Monday, April 25, 2022

Experiences That Make One a Traditionalist

Those who have assisted at the traditional Roman liturgy for some time can usually name many things about it that they noticed over the years — things that impressed, provoked, consoled, puzzled, that made them wake up, question more, dig deeper. There is a moment of transition, I find, from being one who appreciates the old liturgy, perhaps now and again, or as a field trip, or as a pastoral duty, to being one who has fallen in love with it, who makes it his spiritual home, and who, accordingly, may justly be called a traditionalist. (As much as some people protest against the use of that word, it remains immensely handy for naming a phenomenon, which is what language is supposed to do.)

My books mention many such experiences, but here are two that are especially appropriate to share in Easter week.

The first was the contrast I noticed, several years in a row, between the modern (Paul VI) Easter Vigil and the Easter Sunday Missa Cantata of the Roman Rite. The reason for comparing these two is that I was involved at the time in providing music for both — the “Ordinary Form” on Saturday night and the “Extraordinary Form” (how quaint are those terms now!) on Sunday morning.

The Paul VI vigil had no “spaces,” no obvious opening to mystery through which one could enter. It was a flood of didactic text, spoken aloud, with musical interludes. Modern people are already awash in words. Do we really need more? In the N.O. Easter Vigil, one felt that one had been thoroughly drenched in the Bible readings conducted in Nabbish, a lengthy homily, the unsatisfying glamor of receiving some people into the church in a ritual that culminated in applause, and a celebration of the Eucharist wholly lacking in supernatural resonance or fearful majesty. It made an impression for sheer length, number of lilies, and candles, but otherwise it was like cookie dough — the same consistency throughout. 

The Easter Missa cantata, on the other hand, was full of the sound of Alleluias sung in Gregorian chant — sixteen of them (not counting the repetitions of the Communion antiphon). The chants for Easter are strong, sometimes strange, always unearthly, already half-dwelling in the realm of eternity. The church, ablaze with white and gold… the ritual nailed to the altar, from which salvation pours out like blood and water… the clouds of incense billowing… all point to the mysterious reality of the Crucified and Risen One — and this is something that can be perceived by anyone seeking God or even seeking some meaning in life. Marshall McLuhan said, decades ago, that modern culture is obsessed with images and that the Church must therefore provide images of great power: visual and audible images that are startlingly different from what secular culture offers. At the Easter morning sung Mass, I had an almost unnerving sense of stepping back through time across all the centuries that separated me from the resurrection of Christ and coming once again into His powerful presence. This was a ritual that somehow poured from His glorified wounds to bathe me in their light. There was a holy awe about the place, a restrained joy coiled like a spring ready to leap to heaven, a hushed adoration like that of Mary Magdalene when she discovered Christ in the garden and He would not let her touch Him.

Let me not be misunderstood: I am not calling into question the good will of anyone who contributed to the Easter Vigil. On the contrary, there was abundant good will, which I remember fondly. The problem is deeper than the individuals: it is in the rites they are using and the customs that have grown up around them to the point of having nearly the force of law. The face liturgy presents to us depends much more on the rites and customs than it does on the personnel who happen to be using them; the former determine and delimit the possible range of influence for the latter.

The second experience was singing, and then reflecting on, Lesson III of Holy Saturday’s Tenebrae: “Incipit Oratio Jeremiae Prophetae.”

Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us:
consider and behold our reproach.
Our inheritance is turned unto aliens:
our houses to strangers.
We are become orphans without a father,
our mothers are as widows.
Our water we have drunk for money:
we have bought our wood for a price.
We were dragged by our necks,
we were weary and rest was not given unto us.
Unto Egypt, and unto the Assyrians have we given our hand,
that we might be satisfied with bread.
Our fathers have sinned, and are no more:
and we have borne their iniquities.
Servants have ruled over us:
there was none to redeem us out of their hand.
Our bread we fetched at the peril of our lives,
because of the sword in the desert.
Our skin was burnt as an oven,
by reason of the violence of the famine.
They have oppressed the women in Sion,
and the virgins in the cities of Juda.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
be converted unto the Lord thy God.

Pondering these prophetic words led me to see their application to our current liturgical situation, and the parallels have only grown clearer with time. We are alienated from our inheritance; our houses of worship are sold off to Masonic lodges or Hindu ashrams; we are become like orphans without a father in Rome or, in some cases, a father in our diocese; we bought our reforms for a steep price, and were dragged along without our consent; we grew weary of hyperactive participation and longed for a contemplative rest that was denied us; we exchanged our birthright for a seat at the United Nations and the European Union; those who fomented our disasters are mostly long-gone and we suffer from their sins; slaves of fashion rule over the sons of God; we fetched our traditional bread wherever we could find it, afraid of the sword of church authority in the desert of the post-Council; the spiritual famine has been violent, and it has extended even to threatening the religious life of consecrated virgins. Jerusalem, O Church on earth: be converted unto the Lord thy God!

Someone once said of the liturgical reformers: “They took the faith out of our hands and knees.” The reform stripped away, or allowed to be stripped away, bodily spiritual formation. Catholics can get a visceral sense of the contrast when they attend their first Tridentine Mass and find that there’s a lot more kneeling than they are accustomed to (even at High Mass) and more demands placed on their attention in general. It is a liturgy that pre-dates the invention of television, so it expects a long attention span, and the ability to be quiet and sit still. The faith has to penetrate into our bones and muscles or it remains cerebral and ineffectual.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the contrasting practices of Holy Communion. In too many churches, the faithful walk up in multiple lines and receive the Body of Christ in their hands, like people queueing for bus tickets, after which they take a cup to wash it down, like teammates sharing Gatorade. In traditional communities, the faithful kneel along the communion rail and wait until the priest comes to them to bless them with the Host — “Corpus Domini nostri + Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam, Amen” — and places it gently on their tongues. These two contrasting scenes are, in reality, expressive of two different ideas of religion, if we take religion in the sense of the virtue by which we offer God our worship through concrete words and actions.

This is why I am not surprised that the former Benedictine monk Gabriel Bunge, a world expert on the Trinity icon of Rublev, left the Catholic Church to become Eastern Orthodox. No one ever introduced him to the real Western tradition that corresponded to what he was studying from the East. He came to the conclusion that the only authentic tradition left was the East. His conclusion should rather have been that the modern West had abandoned its own authentic tradition, and that we have an urgent calling to recover it.

After experiences like the two I recounted, one’s soul is seared with the truth, at once liberating and daunting: I cannot go back to the 60s and 70s, to those pathetic works of human hands. Let the dead bury the dead. It is the perennially youthful Roman Rite that gives joy to me, that shines forth light and truth.

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