Monday, March 09, 2020

Why Photography Proliferates in Liturgies: A Response to Paul Inwood

On February 28th, at the internet antipodes to NLM, Paul Inwood offered readers an impassioned fervorino, “Specators or participants?,” on the excesses to which the faithful will go in pursuit of that optimal photo of their darling chickabidees receiving this or that sacrament:
What sort of policy do you have for photos in church during sacramental celebrations? I’m thinking particularly of First Communion celebrations, where a kind of liturgical anarchy seems to have invaded the church. In the age of the ubiquitous mobile phone, everyone can be a photographer, recording images of an event to be cherished subsequently. But people do not always think about how they might be impacting the rite, other people, and, most of all, themselves. All of us have seen celebrations whose character has been completely transformed by hordes of competing relatives (dads and uncles especially) who have swarmed all over the church, not only getting in the way of liturgical ministers but of each other, fighting for the best position. The atmosphere of the celebration has been derailed.
But wait, was it not one of the great achievements of the reform to bring the congregation out of their former condition of “mute, inert spectators” into “active participants”? It sounds as if Inwood might prefer, in this case, a bit more inertness and muteness — or, to put it in language more familiar to traditional Catholics, attentive receptivity, with a heightened awareness of the momentous actions at which we are privileged to assist, and a dignified participation that accords with it.

Inwood continues, in escalating dismay:
From a ritual point of view, we now see phenomena such as, instead of holding the worship aid and singing the entrance song, everyone is holding up their phones taking pictures of their kids in the entrance procession. Of course, no one can see past the forest of phones…. And once your phone is out, the temptation to check your emails or your social media feed instead of being part of what is going on can be difficult to resist.
To my surprise — as I believe it has never happened before — I find myself vigorously agreeing with the author on this point. I hate nothing more than that forest of phones. Indeed, I think smartphones have done and will end up doing quite as much damage to the residuum of Western Christian civilization as the Industrial Revolution did to the significantly greater civilization of its period. (Like Inwood, I don’t have a particular problem with an appointed professional photographer doing his or her job discreetly; one thinks of masters like Allison Girone, Tracey Dunne, Marc Salvatore, and Fr. Lawrence Lew. Moreover, Gregory DiPippo has ably defended “strategic” liturgical photography.)

Taking notice...
Then Inwood raises a number of questions:
How do you tell people truths that they may well not understand? That it’s impossible to “photograph” a sacrament, and that by attempting to record a “magic moment” they are actually depriving themselves of the opportunity to enter into that moment by being fully present to it? That taking a picture in effect “distances” you from what’s going on? You become a spectator instead of an integral “part” of the action.
Here, we must part ways. The problem is not that people are trying to record a magic moment; the problem is that there is no magic in the moment, by which I mean, anything of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that would command a response of reverence or holy fear, the silence of humility and respect for something that comes across as sacred, a sense of decorum in the presence of the Other. The modern liturgical rites are so fully “inculturated” to Western secularity that they are experienced as “more of the same,” or perhaps, at best, as formal social occasions for recognizing accomplishments and sharing sentiments. The recent Filipino archbishop’s letter on abstaining from applause during Lent points to precisely this phenomenon.

One only wishes he could trace the problem back to its root, which is that the liturgy itself must have the qualities that draw us into being fully present to it. One of those qualities, paradoxically, is a heightened sense of “distance”: the distance between man and God, between earth and heaven, between the sinner and holiness, between the people in the pews and the priest at the high altar. The separation reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return; it reminds us that we are in need of outside help — of precisely supernatural help. We acknowledge a Mediator only when we know that God is our end and we are infinitely far from Him. Liturgy loses all of its meaning for those who are comfortably patted on the head for their goodness, or worse, celebrated as the center of the show. Or worse still, who are bored to tears by a monotonous alternation of words and ditties.

Now, I have to be quite honest and say I haven’t seen this problem nearly as much at the traditional Latin Mass as I have at the Novus Ordo. Although being snappy-happy can occur at any affair of a spectacular nature (that is, one worthy of taking notice of) — and the entrance and exist of a cappa magna-wearing prelate is almost guaranteed to defeat the photographic self-control of all but the most ascetical — why do the faithful at a traditional Latin Mass seem so much less disposed to whip out their phones, even though there is usually a lot more beautiful stuff going on to notice? Why is the forest of phones not springing up out of pockets and purses?

I think the answer is obvious. The traditional Latin Mass feels like serious God-directed worship, and so it would take considerable chutzpah to yank out the phone. It would be like Moses taking a picture of the Burning Bush and sharing it on Facebook: “Hey, Jethro, check THIS out!” In contrast, the Novus Ordo as Paul VI wanted it to be celebrated habituates people into thinking of the Mass or any other sacramental rite as being “for them,” “their event,” “our time as community.” The closed circle encourages a photographic self-portrait. If we deprive the faithful of the theocentric atmosphere created by ad orientem, silence, Gregorian chant, and plenty of kneeling, are we surprised that they will fall back on their secular habit of snapping shots of the cutey-pies?

Here is the moral: If you want people to be serious participants, give them something manifestly serious to be prayerful spectators of — in Richard Crashaw’s words, the “full, final sacrifice, on which all figures fix’d their eyes.”

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