Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Letter of the week: from The Tablet

The absolution before Communion: High Mass of Requiem at St Benet's Hall 
(Fr Edward van den Burgh)

This is something worthy of a slightly wider audience, I think: from The Tablet's Christmas double issue (18th December). 

The same issue has an article by the radio journalist Madeleine Bunting, who is creating a programme for Radio 3 on ritual. Coincidentally she refers to the very interesting book by Byung-Chul Han, The Disappearance of Rituals, which I am currently reading.

The Protestant and Enlightenment theory about ritual has caused a terrible devastation of Western culture, to whit (as Bunting quotes the Catholic anthropologist Mary Douglas) "ritual has become a bad word signifying empty conformity." This theory, though still guiding many institutions and people, has now pretty well run out of intellectual steam. The interesting people are now rejecting it as old hat, and looking at what ritual did for the societies which had or still have it, and why those which lack it are missing out on something of great importance. 

This is not the moment, obviously, for the final dissolution of the Church's ancient liturgical tradition. This effort is coming from people whose ideas are at least half a century out of date. (Mary Douglas was writing in the 1960s.)


Even as a supporter of the liturgical reform, I would have to admit that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is left-brained. Article 34 is a classic example: “The rites should be … short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions.” 

The academic study of ritual was only starting in the 1960s. It has taken over 50 years for leading thinkers like Iain McGilchrist (“The singing of things”, 4 December) to suggest how and why we have largely lost something near-indefinable from the pre-Vatican II liturgy – when it was celebrated well at a High Mass or Missa cantata. In his chapter on “The Sense of the Sacred”, he talks of “a deep gravitational pull towards something ineffable”. 

Ritual, like all art, is used when its object cannot be defined in words – or in rubrics, or in Vatican documents. Liturgy is an instrument of worship by those who take part in it – a means, not the end itself. Worship is indefinable because its object, God, is ineffable – literally “beyond speech” – thus its exercise is right-brained, rather than left-brained. That is why art, especially music, can assist worship so effectively when it illumines the ritual being performed. One cannot understand the worship signified by ritual, but one can discern it, intuit it, even be grasped by its mover, the Holy Spirit. 


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