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.