Monday, February 19, 2024

“Modern formlessness is repellant... We are beginning, perhaps, to recover from our blindness”

What modern liturgists thought we needed... (source)
The reaction of an Italian reader to the Italian translation of my book Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Nobile bellezza, sublime santità, Fede & Cultura, 2021), struck me as quite interesting and I wanted to share it, slightly adapted, in English.

It is not surprising that the Church has been infected by the temper of the times and its denigration of beauty — albeit as a laggard follower of contemporaneity, with the usual delay and very little awareness of changing fashions. Modernity was already giving up the ghost to postmodernity when a Council was called finally to meet and embrace it.

Since the death of Pius XII, there has been a vocal urgency in Catholicism, fatuous yet urgent, to recover the “Jewishness” of Christ, supposedly obliterated by two millennia of Latinity (there is much irony here, considering that the reformed liturgy removes so many Jewish elements that had had a place there); the “Kerygma” or “original message of the first community,” supposedly obscured by twenty centuries of commentary and interpretation; the “simplicity and poverty” of the liturgy, which is felt to be distorted by Latin and Gregorian chant and really anything elaborate or majestic.

Purveyors of novelty rewrite hymns and paintings to the measure of little kids, who, I suppose, are to them a symbol of a “new” humanity without history or education. They ask ultra-modern architecture to build churches as much like “tents” as possible (because God “pitched His tent among us”), or that at least look like casual, unadorned containers of refugee crowds (since we are a “people on the move”): denied the lofty vaults and uplifting domes, the roofs have to be flat jetties or skylights, the walls of bare concrete so that brutal matter gets the better of form (perhaps form would be a distraction from what is essential…). Everything reminds one of industrial architecture, the highest point of coincidence — according to a certain way of thinking — between the Archaic and the Functional.

The whole approach has an unequivocal meaning: the ecclesiastical innovators believe they are hurling the (original) Revelation against the (subsequent and deviating) Tradition. Neither do they realize, I fear, that the era of the contemporary as a return to the archaic, which has scattered external and internal carnage and ruin, is coming to an end — has run its course. The exhaustion of totalitarian ideologies is its most conspicuous symptom.
...was not the tradition in which Catholics were at home, and in which many still feel most at home, in spite of decades of suppression (photo from 1950s: source).
A subjective indication of that exhaustion is the combination of nausea and boredom we feel in the face of yet another “abstract” or “informal” painting, or yet another rational and functional piece of architecture, even as painters and architects continue to recycle their tired utilitarian forms, unable to find a beautiful form for the “postmodern” breakthrough to which they pay lip service. Yet it was (in some disciplines at least) precisely the penetration of the true archaic layers of humanity that began to put us on the road to recovery, the road to rediscovering the primal sources of religion in awe, wonder, mystery, infinity, and the necessity of sacrifice, purification, and rituality. But our reformers have managed to make the archaic not a source of new life, but a stylized archaeological remnant of past (and sometimes imaginary) phases of Christianity.

Every human coexistence — except our own “mass” one — is the present emergence of a traditionary past. We begin to guess that the archaic removed from the living process of handing-down is nothing more than museum residue, enigmatic and dead. That is why what Christians were arguably doing in the year 300 is much less important than what they were doing, well or poorly, throughout all the modern centuries right into the decades before the Council. That continuity with a truly active tradition, whatever its flaws (and flaws are never absent in human endeavors), was and remains the most faithful channel for us to tap into the origin of our culture: the living Archaic that it preserves and passes on. There is more of the Church of the year 300 in the Tridentine Mass than there could ever be in the reformed one, in spite of this or that oration plucked from an old manuscript.

My hope is that one day the Catholic world will realize this, too. Contemporary forms that disgust us by their vacuity, artificiality, or arbitrariness indicate that we are beginning to miss Tradition, that we feel a terrible want, and that our modern formlessness is repellant, at least among those who have a sense of beauty left within. We are beginning, perhaps, to recover from our blindness.
From a midnight Mass in 2023, in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe: modern men gratefully participating in an age-old ritual.
As a number of authors have emphasized in recent years, it is the stubbornly unmodern character of the traditional Roman Rite that wins for it a uniquely potent place in the "marketplace of ideas" or, for that matter, the "marketplace of religious practices." It does not present itself as a product of our own technical skill, or an expression of our (purportedly) superior judgment as we gaze out over a past littered with discarded prejudices; it is not an appendage to any program, party, or philosophy. It is more like a literary tradition that grows over many centuries and retains a unity-in-diversity that is stronger than the various tendencies of all of its parts, and greater than any one participant in it.

This rite offers itself to us as a whole and complete body of rite, symbol, text, chant, and gesture that belongs to no one and opens itself to every one. This overwhelming trait makes it both deeply challenging (for it is vast and subtle) and serenely unthreatening (for it remains aloof, inevitable, and impersonal) — at least, to those who are serious about prayer.

Right the way it is and has been and will be.

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