Monday, September 28, 2020

Greater Accessibility… To Whom, To What, and Why?

Throughout the years of liturgical reform — and for many long decades thereafter — the avalanche of changes to Catholic worship were often justified by a few magical phrases that would be thrown about almost talismanically, with an air of infinite superiority to the meager mentalities of lowly laity. The leading contender was certainly the phrase “active participation,” but joining it were “Modern Man,” “meeting people where they’re at,” “doing like the early Church,” and, what is of most interest to me in this article, “greater accessibility.”

The revised liturgy was supposed to be, and was claimed and asserted to be, “more accessible,” but this is a monumental smokescreen if ever there was one. After all, nothing is more or less accessible in the abstract or without further qualification. One must always ask: “Accessible to whom? And giving access to what? And for the purpose of…?”

Almost exclusively, accessibility was understood as primarily or exclusively a verbal-conceptual phenomenon. If you can immediately grasp this bite-sized chunk of content, without further preparation, explanation, or remainder of bewilderment, then it’s considered to be accessible to you. The object of such immediate and complete comprehension obviously cannot be God, whom every orthodox theologian declares right off the bat to be incomprehensible; nor can it be man, who, as being made unto God’s image, is a mystery to himself; nor can it be the world, which is far too complicated and vast to fit into man’s mind, even if a thousand Einsteins were to chip away at it; nor can it be the mysteries revealed by God in history and delivered in Scripture, since each one of these is a combination of all of the above. Therefore, a perfectly accessible liturgy, in the sense given above, would have to be about nothing, address no one, and lead nowhere.

This, admittedly, is a limit case fortunately never reached: there is always a residue of unintelligibility in anything human beings do, even if they are trying to avoid it. To the extent that any elements of the traditional divine liturgy remained, the incomprehensibility of God, of man, of the cosmos, and of the mysteries of Christ remained. Still, the reform introduced a fundamental tension between allowing the liturgy to be mysterious, as it must be, and trying, in the name of liturgical science, to purge it of the very features that tended to make it aweful, fearful, darksome, intricate, wondrous, and yet, paradoxically, also make it orderly and ordering, familiar and comforting, unassuming and free of invasive irritation.

At Ordinations in the classical Roman rite: what’s not to love?
It seems to me that there is a mighty irony at work in the revival of the traditional Latin liturgy of the Roman church. The irony is that, in spite of everything the scholars and tinkerers were predicting, in spite of all their hand-wringing, new generations find the old rites in general quite sufficiently accessible, indeed more so than the new rites, as long as one has a broader and deeper definition of accessibility. The reason is not far to seek: the old liturgy appeals more consistently, more powerfully, to the full range of reality, natural and supernatural; of what it is to be human; of how we express ourselves, and what we are trying to express in words, gestures, songs, and sighs. It appeals to all the senses, the various temperaments and personalities, the different levels on which our interior life plays out and intersects with the external world.

The traditional Roman liturgy — and this is true of any traditional apostolic rite in Christianity — recognizes a truth on which psychologists never tire of discoursing: human beings primarily communicate non-verbally. As a matter of fact, we are never not communicating something, even if we are not talking or have no intention of conveying a meaning. Orderliness and defentiality speak volumes, just as carelessness and casualness do. A liturgy, like any human ceremony, is constantly communicating through every word, stance, gesture, position, action, silence. The old liturgy, by harnessing and regulating these things in a harmonious way to bring out their full meaning, is more communicative; in that sense, it proffers more to access, and in more ways. The reformed liturgy, by eliminating traditional non-verbal language and then leaving so much to chance and idiosyncratic habit, thins the content and its delivery, while mingling it with extraneous and contradictory matter.

Many of these thoughts were prompted by a video on body language that made me much more conscious of the importance of small and non-verbal details in liturgy (and, therefore, the importance of being aware of them and faithful to their proper execution). The expert interviewed, Joe Navarro, looks at people from the point of view of an FBI agent trying to assess potential threats, witnesses, etc. The part of the video most relevant to the liturgy runs from 7:10–8:10. Here is a transcription of some of the points he makes about body language:
  • “How we dress, how we walk, have meaning, and we use that to interpret what’s in the mind of the person.”
  • “We may think we’re very sophisticated, [but] we are never in a state where we’re not transmitting information.”
  • “We’re all transmitting at all times; we choose the clothes that we wear, how we groom ourselves, how we dress, but also how do we carry ourselves, are we coming to the office on this particular day with a lot of energy, or are we coming in with a different sort of pace… and what we look for are differences in behaviour, down to the minutia of: what is this individual’s posture as they walk down the street, are they on the inside of the sidewalk, on the outside, can we see his blink rate, how often he is looking at his watch…”
  • “You can have a poker face, but you can’t have a poker body — somewhere it’s going to be revealed.” 
  • “We talk about non-verbals because it matters, because it has gravitas, because it affects how we communicate with each other.”
  • “When it comes to non-verbals, this is no small matter. We primarily communicate non-verbally and we always will.”

Phrases like: “we primarily communicate non-verbally” and “we’re never not communicating something” are very relevant to the celebration of Mass. Every gesture — for example, the speed of movement around the altar; where the priest is standing or sitting, when, and why; how the sacred vessels are treated; whether the priest’s gaze is directed out to the people or modestly downcast — confesses what the celebrant, and the people, believe they are doing.

Why is it that the liturgical reformers seemed so tone-deaf or clueless about the most obvious things in life? Did they not realize that changing the bodily language, the gestures, postures, orientation, custody of the eyes, would effect a sea change in mentality and spirituality? Or . . . was it that they understood perfectly well, and therefore abolished, piece by piece, one non-verbal language, substituting for it another with a contrary message?

I am reminded of what has been said about the loss of faith in the Real Presence. This was not an unfortunate result of a lack of catechesis. It was the intended result of a renovated catechesis. It was not an accidental byproduct of liturgical reform gone awry; it was a premeditated outcome of a new ecclesiology that identified the worshiping community par excellence with the Body of Christ and sought to oppose the “fetishism” or “magic” of the Eucharistic cultus that had developed in the Church for at least a thousand years.

As Martin Mosebach points out with respect to Holy Communion:
[A]n entire bouquet of respectful gestures had surrounded the sacrament of the altar, and these gestures were the most effective homily, which continually showed priests and faithful quite clearly the mysterious presence of the Lord under the forms of bread and wine. We can be certain: no theological indoctrination of so-called enlightened theologians has so harmed the belief of Western Catholics in the presence of the Lord in the consecrated Host as the innovation of receiving communion in the hand, accompanied by the abandoning of all care in the handling of the particles of the Host.
          Yet can one really not receive communion reverently in the hand? Of course that is possible. Yet once the traditional forms of reverence were in place, exercising their blessed influence on the consciousness of the faithful, their discontinuation contained the message — and not just for the simple faithful — that so much reverence was not really necessary, and along with that there consequently grew the (initially unspoken) conviction that there was nothing there that demanded respect. (Subversive Catholicism: Papacy, Liturgy, Church, 80–81)
Fr. Roberto Spataro makes a similar but broader point:
Humility is more than a virtue. It is the condition for a virtuous life. Watch the bows and genuflections the humble man makes faithfully before God in a spirit of obedience, acknowledging His merciful sovereignty, His love without bounds, His creative wisdom. Reason is not tempted to be puffed up, as happens in the revolutionary process, because in the old rite not everything can or ought to be explained by reason which, for its part, is content to adore God without comprehending Him. It turns to Him through the means of a sacred language differing from ordinary speech, because in the harmonious order of creation that the liturgy represents in its rituals, there is never a monotonous repetition or tedious uniformity, but a symphony of diversity, sacred and profane, without opposition, respecting the alterity of each. Here reason also renounces an excessive use of words that unfortunately exists in the liturgical praxis inaugurated by the Novus Ordo, interpreted by many priests as the opportunity for pure garrulousness. In the old rite, on the other hand, reason appeals to other dimensions of communication and, besides words pronounced or sung, also gives silence a place. This silence becomes the atmosphere, impregnated with the Holy Spirit, in which believing thought and prayerful word is born. (In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, Language of the Church, 30)
What we do with our bodies is just as communicative as what we say with our lips. The liturgy should therefore govern the motions and dispositions of our limbs and senses, harnessing them as symbols of truth and instruments of sanctification. This will help us to pray, to enter more deeply into communion with the Lord, and to yield ourselves to truths that cannot be put into words or captured in concepts. As St. Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans, we should make our bodily members “instruments of righteousness”:

“Neither yield ye your members as instruments of iniquity unto sin” — the sin of irreverence, of disrespect for holy things, of casual, haphazard, and inconsiderate behavior during our formal audience before the great King — “but present yourselves to God,” in theocentric worship that governs our self-presentation, “as those that are alive from the dead” — the living death of modern anti-natural, anti-Christic culture — “and your members as instruments of justice unto God” (Rom 6:13), the justice, namely, of the virtue of religion.

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