Friday, August 14, 2009

mysterium tremendum et fascinans

Just got back from Bethlehem Farm a few hours ago – a great trip, despite having a few more aches and pains than I would prefer to admit. Still, any trip that involves hitting stuff with a sledgehammer is a good trip in my book -- the second picture, by the way, is of me with my friend and former co-worker Laura O’Donnell (and the sledgehammer). I promise we didn’t dress alike on purpose… The first picture summarizes my Wednesday – working in the garden, shoveling a lot of…fertilizer.

I had wanted to write about this before, and kept putting it off…a few weeks ago, in New Orleans, we had an interesting table conversation: one of our guys who does mission appeals for our Bro’s in Africa went to a parish in New Orleans, visited six Latin Masses at this place, and they were all full, mainly of younger folks. I’m happy people are going to church, of course, but I’m curious about this, because I have gone to Latin Masses before and found them impressive but personally unfulfilling. (*The Latin Mass feels to me rather akin to going to a Greek Orthodox liturgy, which I enjoy doing every now and then even though my Greek is almost as terrible as my Latin. The ceremony is impressive, the “smells and bells” are potent reminders of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (thank you, Rudolf Otto), but I don’t feel like I am building any community, and liturgy, which literally means “the work of the people,” feels at that moment more like a spectator sport, since I don’t speak the language.*) So, a few ideas we had: have our masses become so “domesticated” that they have lost a sense of mystery that people feel is important to maintain focus on the transcendence of God? Does the majesty and otherness of the Latin Mass make that present in a way that other liturgies don’t? On the other hand, since most folks don’t know Latin, is the “horizontal” aspect of the liturgy (i.e., the building of the body of Christ in the community, the celebration of our daily triumphs and defeats and fears, lost in the otherworldliness of the Latin? Even though the Latin Mass is not my particular preference, I understand the importance of deep, powerful symbols in relationship to God (how many sweatlodges have I done because the symbolism goes all the way down?) and have no need to try to undercut that. Still, if the retrieval of the Latin is a sign that the vernacular Mass is not meeting people’s needs (not trying to oversimplify – I know a lot of parishes and a lot of ministers who are doing tremendous things), then we should be asking questions about that as well. Too, for Christianity the real mystery is that the mysterium tremendum et fascinans is encountered in the ordinary, in our midst – bread, wine, water, one another in all of our messiness. I say that not to try to domesticate God or to invalidate grander models of liturgy, but to ask how to hold the transcendent and immanent, the vertical and horizontal, in tension and not spin back into the liturgical stuff that Jesus fussed about with his contemporaries. The frustrating thing I see in so many Sunday liturgies gone wrong is that all the raw materials are there – good readings, deep symbols, grand ritual – but we end up moving it into our heads or into our feelings instead of into our guts, where it can become the story by which we “live and move and have our being.” As I have argued elsewhere, maybe one problem is not that we are asking too much of people, but that we are asking too little. English or Latin, the liturgical goal of the active participation of the faithful is an elusive one, with passive listening and watching being much more the order of the day. I don’t envy pastors their task: respecting people’s intelligence without turning it into a theology class, getting people involved without resorting to entertaining them (some parishes with a lot of teenagers seem to think that an electric guitar and a drum kit added to humdrum liturgy could make it not humdrum), and reweaving a story that engenders another way of living in the world. As always, ideas or rebuttals are most welcome.


ConcordPastor said...

Good post, Brother, and good questions, too.

Because of my interest in the liturgy I read, daily, several blogs that are working hard at bringing back the older rite of Mass along with its music (chant) and its mystery. At 62, that's the Mass I grew up with (Vatican Council II opened when I was in high school).

Certainly, there's a fair amount of romanticizing what pre-Vatican II liturgy was like in most parishes. Nonetheless, the Latin did lend to some mystery. When something as important as the Eucharist is celebrated in a language unknown to most, in what appears, in many ways, to be a secretive ceremony, well... that's mysterious!

I'd agree that in many ways we've lost some of the mysterious quality of liturgy and since the liturgy celebrates the "sacred mysteries" and is meant to give us intimate connection with the mystery of God made present in Christ and sacrament, the whole business of mystery is of great importance.

But it seems to me that jumping back to the older ritual is (at least) not the only answer. I'm convinced that if the post-Conciliar liturgy is celebrated carefully, reverentially, beautifully and fully, then engagement with the Mystery is very much available. But that engagement will not be that of our grandparents' time. The engagement and the sense of mystery will be experienced in the terms (in the language, the music, the art, the ritual action) of our own times.

That our own times are more suspicious of mystery than previous generations is not,I think, a reason to go back but rather a challenge to find contemporary ways to nurture a love of mystery in our lives (is prayer anything else than that) and a communal way to celebrate and meet the mystery in the liturgy.

josephdevlin228 said...

Hi Brother Patrick,
I think you nailed it in your entry comparing the Latin Mass of old and the current Mass in the vernacular. Nice job! I wholly agree with you, we need to learn "how to hold the transcendent and immanent, the vertical and horizontal, in tension and not spin back into the liturgical stuff that Jesus fussed about with his contemporaries."

As a 46 year old priest ordained for more than 18 years I know that well planned and reverently celebrated Liturgies can hold both the transcendent and the horizontal in a healthy tension. Therefore, I do not want to see us "go back" to the "Old Mass," for the reasons you mention and for others.

I think S. Joan Chittester, OSB was right when she said, restoring the 1962 Tridentine Mass, also restores an ecclesiology that is overly Clerical and Male. It leaves no room for women or the non- ordained, let alone for the full, active, conscious participation of the assembly. Is that what Vat II calls us to????

While I get it, Liturgy should help one to experience the divine; and Mass should not be reduced to a celebration of the self (or just the community). I hope and pray though that the Church strikes a balance and not go backwards. In my opinion, this would be a mistake. I think it would also be a judgment that somehow the Spirit has not been leading us for the last 45 years of Liturgical renewal. My fear is that the present make up of Church leadership is leading us in just such a direction. As always with the Church, it should be interesting to see how it all plays out.

All the best to you as you begin your studies,
Joseph Devlin
Pastor, St. Bridget Parish
Philadelphia, PA