Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Death of the Reform of the Reform Part 3: Falling between two stools

Eloquent gesture: genuflecting in the Last Gospel

In my last post I described the historical process by which we ended up with a liturgy from which drama, gesture, mystery, awe, and beauty have been systematically removed. There is still some left, but less than before; the point is that their removal was not accidental, but deliberate and systematic. There was a principle at work:

Mass should be readily comprehensible.

Drama, poetry, anything which is hidden from sight or in a foreign language: these are inevitably harder to understand. And who can argue with the principle? What the reformers took for granted was the presupposition that we are talking about verbal communication. So let's get this assumption out in the open:

Mass should be readily comprehensible at the level of verbal communication.

Suddenly it looks less obvious. Might it be possible that what is more readily comprehensible at the verbal level is actually less readily comprehensible, or, to use another term favoured by liturgists, meaningful, taking verbal and non-verbal forms of communication together? Listen to what Fr Aidan Nichols OP observed (Looking at the Liturgy p59):

To the sociologist, it is by no means self-evident that brief, clear rites have greater transformative potential than complex, abundant, lavish, rich, long rites, furnished with elaborate ceremonial.

When you put it like that, it is clear enough. It is perfectly possible that the effort to make Mass more meaningful at a verbal level has had such a deleterious effect on its non-verbal aspect that we've ended up with something which is less meaningful all things considered.

It should be borne in mind I'm talking about 'verbal communication' in a very narrow, intellectual sense. When we read a poem or watch a play, we are engaging with words, but the effect the words have on us is something broader and more complicated than the purely intellectual effect which the reformers wanted. We can appreciate things we don't fully understand - a somewhat obscure poem can have great meaning for us - but the reformers wanted us to understand every syllable. This is why, in the 1974 translation of the Missal, they didn't want to hear 'He took the precious Chalice in His Holy and Venerable hands' (which is what the Latin of the Roman Canon says), and opted for 'He took the Cup'. 

There is another aspect which I don't want to go into, but don't want to ignore, which the sociologist Anthony Archer mentions: ritual efficacy. People were content to go to a service where they couldn't see what was going on or understand (or even hear) the words in part because the whole thing said to them that something important was being performed and accomplished on the Altar. He contrasts, for example, 'those who regarded the sacred as mediated through participation rather than ritual efficacy'. The Novus Ordo does not encourage us, in the same way, to see the point of Mass as the stupendous appearance of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and the offering of Him to the Father, a thing with which we can unite ourselves spiritually.

Back, however, to the problem of the Reform of the Reform. The Novus Ordo is geared towards verbal comprehension. It may be lacking in other things - certainly the Reform of the Reform (RotR) people tell us so - but in terms of understanding the liturgical texts it must be said it is pretty successful. They are read nice and clearly, usually amplified, in one's mother tongue (at least for those of us who have a major language as a mother tongue, and live where it is an official language); the vocabulary (at least until the new translation) is not challenging. Yes, we get the message, at the intellectual, word-by-word level.

To say the Vetus Ordo operates at another level is to state the obvious. You can't even hear the most important bits - they are said silently. If you could hear them, they'd be in Latin. And yet, somehow, it has its supporters. It communicates something, not in spite of these barriers to verbal communication, but by means of the very things which are clearly barriers to verbal communication. The silence and the Latin are indeed among the most effective means the Vetus Ordo employs to communicate what it communicates: the mysterium tremendum, the amazing reality of God made present in the liturgy.

If you take the Novus Ordo and make it verbally incomprehensible, or take the Vetus Ordo and take away the Latin and the silence, you are not creating the ideal liturgy. You are in grave danger of creating something that is neither fish nor fowl: that doesn't work at either level.

But to be clear, it is not a matter of balance, of trade off. First, because the entire modern rite has been designed for comprehensibility as opposed to mystery, you are at a huge disadvantage trying to make a revised form of the OF eloquently mysterious. The same goes the other way round: because the texts of the EF were not intended to be read aloud (in many cases), or in the vernacular, they are too long and conceptually and grammatically complicated to work at all well at that verbal level.

But secondly, and more importantly, the two forms of participation imply two, incompatible, kinds of attitude on the part of the Faithful. On the basis of the theory of participation which lies behind the liturgical reform, you have to be drinking in every word, and taking part as much as possible with acclamations, responses, hand-shaking and so on. On the basis of traditional liturgical participation, you have to engage contemplatively with the mysterious rituals going on in the sanctuary, with heart and soul.

Both take a little getting used to. They require formation. And once you are formed in one way, you can't easily flip over and engage with the liturgy in the other way. Even more obviously, you can't expect people (as many in the RotR crowd suggest) to engage in the first way in the first half of Mass, and then flip over to the other way in the second: to have a touchy-feely vernacular 'liturgy of the Word' followed by a Moses-on-the-Mountaintop type of Canon.

This is important because it explains why some people (not everyone) can feel a bit uncomfortable going to the 'form' of the Mass they are not used to. They have learnt over many years to engage with the liturgy in a way which is spiritually satisfying - or, at least, satisfactory - and when they attend the other form, whichever way round it is, they find it doesn't work. They are frustrated, they come away dissatisfied.

Just to illustrate the point, recall the development of the liturgical movement I described in my last post. By the time of the 1950s, the emphasis, by liturgical experts, on verbal comprehension was huge, but the Mass as it then existed did not lend itself to this form of engagement. Two old ladies - today one is a stalwart of orthodox Catholicism, and one a leading liberal campaigner - separately explained to me why they welcomed the Novus Ordo: because as young women they has been trying to follow every word in their missals, and it was a huge relief when this was no longer necessary, they could understand it straight away because it was in English. It was a particular relief for the one who had had children by then: coping with them in Mass made close attention to her hand-missal impossible. The liturgical formation of these pious ladies - they were both educated, middle class, cradle Catholics - had prepared them for the Novus Ordo. They were trying to engage with the TLM in way to which it was not really suited. They represent a certain educated group among Catholics at the eve of the Council.

I'm not against hand missals for the Faithful. Reading and understanding the texts can be hugely helpful, and the books and commentaries of the liturgical movement unpacking the riches of the ancient liturgy are a magnificent achievement which I recommend to everyone. But most people who attend the Traditional Mass put their books down at a certain point and stop worrying whether the priest saying the Canon is on one paragraph or the next one. They know the little bell will prepare them for the Consecration. They are well described here by Fr Bryan Houghton, recalling the less self-conscious Faithful before the Council (Mitre and Crook p44):

‘Some meditate for a moment but soon give up; some thumb a prayer book without much conviction; some finger a rosary without thinking; the majority just sit and kneel and become empty. They have their distractions, of course, but as far as they are able they are recollected. 

You see, the state of prayer of the overwhelming majority of the faithful is that of “simple regard”. 

 ‘…Human activity is reduced to its minimum. Then the miracle occurs. At the fine apex of their souls, imperceptible even to themselves, the Holy Ghost starts making little shrieks of “Abba, Father” or,  after the consecration, soft groans of the Holy Name, “Jesu, Jesu.” They adore: or rather, to be more  accurate, the Holy Ghost adores within them.’

A number of position papers are relevant to these posts, and you can see them on the FIUV website. Notably:

Liturgical Piety and Participation; Worship ad orientem; Latin as a Liturgical Language; Silence and Inaudibility; The Proclamation of the Lections in Latin.

In the next post I will say something about the implications this all has for future liturgical development.


1 comment:

  1. You are getting to the nub of it. The two rites are chalk and cheese. Contemplation is sometimes possible for the Novus Ordo but usually requires a great act of will. The fact that many make this deliberate act of will is a sign that they would, after a week or two, feel extremely at home at the TLM. It is just being denied them (having TLM at times which are untypical of normal Sunday observance is not going to change a thing in the long run).

    I had an extremely difficult return to the NO in France last week. The lack of reverence, recollection and respect were too much to handle. In such circumstances, it's just important to stay on your knees in prayer, trying to block out the emptiness, the communitarianism, the lack of depth of what is going on, and focus on Our Blessed Lord. It is extremely difficult. It leads to a sort of punishment training which, I suspect, defeats most in the end, hence the dwindling congregations in the West. The only hope is the TLM - at some point a bold step will have to taken and Catholics who currently attend the NO will need to be actively approached to let them know where they can find a TLM in their area, or to ask for one of the Sunday Masses in their current parish to become a TLM.