Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

The Appeal of Orthodoxy – Liturgical Romanticism

July 6th, 2010, Promulgated by Gen

Sometimes people ask me why I’m the twisted, deformed “conservative Catholic” that I am. “Why don’t you want people in the sanctuary?” “Why don’t you want a simple altar?” “Why are you so hung up on only chant and polyphony?” “Why do you want Mass said facing the wall and in a language no one understands?” Of course, part of what makes people even conjure up these questions is the faulty understanding of what the Mass really truly is, and what really truly happens on the altar. We all have preconceptions as to what “church” should be like. Some like a quiet Mass while some prefer a Mass of jubilation. Some want liturgical dancers while others still yearn for boy choirs singing Panis Angelicus. Why? We are all in the same Church, so why do we push our own liturgical agendas, whatever they may be? It’s much simpler than we have made it, folks. Much simpler.

The “simple solution” is to read the documents of Vatican II with an eye for truth, not bias. This goes for the “conservatives” as well as the “liberals.” We need to read the documents, especially the liturgy documents, with the eyes of Catholicism – not feminism, traditionalism, or progressivism. Genuine Catholicity suffices, friends. It’s about time we realized that.

So what is this liturgical “Catholicity,” and why does it need to be rooted in ancient languages, sacrificial vocabulary, and complicated rituals? Well, the simple answer is this: the Mass is so far beyond us that we cannot take it upon ourselves to reduce it to something which we can understand wholly. For it is impossible to “wholly understand” the Holy Sacrifice, and any sentiment that we can is flawed beyond measure. The Mass must reflect the mystery and majesty of what it truly does reflect – the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is nothing less than that. Would we presume to approach the cross with glory and praise hymns on our lips? Would we kiss his pale, lifeless, pierced feet while thinking more about who else you can greet? Would you gaze as the centurion pierced His side, thinking only of “when is this going to end?” The Mass is something beyond time and beyond human comprehension, and we lose souls when we simplify to a point at which they think to themselves, “I’ve already done this. Why am I still here?” It is the duty of the Church to save souls, and Her liturgy reflects this heavenly mandate.

But people will say that having a “done up” liturgy, with scores of altar boys, incense, polyphony, chant, Latin, etc. is not what Our Lord envisioned. (First of all, it’s an occasion of sin to presume to restrict the omniscience of Our Lord, but that’s beyond the point.) The use of all those things serves to give beauty to something which must be adorned to the best of our poor ability. And this “beauty” I mention isn’t some kind of theological or liturgical metaphor, friends. I’m just referencing beauty as seen in aesthetics and art – nothing more. Gold chalices, brass candlesticks, velvet and satin vestments, lace surplices, silver bells, clouds of billowing incense . . . these are among the most precious and expensive things we can imagine, but consider their purpose. The vestments clothe the priest and ministers (deacons, altar boys, etc.) making their roles plain to the congregation. The priest is the mediator between God and man, and as such does, in fact, stand apart from them. This distinction must be made. Just as Moses was a man set apart from God, just as Paul was given his sacred mission, so too is a priest chosen and set aside for a purpose which is both human and divine. The gold chalices and other vessels cradle Our Lord’s body (the Blessed Sacrament), mimicking the protection and purity and radiant beauty of Our Lady’s womb which held safe Our Lord, and in due course, gave Him unto us. He may have been laid, at birth, in a manger of wood and straw, but for nine months, he dwelt in the security of the womb just as He dwells in our tabernacles from Mass to Mass – in darkness and solitude. Know this: that He was cradled by His Virgin Mother in her womb just as the Holy Mother Church cradles Him in Her tabernacles.

This is what leads us to a sense of what I call “liturgical romanticism.” There is something “romantic” (and not in the erotic sense) about seeing a genuinely beautiful liturgy. Putting aside all questions of propriety and theology, what is more beautiful? The sanctuary of St. Paul’s in Webster or the sanctuary of St. Stanislaus? Undeniably, the more artistically beautiful is St. Stanislaus. Now ask yourself this: Would Our Lord come to us in ugliness or in splendor? Truly, the only way He ever comes to us at any time is in splendor. At his birth, angels sang the chorus we echo at Mass: “Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis!” The heavenly courts danced with joy at this event. At Our Lord’s crucifixion, the Earth shook and the veil of the temple was torn in two – what terrible splendor, friends, that the Lord of Lords should announce a new covenant in so palpable a way! When He was transfigured, His radiance was beyond measure. When he ascended into Heaven, angels descended to comfort the Apostles. You should note the perpetual presence of angels in these events – they herald the presence of God. This is partially the function of altar boys, for they kneel at the altar and ring the bells at the moment of consecration, heralding the appearance of God under the lowly appearances of bread and wine. They are representatives of the celestial court, just as the priest is the representative of Our Lord, the Great High Priest.

The average Mass, I hate to say, is lacking in the rich symbolism and liturgical romanticism we are discussing. Too long and too often have our Masses been simplified to the point of echoing Luther’s banality rather than the strains of the angels in heaven. From “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” we have descended to “gloria in excelsis meo” – Glory to me in the highest. We worship community far too much. While we should be glad that we have come together as one Church, we must remind ourselves that the theology is deeper than that. Indeed, coming together as a community is more like a liturgical preamble than a complete thought in and of itself. We must learn to draw out and savor every piece of liturgical beauty.

It baffles me that people say “that’s too confusing. I don’t get it. We need to simplify the language/action/Mass to make the people ‘get it.'” Let me put it to you in this way: If someone gave you a beautiful piece of gold, with rubies and diamonds and emeralds embedded all over it, and told you it was wholly yours, would you not try to figure it out, rather than discard it for some clay and straw piece of insipidity? You may not know how to use it, how it was made, how it ought to be used, but you do know one thing: the gold and jewel-encrusted “thing” is genuinely beautiful. You would not cast it aside or break it apart – you would study it, get to know its every fact, and then, hopefully, come to a realization of what it really does. The Mass may look like a confusing bunch of arbitrary rules and medieval concoctions, but it is not. It is a manifestation of the Divine in something which ought to be beautiful, not mundane.

I think the Letter to the Hebrews explains this more precisely than I can, and I will leave you with this thought:

12:11 Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Yearn to study the Mass as it is, not as how you think it should be. It was fashioned by the Divine, and must be treated as such by we who are not the gods we pretend and aspire to be. Humility is the key thing, friends, and through humility, the doors of the beauty of the liturgy will be flung open to us with great mirth.

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16 Responses to “The Appeal of Orthodoxy – Liturgical Romanticism”

  1. praedicator says:

    I’ve thought of this last point on many occasions. And I have a further comment to add: Does simplified language /actually/ make the Mass more intelligible? Does talking about God in dumbed down language /actually/ make Him “more accessible”? Of course not! How could /we/ make God more accessible than He actually is? Neither He, nor the liturgy, are something man can manipulate — make any easier or more difficult than they are, objectively speaking. There is no easy way to participate in Mass, only the toil of prayer, self-denial, meditation, contemplation, and the will aided by grace.

    If anything, man’s first impression should be: this is a mystery, something I don’t have entirely figured out, something I cannot ever fully figure out, something I must marvel at — that’s participation. The beautiful signs, which actually signify invisible and mysterious heavenly realities, are not “extra smells and bells,” but essential to what the Mass is. They are used not to cling to worldly luxury, but to point beyond themselves (the definition of a sign) to greater, higher realities.

    Wonderful post, Gen.

  2. Anonymous says:

    You should’ve wrote a book!

  3. BigE says:

    @Gen: You ask the question, “Would Our Lord come to us in ugliness or in splendor? Truly, the only way He ever comes to us at any time is in splendor.”….apparently skipping right over the fact he was born in poverty and the equivalent of what was a barn. That he grew up as a simple and meager carpenter. It is not a matter of “ugliness vs splendor” but “simplicity (humbleness) vs splendor”. Sometimes simplicity can be very beautiful.

    I personally have a tough time envisioning Jesus ever using “Gold chalices, brass candlesticks, velvet and satin vestments, lace surplices, silver bells, etc” and as far as I know He never dressed so as to make His roles plain to the apostles.

    As you so wisely stated, “Humility is the key thing, friends, and through humility, the doors of the beauty of the liturgy will be flung open to us with great mirth.”

  4. Gen says:

    It’s not a question of what you envision Jesus using – it’s a matter of what Jesus deserves. I agree that simplicity can be beautiful – just look at parishes like St. Anne (architecturally). However, when people cling to this sentiment with the intention, not of rendering praise, but of rendering a political statement, there is a major problem. There was a reason that the Tridentine Mass had different “kinds” of Mass – Low, High, Pontifical, Missa Cantata, etc.

  5. benanderson says:

    I personally have a tough time envisioning Jesus ever using “Gold chalices, brass candlesticks, velvet and satin vestments, lace surplices, silver bells, etc” and as far as I know He never dressed so as to make His roles plain to the apostles.

    hmmm – Jesus was a Jew who worshiped at this place. I don’t remember in which Gospel Jesus condemned priests for being overly lavish, do you?

  6. Bernie says:

    BigE: I imagine that when Jesus celebrated the passover with his apostles they used the “best china” they had available. If gold chalices would have been available, I’m sure they would have used them. Every culture –since time began– has used the most precious and beautiful for special occasions especially to designate the sacred. There is no reason to doubt that Jesus was any exception. Why do some of us want to wallow in the profane?

    Let us not forget that Jesus participated in all the Temple rituals with all the accompanying chants, incense, exclusive areas, and beautiful vestments. He never banned such things but merely criticized those who participated in such things if they did not back-up those rituals with active concern and justice for the poor and isolated. Jesus took care of all such people but did he not also produce the most excellent wine at Cana? Did he not allow expensive oil to be poured over his feet?

  7. Richard says:

    Bishop Clark is at it again. REad his collum this week on gay and lesbians.

  8. Wow! Well written!

    I agree 100000% percent.

  9. BigE says:

    @Gen: I agree, the Mass is no place for political statements. My only point was that beauty is possible without being lavish. And just as you worry that simplicity becomes some kind of political statement, I worry that beautiful turns into “opulent” and correct intent is equally lost. I’m not arguing for disgarding a high Mass, only that this doesn’t have to be the “only” way to go.

    @Bernie: “…which is greater, the gold, or the temple that made the gold sacred.” (Mt 23:17). I’m not arguing for the use of plastic cups as Chalices, but only warn of the dangers of getting so focused on “the things” of the Mass that we lose sight of the beauty and intent of the Mass on its own.

  10. Gen says:

    You seem to be making an argument where there is none. I can name scores of parishes which simplify the Mass to politicize it, but not one that has a “lavish” Mass to be political. Jesus deserves the best, and to give Him any less is scandalous at the least.

  11. benanderson says:

    the dangers of getting so focused on “the things” of the Mass that we lose sight of the beauty and intent of the Mass on its own.

    Do you have any examples of these dangers existing in reality? Do you know people who are so obsessed with these things that they have forgotten about God? I’ve found that the people who are more concerned with giving God their best are also very prayerful people who live walk and talk with God every day.

    I’ll reiterate, too, that simplicity (the Franciscan way) can be quite beautiful. I don’t think anyone’s proposing that every parish, every person, etc, needs spend x% of their income on nice Churchy type things. There is certainly room for more than one style and some people get more out of such beauty than others. But that’s almost another discussion entirely and doesn’t contradict in any way what Gen is getting at here.

    good post.

  12. Bernie says:

    BigE: Elaborately beautiful “things” in the liturgy may become a distraction. That certainly is a possibility if you are thinking along the lines of St. Bernard of Claivaux who wanted simplicity in art and music. There is a legitimate Catholic line of thought that expouses such an approach to liturgy. Unfortunately, the over-reaction to the alleged loss of awareness of “the action” in the (now) EF has been to impoverish the church of sensual experience. That beautiful objects –and you are right, of course, that there is such a thing as “noble (beautiful) simplicity”– in the liturgy are experienced for their Beauty. Yes, in a sense we obsess in them because we mystically experience God when we see –or hear– beautiful things. I suppose artists would call it an aesthetic experience; an experience we want to prolong, as in ecstacy. It is God who is at the center of beauty; it is God –Beauty Himself– who makes the gold sacred. We yearn for God which is why we take pleasure –and rightly so– in beautiful objects. You probably agree with my point and so I’m not sure, along with Ben and Gen, as to what your point is. Perhaps you have in mind something like the civic pride –and not just for the glory of God– that stimulated constructing the tall gothic cathedrals?

  13. John F. Kennedy says:

    “I personally have a tough time envisioning Jesus ever using “Gold chalices, brass candlesticks, velvet and satin vestments, lace surplices, silver bells, etc” and as far as I know He never dressed so as to make His roles plain to the apostles.”

    Ever heard of the Transfiguration? How ordinary was that?

  14. BigE says:

    @bernie: I agree with all you say. My original point was to disagree with the statement in the article, “Truly, the only way He ever comes to us at any time is in splendor.” Which seemed to discount the beauty of simplicity. God can come to us in many ways.

    @JFK: The transfiguration did not involve the use of “material” things. Jesus did not “dress” for that. It was a mystical experience.

  15. Gen says:

    God is, by His very nature, beyond our comprehension – that’s splendor. Jesus may have looked like “just a man,” but He was still robed in splendor, at least in a theological/mystical way.

    The Transfiguration certainly did involve the use of material things – Jesus was fully clothed (i.e. in material things). The actual verse even specifies a change in the appearance of His clothing:

    2And he was transfigured before them. And his face did shine as the sun: and his garments became white as snow.”

    Things went from mundane and simple to radiant. It was a mystical experience, to be sure, but it was also much more than that – it was a physical occurrence. You’re straying into dangerous waters of theological and biblical presumption. 😉

  16. John F. Kennedy says:

    BigE: BTW it wasn’t a “mystical experience” either. It was REAL.

    mystical |?mistik?l|
    1 of or relating to mystics or religious mysticism : the mystical experience.
    • spiritually allegorical or symbolic; transcending human understanding : the mystical body of Christ.
    • of or relating to ancient religious mysteries or other occult or esoteric rites : the mystical practices of the Pythagoreans.
    • of hidden or esoteric meaning : a geometric figure of mystical significance.
    2 inspiring a sense of spiritual mystery, awe, and fascination : the mystical forces of nature.
    • concerned with the soul or the spirit, rather than with material things : the beliefs of a more mystical age.

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