|The Monks of Notre Dame d'Acey Gather For|
I am a faithful reader of New Liturgical Movement, a blog which is somewhat unique in the world of the Katholik Krazies in as that the articles are usually well researched and informative expositions on the history of the Liturgy. Gregory DiPippo, the managing editor, does an especially fine job in mining the arcane for information which is, while not relevant to anything in the Church’s mission of witnessing to the Kingdom of God, of considerable interest to historian and antiquarian alike. In fact, I first discovered New Liturgical Movement when it took exception to something that Dom Anthony Ruff of Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville—a noted liturgical scholar and one of established reputation—wrote regarding my objections to the “offertory” rite of the pre-Conciliar Mass. Mr. DiPippo produced a series of excellent article on the various late medieval rites that support his thesis—and my objection—that scholastic and post-scholastic theology introduces the non-orthodox (i.e. contrary to the Patristic Tradition) notion of a double sacrifice in the Mass: a sacrifice of bread and wine offered to God by the priest that is preliminary to the Sacrifice of Christ which Christ has offered on the Cross and to which we become present in the Mass. The “offertory rites” are a particular bone of contention for those who reject the 1970 Missal which more or less replaces the “offertory” (sacrificial) with a “preparation of the gifts” which is exactly what it says it is: a preparation of the bread and wine which will then become the mysterium by which we become participants in Christ’s once and for all Sacrifice on the Cross.
Sadly, not all of New Liturgical Movement’s entries meet Mr. DiPippo’s standards of research and theological reflection. Peter Kasiniewski recently did an entry on ten reasons why one should choose the pre-Conciliar “Extraordinary Form” over the 1970 “Ordinary Form.” He made some outrageously unsupported claims for the usus antiquior that, to my mind, express exactly why the old rite should not only not be preferred but be suppressed altogether. But it has triggered this series of equally unresearched and data-free reflections on why the “New Mass” is superior to the old rite. I have already posted reasons one through three: now we go for four.
Reason 4 For Why the “New Mass” Is Superior to the Old Rite
True and authentic prayer is intelligible.
Saint Teresa of Avila—whose fifth centenary of birth we celebrate this year—describes prayer as “an intimate conversation with Him whom we know loves us.” What a great description! Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, a spiritual daughter of Teresa of Avila, wrote in her journal about prayer: “I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and he always understands me. For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.” She elaborates on this in another place and says: “I say quite simply to the good God what I want to tell Him, and He always understands me.”
This makes me question why we feel the need to gild the lily beyond recognition and make our chief prayer, the Mass, into something artificial and even arcane. It seems to me that the more prayerful the Liturgy the more nobly simple the celebration. I am not saying that the Mass should not be beautiful—I firmly believe that it should be gorgeous in its every detail; I only believe that its beauty shines out most brilliantly when its essential nature is not buried beneath the baroque trapping that have overlaid it for the last five centuries.
I remember seeing a production of Madama Butterfly at the Houston Opera forty some years ago. I have seen this exquisite opera by Puccini many times in many venues: the Rome Opera House, La Fenice in Venice, The Met in New York, the Lyric in Chicago. What makes the Houston production stand out in my memory from all the others was the utter simplicity of the production. The story, as you probably know, takes place in Japan at the turn of the 20th century. The Houston production, in line with Japanese artistic tradition, was rich in quality but absolutely minimalist in the sets which allowed the music to gleam without distraction. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget the aria Un Bel Di in Scene II where Butterfly sings of her anticipation for Pinkerton’s return. The stage was awash in blue light but otherwise bare except for the drooping pink branches of a weeping cherry. This incredible aria totally captured one’s attention with the only competition being the brilliant pink of Butterfly’s Kimona stage left and the delicate pink branches stage right and the rich blue light making the plain background look alive in moonlight. Reducing the beauty of the Opera to its purest essence impressed it most deeply on both the emotions and the memory.
I had a similar experience some years later while staying at the Abbey of Notre Dame de Aiguebelle near Avignon. That first March evening as the monks filed in for Vespers, I was reminded of Houston’s Madama Butterfly. Cistercian architecture permits no extra ornamentation. The slow toll of a single bass bell in the tower signaled the hour for prayer. The abbey church is devoid of all decoration except for a statue of the Blessed Virgin in a recessed chapel to the left of the altar and a large crucifix on the northern wall of the choir. Plain frosted glass fills the windows. There are but two fat wax candles at the altar, both in holders made of iron and a carved wooden processional crucifix standing to the altar’s right. The monks entered clad simply in their white cowls. The walls are unrelieved white stone as is the pavement. Only the wooden staff he carried distinguished the abbot from the other monks. There was no organ, only the human voice which, once all were in their place, exploded into breathtaking prayer. There was no ceremony save a single monk coming up and spooning incense into an iron censer at the Magnificat. It was pure, unadorned prayer. You could feel the spiritual energy gathered beneath the ancient vaults of the 12th century church. The memories of Puccini’s opera faded fast as the psalms of vespers overtook my memories of Butterfly and began to speak their pressing but plaintive message to look within the heart and surrender all to the mercy of God.
The next morning at Mass—and subsequent mornings of my visit—the Mass spoke profoundly. Only the cross and its Divine Burden, wooden and roughly carved, stood at the altar to remind us of what we were about. There was an absolute economy of movement and an avoidance of any hint of ritual for ritual’s sake. Four priests and a deacon stood alone at the altar, three in cowls and one in an enveloping but unadorned chasuble of deep purple. On the altar stood a large silver cup and a silver bowl of rough unleavened bread. The bare bones of the liturgy, sung in a deep but somewhat wistful chant by the monks, kept us focused on the Sacrifice being offered. There was no fuss and bother, no bowing and scraping, no brocades and jewels. There was no booming organ. There certainly was no corpulent Cardinal trailing yards of scarlet silk. There were only men standing, eyes focused on the altar, deep in prayer as they sang the Church’s prayer.
I know that the average Joe and Josie in the pews need a bit richer diet than this Spartan Trappist spiritual fare offers, but I think that there is too much a danger today of priests becoming old aunts—or let me rephrase that—I have seen too many priests today becoming old aunts who fuss over lacey petticoat-albs and copes that look like they were cut from funeral home drapes as they prance around and bob up and down and bend over wiggling their hind-quarters as they lisp the Sacred Words that should focus our attention not on them but on the Holy Spirit descending upon bread and wine and into stony hearts alike to transform all into Christ. I don’t mean to leave the ladies out of the equation, but please give us men who are strong, loving, and wise to speak clearly and simply to God and lead us, in our hearts, to do the same.
And yes, I am aware that that it isn’t only the Tridentine Tinkerbelles that are the problem. Equally awful are the liturgical left’s Jimmy Kimmel wanna-bees who think their job is to entertain us. I mean, I don’t mind a few laughs during the homily as long as there is some Gospel substance, but I want someone who can lead us in prayer—who is aware that God is part of this equation and that means there needs to be some degree of gravitas. And I may disagree with the neo-cons about what constitutes beauty in art, architecture, and music—just like there are those philistines who want their Madama Butterfly in a garish red kimono and on a flower laden hilltop with a busy harbor beneath filled with ships sailing to and fro just like it probably was at La Scala that night in 1904 when Butterfly was first sung. But please don’t make me sing “Here I am, Lord” one more time. And I don’t want word-strewn felt banners hanging where the statues used to stand. And I don’t want cheap pottery any more than I want those cheap Knights of Columbus chalices on the altar. But in all honesty, I find that sort of crap in fewer and fewer places. I think we still have a long way to go to make the Liturgy as conducive to prayer as it can be, but we have come a long way from the days when a hung-over Monsignor stood scratching his Roman chasubled behind while he stood facing away from us reading the epistle on the right side of the altar. We have a ways to go yet, but we have come a long way and like Moses said to the children of Israel: I ain’t goin’ back.