Monday, April 01, 2019

The Queen of Sheba in the Court of Solomon: Liturgical Boredom and Ecstasy

Ritual action is inherently non-spontaneous, non-original, and non-extemporaneous. The more perfectly one is enacting ritual, the less of one’s creative self is present in it, and the more one is absorbed into a vastly larger mystery.

Even the pagans understood this in their mystery rites, through which the individual was meant to be drawn into the realm of the gods and to participate in their actions. The worshiper took on the identity of another, and for a moment lost sight of himself. This is the “ecstasy” about which we read so much in ancient authors: a standing “outside oneself” (ek-stasis), a going out of one’s everyday world and mind, to be drawn into something primordial, archetypal, divine.

I have noticed this about the Novus Ordo, when studying the ponderous tomes of its architects and admirers: it may look good on paper, it may have a rationale about which one can wax eloquent, but somehow it never works in practice. There, it tends to look clumsy, casual, limited in expressive range and impressive power; due to its linear modular construction, it suggests a series of tasks on an agenda, and most attendees may be forgiven their desire to see the agenda completed as expeditiously as possible.

The traditional Roman liturgy, in contrast, often looks obscure, complex, or strangely ordered on paper, but it always works in practice. It flows, sweeping all along before it. The motions of the individuals in the sanctuary are scripted and coordinated; there is an organic wholeness to it, and a smoothness like that of rocks caressed by water for a thousand years. Those involved are so intent on “the Father’s business” that it is easy for our attention to be absorbed in whatever they are doing, even when we don’t understand it. So strongly does the rite convey a sense of something extremely important and weighty happening that it has the power to make us want to understand it better.

I am reminded here of the difference between stage drama and “closet drama.” The one is a story meant to be acted out before an audience, the other is a musing to be read in the solitary comfort of one’s study. A play by Shakespeare, while far more complex than Goethe’s Faust in number of characters and subplots, works brilliantly on stage, while Goethe’s, with a relatively straightforward plot, is not nearly as dramatically effective. The one is artistically perfect, the other an intellectual construct. It is like comparing a folk dance with a mathematical theorem.

Even though it is “easier” or “more accessible” — indeed, precisely because it is so — one grows weary of the new Mass over time; it has few secrets and yields them readily. It is the opposite with the old: the longer one attends, the more one discovers in it to appreciate, and one never reaches the bottom of its secrets. The many commentaries on the cherished rites of the Roman Church (Guéranger, Schuster, Parsch, Gihr, Zundel, Vandeur…) contain an inexhaustible wealth of insights, illuminating details one hadn’t noticed before, pointing out reasons for some text or ritual or chant that one had not grasped.

Tintoretto, The Queen of Sheba and Solomon (detail)
I like to think of the Queen of Sheba as a metaphor.
When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon, and the house which he had built, and the meat of his table, and the apartments of his servants, and the order of his ministers, and their apparel, and the cupbearers, and the holocausts, which he offered in the house of the Lord: she had no longer any spirit in her, and she said to the king: The report is true, which I heard in my own country, concerning thy words, and concerning thy wisdom. And I did not believe them that told me, till I came myself, and saw with my own eyes, and have found that the half hath not been told me: thy wisdom and thy works, exceed the fame which I heard. Blessed are thy men, and blessed are thy servants, who stand before thee always, and hear thy wisdom. (1 Kg 10:1–8)
What happened to the queen in the king’s court, when she cries out “The half of it wasn’t told to me!,” is the opposite of the experience of a person who hears or reads what Catholics believe the Mass and the Holy Eucharist to be — that it is the supreme sacrifice that redeems mankind, our earthly participation in the heavenly liturgy, and so forth — and then goes to check out what it’s like: “Behold, this isn’t even half as good as what I read about or imagined.” But if that same person happened upon a solemn High Mass in the classical Roman Rite, how exactly like the Queen of Sheba’s reaction would his be: “Just based on what I had heard or read about, I couldn’t have imagined such solemn splendor as this!”

The reason for these opposite reactions is simply this: the old rite is so much more than the words of which it is composed — it is thick with ceremonies, gestures, postures, vestments, incense, music — while the new liturgy is centered on and preoccupied with words and communal action, even when it has some of these “traditional elements” added on to it. Hence it cannot fill us with wonder or amazement because we are already saturated in modern times with words (“talk is cheap”), and the mode of their delivery at the new Mass — almost always spoken, and almost always towards us — is the most ordinary, humdrum, secular mode of communication.[1] In such circumstances, there will be no ecstasy like that of the Queen of Sheba.

When everything is visible, nothing is seen. When everything is audible, nothing is heard.

The old rite always exceeds its paper description, whereas the new rite always falls short of its paper description. For Paul VI’s rites, the trailer is better than the film, the advertisement better than the product. For the traditional rites to which no individual pope’s name can be accurately pinned (not even that of St. Pius V), the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the impact exceeds the force of its components, the experience transcends reason and imagination. There is always something that “escapes” our notice, our understanding, our human capacity. We do not measure the rite, because our age did not produce it; we are measured by it, and we always fall short.

Built by a Dutch artist in 1984
Like all modernist projects, the reformed liturgy always sounds better when described by its proponents than it ever comes out when executed by its laborers. One sees this with modern architecture: the plans can look spiffy, but the results always disappoint. It’s the opposite with Gothic architecture: the plans of medieval architects look like quaint doodles compared with their magnificent structures crafted in stone and glass. Or modernist poetry, which itself is never as satisfying as the thick philosophical commentaries written on it — which shows the failure of art, if not the failure of thought.

In like manner, the Novus Ordo was built by the best team of highly credentialed specialists, loquacious about their ideals, but the finished product is what one would expect from a period known for neither theological sublimity nor aesthetic brilliance. As Dietrich von Hildebrand said: “We live in the world without poetry, and this means that one should approach the treasures handed on from more fortunate times with twice as much reverence, and not with the illusion that we can do it better ourselves.”[2]

As Martin Mosebach says, we do not know the names of the saints who “wrote” the old liturgy, with the exception of a few hymnographers. But we know exactly who put together the new one—list after list of experts, carefully recorded by Bugnini in his big fat book The Reform of the Liturgy 1948–1975. This contrast makes all the difference. The old rites are something anonymous that we receive from as many centuries as the Church has offered up her corporate worship to God; the new rites are the work of a committee, imposed on us from above by the stroke of a pen. The one is a collective work of art, the other a period piece trapped in the assumptions of a frenzied and dated movement.

Man was created for ecstasy — not sexual, athletic, aesthetic, or drug-induced, but the ecstasy of faith, of love, of beatitude in union with God for ever. Truly the traditional liturgy of the Church, celebrated with all the resources Divine Providence has bestowed on us, feeds that faith, inflames that charity, and grants us again and again a foretaste of that heavenly consummation.


[1] For further explanation, see my articles: “Why We Sing Liturgical Texts” and the quotations from Zuckerkandl contained therein; “Death by Dullness: Prioritizing Speech over Silence and Song”; “How the Liturgy May Open or Close the Door to Christ”; “Twelve Reasons Not to Prefer the Novus Ordo: A Reply to Fr. Longenecker,” point 1.

[2] The Devastated Vineyard (n.p.: Roman Catholic Books, 1985), 70.

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