Sunday, March 23, 2014

Of Blankees and Bumwiggle Masses

When I was a child (and thought like a child and talked like a child and reasoned like a child) I had my “blankee.”  It was a wonderfully warm and reassuring large square of tan wool bonded in tan silk.  Unfortunately, I was somewhat like Linus and slow to let go of this childhood security even as it became somewhat disgustingly ragged—to me it was always still that veil of security that let me escape back into a better time and place without the complexity of growing into adulthood. 
I also as a child loved the Mass.  It was probably about the time that my grandmother decided that the “blankee” had to go, that I became an altar boy.  I always wanted to be an altar boy.  I was itchy to get inside the railing—be one of the inner club that could tread the sacred space the other side of the communion rail.  And so I learned a unreasoned chain of nonsense syllables  ad De-um qui lae-ti-fi-cat juv-en-tu-tem me-um and su-scip-i-at Dom-i-nus sac-ri-fi-ci-um de man-i-bus tu-is….    Do you have any idea how hard it is to memorize hundreds of nonsense syllables in a specific sequence?  But I did it.  I got my cassock and cotta and my career as an altar server took off.  I was an altar boy’s altar boy.  By High School I was MC for Solemn Masses and I knew where everyone was supposed to be standing or kneeling and what elaborate range of things had to be on the credence table.  I mean, I was ready to step in if the Pope dropped dead: I could do the part of any sacred minister no matter how complex the liturgy was.  I had an innate gift for understanding the ritual and I loved it.  Admittedly I was a bit of a peacock strutting around, pushing the subdeacon six inches to the left, holding back the cope for the archpriest as he stood next to the celebrant, making sure everyone had their birettas.  In retrospect I was a weird kid. 
But there was another side to my love for this liturgy.  Once a year, every year—the last Sunday of July—our parish invited the local Ukrainian Parish to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in our Church.  Father Peter came and Father Michael and their Deacon. Along came a slew of altar servers wearing red silk tunics (not cassocks and surplices).  There were cantors and a choir.  And there were about two-hundred parishioners from the Ukrainian Church.  And my eyes were open to a whole different style of Worship.  Icons were set up and there were clouds of incense.  But everything was in English.  Everything.  Even the Words of Consecration were in English and out loud.  (This was about 1960.)  and the Church shook from the singing as the parishioners (from the St Mary Theotokos, not from our Saint Martin of Tours)  joined the choir and cantors in singing the entire liturgy.  I had never heard a congregation sing before.  And of course at communion time we received Christ as he came to us under the forms of both bread and wine: the Eucharistic bread soaked in the consecrated wine and delivered into our mouths on a golden spoon.   I liked it.  Above all I liked receiving the Precious Blood. I have always had a devotion to the Precious Blood.  But I loved a liturgy where everyone sang with one heart and once voice.  And a liturgy I could understand. My eyes were open to possibilities. 
It was about that time that slowly changes were introduced into our Roman Mass.  Still in high school, I was among the first to become a “lector” and read the epistle at Mass.  We started singing hymns at Mass.  I must admit that even today I hate “Praise to the Lord.” It too soon became an old chestnut.   Was there any other hymn to sing?  We sang it Mass after Mass.  In 1964 parts of the Mass were first done in English.  It was a bit of a hodge-podge—but I could see where this was going and as much as I had loved my old “blankee” of the Mass, it was time to move forward and I was ready. 
Yes there were things that I wonder what we had been thinking of.  “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” at the offertory.  And Ray Repp.  God, did he write terrible music.  “Here we are, all together…”  Even then I wanted to vomit.  I must admit that I was more fortunate than most, however, as through my college years I had access to Mass (and the Divine Office) with a religious community near the college I attended and the music was usually good and the liturgy prayer-filled.  There were some bizarre things, granted—it was the late 60’s—but overall the evolution from the Old Mass to the New was fairly tranquil.
And then when the revisions of Paul VI came out, I was delighted.  Eucharistic Prayers II, III, and IV had a flow to them that the Roman Canon lacked—plus a much more explicit epiclesis.  That has always troubled me about the Roman Canon.  Lucien Deiss and Joseph Gelineau were producing some lovely music and we were borrowing some of the better Protestant hymns: good things from Charles Wesley and with tunes by Hayden.    It has been a long journey since then—and an uneven one.  But the “Old Mass,” like my old “blankee” lay in my past.  They had their day and I am grateful for it but I have found new and deeper securities and new and deeper forms of prayer. 
Of course I have never been one to take Liturgy for granted.  Wherever I have lived, I have searched out worshipping communities that make a priority of prayer filled and reverent liturgies.    I have looked for communities that work at full, active, and conscious participation with good music and readings well proclaimed.  I look for a church which is well maintained and where they have a sense of the sacred in organizing their liturgical space.  Above all, I look for communities in which their worship is first and foremost prayer—and communities that understand the intrinsic relationship between prayer, community, and justice.   When travelling, I do my homework to make sure that I will worship with a community that takes God and his Word seriously and worships him with joyful faith.  I don’t attend the “Traditional Mass.”
I did go, once, several years ago to the Tridentine Mass at the Church of Saint Mary, Mother of God, in Washington DC.  The presider was Monsignor Bruce Harbert, at the time executive director of ICEL (International Commission on English in the Liturgy).  It was a low Mass.  Monsignor came out of the sacristy with his two altar servers and proceeded to do his thing at the altar while we in the pews did a variety of our things—pray from our Missals, say the rosary, read novena booklets, or stare into space.  I never quite saw the point of it. Monsignor gave a good sermon (not a homily) though curiously declared that the Mass is not a propitiatory sacrifice.  I was struck by that as I am quite sure that it is and has been so defined, but I think the context in which Monsignor placed it was again to do away with this idea that Christ is slain again and again, Mass after Mass.  In the end I did not feel comfortable receiving Holy Communion.  Whatever we had done was not expressive of my faith—nor, to my understanding, the faith of the Church.  O perhaps on an objective level it was, but our faith is more than the apprehension of objective truths—it also requires the subjective apprehension of those truths.  And this Mass did not do it.  No, there is no way back for me.  Yes, it was the Mass but it was the Peanut Butter and Jelly Mass and I have long been used to a healthy and nutritious banquet of the Word of God and Body and Blood of his Christ.  No way back.
An aside.  Some friends of mine attended a Memorial Requiem Mass in the old rite for a family friend.  Joe and Sally brought their five children to the Mass—and none of them—adults or children had seen the Tridentine Rite before.  They told me it was a splendid occasion with Deacon and sub-Deacon as well as celebrant.  There was a catafalque surrounded by the six wax candles.  The vestments were black.  The cantor sung the Dies Irae—always one of my favorite pieces of music—bone-chilling.  
Two days later, they caught their six-year old daughter playing Mass.  She always liked to do this—not a good sign for her future happiness in a Church that does not ordain women.  But this time, she was not a card-table facing out, but at the credenza in the dining room, facing the wall.  She had arranged the candles and crucifix and found a black cape to wear.  And she kept bending over and wiggling her rear end.   When asked what she was doing, she said she was playing “Bumwiggle Mass.”  “Your know, Mom,” she said, “like at the Mass for Uncle Dave.  The Priest kept wiggling his bum at us.”  What Mary Catherine had noticed at Mass was how Father kept bending over—at the Confiteor and at the altar—and sort of wiggled a bit as he said his prayers.  Ah well, for some the Tridentine Mass might be the most beautiful thing this side of heaven, but beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. 

1 comment:

  1. I was 24 years old in 1969, when the Novus Ordo was introduced, so I well remember the Tridentine mass and the manner in which it was, for the most part, celebrated.

    I recall attending Low Mass in Notre Dame de Paris – the choir, from the chancel arch to the high altar is 36m and the transept adds a further 14m, so someone in the front pew was 50m (162 feet) from the priest, under a vault 33m high. The nave is 60m long, so someone at the back was about 100m from him – about the length of a football field. There was no sound system.

    A Low Mass was completely inaudible and the Sanctus bell served a very practical purpose. When the priest turned to us, we knew, of course, that he was saying “Dominus vobiscum,” but, had he said « Salut les copains » only the server would have been any the wiser.

    Sermons were preached from the pulpit in the nave. The celebrant’s manner was usually brisk, but reverent, and his gestures restrained; without a homily, mass lasted for some 20 minutes.

    That is, perhaps, an extreme case, but even in the typical parish church, the distance from altar to front pew was often a good 20m (65 feet).

    Now, I happen to regard Haydn’s Nelson Mass (Missa in Angustiis) as one of the great moments of Western Music, I love Mozart’s Coronation Mass and I know few things more lovely than Fauré’s In Paradisum. I love the early composers – Josquin des Prez and Guillaume Dufay, but it is the music, rather than the form of the rite it accompanies that is important here.