Friday, February 12, 2010

Reflections on the Liturgy

by Jonathan Bennett

The sacred mysteries on Earth are reflections, shadows of the ineffable mysteries of the faith, and allow the senses something of a taste of that which cannot truly be perceived by the senses- the incomprehensible is made comprehensible to the limited capacities of man's condition through the rites of the Church. Herein we encounter the commerce of Heaven and Earth, the natural and the supernatural, where, as God was made Man so that man might know God, the faith becomes manifest in tangible forms so we might know the faith.

The liturgy is meant to give a temporal vision of Heaven. How could the sublime and complex rites of the sacred ministers- clothed in sumptuous vestments, bathed in clouds of incense and illuminated by innumerable candles- as they attend to the altar amidst the celestial hosts brought forth in lavish iconography, to the voices of a multitude of choirboys raised in the ancient chants which echo the never-ending praise of the seraphim surrounding the Throne of God, not impose itself in a most magnificent way upon the mind and the senses? Is this not a foretaste-though still inadequate by far- of the Beatific Vision, of eternal contemplation of God?

What a difference then is the state of the liturgy in our own times. Even amongst many traditionalists the liturgy is the subject of much sad neglect. When the priest stomps about the sanctuary in muddy boots, vested in cheap polyester vestments, speeding through the Latin prayers and performing his sacred office in a manner so routine as to strip it of all outward dignity, within a church lacking in any beauty or adornment (or if there is an actual attempt at artwork and ornamentation it is gaudy and banal), the faithful may perhaps be excused for hearing Mass not out of piety but out of obligation, whilst the Divine Offices are relegated to the private prayers of the clergy (meant to sanctify every hour of the day, they are more often than not said all at once, or in two or three sittings at convenient times) and all but ignored by laity.

This of course is neglect in the extreme and not a general accusation, and in some cases more reflective of local conditions than intent, but serves to illustrate to what extent the liturgical patrimony of the Church may be diminished. In other cases it is most certainly intended (the author himself has heard, on no small number of occasions, diatribes against great solemnity and lavish ceremony, interestingly much akin to similar arguments from the Jansenists of previous centuries) and there are those who would pride themselves on the trappings of a persecuted sect- hurried Low Masses at ungodly hours of the day, in tiny isolated chapels, with plain vestments and vessels- out of choice rather than necessity. It might be well to recall the Curé D' Ars, the most austere of priests for whom the vestments could not be rich enough, nor the sacred vessels ornate enough for the service of the altar.

Perhaps what has suffered most from this liturgical minimalism is the Church's immense treasury of music. Not only is the full repertoire of Gregorian chant neglected- in efforts to maintain congregational singing, an early twentieth century novelty for most of the Latin Church, it is often the most simple chant settings which are employed- but choral and polyphonic compositions are regarded as too complex and time consuming for choirs to manage (in fact many Masses and individual pieces were written for a small number of voices for the very purpose of making them accessible to smaller choirs) while orchestral settings, such as those by Haydn, Mozart and Gounod, are unthinkable. Even organ preludes and interludes (not to mention the full organ Masses of the French tradition) are frowned upon in some locales, reputedly for "distracting" the faithful from prayer. Choirs themselves have long been bereft of their hierarchal structure and laicized (no longer even to be found in the actual 'choir' of the church, but in the loft), and in all but a precious few cases have abandoned the once-proud tradition of boy choristers in favor of women to provide the higher voices.

In a like manner has art and architecture declined. From the modernist extreme- that is, those churches of recent decades which on first glance would make one think an airplane crashed into a museum of modern art- many traditionalists have fled to another entirely, in the form of chapels better suited to the Amish than Catholics. Is the answer to near sacrilege (or worse, as exemplified by some of the recent additions to the Stephansdom in Vienna) really to be found in iconoclasm? Fortunately those who really believe so are likely a minority; unfortunately however the majority appears to find their answer deep in the tradition of that golden age of Elvis, poodle skirts and Americanism- the 1950s, from whence comes those almost-infuriatingly cutesy depictions of the Blessed Virgin and the saints, and statuary which resembles sugar candy. Your humble writer finds himself at loss as to whether or not he should concede the excuse that gaudy is better than nothing in that same capacity for which the Church was once the greatest patron of all the arts.

Of course such excuses hinge on two oft-spoken claims. First, that it is just not possible to have "nice things" in this day and age. Tasteful art, let alone entire churches, is a hefty expense and decent choirs demand an amount of time and effort nobody seems to have. That is to say, idealism be damned, it is just not practical to expect such things even if the faithful would treble their efforts should they be made to know just what might come it. Second, that doctrinal orthodoxy is superior to external form, and that this somehow justifies liturgical minimalism. To the former, the author answers that it is better to trust in Providence than to trust in fatalism. To the latter, that the faith cannot be made distinct from form and action- liturgical form is the faith made manifest and is inherently to doctrinal orthodoxy.

In bygone days it was a noted fact that even some of the worst of sinners and the most lacking in faith would attend the liturgy, if not for any remnant of pious inclinations then for the aesthetic beauty of the ritual. Contrary to the belief that the sacraments are rewards for the faithful and virtuous and that the Mass is the privilege of an initiate few, is it not to be hoped that simply being in the presence of the celebration of the sacred mysteries might produce medicinal effect and that these persons may receive even a small amount of grace? Though the very same may be said for all- truly blessed is he who has such faith that it does not need to be strengthened by anything external. Here we perhaps see a part of the motivation of our ancestors in all those centuries of building massive, opulent churches filled with imagery and statues and such things as to delight the mind and raise it from the drudgery of life to thoughts of the supernatural.

What this inadequate and humble writer dares to suggest is that crucial to restoring all things in Christ is the restoration of a liturgical spirituality which sees the august rites of the Church as the living manifestation, the resplendent garb of the Catholic faith and the theurgic act which elevates the mind and soul beyond this mortal coil and brings us into the very presence of God. This demands a perception of the liturgy as something no less than the centerpiece of a Christian society, the fountainhead of all art, the sanctifier of every aspect of earthly life and the means through which we may enter into eternal life, worthy of all the pomp and splendor it is possible to bestow upon it.

Posted on the Feast of the Seven Holy Founds of the Order of the Servants of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a.D. MMX


Tancred said...

The reforms of St. Pius X also have a bit to do with this movement away from the baroque.

Have you read Huysmans' running critiques of this in En Route?

Theodore Harvey said...

That's true, but St Pius X explicitly praised Renaissance polyphony, which has also been neglected, especially its settings of the Ordinary. He never said there should be _no_ music other than Gregorian Chant (and a few sentimental poorly harmonized vernacular hymns) as some traditionalists seem to think.

JDB said...

Yes, I have read Husymans on the subject.

I have always considered S. Pius X to be an odd patron for traditionalists to take. He was quite the reformer. His breviary was unprecedented both in the scope and the effects of his revisions to the Divine Office; he completely overhauled the whole system of canon law, ultimately resulting in the Code of Canon Law decreed by his successor; and reformed and empowered the Roman Curia beyond it's former capacities.

pax said...

I could not agree more with this author. The Mass is not only the center of our lives, but must once again become the center of our culture.