Monday, May 20, 2019

The Dire Need for a “New Habit of Mind”: MIT Argues for the TLM

Yes, you read that correctly: MIT, as in Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, my title is a bit deceptive. MIT isn’t arguing explicitly for the traditional Latin Mass; they are not quite so avant-garde. Rather, a recent podcast by an MIT professor, Alan Lightman, in discussing how technology and society have affected the way humans spend time and how society itself is ordered, touches on several dire needs of modern men that find a powerful remedy in the traditional worship of Catholics.

Prof. Lightman’s talk begins and ends with an anecdote about a trip to Cambodia, when he asked a village woman how long it took her to ride every morning ten miles on a dirt road to get stuff for the kitchen. He was surprised when she responded that she hadn’t thought about how long it took. Compared to how closely he, as a modern Westerner, monitored “time cost,” he was taken aback that someone could live with a calm indifference to the passage of time. She just took the time that was needed for the task.

How long does Mass take? This is a question that seems to be of great importance in the mainstream Catholic world, where people want to “get in and get out” in as “timely” a manner as possible. There is brunch to be made, or a sporting event to get to, or yardwork to be done, or some shopping delayed all week; in any case, who wants to be in church for very long? When I attended Georgetown University for a year (1989–1990), I learned about a Jesuit priest there who was famous for an 11-minute Sunday Mass at 11pm. It was very popular with students who wanted to “fulfill their obligation.”

We know that Catholics who attend the traditional Latin Mass are a self-selecting group (this already tells us something significant, namely, that those who love the liturgy are drawn to its traditional forms!). It is nevertheless worth pointing out that, on the whole, they are much less concerned about “how long Mass is going to take,” and are willing to attend, or even gladly look forward to, lengthy solemn liturgies. Like the Cambodian woman, they are willing to take time to travel the long road to the town and back. Apprehending that the liturgy is the best and most important thing we do as Catholics, they want to spend time with it.

The example of walking on a road is a humdrum one, but more generally we can say that we spend time on the things and people we love. The saying “time is money” is familiar, but a more correct version of it would be “time is life.” Our life is measured out in time. What we spend time on is what we spend life on. It does not seem too likely that the Lord will ask us on judgment day whether we spent enough time on sports, shopping, work, or sleep. It seems more likely He will ask us why we didn’t pray more when we could and should have done so.

Returning now to Prof. Lightman, I was particularly struck by these remarks of his, which begin 25 minutes into the podcast:
I think that we are destroying our inner world now via the wired world [after having destroyed the natural world]. It’s more subtle, it’s not as obvious, but we’re beginning to document the bad effects of our frenzied, hyperconnected lifestyle.... I think that the situation is dire. I think in some ways it’s just as serious as the destruction of our environment, even though it’s partly invisible. And we may already be at the point of no return.... We’re losing our ability to know who we are and what’s important to us. So is there anything that we can do? Somehow we need to create a new habit of mind, both as individuals and as a society. We need a new mental attitude that values our inner reflection, values stillness, values privacy, values personal reflection, that honors the inner self.
He then makes a number of suggestions: for K-12 students, a ten minute period of silence daily. For all students, more time to reflect on academic work, rather than pumping out assignments. He suggests quiet rooms in offices where people can go to read a book, close their eyes, or pray. For families, the evening meal should be entirely “unplugged.” Everyone should take walks. At the societal level, there should be “screen-free zones.” (This last suggestion was music to my ears. I have noticed over the years that almost every public space—in hotels, restaurants, airports, wherever people gather—is dominated by a giant TV screen. This makes it practically impossible for the center of gravity, the weight of attention, to reside in a single person reading a book, or in a conversation among friends.) A last point made by Prof. Lightman is our need for what he calls “unstructured time,” that is, time when we are not being made to do anything in particular, but are free to be alone with our thoughts.

This podcast is especially interesting because it shows a prominent secular thinker noticing a deep crisis and searching for a way out. I think that implicit in his searching is a sense that the foundation of the society is deeply flawed. Prof. Lightman gives us a glimpse at modern society stumbling around trying to find a way out of the mess it has made in all its novel cleverness. He gets the correct diagnosis, but are his proposals likely to be effective—or even taken seriously? One could say they are good but not radical enough. Will a quiet room in an office make a big difference? Doubtful. Not without some other change in mental disposition.

The fundamental decision is how we order our lives. Are we ordering our lives as the world directs, or should we try something else? It is not easy to get out of the wiring of modern society. Lightman says we need to find “a new habit of mind.” I don’t know if he knows about the ancient Latin Mass and the other rituals of traditional Catholicism, but it cannot fail to strike us how well these things, which were once widespread and are returning again in our day, embody the slow, reflective, low-tech, hands-on approach Lightman recommends as necessary for sanity and survival. As someone once pointed out, the gimmicky work by John Cage, 4’33, which consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of non-performance and the ambient sounds of the concert venue, was “written” at a time (1952) when millions of Catholics every week experienced about this much silence every week during the silent Roman Canon. Cage was hailed as a path-breaking genius, but he was an infantile dilettante compared to Holy Mother Church.

One of the great virtues of the traditional liturgy is that it enables the practice of a new habit of mind that can free humans from their enslavement to superficial things; it reflects the fundamental choice of Christianity to order all things to God, to make time for Him, to make room for Him. The traditional liturgy proved itself able to be the axis of Christendom, the burning heart of religious life, the source of strength for marriage and family, the glue of a Catholic society. Can we say this about the New Order liturgy, as it is practiced almost everywhere — and due to its own systemic features, as understood by its promulgator?

The radical theocentricity of the classical Roman Rite, which has as its counterpart the primacy of the interior life over external activity and phenomena, paradoxically leads to the fullest possible development of the external physiognomy of the rite and the aesthetic phenomena associated with it. This is not a contradiction but a necessary consequence of taking first things first. The Tridentine liturgy makes possible an unstructured interior freedom precisely by its dependable discipline of ritual form and its continual orientation to God. Never does a priest pray as intensely as he does when facing ad orientem and whispering the sacred words; never do laity pray as intensely as when they are kneeling at Mass, letting it envelop their senses and prompt their hearts.

In contrast, under the reign of liturgy designed as a social workshop or “school of Christian sociology” (Paul VI’s description), it will be a perpetual struggle for worshipers to recover the theocentricity and interiority that have been lost, and, ironically, a further struggle to acquire for it the splendor of external features as well. They will always seem like “glued on” accretions rather than emergent properties.

Other architecture at MIT is rather more like the reformed liturgy

Prof. Lightman’s observations, which are echoed by many commentators on modern society and technology (e.g., Marshall McLuhan, Augusto Del Noce, Ivan Illich, Neil Postman, Mark Bauerlein) fly in the face of the basic assumptions of the liturgical New Order, namely, that modernity is, or contains, a movement of the Holy Spirit that we should embrace. Instead of offering a truthful counterpoint to the worldly spirit, the New Order regurgitates that worldly spirit under quasi-liturgical trappings. The lost modern man will not find his way back to that which is perennial and, in that sense, unmodern in the one place he should be able to find it: the liturgy of the Mass.

Hence the vital spiritual, psychological, and sociological need in our time for the usus antiquior. The traditional Mass is not merely a question of aesthetics; rather it concerns all of the crises that we face as a society, as a race, as a planet. The only way forward is a reordering to God. This begins with traditional liturgical rites, Eastern and Western, which instill in man the practice of this ordering, without openly or subtly contradicting it. A key idea here, understood well by the wisdom of Catholic tradition, is that this reordering takes daily effort and work. We must apply ourselves carefully to this work. It goes against the grain of fallen nature. It’s not a whimsical word or profession now and then that makes the practice effective. This is one of the great virtues of the traditional liturgy. It helps us in this work when we need help the most. It is folly to set aside that help.

One last thought. It is sad that the most common reflex for people who become aware of the inner crisis of modern Western society is to turn to Far Eastern or New Age spiritual practices rather than to the beautiful Christian tradition. A friend of mine once met a nice young woman from the American South. She was reading a book on Buddhism. The friend mentioned in passing that Christianity, too, had a rich spiritual and mystical tradition, and gave her some titles to look up. Many years later, she wrote to him out of the blue to say “Thank you for helping me find my way back to the Catholic faith.”

In spite of decades of churchmen doing their best to obscure, deform, abandon, or proscribe the rich spiritual and mystical tradition of Catholicism, Our Lord will not allow it to be taken away from His Church. Most Catholics do not know it yet, but this tradition is still alive, as health-giving as it ever was and ever will be. We must do our part to make it known and loved.

Visit for events, articles, sacred music, and classics reprinted by Os Justi Press (e.g., Benson, Scheeben, Parsch, Guardini, Chaignon, Leen).

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