Sunday, June 01, 2008

Should liturgy be mysterious or transparent?

Evelyn Waugh, in his book When the Going Was Good (1946), describes assisting at a Mass during a sojourn in Abyssinia (Ethiopia):
As the sun mounted, it became intensely hot. We lay in the tent smoking and dozing until the abuna [Arabic for 'Father', used by Arabic-speaking Christians in addressing a priest] came to conduct us to Mass.

I will not attempt any description of the ritual; the liturgy was quite unintelligible to me, and, oddly enough, to the professor also. No doubt the canon of the Mass would have been in part familiar, but this was said in the sanctuary behind closed doors. We stood in the outer ambulatory. A carpet was placed for us to stand on and we were given praying-sticks, with the aid of which we stood throughout the two hours of service. There were twenty or thirty monks round us and some women and babies from the tukals [small huts or dwellings]. Communion was administered to the babies, but to no one else. Many of the monks were crippled or deformed in some way; presumably they were pilgrims who had originally come to the spring in the hope of a cure, and had become absorbed into the life of the place. There seemed to be very little system of testing vocations in the community. The priests and deacons wore long, white-and-gold cloaks and turbans, and had bare feet. Now and then they emerged from the sanctuary, and once they walked round in procession. The singing was monotonous and more or less continuous, accompanied by a drum and sistrums [Egyptian percussion instruments]. For anyone accustomed to the western rite it was difficult to think of this as a Christian service, for it bore that secret and confused character associated with the non-Christian sects of the East.

I had sometimes thought it an odd thing that Western Christianity, alone of all the religions of the world, exposes its mysteries to every observer, but I was so accustomed to this openness that I had never before questioned whether it was an essential and natural feature of the Christian system. Indeed, so saturated are we in the spirit that many people regard the growth of the Church as a process of elaboration -- even of obfuscation; they visualize the Church of the first century as a little cluster of pious people reading the Gospels together, praying and admonishing each other with a simplicity to which the high ceremonies and subtle theology of later years would have been bewildering and unrecognizable. At Debra Lebanos I suddenly saw the classic basilica and open altar as a great positive achievement, a triumph of light over darkness consciously accomplished, and I saw theology as the science of simplification by which nebulous and elusive ideas are formalized and made intelligible and exact. I saw the Church of the first century as a dark and hidden thing; as dark and hidden as the seed germinating in the womb; legionaries off duty slipping furtively out of barracks, greeting each other by signs and passwords in a locked upper room in the side street of some Mediterranean seaport; slaves at dawn creeping from the grey twilight into the candle-lit, smoky chapels of the catacombs. The priests hid their office, practicing trades; their identity was known only to initiates; they were criminals against the laws of their country. And the pure nucleus of the truth lay in the minds of the people, encumbered with superstitions, gross survivals of obscene nonsense seeping through from the other esoteric cults of the Near East, magical infections from the conquered barbarian. And I began to see how these obscure sanctuaries had grown, with the clarity of Western reason, into the great open altars of Catholic Europe, where Mass is said in a flood of light, high in the sight of all, while tourists can clatter round with their Baedekers, incurious of the mystery. (pp. 118-119)
I find this a fascinating set of observations:
  • First, Waugh reacts to the strangeness of the Abyssinian liturgy much as a Protestant Fundamentalist might react to a Catholic Mass: he says "it was difficult to think of this as a Christian service," he says, because it had the "secret and confused character associated with the non-Christian sects of the East." This could nearly be the reaction of a Catholic habituated in the Novus Ordo to a Tridentine, Byzantine, or Chaldean Catholic Mass.

  • Second, in examining his own reaction, Waugh observes that "Western Christianity, alone of all the religions of the world, exposes its mysteries to every observer ...." At first blush, this looks like an apologia for the Vatican II reforms, if not for the abusive innovations that followed in their wake. One can imagine a partisan of the "Spirit of Vatican II" using this line of thought in derisively dismissing the pre-Vatican II liturgy as egregiously obscurantist, dark, mysterious and encrusted with repetitious ritual bordering on superstition. Waugh is far from such a view, however.

  • Third, because of this historically ingrained openness of Western liturgy, he says, many people anachronistically "visualize the Church of the first century as a little cluster of pious people reading the Gospels together, praying and admonishing each other with a simplicity to which the high ceremonies and subtle theology of later years would have been bewildering and unrecognizable." In other words, they regard the process of the Church's growth as one of "obfuscation." This is the sort of thing one hears constantly from Protestant Fundamentalists who speak endlessly of the "simple Gospel" of the New Testament Church and how it was "corrupted" by post-Constantinian Catholicism.

  • Fourth, Waugh says that at Debra Lebanos, he "suddenly saw the classic basilica and open altar as a great positive achievement, a triumph of light over darkness consciously accomplished ...." Yet when he goes on to explain what he means, it is clear that he means that the early Church was a dark, hidden, underground and often illegal thing in the Roman Empire, and that it took time for the "pure nucleus of truth" in this hidden religion to emerge with the aid of Western reason from the "gross survivals of the paganism" that formed its early social context.
The really interesting question to emerge from Waugh's account concerns what the Catholic tradition calls the Sacred Mysteries at the heart of the Sacrifice of the Mass. The question is: To what extent can or should these Sacred Mysteries be rendered transparent? A further question is: What kind of "transparency" does one mean? It's one thing to seek clarity about what exactly occurs in the Mass in order to participate spiritually in the liturgy as fully as possible. It's another thing for the mysteries to be physically brought out, as Waugh says, upon "the great open altars of Catholic Europe, where Mass is said in a flood of light, high in the sight of all, while tourists ... clatter round ... incurious of the mystery." It's yet another thing to endeavor to eliminate all mystery from the liturgy by rendering it commonplace, if not pedestrian.

I once addressed this subject, in "'Making it Real' - Part II: The Sacrament of the Altar" (March 9, 2007), as follows:
And so, in tandem with the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the taboos and hedges and walls and altar rails have come down in our churches. Tabernacles have been moved out of Sanctuaries, Altars have been pushed out into the nave (if churches still have 'naves'), people receive Communion standing at the head of a moving line, and receive the Host in their hands (although both Paul VI and John Paul II openly opposed the practice before giving in to widespread pressure) -- and there are often so many women helping the priest at the Altar-Table after the Consecration that one sometimes can't help thinking he looks a little lost and out-of-place up there. Clearly, the old taboos are gone, or nearly so.

One particularly instructive example of this trend comes from the Life Teen Masses before the authorities reigned in their excesses, at least in some places. Life Teen Masses were once notorious for gathering gaggles of teenagers right up around the Altar. There they would not kneel, but stand right through the Consecration, sometimes chewing gum, watching the priest as he said Mass. The idea seemed to be similar: If the Mass is a good thing, why not liberate it, like a bird from a cage? Why not bring the kids right up to the "Altar-Table," where they can see everything going on up close? Perhaps it was assumed that this would heighten the intensity of their Eucharistic experience and "active participation."

The effect, however, was almost always the very opposite. Instead of intensifying personal experience, it drained it of any sense of transcendence. Instead of elevating "active participation," it led to boredom and indifference.

What happened?

Please do not be offended, but I want to draw an analogy with another movement of cultural liberation that was concurrently underway alongside the liturgical reforms of the 1960s: the sexual revolution. The thinking was very similar in certain respects, as some of you may recall. If human sexuality is so good, then why hedge it about with so many repressive Victorian taboos? Why not liberate it, like a bird from a cage? In contrast to our ancestors and religious teachers, like St. Paul, who saw something profoundly metaphysical in the coupling act that ought to be confined to the bonds of matrimony, the sentiment of the sixties was that sex needed to be demystified, demythologized, and enjoyed for what it is: "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."

Furthermore, in the process of increasing exposure to more and more sexual information and imagery, a process of desensitization occurred. If any of you have seen the film Kinsey, you may recall what a sensation he caused both in his classrooms and in the public when he began lecturing on the intimate sexual habits of Americans. People used to blush. Sex education classes have done much the same in our schools. Further, if you track the use of nudity and sex appeal in advertising, you can easily see the progressive desensitization that has occurred over the last decades. I don't imagine Hugh Hefner in the 1960s would have been permitted to have as a Playboy centerfold some of the Dillard department store lingerie ads hanging in shopping malls these days. What you find at the end of this trajectory is, of course, hardcore pornography. But when everything is exposed and all one is left with is the impersonal plumbing of human genitalia, a problem occurs. Something is lost: the Real Presence of the Person. This is why even those trapped by the vice of pornography find it ultimately so unsatisfying and boring. (Try reading the Marquis de Sade's 1200 page Juliette. If you don't fall asleep from boredom in ten or twenty pages, you're a sick puppy indeed.)

It was precisely to protect the Real Presence of the Person that sex was hedged about with all those traditional taboos of courtship, ritual, decorum, and bonds of matrimony to begin with. Persons were never to be treated as mere things, to be 'used' as 'means' to satisfy our own pleasure, but always to be respected as ends-in-themselves. The taboos were a sign that we cared about the Real Presence of the other Person on the altar of sexual union. The dropping of the taboos was a sign that we no longer cared about the depth dimension of sex because we no longer cared about the Presence of the interior and irreducible selfhood of the other Person in the sexual encounter. I remember a film-maker in Switzerland telling me he realized he needed help when he reached the point where he had a different girl nearly every night and was telling her, "Please, don't talk to me. I don't even want to know your name."

Now, how does this translate into our consideration of liturgy? Martin Mosebach, describing his experience assisting at the Altar as a boy (in his book, The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy, writes:
I always found it embarrassing to see the Host at such close quarters, so vulnerable, as if it were lying naked on the white cloth. It was not something for my eyes, a layman's eyes, to behold. There was something secret going on between the priest and the Host. It was a real relationship: there was a kind of conversation between the Host and priest that was hidden from the eyes of the congregation by the priest's body. I, however, as an altar server, was aware and had to be aware of it, like a nurse who unexpectedly finds herself in the position of having to undress a respected personage. The gentle cracking sound of the Host made when it broke seemed not for my ears, either: it was an intimacy to which I was not entitled.
If the Host is nothing more than a wafer, of course, then such words are no more than the pathological scrupulosities of a superstitious and ignorant little boy. There is no mystery here, but only a wafer. Nothing to inspire fear in a man. Certainly not of the kind Mosebach expresses when he says that even in those days when religion had vanished from his mind, he would never have dared to touch a consecrated Host or chalice, or listened to observations on art history in front of the Tabernacle.

On the other hand, if the Host is Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, then nothing is more appropriate than the attitude displayed here by Mosebach. How was this attitude instilled? How was Mosebach sensitized to feel and respond as he did in the passage above? Was it by being led straightaway into the presence of the naked Host? No. It was by being habituated in the gestures, postures, and attitudes of reverence by means of all the external formalities of the old Mass -- all of those fastidious outward forms that conform the inward disposition of the soul to discern the Real Presence of the Person upon the Altar of Sacrifice.
If, by "transparent," we mean "clear to the understanding," then part of rendering the Divine Mysteries "transparent" must involve cultivating a certain deference toward this traditional concealment of the Holy, a reticence about throwing its doors open to the public thoroughfare; for this is what it means to clearly understand the sacral nature of the "Divine Mystery" at the heart of the Mass: He Is Here.1

  1. It is instructive that our Lord Himself never went about directly proclaiming His divinity or even His identity as Messiah, but rather commanded them repeatedly not to reveal to others His identity (See "Messianic Secret"). This isn't to suggest that He wanted His hearers to remain ignorant about the Gospel or His identity as God's Son. Rather, it is to suggest that, as in nearly all forms of intimate knowledge, a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ is not something that can be forced. Instead, as in a personal relationships, it requires approaching the Other on His own terms. [back]

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