Monday, August 17, 2020

The Western Liturgy’s “Sonic Iconostasis”: Latin, Chant, and Silence

Last week my esteemed NLM colleague David Clayton published an article asking whether Eastern liturgical reform along Schmemannian lines might have something to contribute to rescuing the Western liturgy from its current plight. The post generated a lively discussion. I would like to make a more extended contribution in the form of an excerpt from my latest book, Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico Press, 2020). This portion is taken from chapter 2 and has not been published online before. Whatever may be true of the great variety of liturgical approaches found among Eastern rites today, I maintain that for the Roman Rite in the period after Vatican II, it was a rationalistic and imaginatively archaeologistic conception of “ease of access” that functioned as the common denominator of the use of the vernacular, the introduction of popular styles of music, the evacuation of silence, and the imposition of versus populum. Here, I present an argument against the first three (ad orientem being a subject that has been treated at length elsewhere on NLM, and also a subject on which there is no substantive disagreement among credible liturgists.)

The Western Liturgy’s “Sonic Iconostasis”: Latin, Chant, and Silence
Visiting a Greek Orthodox or Byzantine Catholic church, you will find an iconostasis, or screen of icons, placed in between the nave and the sanctuary, separating off the “holy of holies” from the rest of the space. The sanctuary represents the divine liturgy in the heavenly Jerusalem, in which we participate “at a distance” while we are still in this life of pilgrimage. Meanwhile the clergy can enter through the iconostasis and go even unto the altar, because they are acting in persona Christi, in the person of Christ and as His representatives — they are mediators who pray on our behalf, carrying our offerings to God and bringing His gifts to us.

For about the first 1,500 years, the Latin West also had symbolic partitions, which took a variety of forms. Curtains were hung around a baldachin or in front of the sanctuary; steps went up to an elevated altar platform and texts were chanted from large stone structures; later, delicate wooden chancel screens surmounted by a Calvary group (Jesus, Mary, and John) were set up in many Gothic churches. Even when one could see through and follow the motions of the ministers, one was still reminded of many important truths: first, that we are not now where we are called one day to be; that we are separated from God by the fall and by our sins; that we have through Christ (and by means of the work of His visible ministers) the opportunity for reconciliation and communion; that God is both “among us” as Emmanuel, and beyond us as our transcendent and all-holy Lord. Although responsible for all creatures and pointed to with signs, He is not in His own nature accessible to human senses. Referencing St. Paul’s words in Second Corinthians, “we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal,” a Benedictine monk writes:
For centuries, it was not possible to see up-close the mysteries of the altar. In certain periods, curtains were drawn at the most important moments of the Mass. Still today, the solemn prayers of consecration are said in the lowest of tones — a whisper — as the drama of the liturgy unfolds. The hiddenness intrinsic to the Mass (with an iconostasis in the Byzantine rite) was common to all liturgies in some form for many hundreds of years; it summoned an atmosphere of mystery. In our age, which demands to see in order to believe, God is offering us a chance to rediscover mystery: the mystery of the Mass’s unseen efficacy (2 Cor 4:18). We must rely on an invisible medicine for our ultimate salvation. [1]
At the time of the so-called Reformation, Protestants objected that the laity were being excluded from worship by a clerical caste who conducted the real work of the liturgy while the congregants stood by, given over to private devotions or idle distractions. This was an unjust accusation, as historians have shown [2], but partly in response to the Protestant challenge and partly in response to changing aesthetic ideals of the Baroque, the Church in the Counter-Reformation period generally removed such physical barriers from sanctuaries, so that the laity could have an “unimpeded” view of the liturgy.

Nevertheless, a more subtle and, I would argue, equally salutary set of separators remained in place. I like to call it the “sonic iconostasis” — a separator that we hear rather than one that we see. This iconostasis is made up of three elements: the Latin language, Gregorian chant, and silence.

Pontius Pilate’s order that the title “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” be placed upon the Cross in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (Jn 19:19–20) suggested to many Church Fathers a special role for these three languages, which they have unquestionably had in salvation history. St. Thomas Aquinas noted that it is fitting that the Roman rite of the Mass, which contains the re-presentation of the Passion of Christ, should employ all three languages: Hebrew in words such as alleluia, Sabaoth, hosanna, and amen, Greek in the Kyrie eleison, and Latin for the rest. [3]

The Christian Latin of the Church was not a commonplace vernacular language but a highly stylized, poetic register, even at a time when many people still spoke Latin [4]; and as the centuries rolled on, it acquired the status of a sacred language, that is, one set apart for divine worship, where we leave behind the everyday and common place, and enter into the sphere of mystery. [5] By the use of a nowarchaic, unchanging tongue, we are taken out of ourselves, out of our own place, time, culture, society, to the foot of the Cross where human salvation was accomplished in its essence. Unlike our everchanging vernaculars, Latin is universal: it does not belong to us, it belongs to all and to none; it is the same everywhere and yet still foreign, like God Himself, who is present everywhere, yet transcendent over all creation. To the extent that any of the Mass eludes our grasp, it reminds us that we will never fully comprehend God, for that would be to reduce Him to our own level. As St. Augustine said: Si comprehendis, non est Deus: “If you can wrap your mind around Him, He isn’t God.” [6]

Gregorian chant is the musical “clothing” in which the Latin liturgical texts are dressed, or better yet, the musical body that the soul of the rite formed for itself during its slow gestation over several centuries. With its unsurpassed variety of modal melodies and its unmetered free rhythm, this chant — instantly recognizable as sacred music — signals that we are in the presence of God and are there to offer Him the incense of our lips and hearts. Pope Leo XIII says: “In truth, the Gregorian melodies were composed with much prudence and wisdom, in order to elucidate the meaning of the words. There resides within them a great strength and a wonderful sweetness mixed with gravity, all of which readily stirs up religious feelings in the soul, and nourishes beneficial thoughts just when they are needed.” [7] There is no other type of music that even comes close to Gregorian chant for the “otherworldliness” that the Mass demands. [8]

Silence — how much we could say about it, without finding adequate words! “My soul waits in silence for God alone: from Him comes my salvation” (Ps. 62 [61]:1). The profound and prolonged silences of the traditional Latin Mass are like oases where we can find refreshment for our souls. They open up the time and space for encountering God as “more interior than what is innermost in me, and higher than what is highest in me” (St. Augustine). [9] The silence encourages an attentive watching, listening, and pondering. It allows the more complex ceremonies of the usus antiquior to make an impression on us; it frames the words and chants so that they resonate in the vault of our souls. Part of the reason the silences of the old Mass are so poignant is that they result naturally from the very unfolding of the liturgical action, instead of being tacked on to it by awkward suspensions of action; the silence is not an arbitrary “let’s pause for a few moments,” but a saturated environment in which prayer has assumed its rightful priority. Silence is a sort of spiritual prostration of the senses and human faculties in the most climactic moments of the Holy Sacrifice. Without denigrating the actions, chants, and beautiful things we can and should do in the liturgy, we must acknowledge that there are points when we are simply struck dumb. By observing these moments of “dumbness,” we enhance our realization of the unspeakable miracle taking place in the sanctuary, which is the very purpose of the sonic iconostasis.


[1] Norcia newsletter, March 30, 2020. The invisible medicine, grace, is indeed given to us under sensible signs; but the fruitful use of these signs rests on faith in that which cannot be seen.

[2] The work of Eamon Duffy has put to rest, at least for pre-Reformation England, the conventional view that the medieval liturgy was distant and remote and that the laity had little idea of what was going on. See The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400–1580, 2nd ed. (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2005); idem, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village, rev. ed. (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2003); cf. James Monti, A Sense of the Sacred: Roman Catholic Worship in the Middle Ages (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012).

[3] See In IV Sent., dist. 8, exp. textus (full translation here).

[4] As well as we can surmise, the liturgy in Rome shifted from Greek to Latin in the fourth century under Pope Damasus I (366–384). Henry Sire comments: “We should notice also that the spirit of the new vernacular was the opposite of that in which the vulgarisers of the 1960s did their work. Damasus himself was a fine Latinist, and he took care to write the prayers of the liturgy in a style that looked to the standards of the Roman rhetorical tradition. The Roman Canon, most of whose text as we have it took shape at this time, may be assumed to be his composition; the same is true of the Collects, which, like the Canon itself, reflect the fine cadences of classical prose style. Conventions of pagan prayer that go back to Virgil and to Homer find an echo in the Christian prayers, and, in his care to dignify the language of worship, Damasus sometimes substituted an old pagan word for the familiar Christian term. His Latin liturgy was thus an elevated vernacular, one that deliberately made use of archaism to express the sanctities of worship. The result of his artistry has been to give us, in the traditional rite of the Mass, a distinguished expression of the last age of ancient civilisation” (Phoenix from the Ashes [Kettering, OH: Angelico, 2015], 266).

[5] For an exceptionally fine treatment of Latin in Catholic worship, see Michael Fiedrowicz, The Traditional Mass: History, Form, and Theology of the Classical Roman Rite (Angelico, 2020), 153–78.

[6] Cf. Sermon 117, n.5: “We are speaking of God; what marvel, if thou do not comprehend? For if thou comprehend, He is not God. Be there a pious confession of ignorance, rather than a rash profession of knowledge. To reach to God in any measure by the mind, is a great blessedness; but to comprehend Him is altogether impossible” (A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, Series I, vol. 6: Saint Augustin [New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1888; many reprints], 459).

[7] Quoted by Dom Jacques Hourlier, OSB, Reflections on the Spirituality of Gregorian Chant (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 1995), 27; cf. Fiedrowicz, Traditional Mass, 178–89.

[8] For an extended treatment of the subject, see my lecture “Gregorian Chant: Perfect Music for the Sacred Liturgy,” Rorate Caeli, February 1, 2020 (also in video form at YouTube and in audio at SoundCloud); cf. my article “Why chant will never die, but will rise again as Church recovers sacredness of her worship,” LifeSite News, November 21, 2019.

[9] Or, as another translation has it, “You were more inward than the most inward place of my heart and loftier than the highest”: Confessions, trans. Frank Sheed, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011), III.6.11, 44.

The remainder of chapter 2 — entitled  “The Genius of Christianity’s Oldest Rite” — discusses eastward orientation; density, complexity, and simultaneity; fixed and limited texts; the liturgical calendar; Eucharistic reverence; the courtly atmosphere; and the tragic trajectory of the Liturgical Movement, now being undone by the restoration of the Roman rite in its exemplary Tridentine form. The book may be ordered from Amazon at this link.

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