Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Recovery of the Sacred: Liturgy & The Loss of History

Last month, Adoremus Bulletin (June 2006) reprinted an excerpt, "Liturgy and The Loss of History," from James Hitchcock's analysis of the liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Council, Recovery of the Sacred (originally published in 1974 by Seabury Press, reprinted in 1995 by Ignatius Press, but currently again out of print). Although Hitchcock's analysis is more than three decades old, it provides sometimes uncanny insights into the history and dynamic of the early post-Conciliar liturgical reform that make it perhaps as timely as it was when it was first published. Certainly his discussion is relevant to conversations we have been having recently on this blog. Here are a few excerpts:
Within a few years of the Second Vatican Council, staff members of the Liturgical Conference were quoting with approval a jazz musician who complained, “what good does it do for a minister to show a good film and speak about the relevance of the Church in our daily life if we are going to follow the sermon with a hymn from another century? Right away we have effectively reminded the congregation that we are protected and separated from the world”....

... Among other things the most radical innovators failed to notice that few contemporary men choose to live only amid the artifacts of their own time. Well-made old houses are if anything more popular than newer ones. The antique market provides steady opportunities for decoration and investment. Proposals to destroy historic landmarks raise public outcries. Museums are crowded by people wanting to see old masters, and symphony orchestras have trouble filling their seats if they play mostly modern works. For better or for worse, a determined holding onto a good deal of the past seems to be a feature of modern man, probably because he senses how fragile these survivals really are.

* * *

A circular action was involved. which soon became a vicious circle leading to the rapid breakdown of liturgy. Liturgical innovators were vaguely dissatisfied with the traditional forms but did not realize the extent of their dissatisfaction until they began to experiment. As they peeled away the layers of historical accretions to liturgy, they found, sometimes with shock, sometimes with satisfaction, that the core of belief which underlay traditional worship was not at all the same as their own, that what was involved in liturgical reform was nothing less than a profound revolution in the nature of belief itself. The vicious circle formed, however, because if a crisis of belief provokes a crisis of worship, it is also true that a crisis of worship provokes further crises of belief. The symbols and the reality they were meant to express were so closely welded that it was impossible to alter one without altering the other.

The drive for radical liturgical innovation thus became a principal cause of the widespread crisis of faith which began to appear in the Church. In its origins this crisis affected only a relatively few persons, who were moved to begin the restless search for a truly “relevant” modern liturgy. As radically transformed liturgies began to be celebrated, however -- in colleges, seminaries, high schools, convents, living rooms, sometimes even in churches -- the crisis became more and more a public thing and began to affect more and more people. The stability of the liturgy for so long had been an effective public symbol of the stability and unity of belief and, equally important, it had been a means by which this stability and unity were preserved and reinforced. Now the diversity and sometimes the shocking unfamiliarity of liturgy became an equally effective public symbol of the instability and diversity of belief and a means of intensifying and propagating this....

If radical experimentation has not succeeded in forging an authentic and viable new form of Christianity, one of its first and most important effects was a massive loss of contact with the Catholic past, a fact which was often not noticed at first or was even denied, but then just as often came to be celebrated as a blessing and a liberation. There was consistent, sometimes aggrieved, talk about the meaninglessness of traditional rites, with the jettisoning of a good deal of this tradition regarded as a prerequisite to liturgical renewal.5 (Sometimes the traditions thus dismissed were among the things which liturgists before the Council had regarded as beautiful and important.) These traditions were rejected on the grounds that they were either literally meaningless, sometimes even explained as the neurotic repetition of compulsive acts, or as expressing false meanings -- too closely tied to a traditional theology of the supernatural. It is no exaggeration to say that many innovators came to hate the Church’s past as largely a history of tyranny and superstition and especially came to hate the Church’s immediate past, the milieu in which they themselves had been formed and which they now saw as a deformation, a perversion of real Christianity, an immense burden to be shed. There came to be a good deal of bitterness about the present state of the Church, cynicism about its past, and malicious ridicule directed even at things which had previously been considered sacred. Often these feelings surfaced in people who had earlier given few hints of such dissatisfaction, who may even have seemed like serene believers. Many who did not share these feelings nevertheless found them understandable and saw no cause to protest against them.

* * *

Several further principles with regard to the sacred are now becoming evident:
The radical and deliberate alteration of ritual leads inevitably to the radical alteration of belief as well.

This radical alteration causes an immediate loss of contact with the living past of the community, which comes instead to be a deadening burden.

The desire to shed the burden of the past is incompatible with Catholicism, which accepts history as an organic development from ancient roots and expresses this acceptance in a deep respect for tradition.
Every people has a past, and contact with this past can be kept alive in various ways -- by study, by a conservative social structure, by preserving old artifacts, by referring new problems to older precedents for solution. All of these have been utilized by the Catholic Church in various ways, but none has been so important as ritual worship itself. Since liturgy is the great central activity in which all members of the Church participate, it is the uniquely effective vehicle by which the Church’s historical identity is preserved....

Most significant was the attitude toward Scripture. Dissatisfied Catholics often criticized the Church for being too unbiblical, for espousing a traditionalism which could countenance radical departures from the Scripture. The Second Vatican Council aimed to be, among other things, a reaffirmation of the importance of Scripture in the Church and an erasing of any opposition between Scripture and tradition. This, it was hoped, would provide a salutary cleansing and purifying of the life of the Church, through renewed contact with its roots. To some extent it did. However, soon the ardent biblicism of avant-garde Catholics began to change, through an increased acceptance of the “demythologizing” of Scripture urged by the German Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Little in the New Testament was now to be taken as historically accurate.

While an attitude of reverence was not jettisoned altogether, the attitude of scholarly detachment began to supersede it. Scripture was conceded no absolute authority, in that the insights of modern man came to be the basis on which the continued relevance of various passages of Scripture was judged. Finally, although the Church’s list of canonical books of the Bible had been devised originally to designate which were suitable for reading in the divine liturgy, the Bible was increasingly superseded in experimental liturgies by readings from other sources. It came to have no more (though also perhaps no less) importance than a great range of writings both religious and secular.

Ironically, the Church which had been accused of not paying enough attention to the Bible continued to read the Scripture from its lecterns each day, while the underground church more and more proclaimed Henry Miller or The Village Voice. Another principle had become clear:
The attempt to begin over again by returning to the community’s ancient sources tends to result in the discovery that the sources themselves are not fully relevant; the locus of the search then shifts to contemporary culture itself.
... If the old liturgy aimed to create a profound order, much of the new liturgy precisely tended to create disorder. Part of this was in the naked assertion that liturgy, which had long been considered sacred and thus to be tampered with only cautiously, was now considered a human invention entirely, to be manipulated for human purposes. This was supposed to assure man of his new freedom and creativity. Instead, in many cases it deprived him of his sense of belonging to a cosmic order, of his ability to reach beyond time and culture.... Another principle had been clarified:
The attempt to achieve freedom by escaping from the burdens of tradition tends to result in a new enslavement to a chaotic present.
... Both Victor Turner and Louis Bouyer, among others, have suggested that a fixed ritual serves the function of preserving deep spiritual truths through periods when they are not fully understood, until such time as they once again become meaningful.... (The liturgical revolution involved, among other things, a shift in emphasis from the liturgist as a man of deep learning and profound understanding of the Church’s traditions to the liturgist as innovator in empathetic contact with modern culture.) ...

... The officially mandated liturgical changes were being implemented as early as 1964 and were largely in effect before the flood of departures from the Church and from the priestly and religious life began. So long as the liturgy was stable, so was Church membership. As with other changes in the Church, the disaffection with liturgy seems to have come about not because the liturgy did not change but because it did. The sense of the meaning of tradition was broken; symbolically there had been a repudiation of the past which the fathers of the Second Vatican Council had certainly not intended but which their actions signaled to some people.

* * *

The bitterness of many of those caught in this historical trap was due in part to the inescapable dosage of self-hatred which was part of it. They had been intimately involved with the old Church. It had been their spiritual nurture and had done much to form them. At one time they had perhaps been happy and purposeful within it. Like the rejection of one’s parents, it proved to be impossible to reject the old Church without also rejecting a large part of oneself....
Traditional liturgy helps men to free themselves from historical determination by making accessible to them modes of Christian life from other ages than their own. It proclaims that no man is bound simply by the customs of his own time, and hence its “irrelevance” is in certain ways its glory.
The religious revolution of the later 1960s aimed to be, among other things, a turning from the past (Christians were thought to be too conservative, inclined to look backward at a supposedly more religious era now gone) and a turning to the future. In that sense, if one dimension of history was being lost, another was being recovered. The eschatological aspect of Christianity was given renewed emphasis, the expectation of a transformed future world in which the will of God would at last be fulfilled. Christians were to emancipate themselves from the past, but thereby were enabled to take responsibility for the future.

An orthodox Christian notion was made to fit too easily with frenzied and euphoric fashions, however. For a brief time it was possible to think that “revolution” was occurring, whose locus was primarily on the college campuses ....
The rejection of tradition focuses the worshippers’ attention on the narrow and incomplete community of present believers and shatters their sense of membership in the widest Christian community, which is the Communion of Saints.
I would encourage you to read the entire selection, which is available online (see links).

[Acknowledgements: James Hitchcock, "Liturgy and the Loss of History," from Recovery of the Sacred, reprinted in Adoremus Bulletin (June 2006), pp. 3-6.]

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