|Maria Laach Abbey|
Among the most distinguished monks of Maria Laach and its liturgical studies and experimentation was Dom Odo Casel (1886-1948). Dom Odo had entered the monastery at the age of 20 and was sent to Rome where he earned the Doctorate in theology, writing this thesis on the Eucharistic theology of Justin Martyr. In his scholarship, Casel recaptured the concept of Mysterium. Our English word “mystery” just doesn’t cut it. The Mysterium speaks of an encounter with the Divine, our immanence being united to the Divine Transcendence—a lifting up of the creature into the very Life of the Creator. (The capitals are no mistake, they have significance.) All that is very abstract, I realize—but it speaks of that experience of God that we have which defies description, where the veil between heaven and earth is parted and we find ourselves “in a Time that is beyond time, and a Place which is beyond place.” In the experience of Contemplative Prayer one encounters this Mysterium directly and without mediation but that is a gift given but rarely except to the spiritually proficient. To whet our appetite for such a face to face encounter with the Living God, our Catholic heritage tells us that God chooses to reveal himself to us through the mediation of created things. Such creatures become “symbols” that mediate the Divine Encounter. And so in the various collages of images—in oil and flame and water and bread and wine and chant and sacred words, and holy gestures and consecrated persons, the veil is pulled back and the Divine is revealed to the human.
This still is not explaining it to my satisfaction, so let me relate a historical event and employ it as a parable. In 987 the Prince of Kiev, Vladimir the Great, sent delegates to Rome and to Constantinople to make a choice over what sort of Christianity he and his nation were to embrace. In Rome, the ambassadors saw the Roman Liturgy done with the bland shabbiness characteristic of that low point in Catholic history. (See entries for July 28, June 29, July 1, August 26, 2011 February 21, June 30, 2012 for more information on this low point in Catholic morale.) In Constantinople, however, it was a different story. The Byzantine Empire was still strong and wealthy and the liturgy in the magnificent Church of the Hagia Sophia reflected the earthly splendor of the Imperial Court in an effort to mirror Heavenly Splendor. And it worked: the ambassadors reported “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth—nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.” The music, the icons, the incense, the mosaics, the jewel-studded sacred vessels and silken robes became vehicles by which the imagination could ascend to the God who is beyond our power to image.
The problem is that in the Western Church this appreciation for the Mysterium has pretty much been lost. Avery Dulles speaks of this in his book The Catholicity of the Church (Oxford University Press, 1987). Dulles cites Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich and his concept of “Catholic Substance and Protestant Principle.” Catholic substance is this idea that God reveals himself in created things—bread and wine, oil, sacred persons, etc. The Protestant principle is the warning that while God may reveal himself in created things, these created things—bread and wine, oil, sacred persons, etc. are not God and have no claim on the Divine. You need to have a balance between Catholic substance and Protestant Principle. Catholic substance, without the balance of Protestant principle leads to magic, superstition, and idolatry. But the Protestant principle without the balance of Catholic substance leads to irreverence, skepticism, and sacrilege. The super-rationalism of the western mind has robbed most people of the ability to imagine—that is to “image”—and so such things as incense or oil or laying on of hands, or even bread and wine remain only incense or oil or laying on of hands or even bread and wine and never become the Symbols by which we can ascend from created to Creator. In the extreme of this—in non-liturgical denominations the sacramental aspect has been allowed to all but disappear. (Actually in Quakerism and some other Christian denominations, the sacramental aspect has disappeared.) But even in Catholic circles neo-Scholastic theology has robbed Mysterium of its power. Intellectual assent to doctrine has been substituted for mystical encounter. This is one of the weaknesses of Tridentine and post-Tridentine (including contemporary Vatican II) Catholicism—it has reduced us to intellects and does not nourish the deeper realities of the soul. Thus liturgy in the western Church tends to be reduced to either “rubrical”—the exact carrying out prescribed ceremonies—or spectacular, the theatrical production. Often when I attend the “new Mass” I find myself entertained, even stimulated—but it is like Chinese food—three hours later, I am hungry again. (Actually I find Chinese food sufficiently filling, but I know that many others claim its reputation for being only a passing satisfaction of hunger.) I go to the Tridentine Mass and—though I am fluent in Latin and understand every word—I find it (at best) to be no more than Swan Lake in Vestments—aesthetically pleasing but a tired conceit. (At worst, the Tridentine “Low Mass,” it is nothing but dry toast.) When I attend the Divine Liturgy, however, whether in an Orthodox or Byzantine Catholic Church—“we no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth.” Why is that? What can we learn from the difference?
Well, I have drifted a long way from Odo Casel and Maria Laach, but I think laid a foundation for some other comments I want to make over the next week or so. But let me in the next posting return a bit to Mysterium and hopefully find our way back to the main topic.