Saturday, September 09, 2023

Laughter, tears, & how the visible signifies the invisible: children and liturgy

If there ever was such a thing as an apostle of the sacramental worldview, it would be the late, great Thomas Howard. And by "sacramental" I mean something beyond the seven Catholic sacraments. If a sacrament is and outward sign of an inward grace, then the "sacramental" perspective sees in the visible world a panoply signs that point beyond themselves, in a way that Plato might have nearly understood, to how things ultimately are in the transcendent unseen world.

Howard, with whom I had the privilege of corresponding after he was received into the Catholic Church some decades ago, died in 2020. He was a convert from evangelical Protestantism to Anglicanism and then, finally, to Catholicism. His books, like his correspondence, are both thoughtful and profound. He is a master of English, and one sometimes needs a dictionary to catch up with his extensive and colorful vocabulary. Some of his titles include Evangelical Is Not Enough; Lead, Kindly Light; On Being Catholic; Splendor in the Ordinary; The Night Is Far Spent; but by far my favorite is a book he published before becoming Catholic entitled, An Antique Drum (introduced to me at Francis Schaeffer's L'Abri in Switzerland), which was later published after his conversion by Ignatius Press under the implausible title of Chance, or the Dance? Peter Kreeft called it his favorite book.

I have been reading yet another book by Thomas Howard, The Secret of New York Revealed: Being the Autobiographical Fragments of the Then Recently Married Thomas Howard Chronicling His Numerous Discoveries in the City of That Name (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2002). And what a book! I do not intend to review the book here, but only to illustrate what I call his "sacramental" outlook from two experiences related in his chapter entitled "The Infata Comes." The two experiences have to do with children and liturgy. What binds his descriptions of the two experiences together is his ability to move from the external perception of ugliness as a skeptical onlooker to a transforming internal perception of the at-first-hidden depths of beauty.

First: children.
In my bachelor days I would look at young couples in airports with their babies, and my soul would fill with horror. All this baggage. The babe in arms with sour milk dribbling down the front, leaning out in feverish, squalling dissatisfaction from his mother's arms, reaching petulantly into the air for he knew not what (and putting out a generally noxious miasma from both ends). And the two-year-old with a lollipop, wallowing on the floor, dragging at his mother's skirts. And the four-year-old with a dripping popsicle running down over his fist and chocolate smeared about his mouth, pulling his father to the newsstand to see some plastic Batman car. And the father all the while trying to riffle through the tickets to see what the flight number was, and the mother trying to keep tabs on the diaper bag, the stroller, the plastic car seat, the baby carrier, the folding bassinet, the bottle warmer, and the suitcases. Eheu! . . . Who are the clods who will opt for all this when you can be so patently free? . . .

Come at from that angle, it is difficult to find any rationale for the phenomenon. But you back into these things. It does not all gape upon you at once. First one thing happens (the child is conceived), then another (morning sickness, sleepiness), then another (maternity dresses), then another (natural childbirth classes), then another (the birthing). You don't suddenly find yourself one fine morning standing in LaGuardia beleaguered with a family. And the anxious bachelor has left one thing out of his reckoning: that beleaguered man loves that lady and those ragtag besiegers.
There is more here that comes toward the end of the chapter, but I shan't dally. The point is that he eventually sees beyond his external first impression into something at the heart of things and beautiful.

Second: liturgy
One of the things that happened in those early weeks of the new tack was that I set out one Sunday morning alone to scout out a church that we had heard about. We had visited a number of churches in the city, as churchgoing people are wont to do in a new place, and were still looking. We had seen in the New York Times on the page where all the churches announce themselves a little box giving the following information for one of the churches: "Catholic worship, liturgical music, gospel preaching." It was the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, just off Times Square, known to its friends as Smokey Mary's. I had heard of this church before coming to the city and thought it might be an idea to visit it one day. I was not sure the incense would be the thing for Lovelace's present delicately poisoned gastronomic situation, so I set out alone.

I took the subway north to Times Square. This is a train that, on an early Sunday morning, looks very much like the Damnation Local. . . . The train clanks and screeches balefully along, swaying and jolting violently over what must surely be a raw rock roadbed. You sit in the wan dusk of the empty care with newspapers and candy wrappers shifting about the floor. A solitary derelict in a far corner slumps in a sodden torpor. The sliding doors between the cars bang to and fro. The train lurches to a halt at the stops, but no one gets on or off. No traffic for hell today. . . .

If the subway is the Damnation Local, Times Square on a Sunday morning lies somewhere in the precincts of perdition itself. One widespread picture of hell is of a region of feverish activity, with great crowds of souls, worn out from their bacchanalia, prodded on by demons, twittering about in the ghastly search for one more diversion. You can see this in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, or in Times Square on any night. But surely the windy and vacuous desolation of Times Square on a Sunday morning, when it is all over and no one but the odd straggler is left, is a far more melancholy picture of perdition? On Saturday night at least the illusion is still flying through the air like silver dust thrown in our eyes. On Sunday morning the dust has settled into the gutters, along with the spit and the wet tissues, and what sparkled the night before gapes flatly at you in the blank light of day. Massage parlors, "adult" book shops, moth-eaten cinemas, pinball machine arcades, souvenir stands, and restaurants sit like stupefied whores, their makeup dulled and flaking after the night's work.

Saint Mary's stands half a block from Times Square. You can pass it easily enough without noticing it, since the facade is flush with the other buildings. If you do happen to look, you will see the gray stone and the nineteenth-century gothic of the doorways. If you go into the narthex and look down the nave aisle toward the high altar, you will see what most people expect to see in a church of ancient tradition: candles, crucifixes, arches, rich brocades, and all the furniture of the church.

You can find other furnishings -- leatherette and formica and ashtrays -- in the restaurants in Times Square, and there you can droop over the sticky counter nursing your coffee and trying to collect your wits. What a terrible hand of cards life has dealt me. How did I land here? Where is someone to lift this burden off me and love me?

There are no leatherette and formica here in Saint Mary's. Only this particular assemblage of ornaments and furniture, most of it spiky and uncomfortable, and all of it grossly out of date. You travel a thousand years when you step across this threshold. Everything in here has been assembled in obedience to a vision of things that seems remote indeed from the stark realities outside. It's real life outside there, surely: people creep into a church like this only as a last resort.

For me in that Sunday morning it was something like a visit to a shrine that one has heart about. The vestments, the music, the incense, the ceremonial -- these were what people mentioned when they spoke of this church.

The Christian mysteries were celebrated that morning as they always are at Saint Mary's, and I, like all newcomers there, was overwhelmed. It was all very far removed from what you find in the "typical" American church, if by that we mean the white clapboard edifice that shows up in calendars of New England or on Saturday Evening Post covers. I was familiar with Christian rites that were plain, and this seemed lavish. The whole business of ceremony seemed to matter here. Every gesture seemed to carry some freight of significance. One minute the priest had his hands up like this, and the next they were out like that. One minute he was facing you, and the next he was sideways, and then he had his back to you. He even changed his vestments during the hour, from a cope to a chasuble. Nothing was natural or spontaneous or unstructured. In order to get from one place to another, they processed. They never merely said anything: it was all chanted. And nothing could be done without scattering smoke hither and thither. They walked around the altar with it, they swung it over books, shot it out at the priest, and finally waved it at us.

If everything else had put me off forever (which it hadn't), I would have gone back again for the music. All the antiphons were sung in Gregorian chant, the most pure, most austere of all musical forms, perfectly suited to the text of Scripture, since it liberates the words from the distracting style of any individual reader and sets them out, free from ornament, where there is nothing to do but listen to them. And the music of the Mass itself -- the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus and Benedictus, and the Agnus dei -- was sung from a loft in the back of the church: no visible choir in robes, putting on a performance for us, but rather voices articulating these ancient canticles that utter the Church's response to the great mysteries of the gospel, and all of it sung, not by tremulous, warbling concert voices, but in that "white" tone, wholly free from vibrato, that again sets the text free from any individual's efforts to impress. And the hymns! Here were no racy, breathless tent-meetin' sentiments, dilating on one's private experience, nor any enfeebled twentieth-century World Council of Churches attempts at hymnody where you end up singing about nothing closer to the Christian mysteries than aspirations toward world brotherhood. No. Here were "Christ Is Mad the Sure Foundation" and "Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness" and "O Food of Men Wayfaring."

What is one to make of the liturgy? It thought. It is at a polar extreme from our era's attempts at getting things unstructured and spontaneous. A chance passerby might well think it is all horribly repressive and restricting. But what he would be missing would be the way in which all this structure, lo and behold, lifts us away from the poor little tiny circumference of our own private feelings and experience and liberates us into something that is infinitely more vast than ourselves -- the way any great ceremony does. It is odd, how the whole race, in all tribes and cultures and centuries, has always resorted to ceremony -- in the presence of life's deepest mysteries. Birth, marriage, and death: What do we all do with these purely organic, purely functional, events? We deck them and order them and set them about with ritual. Birthday cakes, wedding solemnities, funeral obsequies. What are they all about? Well, we are clearly ritual creatures. Perhaps our own era's efforts to replace pomp and ceremony with spontaneity are a tragic betrayal of the sort of creatures we are. The stars in their courses move in solemn dance; we read of seraphim and cherubim covering their faces in adoration; we see the whole world of flora and fauna repeating its yearly rituals in exuberant obedience to the rubric Shall we, alone in the universe, insist that our freedom is to be found in the random, the ad hoc, and the unstructured? Surely one way of describing the difference between hell and the City of God is to say that the former is wholly unstructured and the latter magnificently structured?

I had, I thought, seen a diagram of that structured magnificence in the liturgy on that morning at Saint Mary's.
At this point Howard returns to his first subject of children, or, rather, his experience of the birth of his first child. It is a beautifully engaging discussion, and no less profound than his observations about liturgy in teasing out the splendor and transcendent from beneath the banal and ordinary.

Twice during my reading of the chapter -- and this is not uncommon for me while reading Howard -- I am not sure whether I caught myself laughing or crying. If felt like both simultaneously. He touches something deep within.

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