Monday, October 19, 2020

In Defense of Allegorical Interpretation of the Liturgy

Allegorical interpretation of the liturgy was totally rejected during the period of liturgical reform, and even earlier by liturgists who tended towards rationalistic or reductionistic explanations (Fr. Adrian Fortescue comes to mind, although he was fortunately inconsistent). You know the kind of argument I mean:

“We know that the lifting up of the chasuble by the deacon and subdeacon, or the servers, at the elevation of the host and the chalice was only because the Gothic chasuble was made of such heavy material and ornament, and the priest needed help getting his arms up high.” The implication is: “And therefore it can’t have anything to do with the story in the Gospel about the woman with a flow of blood who touched the garment of Christ in order to be healed. That’s just a wilful, arbitrary connection some ignorant person made in a devotional book, and then it got spread around.”

This, as can be plainly seen, is no more than a Catholic version of the modern tendency that C.S. Lewis called “nothing buttery,” namely (in the words of George Gilder) “dismissing non-material qualities as ‘nothing but…’ some lower physical property.” Life is “nothing but” chemical processes; mind is “nothing but” firing neurons; love is “nothing but” hormones; and so forth. The liturgical equivalent is easy to recognize. The subdeacon’s use of the humeral veil for the paten is “nothing but” a holdover from the early Roman fermentum rite. The conclusion, whether stated or not, is always: “And therefore it should be abolished.” Which, indeed, is what the reformers did: they stripped away nearly everything that no longer served an immediate practical function, and allowed almost nothing to remain that had lost its original (known or hypothesized) purpose.

Those who study the history of the liturgy often discover that certain practices later held to be richly symbolic had or may have had quite prosaic, practical, or accidental origins — origins in which their later symbolism played no part whatsoever. Yet this makes no difference at all to the validity of allegorical interpretations, for the simple reason that any given practice (construed broadly to include minister, object, action, cessation of action, etc.) presents itself to the worshiper now as part of an ensemble of ceremonial and symbolic actions, thereby acquiring, as if magnetically, new meanings, new interpretations, new resonances. In its fine texture of details, the traditional liturgy speaks both the same messages and new messages to each generation. Like an ancient epic poem, the same text reads differently in this or that age, without losing its remarkable ability to transcend them all. The most potent and transformative signs are not those that are limited to a single definite meaning, but those that are, to use a favorite word of Dante’s, “polysemous,” turning this way and that, accumulating layers of associations.

As with patristic and medieval Scripture exegesis, it simply does not matter if we “read into” the liturgical rites an intention that was not present in the human author’s or initiator’s mind, and this for two reasons.

First, the ultimate author is God, the First Cause, who sees further and intends more than His created agent is capable of seeing and intending. For example, it was no surprise to Him that the number of signs of the Cross made in the Solemn Mass would achieve, after many centuries, the numerological perfection of 7 * 7 + 3.

Second, even subjective or arbitrary interpretations can be essentially in harmony with the objective referent, as meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary can be essentially in harmony with the re-presentation of these mysteries in the Mass (cf. Pius XII, Mediator Dei), and, moreover, can be personally helpful to the one who “indulges” in them. It is like St. Augustine’s rule for Scripture: any interpretation or application that is not contrary to the Church’s faith or to the sovereign rule of charity is legitimate — indeed, was already known to God from all eternity, even if some interpretations are superior to others in their contextual fidelity, applicability, nuance, or depth.

This ancient-medieval exegetical freedom, exercised on the traditional rites given to us by the same ancient and medieval Church, has very often led me to notable breakthroughs in my understanding of the mysteries of faith and how to live my life, in ways that I don’t recall happening with the Novus Ordo. There are several reasons for this difference, but for my present purposes, the key difference is that the Novus Ordo was fashioned by its architects to be immediately understandable and understood: “what you see is what you get.” It tends to “make sense” immediately and without remainder, and that is precisely why it is boring, and why people have to write books and articles about how to make Mass not a boring experience. In contrast, the old liturgy has accumulated so many features over the centuries that, like a vast rambling mansion that seems never to run out of rooms, closets, attics, passageways, gardens, fields or forests to explore, one really never “sees it all” or “gets to the bottom of it.” It is more of a closed book than an open book, yet a book that is freely offered to be opened and pondered ad libitum.

The analogy between the Bible and traditional liturgical rites deserves to be underlined: on the one hand, a book that was written by a single divine author and as many as a hundred inspired human authors, coming together over a period of 1,300 years (from ca. 1200 BC to AD 100); on the other hand, Christian rites that were guided by a single Holy Spirit, built up into their mature form by apostles, bishops, popes, and other saints over a similar period of time (the period from the apostolic age to the high Middle Ages). With similar gestations, guiding principles, and aims, it seems probable, at very least, that Scripture and Liturgy ought to be susceptible to the same spiritual creativity in tandem with fixity of content. A reverse confirmation is found in the fact that biblical modernism rejects the spiritual senses just as liturgical modernism rejects liturgical allegory.

Therefore, lovers of the liturgical tradition: Do not be afraid to attach meanings to ministers, objects, or actions, or to adopt the meanings given in devotional literature, if they help you to pray. One sign of a great work of art is that it makes room for, and has the wherewithal to provoke, many responses, all more or less closely tied to its own ingredients, and drawn back into them. The Mass is the greatest work of art the West has ever known, exceeding all others in its intelligible density and its fertility of cultural power. Reading off “spiritual senses” from its literal sense is no less natural and fitting than doing the same with the narrative of Israel in the Old Testament or the narrative of Christ in the New.

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

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