Monday, June 22, 2020

Can Modernity Bring Anything to the Liturgy?

Photo by Lucas Carl on Unsplash
Today’s revival of traditional approaches in the fine arts and particularly of traditional liturgical practices has been greeted by many with skepticism and disapproval. “Surely, it is not possible to ‘go back’ to an earlier age, whose ideals are so different from ours? Have we not made significant progress in doing what none could do before? As for anything we might need, it will not be what former generations needed.”

The history of the arts and of reform/renewal movements tells a different tale. All great artists began by apprenticing themselves to a tradition and copying its masterpieces. In like manner, all great movements of reform in Church history looked back for inspiration to what worked in the past in order to fix what was broken in the present. The noble cultural ideals of Western civilization — largely imparted to it by the vigorous activity of the Catholic Church — are possessed of a perennial vitality and creative fecundity against which the self-consciously “modern,” with its fading faddishness, cannot successfully compete.

The reinveintion of the liturgy after the Council was merely the last and most tragic of a long series of unnatural dislocations and distortions of human forms in the 20th century. This was a century that prided itself on taking everything apart, breaking it down, and gutting it out: first painting and poetry, then dance and music, social customs, politics, education. It was only a matter of time before the liturgy, the cumulative and culminating art form, the king in his court, was also deposed. Once all the subsidiary arts, both material and spiritual, that made liturgy possible were reviled and denied, how could liturgy itself stand? If all of culture was declining throughout the modern period, how could liturgy — that supreme expression and concentration of culture — be left unaffected? Would there not be a terrible risk that men without chests and without taste would eventually hold the reins of power and change it to reflect their simplistic rationality? And so it happened.

In the aftermath of this sad story, is it inopportune and premature to ask whether or not there might be something, anything, that modernity can bring to Catholic ritual in a positive sense? Let me explain the basis for the question.

Each era seems to have added — one might say, grafted — something distinctive onto the tradition. The Christians of the Middle Ages were masters of symbol, Scripture, and allegory, and gave us rites and commentaries in that spirit. The medieval liturgy in its tropes, ritual elaboration, architectural framework, and commentary tradition, is an exquisite glorification of the sacrifice on which salvation history centers. The Baroque brings something startlingly new: the unveiled sanctuary, the focus on ecstatic vision and overwhelming sensual experience, even a surprising penchant for the dramatic (i.e., stages, machines, flying angels for the Forty Hours’ devotion). In one way, it is a departure from tradition, even in some way a narrowing, as the Neo-Classical and humanist mind shied away from the dense layers of Scripture and mystery in medieval liturgy and tended toward an “open” sanctuary, emphasizing in ritual the adoration of Christ in His Real Presence rather than placing weight on the many symbolic words and gestures of the rites. Nevertheless, all of this seemed well-suited to the times, fruitful in sanctity, and eventually absorbed into our heritage.

It is a sign of vitality and true mastery of the tradition to be able to enrich it with the gifts of one’s own time. Every vigorous age has produced its own liturgical spirit and forms. Could modernity, too, add to the tradition, enriching it? Has it any legitimate aspirations? Can the excruciating pains and confusion expressed in modernist literature and architecture be given some liturgical answer, spoken in the same dialect? We might look to the composer Arvo Pärt as an example: his music is distinctly modern, but also grounded in tradition. Is there a liturgical analogy to Pärt? What might it look like?

Would that a positive answer were easier to give. “Modernity” is, or at least has been characterized by, waves of disorder: the progressive dismantling, doubting, destabilizing, and distorting of elements that were deemed inopportune, inefficient, oppressive, clericalist, etc. It is defined by its rebellion against classical and Christian order. This is unmistakably seen in the fine arts. Atonal music is defined with an alpha privative. Abstract art is not representational, not recognizable, not indwelling in this world, but flying off to some uninhabitable world where man cannot dwell, a cold planet hung in empty space, lacking water or life. Moreover, since modernity is not one positive spiritual-cultural force, the way that (say) English Gothic and French Baroque were, it is hard to see how it could exercise causality per se. Privation does not act.

Leaving it at this point would, however, be too pessimistic. Human nature and God’s grace reassert themselves. Past culture never completely dies out but is passed along in the “genes” of a society or a civilization. “Modernity,” whatever it means, includes within it that which is not rebellious, not unnatural, not privative, but rather in a loose continuity with the preceding cultural matrix, with some openness to the transcendent, like poor soil still capable of nourishing a plant, awaiting the sower and the seed. This, it seems to me, explains why young people can encounter the traditional liturgy, which is so very unmodern, and immediately resonate with it. In a corner of modern man’s soul is found a desire, vague and tentative though it may be, to escape from the prison that recent generations have built.

Perhaps this, then, is a special grace of modernity: it has placed people into a hunger and thirst for expressions of the sacred and the divine that lift them out of the horizontal immanent void and confront them with the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the overpowering and the alluring. Would we not be in a better position than any earlier generation to be struck by such a thing — what Benedict XVI called “the shock of the beautiful” — since we no longer live familiarly with it, take it for granted, or even expect to have it around us?

Now, of course, I’m not one to say that men of today are essentially different from their predecessors, such that they would need something radically different in their Catholicism from the ample treasury already at hand in our tradition. The tradition as it is can save him, whether in its more monastic-medieval or more Baroque instantiation. Love of the Church’s tradition is always totally contemporary and totally ageless. Modern man needs what every man needs — or even more of it! — and that is sacredness, solemnity, beauty, and a deep sense of connection with the human race, the Church, and his fellows. Only the use of the same fundamental forms of life, worship, and art, however varied in presentation, can accomplish this diachronic and synchronic unity.

My answer, then, to the question posed in the title would be this. Modernity left the Church a long time ago; it partly fled in rebellion, and was partly driven forth as a demon. It can therefore contribute nothing to the restoration of the sacred. All it can do is bring moderns to the Church’s threshold, and leave them there, like orphans abandoned on the doorstep of a convent. The traditional sacred liturgy will take them up in its arms and provide for their healing and elevation. It is our job to let ourselves be cared for (yes, that will take swallowing some pride), and if the Lord deigns to raise up a new Christendom over many centuries, He will give us the light and strength right now to play our small part in paving the way for its emergence.

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s website, SoundCloud page, and YouTube channel.

This stained glass window, to me, speaks volumes...

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