My last entry mentioned Dom Odo Casel of Maria Laach Abbey and his scholarly work to reintroduce the idea of Mysterium into Catholic sacramental theology. I had mentioned that the western obsession with the human person as an embodied intellect has so overemphasized the dogmatic aspects of religion as to strip the human person of the capacity for the mystical encounter with God. This is one of the reasons that mysticism, indeed spirituality, is all but dead in the Western Church—Catholic and Protestant. In its place there is a sort of pallid piety that is no more than a combination of doctrinal assent and moral rigidity. But I don’t want to overstate the insipidness of western liturgy—pre and post Vatican II—completely. While my experience in most parishes is that Sunday worship is shallow and lacking an appreciation for the sacred and that the pre-conciliar liturgy, the so-called “Extraordinary Form,” is the exaltation of form over substance, an empty show of an effete and effeminate fussiness, I do find worshipping in a monastic community that the (new) liturgy, when done well, has both a measured pace and solemn gravity that facilitate its being a genuinely prayerful and prayerfilled experience. While I am sure that this is not true of the liturgy of all religious communities, I would commend especially the Cistercians (Trappists) for letting the liturgy be of what the Fathers of the Church wrote and Dom Odo was trying to express by his use of the concept of Mysterium.
Monastic Liturgy at St. Joseph's Abbey,
I asked one of the monks at an abbey to which I occasionally go for Mass what approach to the liturgy he employs to make the Mass as prayerful as it is when he presides. I was surprised to learn that he had studied the Zen tea ceremony for several years, learning to carry out this ritual that is simultaneously both minimalistic and extremely complex. He told me—“if the Zen Master can put so much effort into an effortless making of a cup of tea for his guest (note the paradox of effortless effort), I learned how much effort I must make to present Christ to you in bread and wine. And as the Zen Master and all the ritual calls the guest’s attention not to himself or to the ritual itself, but only to the tea, so I must celebrate the Mysteries (not in the same precise sense Dom Odo’s use of the word) so as to call attention not to myself or to the ritual, but only to Christ who comes to have tea, or in this case his supper, with us.”
The Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh makes a similar point in his book Living Buddah, Living Christ (Riverhead Trade, 2007—10th anniversary edition). Thich Nhat Hanh speaks specifically of the Eucharist and gives an amazing testimony to the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but he marvels how many Christians approach the Sacrament without “mindfulness.” I know exactly what he is speaking of. I see priest after priest going mechanically through the ritual with all the passion of a tired housewife ironing shirts. And I don’t mean this as a slap at the “New Mass,” I remember it well from my days as an altar boy long before Vatican II. And indeed, if there is an insipidness in the western liturgy—old and new—it is probably not in the rite itself but rather in the lack of spiritual depth in those leading the celebration.
It was against this perfunctory and robotic approach to the Mass that Casel tried to resurrect the idea of Mysterium, the Divine inbreaking into our liturgy when our poor efforts at worship are washed out in the splendid light of God’s Revealing himself to us; that sacred moment when the emphasis shifts from our offering God worship to his shining forth grace into our being.
In any event, Maria Laach became a great workshop for liturgy in the first half of the 20th century as all sorts of “experiments” were tried from restoring the ancient Holy Week ceremonies (thirty and more years before Pius XII authorized the changes for the whole Church) to laying the groundwork for the “new” Mass that Paul VI would mandate for the entire Roman Rite of the Church in 1970. Most of these experiments were “illegal” of course—but they weren’t make-it-up-as-you-go-along experiments but rather the implementation of changes determined by sound historical scholarship. And while I am not always happy (personally) with the ways that the current Liturgy is carried out, I am grateful to have shed the bonds of spiritual slavery represented in the rigid (rigid as in rigor mortis) pre-conciliar rites. I have no desire to go back to those Fleshpots of pre-Vatican II slavery in the Egypt of the Tridentine Church.
Unfortunately, there is a shadow side to the Maria Laach experience as it was a gathering place for many of the right-wing Catholics who wanted to restore the Hohenzollern monarchy after the Kaisers abdication following the German defeat in World War I. As a restored monarchy became less and less a possibility, these Catholic right-wingers evolved from their mere hatred for the Weimar Republic into a core of support for Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party. Most distressing in this connection with the Nazi regime, Maria Laach became associated with anti-Semitic publications during the Hitler years. It was the connections with these pro-Hitler conservative Catholics that preserved the Abbey from being confiscated—the only Abbey in the Rhineland not confiscated—during the Nazi regime. On the other hand, the Abbey provided refuge to Konrad Adenauer for a year when he was in trouble with Hitler’s Reich. An interesting subject to explore would be the role of the Catholic Right in bringing Hitler to power. Hmmm, might it have relevance for us today? Fortnight for Freedom?—what is the real political philosophy of Archbishop Lori and friends? No, I’m sure I am wrong, couldn’t be. Hmmm.