Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Some Brief Ramblings on the Mass

In general I have resolved not to write too much about liturgy or indeed matters liturgical, for several reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, I am not an expert on the liturgy, and to speak of it so inadequately and would only serve to embarrass me. Secondly, there are other bloggers and other sites who write of the liturgy far better than I could: the New Liturgical Movement immediately springs to mind. In addition, I think I am just fine being a sort of "spiritual tourist", as many of the laity actually are. I am not too sure if this is an attitude that gels well with the current (or ideal) Catholic zeitgeist, but it has helped me keep my sanity so far. This is not to say that I have an aliturgical attitude, or worse, that I am indifferent to it; but I find often that I have other, far more "earthly" things to worry about than what cut of chasuble Father Presider would be wearing in his next Mass (in short, I have a life, believe it or not). If I must crystallize my position about the liturgy, I will say, for the record, that I do think it is highly important; but try as I might, I simply do not have the energy anymore to obsess and lose sleep over it.

This hasn't stopped me from joining the local Latin liturgy association in school, though.  Recently, our little group celebrated its first Latin Novus Ordo in campus, in what I can only surmise to have been a very long time, probably decades. Under the glare of incandescent lights and in the stifling heat of the tropical night, the chapel, the Holy Mass proceeded; prior to it, our motley crew had not even met, and so it also served as a sort of icebreaker for us worshippers. Perhaps it was the buoyant mood that came to me as a result of the Mass, but I have been thinking a lot about the Mass lately; I've even found my old sketchbooks (this blogger is a frustrated artist) where I drew some plans for a church altar or two several years ago, when I was still very much a triumphalist. This post, however, will make no attempt at any deep, spiritual reflection about the liturgy; rather, I will just try to give some semblance of shape to some thoughts that have been percolating in my head lately.

The main problem, I think, with the liturgical consciousness today is that there already seems to be a concession that the Mass exists primarily as a textual artifact. Indeed, much of liturgical discourse one comes across concern themselves with the proper wording, proper translation, and proper theology of the text of the Mass. The apotheosis of this kind of thinking is the conviction that the Mass is normative of theology; the fidelity of the texts to Tradition (i.e., patristic thinking, Scripture, etc.) is therefore a matter of life and death for Catholics. While I agree with this line of thought to an extent, I would sooner think that the laity of the past-- meaning those who actually lived in the era of so-called "Tridentine orthodoxy"-- didn't really care too much about the words of the Mass. They were conscious of the Mass, first of all, as "the priest's thing", something I used to hear a lot from my grandmother before she died. The Mass, for them, was first of all a series of actions and stylized gestures, a thing seen, heard, and smelled, but never really read.  Additionally, concern for the textual integrity of the Mass seems to require a certain societal paradigm in order to work. I would say that such concern is only possible in a society with a very tangible "open source" mentality, meaning a flattened, non-stratified society where everyone is theoretically equal. This paradigm reads almost like a business model: the Church (or at least its hierarchy) are seen as the custodians of the investments of the laity (i.e., their obedience, and in a very real sense, their monetary contributions), much like how a CEO and his crew have a certain obligation to make returns on his investors' capital. This kind of paradigm works best in a necessarily transparent society.

The Church, however, hardly fits this paradigm. Even now, the most radical reduction of clerical obedience can be summarized as follows: the word of the Pope should be followed as if it were the word of God. It is, in short, a very monarchical model; and while, to be sure, the formulation I provided above is little short of barbaric, it does drive home the point that the Church is a society which places value on hierarchy. What are the clerical castes, after all, but assertions that not everyone is called to the same degree of perfection, or the same level of "nearness" to God. If conversion to Catholicism entails an acceptance of its cosmos, however undemocratic or merciless(and indeed, the Catholic cosmos is too often unforgiving) it may seem, one would also have to accept the fact that God chooses certain men to be directly responsible to him; and not just any Tom, Dick, and Harry, now matter how many letters he has after his name. Again, this is not to say that textual fidelity of the Mass to authentic Tradition is not important; only that it must also be capable of "telling the story".

Which brings me to my second point. The most opprobrious thing about the Novus Ordo (and by this I mean the NO that is celebrated in your average parish), in my opinion, is how little "narrative sense" it makes. I would say that the primary mark of good liturgy is if it is able to relay the story of our redemption. This is of course hardly the case with many a Novus Ordo, where the priest seems more concerned with running a life-coaching session than to provide edification and spiritual sustenance for the faithful. The lack of awareness of entering into the mystery of redemption, of coming face to face with the eternal, seems characteristic of the very self-conscious New Rite. My own opinion is that this quotidian consciousness, though, is far greater than the textual issues of the Mass.  The various liturgical movements that have arisen in the last hundred or so years, and perhaps stretching all the way back to Trent, seem primarily preoccupied with making the Mass and the celebration thereof as rational and rationalizable as possible. Elaboration and sumptuousness seem to have been cast aside in order to accommodate uniformity-- both in form and theological points. The Low Mass is thus born, the simplest "reduction" or "condensation" (and not to mention the most easily exported) of Catholic worship.

I will not make any attempt to claim that the Low Mass is necessarily inferior than the High Mass or that it should be abolished; however, I will say that, in my experience, the heart of the Catholic is a baroque and ornate jewel: a gaudy, florid, and hopelessly ecstatic jewel that beats and longs for the gigantic, crowded vistas of light and shadow. Spanish Catholicism, with its Virgins caught up in mystical melodrama, its Christs pierced and dripping gore, its fiery devotions, mournful wailing, and triumphal processions, is probably the most lasting legacy of Spain to the Philippines; and even today, Catholicism for the Filipino is a colorful mix of the bizarre, the emotional, and the stupefying. Like the Spaniards, we embellish our Madonnas with gowns of gold thread and crown her with real gold and frame her face likewise; our Christs, following the Spanish-Mexican tradition, are all caught up in the grief of His Passion, the holy countenance burdened with the sins of the world. The baroque, it is said, is essentially the sacred made gaudy. Some months ago, I posted an image of the Santo Cristo de Jerusalen, an image of Christ venerated in a Mexican church, where the wounds of the Lord were made out in horrifying detail-- yet Whose hair remains as blond and as bouffant as ever.

But what is the point of this excursion into baroque aesthetic? It would seem to me that, as a phenomenon, the Mass was traditionally and primarily perceived through the eyes, ears, nose, and touch. But more than the ceremonial of it, what many people in this country seem to identify with the celebration of the Mass are the para-liturgical devotions, most of which were forgotten in the wake of Vatican II. Tenebrae, for example, used to be celebrated with a heightened sense of theater: at the appointed time, sacristans would climb to the roof of the church and pound it with hammers to simulate thunder, whilst outside, firecrackers would detonate, and more altar boys pound on the closed door. Candles were blown out and thrown to the floor, and in pitch perfect mise en scene, the woman of the church would groan and wail loudly, in fear and in trembling, sounding midway through a bad orgasm and labor pains. On Good Friday, the sanctuary would be draped in a rich, red curtain, with naught but the Crucified-- and on either side, His Mother and St. John-- visible for the Seven Last Words. Again, this devotion occasioned loud wailing from the women, many of whom would then get on their knees and extend their arms crosswise, as the Siete Palabras were timed so that they ended exactly at the hour of His death. The procession of the Dead Christ would follow, the image being hauled on an elaborate funeral casket attended to by the town elite, whilst the long, torturous procession would wind about the whole town, with nearly all the Catholics following it. Easter Sunday, on the other hand, started with the Salubong, where men would carry images of the Risen Christ and the Mater Dolorosa just before dawn, from different ends of the town, to meet at the parish square. At their meeting, an "angel" would descend from a platform and remove the veil of the Blessed Mother, after which she would intone the Regina Coeli.

While the above scenes are not, per se, part of the liturgy (except the Salubong), they are nevertheless the cues to which the average layman refers when asked about the importance of the liturgy. I sometimes get the sense that Tradition-- and orthodoxy-- for my grandparents was a matter of correct piety moreso than thinking like the Pope. Again this hearkens back to the notion that the Mass was the domain of the priest: it was his duty, his action, his responsibility. At the same time, however, these devotions seem to acquire a liturgical "sense" as well, however fleeting it may be. I say this because they have so ingrained themselves into that inscrutable, delightful, baroque, Catholic heart, which yearns not for any minimalist condensation of theological truths, but an experience of the eternal. Only a baroque heart would think of shielding Mary's eyes with a blaze of candlelight-- as is the practice in the procession of Nuestra Senora de Esperanza de la Macarena of Seville-- to prevent her from seeing the torment that her Son is to endure.

If there is any point to this reflection, it is to say that, if we are to recover any sense of the sacred from the detritus of Vatican II, the only way to do so would be to stop believing in the fiction that the Mass is primarily a pedagogic tool-- as if it were some sort of celestial booklet to be defended, amended, and edited at human convention like some poorly written college thesis. Perhaps I am already launching into a romanticism ignorant of the sorry state that both clerical and laical castes are in, but I do believe that the Mass teaches precisely because it also conceals so much from us. The sacred language, the eastward direction, even the silence of the Mass all adumbrate to a kind of teaching greater than to what any so-called expert can attest, and more illustrious than any information an open source mentality might produce. I mentioned above that the Catholic cosmos can be unforgiving: it is, after all, a cosmos which acknowledges the imperceptible nearness of Hell to the human condition. Such a paradigm seems largely lost now, but it does not take a genius to say that the Mass was seen more in its propitiatory, sacrificial lens then--as a means to placate the vengeance of God-- than anything. I have repeated, time and again, that our notions of God have largely been bifurcated of His menacing aspects. The baroque heart is configured along the lines of the chiaroscuro, of light and shadow intermingling to produce an intense vision of the spiritual realities of Catholicism. For us, then, it is necessary to always keep in mind the grotesqueness-- but ultimately the splendor-- of the divine mysteries. And perhaps that is what it means to have a sense of the sacred: to acknowledge the necessity of performing the sacrifice despite any and all distractions.

I think an anecdote I came across once of Archdale King's (at least I think so) books would be a propos to end with. A certain bishop was on his way to the cathedral to celebrate High Mass; on his way to the cathedral, he chanced upon two boys, both of whom were saying the Canon of the Mass very loudly. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning struck the earth, hitting both boys. The bishop alighted to check on the boys; both were surprisingly alright, despite the terrible ordeal. The bishop warned them that it was the anger of God, for profaning the holy words of the Sacrifice. At that, the bishop resumed his journey to the cathedral, while both boys knelt down in prayerful humility.


Carlos Antonio Palad said...

Brilliant and lovely essay, simply brilliant!

"I sometimes get the sense that Tradition-- and orthodoxy-- for my grandparents was a matter of correct piety moreso than thinking like the Pope."

Ah, just like the way things should be ;-)

Archistrategos said...

Wow! Thanks for the kind words Carlos! :D