Monday, July 29, 2019

“Rites, Forms, Tradition, and Reform”: A Guest Article from South America

NLM is pleased to offer our readers an article by Augusto Merino Medina, a prominent voice in Una Voce Chile and the translator of Resurgimiento en medio de la crisis: Sagrada liturgia, Misa tradicional y renovación en la Iglesia (Angelico, 2019). In this article Dr. Merino defines what a rite is, discusses how the sensible “forms” express the content of the rite, shows why rite is linked with tradition, and concludes with some observations on the Novus Ordo.

Rites, Forms, Tradition, and Reform

Augusto Merino Medina

1. A Concept of Rite

In general terms, a rite can be described as an answer to human expressive and communicative needs.

Not everything a man is able to conceive or experience in his inner life — ideas, emotions, sentiments, intuitions — can be communicated to others in the way that is most immediate, direct, and distinct for mankind, namely, verbal language, be it abstract or concrete (i.e., poetic). This brings to the fore the other language at man’s disposal for communicating with his fellowmen: non-verbal language.

By this means he expresses everything that cannot be conceptualized, everything whose richness overflows the bounds of any given concept, everything that even poetic language cannot express. In order to communicate such content, non-verbal language uses diverse tools that are within any man’s reach: gestures of the head, facial expressions, bodily positions or ways of walking or moving limbs, as well as a huge diversity of other material and visible things, like flowers, scents, colours, the disposition of things in space, clothing and ornaments, music and the rest of the arts. All of these realities help a man to express and communicate himself.

A rite is a mode of human expression and communication that is essentially made up of non-verbal language and its varied resources. Two elements, therefore, combine to make a rite: the content (something that is ineffable, i.e., impossible to express through verbal language, be it abstract or concrete) and the perceptible forms used to express such content.

However, not every form of communication having recourse to non-verbal language is a rite, properly speaking. Love uses gestures to communicate with others, but not everything in the expression and communication of love is a rite. In this essay, we will apply the term rite only to what goes beyond the everyday, usual, familiar contents of life, and tends instead to communicate something that transcends prosaic life experience. Thus, a rite expresses something that, transcending everyday prose, has transcendent importance. Furthermore, since man is a social being, every rite always has a collective dimension. We have a rite, properly speaking, when we have the non-verbal communication of something ineffable and transcendent that also has reference to life in community. A rite is lived and carried out collectively.

The performance of a rite demands a special solemnity that differentiates it from the formalities pertaining to other aspects of social life, like the proper way of greeting one other, proper manners at table, and so on. A rite also demands excluding such human emotions as the comic, the sympathetic, and others of this kind, and, in general, everything that does not pertain to the realm of the transcendent or the sublime. It demands, on the contrary, actions that are unusual, gestures and behaviour that are reserved exclusively for occasions where the trascendent and sublime are at play, and that are minutely regulated.

Now, in the realm of the sublime and ineffable there is an ample range of communicable realities, among which one can recognize an inherent hierarchy. The higher one goes up in it, the more strict are the norms that govern the rite. In the highest place we find the sacred, which demands not only strictly performed ceremonies but also a way of carrying them out that conveys the awe associated with the numinous.

In a sacred rite, therefore, behaviour that is random, improvised, unregulated, or informal is inconceivable. Should any sign of informality show in the paraments, objects, or gestures, or any other aspect of such a rite, we can say that it is decaying or downright corrupt. It is, just to that extent, neither ritual nor sacral.

Because a religious rite embodies a transcendent reality, men do not conceive it as being devised or composed by mere human activity, much less a bureaucratic activity, with which the ineffable is incompatible. The origin of a religious rite is always deemed by men to be lost in the mists of a distant past, stemming from an archaic, primordial experience, and whatever human intervention we can discern in it is piously covered by a veil of reverence. The origin of a religious rite is indeed frequently connected to a cosmogony, so that in performing it the collectivity touches the farthest reaches of its common memory, the most distant past, the world of barely known ancestors, the fountain of all tradition. A religious rite cannot but be traditional.

Consequently, a religious rite born out of the activity of a group of “experts” or of renowned scholars whose works on history or archaelogy or any other science are well known by the public, is a stillborn rite, incapable of conveying the awe which is essential in the religious experience. If, on the other hand, a rite is perfectly intelligible and as readable as a cookbook recipe, it is thereby out of touch with the ineffable. Where there is no contact with the ineffable, no rite is needed; a rite that expresses nothing ineffable is not a rite.

Moreover, a proper rite connects the present with a distant past which, by definition, is something already fixed in existence; this past is atemporal and cannot change. Any “aggiornamento” of a rite, understood as a conscientious bringing-up-to-date, is destructive of it. The past, embodied in the rite, cannot be moulded to fit the present; it is the present that must be moulded by the past, or fitted to it, in order to remain in harmony with it. The present generation’s inability to understand the meaning of a rite is not due to some defect in the rite but rather to a defective initiation in it: all rite is “initiatic” and demands some instruction in order for its content to be properly received and transmitted to future generations. If a rite is nowadays not understood, we must search for the cause in the failure of the ones who bear the responsibility of preserving it by means of a due initiation into it.

Lastly, a rite that has survived along countless epochs and generations cannot but be slow in its reenactment, that is, must take ample time. This is the only way of expressing its remote origins and its connection with the ultimate realities. A rite performed in no time at all, at the speed of a cartoon story, is utterly ruined. Either the rite is slow, grave, and solemn, or it fails in its essential mission.

2. The Forms Involved

A rite is made up of two things: a content whose core is ineffable and whose richness is such that mere words can never express it adequately, and forms — the material, sense-perceptible means used to try to convey such content.

Since the forms are in no one-to-one (and can never be in perfect) correspondence with the different aspects of the content because of its ineffability — if it were not ineffable, it could be conceptually communicated — there is always a possibility that the forms express more or less than is required to convey the content, or express things that are not contained in the content. Every communicative form makes its own “noise” that can distort the content entrusted to it for conveyance. Anyone who is aware of the problems present in musical reproduction and the various technical means open to it (tapes, vinyl records, compact discs, and so forth) can understand this phenomenon. There is a point at which the forms themselves become a content different from the one they should have communicated. In this connection we may recall Marshall McLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message”: an envelope can say more, or more important, or, at any rate, different things than the letter put into it. We could also say that the forms, due to the ineffability of the content, have a “floating” ability, a freedom that can be very difficult to control.

We can say, therefore, that in a rite the forms may carry more weight than the content itself and convey a meaning that has lost its link with, its attachment to, the content; the forms may convey even a content that was not envisaged. For example, in the arts we may come across certain forms whose concrete meaning is incomprehensible to us, but that express or communicate beauty nonetheless. Think of a scene from an opera whose libretto we do not know, or from a ballet whose plot is unfamiliar: although we do not understand exactly what the author is trying to tell us, we can appreciate and enjoy the beauty of the movements and of the music, and we can even assign to them a meaning not intended by the author.

It is also possible for another thing to take place: through the choice of forms, one can convey a meaning different from the one purportedly being conveyed.

Now, when behind a religious rite there is a theology, conceptual language plays an important role in making clear, as far as is possible, the meaning of the rite. But inevitably the forms keep their own strong expressive power. Let us imagine a religious rite that takes place around a bonfire, into which several objects are thrown. An observer could think that this is a rite of destruction or, alternatively, of purification. If there is a theology at hand, the true meaning can be readily explained. Let us suppose it to be a purification ritual. But a theological exposition can never substitute for the infinitely more suggestive action of burning things in the cleansing bonfire: the theological explanation lacks the intense emotion that goes along with a big bonfire illuminating the night sky. The meaning of what we see is immensely richer than the theological explanation we may give of it, no matter how good and accurate the latter is.

So, in the end, it is the forms that bear the principal responsibility of expressing the ineffable core of the rite, and it is they that make the profoundest impression on the spectators. As in other areas of human life, what is done — or left undone — is more important than what is said. And this is why once the forms are changed, the rite changes. And, as Monsignor Gamber pointed out, even a single change in a rite can be enough to change the entire rite’s significance.

Are there minor, non-essential changes? Yes. But even these are fraught with dangers. Once one enters the realm of the symbolic, there is no way of moving about in it that is absolutely safe, as symbols — symbolic forms — are loaded with unknown associations and live within a net of inextricable mutual relations. You pull a single thread, and you never know what may unravel. What might the repercussions be if you strike in one place?

3. Rite and Tradition

There is a notorious tendency in the nouvelle théologie to downplay the importance of Tradition as one of the sources of Divine Revelation. I am aware of “theologians” who say that the only source of Divine Revelation is the Gospel. This begs the question, because what is Gospel and what is not depends on Tradition. Indeed the motto sola Scriptura, correctly understood, boils down to sola Traditio.

One of the reasons (if not the main one) for diminishing the importance of Tradition is that in it is contained whatever in Divine Revelation cannot be said in words, i.e., the ineffable, that which  cannot be conveyed linearly, in a logical order. One can see here how Tradition is abominable to anything touched by the Enlightenment’s aspiration to a universal verbalization of everything knowable.

Now, that there are ineffable contents in Divine Revelation is something that cannot be doubted. Perhaps the best example is the episode of Jesus encountering the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Although the verbal explanation of the Scriptures He gave them must have been the most perfect lecture in theology this world will ever know, they did not actually recognize Him until He “broke the bread.” Their souls surrendered to the Truth only when that supreme gesture was made by the Lord, without words.

Now the most important way of preserving and transmitting the ineffable contents of Tradition is the sacred liturgy of the Church, which is made up of rites whose very essence and rationale is, precisely, to convey the ineffable. This is why the enemies of Tradition have always attacked the liturgy in the first place, as Dom Guéranger has rightly said: they cannot allow a non-verbal (a non-conceptual) content in the faith. Religion must be kept within the boundaries of reason alone, it must be domesticated and made safe for human habitation.

The link between the liturgy and Divine Revelation is, therefore, absolutely essential. It is not for nothing that we often say “lex orandi, lex credendi” (one could add “lex vivendi”). Dom Guéranger was prescient when he spoke of “the liturgical heresy.” Meddling with liturgical rites, of the kind done by Bugnini et al., always verges on heresy.

4. Bugnini’s Liturgical Reform

Although the Second Vatican Council asked for a “revision” of the liturgy of the Mass, Bugnini defined his task as one of radical reform, that is, re-formulation and re-shaping of rites. If our observations above are correct, this cannot be accomplished without altering the content conveyed, the significance of the whole as well as its parts in their mutual relations.

Whatever his initial objectives may have been — for he sometimes spoke as if his primary goal was to make possible the “active” participation of the people — it is clear that what he meant in the end was changing the doctrine embodied in the rites and their forms. And so he and his academic coterie did exactly that.

This is perfectly clear in the first draft of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, with its notorious definition of the Mass as an “assembly” and a “memorial.” The rite of the Mass was contrived to convey both of these ideas, and the contrivance was successful. But after that first draft was replaced by another one devised to calm down orthodox minds with references to the Council of Trent, the rite itself, where the essence of the whole exercise is decided, was left untouched, as were its paucity of denuded forms. The words were, in due course, gone with the wind; the rite and its motley forms were left exactly where they had been put by papal fiat, and so they remain to this day, in spite of various cosmetic “revisions.”

In a treatise or a document, what is said and what is left unsaid are the most important things. In a rite, however, what is done — and left undone — is more important than what is said.

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