Monday, August 13, 2012

The Foundational Problem of the Contemporary Liturgy

Sorry for the break--an unexpected hiccup in schedule came along and i didn't have access to the internet to make the posting. 
I observed in my last posting that my experience is that the Liturgy, at least in the Western Church (this would include Anglican/Episcopalians and Lutherans who follow a “Mass Model” for the Eucharistic celebration as well as Catholics), leaves me somewhat spiritually unengaged.  In the better parishes the music might be quite good and the preaching well-prepared and delivered, but even there I am finding that the Liturgy is not much more than a ritual through which I and others must go (at best) out of a sense of responsibility to a particular community or (at worst) sheer duty imposed by Church Law.  I don’t think the vapidity of our worship is a fault of the Liturgy itself.  I have, as I pointed out, found it at times and in very particular circumstances, to be a deeply prayerful experience.  I am even finding that—by and large—I am liking the “new missal” with its rather elegantly idiosyncratic syntax.  (The vocabulary, however, can be over the top, even for a lexophile.)  Some people blame the insipid quality of the liturgy on the architectural setting found in most churches and while I do find much of the contemporary church architecture—both for new buildings and renovated ones—lifeless, even spiritless—I don’t think that is the problem but rather a symptom of a much deeper lack in our Catholic life. I think it comes down to that most of us—including (especially) our priests—just don’t know how to pray and so can’t lead public prayer.   I think we confuse prayer with bothering God by our incessant babbling and the offering of spiritual or material trinkets in bargain for hoped for and needed favors.  I go to some churches and all I can think of is the scene in 1 Kings where the priests of Baal are hopping around their altar chanting and screeching in a frenetic ritual.   While I think today’s priests, especially the younger ones, are much given to piety, I am not sure that know the difference between piety and spirituality.  They consider their devotional life, which is often quite elaborate, even intense, to be their “spirituality” but I don’t see in them the marks of a genuine spiritual depth.
I just finished correcting a Master’s thesis which speaks of this subject—not in terms of clerical piety but in terms of a mature and authentic spirituality as distinguished from a personal piety.  Of course, piety can serve as the introduction to the spiritual life—Teresa of Avila makes that very clear—but piety can also short-circuit and then it only reinforces our prejudices and confirms us in our spiritual and psychological immaturity.   The student thesis I am correcting measures spirituality by its ability to open us beyond our own universe and its ego-specific constructs and even beyond our group-consciousness and collective prejudices to an appreciation of how all creation stands in its relationship to the Creator—or rather, how God stands in relationship to all his creation.  Perhaps this inclusive vision is what I find satisfying in the Byzantine Liturgy—it bespeaks an earth in profound communion with heaven—a harmony of the cosmos in which all creation is brought into union with its Creator whereas in the West I find that we tend to divide the Creator and creation.  We divide the sacred and the secular instead of seeing the sacred as the flowering of the secular.  We distinguish clergy from laity instead of seeing the unity of the Body of Christ.  We include the righteous and exclude those whose lives don’t “measure up” to our standards instead of seeing that we all stand as sinners and we all stand beneath the shower of grace.  It’s curious that I find the Byzantine Liturgy more prayerful than the Roman because in general I am somewhat “Low Church.”  I don’t like incense and elaborate church buildings and a lot of what appears to be no more than a self-conscious fussiness.   I will not attend a Mass where the priest has his back to the people or determines to use Latin for the audible parts of the Mass.  (On the other hand, I do like much of the Latin Music and am happy enough when we sing it, but I also like good traditional (Protestant) hymnody and most of the contemporary Church music as well.)  Yet I found when I have lived in Rome, many Sundays I would head off to the Russicum for the Divine Liturgy in Old Slavonic  (of which I understand not a word), with the priest(s) not only facing away from me but hidden by the iconostasis, and with enough incense to put an asthmatic on a respirator.  What is it that makes me transcend all my principles about a Liturgy in which one can participate fully and with understanding (those old principles of Vatican II)?  I doubt that the average Byzantine or Orthodox priest is any more deeply spiritual than his Roman counterpart, it may just be that the western emphasis on the human person as an embodied intellect has deprived us in the west of a more integrated spiritual development and that consequently our Liturgy—our communal prayer—lacks the depth and richness that a holistic approach to spirituality might produce.  And it may be—which is to say I think that it is—time for us in the west to grow beyond the narrow visions of reality that religion and religious people permit us and let God open for us the vistas he enjoys.  To embrace the world as God knows it rather than as we have been taught to see it is a significant step towards the “Kingdom of God.”  The great mystics of our Catholic tradition show us that—that we are called to a transformation of our human natures to the Divine Nature; that we are to be so united to God as to see the world through his eyes and love the world with the love that fills his heart.  Unfortunately while this doctrine can be found from Iranaeus and Athanasius up through John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila to Merton and contemporary authors, we never hear it in Church.  Moreover, our Sunday morning experience concentrates on turning bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood whereas God’s purpose is that we ourselves should be transformed into the Image of the One who himself is the Image of the Divine Father.   It is you and I who are to be transformed in the Eucharist but the mediocrity of our celebrations makes that task all the more difficult even for an omnipotent God. 

No comments:

Post a Comment