Monday, April 09, 2018

How the Liturgy May Open or Close the Door to Christ

The data keep pouring in about how young people are abandoning Christianity in droves. This cuts across all denominational lines. Recent studies like the Shell-Jugendstudie show that church isn’t one of the places young people are likely to be found as a rule.

What exactly is the problem? There are, as usual, a variety of theories, but I think we should take very seriously the argument of Dom Karl Wallner of Heiligenkreuz Abbey in his lecture “The Profanation of the Sacred and the Sacralisation of the Profane.” Here are some choice snippets:
The experience of the sacred is more fundamental than the notion of the divine. This means that religiosity is based in the first place on letting oneself be touched by the existence of something that transcends the every-day,  through a sort of purity and majesty, something that compels respect, something unexpected. It is only based on this experience that a man seeks the origin of this sentiment in God. … We repeat: the necessity of being affected by what one feels is “sacred,” even to the point that it makes our hair stand on end, is fundamental for man: for man is predestined for the sacred. … If we do not cultivate the sacred and the dignified in our churches, if we forget the tremendum and fascinosum, then we can expect that human psychology will go looking elsewhere to fill the need to tremble before something majestic. If we degrade our liturgical ceremonies to the level of simple mundane ceremonies, if we banalise them, we should not be surprised to see people going elsewhere to satisfy their innate desire for sacred places, sacred symbols, sacred texts, and persons to venerate.[1]
Although Pater Wallner does not say so, he could easily have said that the movement of desacralization in the name of modernization is precisely what characterizes the reformed Catholic liturgy in its conception and its execution.

Let us put it this way. The Novus Ordo babysits the congregation; parishes might as well hand out binkies and blankets at the door. The event is pretty much wall-to-wall verbiage, from “Good morning. Today is the Umpteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time. Our opening hymn is ‘God, What an Awful Hymn This Is’” to “The Mass is ended. Haver nice day!”[2] Can you think of many young adults in this postmodern world who would want to have anything to do with that? Can you think of many people in general who actually want to be talked at in the opening rite, three readings, the homily, the usually painfully anemic and sentimental prayers of the faithful, the Eucharistic Prayer, the communion rite, and the closing remarks? This is hardly a recipe for attracting converts and reverts. We will not bring in the “nones” with a liturgy that has its greatest appeal for middle-class librarians. The “nones” would rather fast with Zen silence or take mind-altering drugs than surfeit on an all-you-can-eat buffet of words.

In chapter 1 of my book Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness, I quote several testimonies about how someone's encounter with the traditional liturgy was a dramatic moment of discovery, an unexpected “shock of the beautiful,” a theophany. Such testimonies continue to mount, as year by year now this parish, now that diocese, becomes a new home for the old Roman rite. Looking at five of these testimonies (these are new ones, not included in my book) will give us much to ponder.

A layman sent me the following email:
We now attend the TLM as our ordinary mass. It was a little overwhelming at first but even after a couple of months it has become more normal for us. Both my wife and I were astounded that even though at the beginning we had no idea what was going on, we still prayed more at mass in the first month of TLM liturgies than in the last 10 years of NO liturgies combined (or at least it felt like that!).
To which I could only respond: I know exactly what you mean.

A laywoman wrote to me:
I am 38 years old and have spent my entire life in the Novus Ordo Mass. I was very lukewarm until about four years ago when Our Lady brought me into relationship with her Son through the Rosary. … I finally attended the TLM for the first time last month and I was so overcome by the solemnity and beauty of the Mass that I was reduced to tears.
She is just one of countless people who have reacted thus—and not, obviously, from nostalgia (a 38-year old isn’t old enough for that, unless you take “nostalgia” in the rarefied philosophical meaning that Wojtyla and Ratzinger give to it). In company with the Desert Fathers, we ought to dwell on the significance of tears. In my 25 years of directing sacred music for the Novus Ordo, only a couple of times have I seen someone go away from Mass in tears because the liturgy had so moved them. But it happens rather often at a High Mass that middle-aged and older people will have tears in their eyes because of the “solemnity and beauty” they experienced. This is common knowledge among musicians, probably because we are most likely to be accosted by these people afterwards. Tears like this are a sign of being moved in the depths, beyond the noise of opinions and preconceptions. They are the sign of an interior release and restoration, both a coming to oneself and a going out of oneself. They are the very opposite of something put on for show or grimly willed because it is good for you, like cod-liver oil.

My third example is taken from an article posted at the Chant Café, where a writer described how she perceives and experiences the usus antiquior. The testimony is all the more valuable in that the writer would, I believe, describe herself as a proponent of the ROTR—and yet, she writes movingly of what it is like to attend the traditional Mass:
This taste of heaven, this time out of time, strengthens my heart for the rigors of the Gospel like nothing else has ever done. The receptivity has to do with a certain silence and peace. I experience silence, interior silence, even when there is a great deal of activity, for example at a Solemn High Mass, with its overlapping motions and sounds, with prayers repeated, whispered, announced. It is very calm. I breathe more deeply. Such a quiet peace.
          This quiet is possible at the postconciliar, ordinary form of the rite. It is possible, but not normal. What is more normal for me is a rushed and hurried experience. The sometimes casual and often thoughtless atmosphere becomes part of my own experience of trying to pray the Mass. Instead of sharing peace, I share in the distractions all around.
          It seems to me that a certain hierarchy has been inverted. Sunday Mass should be the prayer experience par excellence, an experience that our daily Masses and personal prayers echo but never reach with the same profundity. Instead, I find that my private prayers are more devotional and solemn than daily Mass in the ordinary form, which is in turn more prayerful and less distracting than the ordinary form Sunday Mass.[3]
A fourth example is from a high school valedictorian’s speech at Gregory the Great Academy:
Though it was strange at first, I quickly came to fall in love with the structure and the poetry of the [traditional] Mass, and most of all, by the musical traditions that bind East and West into a chorus of divine praise. I came to know anew what I had always known, but never understood: the tradition of my Faith. Much in the same way as I was converted to appreciate the many beauties of the Divine Liturgy, I was drawn into a new understanding of the Roman rite, seeing in its structure a common purpose, which is the purpose of salvation and the depth of the sacred traditions. Through these traditions and the experience of the liturgy, I was brought into a new experience of my place in the divine family and my spiritual heritage. … I was thrown headlong into a new world of tremendous meaning and mystery.
A fifth testimony is from a letter written to a monk by one of his college-age friends. Both the monk and the friend gave me permission to include it here.
I write in the midst of the Octave of Pentecost, and I have been to three Latin Masses over the course of this week (N. has been to two), and hope to go both tomorrow and Trinity Sunday. It is a grace-filled time in my life. I have not had such peace and strength for good work in a long while. Part of that is likely due to school finally ending, but I am convinced that the Holy Spirit has also been working this in me through the Latin Mass.
One could add so many more to these five. We might take as a summary of all such reactions the words of Dom Alcuin Reid, who says of the usus antiquior:
Its demands bring forth a response in us. We find that the restraint and beauty of the ritual, the silence in which we find space to pray interiorly, the music which does not attempt to imitate the world or soothe the emotions but which challenges us and facilitates worship of the divine, indeed we find the overall ritual experience of the numinous and of the sacred, to be uplifting and nourishing.
“I was so overcome by the solemnity and beauty of the Mass that I was reduced to tears…”

“This taste of heaven, this time out of time, strengthens my heart for the rigors of the Gospel like nothing else has ever done…”

“A new world of tremendous meaning and mystery…”

“I have not had such peace and strength for good work in a long while.”

“Its demands bring forth a response in us…”

All you proponents of the New Evangelization (including Bishop Barron), all you riggers of pseudo-Youth Synods, ye aging peddlers of the wares of yesteryear, are you listening?  Are you listening to the sensus fidelium, the vox populi Dei? “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2:17).

New Life in Christ — New Life in Tradition

[1] Pater Wallner goes on to illustrate substitute religious practices in which people try to find or make meaning for themselves and come into contact with something “separate” from the everyday, such as pilgrimages to famous people’s tombs, obsessive devotion to sports, the cult of “star” personalities, the dramaturgy of films and rock festivals, zealous dedication to political movements, superstitious practices. I cannot recommend this short lecture highly enough, as it contains precious insights into the course of the past half-century and the prospects and dangers of the present moment. In particular, all who are involved in youth ministry shold read it carefully.

[2] See Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness, ch. 10, “The Peace of Low Mass and the Glory of High Mass,” for more on this problem.

[3] This is a startling admission that rings true to me: “I find that my private prayers are more devotional and solemn than daily Mass in the ordinary form, which is in turn more prayerful and less distracting than the ordinary form Sunday Mass.” A Catholic who prays traditional Lauds or Prime in the morning by himself will have a stronger sense of devotion and the solemnity of a sober and earnest prayerfulness than he will find at the Novus Ordo Mass, except in the rarest of circumstances; and the Sunday Mass will usually be the worst of all, that is, the furthest removed from that spirit of devotion and prayerfulness.

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