucharistic prayers). Consequently, they can concentrate on the celebration itself and don’t have to shove their noses into some booklet or photocopy from start to finish.

One also notices, among the Orthodox, the absence of pews or rows of chairs that in the West “confine” the faithful in unnatural positions. Among Eastern Christians the faithful enjoy a great liberty to come and go, but always with the dignity and respect, entirely adapting themselves to the rites. We too used to enjoy such things: pews and missals are very late inventions that we owe in part to the Protestant Reformation. The point isn’t to get rid of the pews and missals: that would not be a realistic expectation. Nevertheless, we must all the same reflect on these “rubricizing” tendencies, whether they be “traditionalist” or “progressive”: before Vatican II, the Church was usually seen as primarily a juridical institution (when it is truly a divine-human, spiritual and mystical reality) which affected the liturgy to the point that it was understood more or less as a “solemn ceremony” (something equally applicable to a funeral) and almost never as a celebration. Liturgy was thus reduced to an ensemble of prescriptions to apply the letter of the law, which was justified by giving them an allegorical sense that did not get at the deeper sense or the true origins of the rite.

Necessarily, when one no longer understands the meaning of the liturgy, one tries to save the form by resorting to a strict ritualism, which for a time maintains the illusion...until the day when the “corset” falls and the ignorance is unveiled in full view. That is what happened in the 1970s and led to the present state of disaster.

This subject is vast and complex and many volumes would not suffice to explain all its facets. For those interested in reading more, it has been discussed notably by Aidan Kavanagh in the sixth chapter of his book On Liturgical Theology (Ch 6, pp. 96 -121). Commenting on the gradually shift, brought about by humanism and the printing press, toward a form of Christian piety based on the written word, he writes:

“God’s Word could now for the first time be visualized by all, not in the multivalency of a ‘presence’ in corporate act or icon, but linearly in horizontal lines which could be edited, reset, revised, fragmented, and studied by all--something which few could have done before. A Presence which had formerly been experienced by most as a kind of enfolding embrace had now modulated into an abecedarian printout to which only the skill of literacy could give complete access. God could now be approached not only through burning bushes, sacralized spaces and holy symbols and events, but through texts so cheaply reproduced as to be available to all. Rite and its symbols could be displaced or go round altogether, and so could the whole of the living tradition which provided the gravitational field holding them together in an intelligible union Rite became less a means than an obstacle for the new textual piety” (pg. 104).

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