Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Is the Latin Mass beautiful?

UPDATE: I've made some changes to the last paragraph of this post.

Believe or not, this really is related to this morning's post about whether the Traditional Latin Mass is Romantic or Modern.

To answer this afternoon's question is a lot easier than this morning's. We simply use the classic cop out: that depends on what you think is beautiful. (Which, if you're keeping score, is a point for the modern side of this morning's question.)

But it doesn't get us very far because it is a cop out.

Here is the problem. Imagine someone who converts to Catholicism from Anglicanism. Now, not all Anglican services are beautiful (most these days are ugly and plain) but some are beautiful. When the Anglicans decide to do it right, they have some really, really beautiful liturgy. Okay, so what happens when someone whose idea of beautiful liturgy has been conditioned by years of The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) goes to a Traditional Latin Mass (TLM)? The answer is that confusion happens.

The effect is a little like what it would be like for a hard core fan of American football to go to a game that was described as being like football only to find that, while players dressed, huddled and lined up like the football they knew, there was no actual ball. So the payers would line up, then break and huddle again and line up but never anything that our poor football fan would recognize as action.

To go back to the BCP service. What makes it beautiful? What plays the part of the ball in football and makes the action progress? The answer to that is, the language makes it beautiful. Appreciating the beauty of a BCP service is mostly a matter of appreciating the language. There may well be music and vestments and incense too, but the language is what makes it special.

There is some beautiful language in the TLM but it's in Latin! And you can't hear most of it.

If you ask any fan of the TLM about that, they won't even have to think about their answer. They will say: "It doesn't matter that you can't understand or hear the language because ...

... it's not being prayed to you!"

The priest says, or, even better, sings, the mass to God for you and not to you for God. Your role in the thing is supportive.

If you're not familiar with the TLM, let me tell you about something that shakes most people: you're not allowed to say the words of the Our Father, or Pater Noster, because this is Latin after all, along with the priest. We're only allowed to say the last line, "Sed libera nos a malo", which is said as a response to the priest having said the rest of the prayer first. Even fans of the TLM sometimes bristle at that. I was at a mass last week where the priest turned to the congregation after the mass was over and chastised "the faithful" because some had joined in with him.

Why can't we? Because, as Lady Marchmain would say, it's not in the logic of the thing.

Here is a fascinating quote about Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (love that name) from a book I've been rereading:
The commission essentially made Viollet-le-Duc's reputation as one of the most important, even infamous, architects of the nineteenth century. Almost solely responsible for creating a new field of restoration architecture, he challenged the neoclassicism of the Académie des beaux-arts, whose traditionally conservative architects tended to dismiss Gothic buildings as ornamental, or at best superfluous. Viollet-le-Duc set out to prove them wrong, by insisting not on the beauty but on the extremely rational basis of Gothic architecture—the structural significance of every buttress and gargoyle. (Decadent Enchantments P7)
And, if you are going to get the Traditional Latin Mass, that is way to approach it. Don't look for beauty, look for the rational basis of the thing. There is a carefully reasoned significance to almost every detail of the TLM. Appreciating it means understanding those signifiers and how they fit into the underlying logic of the thing.

And getting to the point where you can do that is hard work.  You have to go at least 20 times before you start to get the sense of thing. And you have to start at home and prepare for the experience by reading the missal and figuring out, studying and, yes, memorizing the mass so that you can participate in it by not just following along but letting your heart leap along with it. You get to the point where you don't need to say the words of the Pater Noster because your heart feels every word the priest says and you affirm those words by responding "Sed libera nos a malo" at the end.

And that only gets you to the point where the mystery begins ...

More on this next week, but the the direction I'm going is to affirm that the TLM shows the way to be really modern. In a good way.


  1. One thing you seem to be overlooking--but maybe that's to come next week--is the communal aspect of the Mass, either TLM or Novus Ordo. Some scholars have argued that it is the congregation or the community that makes the Mass--specifically the Consecration--valid. The Latin prayers that people can't understand aren't simply prayers to God that the priest says on behalf of the congregation, but part of an actual dynamic occurrence in which bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Further, they argue, the priest--along with the congregation of those assembled--perform the actual Consecration, their mere presence is sufficient. A compelling argument in support of this is the fact that, as I understand it, here in the US if a priest goes on vacation he isn't allowed to say Mass for himself alone in his hotel room, but must seek out a nearby Church if he wants to go to Sunday Mass. So, if the congregation is a necessary and integral part of this process called the Mass, isn't it more appropriate or even necessary that they be able to understand what is being said that accomplishes this transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ?
    The other thing is that long before the Novus Ordo came to the English speaking world, the Mass was being celebrated in the vernacular or native language of many countries for decades if not centuries. Even here in the US with the wave of immigration in the 20th C. there were established Polish National Parishes, or Italian Parishes, Lithuanian, in which the Mass was said in those languages, while the English speaking parishes were still saying TLM. So Mass in the vernacular of the country in which it was being said was only a new phenomenon in the English speaking world.

    1. Let's start with basics. Christ is the only sine qua non in the equation. He makes himself present at the mass and he makes this sacrament, as is the case with all sacraments, really happen. Among the human participants, only the priest has a sacerdotal (literally "dare to do the sacrament") role. Where and when a priest may say mass is up to his bishop. Father John Nepil of Colorado, for example, was given permission to say mass on a mountaintop. Bishop sometimes, albeit rarely, grant special permission for a mass to be held in a hospital room.

      These days mass without the people, but with one server, is not encouraged but you can still see it. One of the places you can see it a lot is in Vatican City.

      As to the participation issue, it seems to me that the big question is not whether the people should feel that our participation is somehow required (which is pretty vain) but what special efforts can and should we make when participating? Should we prepare ourselves by, just for example,

      1) reading the collect of the day, which the priest still says for us, ahead of time and making sure that we believe and want what that prayer asks for so it really is our prayer,

      2) reading the antiphons and readings and thinking deeply about what they mean ahead of time,

      3) thinking about and make a specific intention for this mass,

      4) fasting.

      One thing about the TLM is that it has specific rules for that sort of thing. Nowadays we tend to argue that what comes from the heart is better than following rules by rote. The problem is that, while that sounds good, it tends to become a matter of doing nothing. We think that our heart wants to love but it has to be trained to love.

      I should add that I am not necessarily advocating a return to the TLM, although I think it should always be available where numbers wanting it warrant it. I do think, however, that we would celebrate the Novus Ordo in a way that was much more genuine and meaningful if we emphasized its continuity with the TLM rather than its discontinuity.

  2. Ok so you make my point that a priest has to ask for permission to say Mass, say, on a mountain top, or in any setting where there are no or few others present. I think Mass in hospital rooms occurs frequently here, I don't think they have to ask permission, and Masses in peoples' homes as well, but in those settings there are others present along with the Priest. I'm sure that cloistered monks or hermits must have blanket permission to say Mass alone too. I guess maybe its helpful to remember that at the first Mass all the disciples understood Jesus' words, he didn't say them in Latin. I also don't think we have to earn the right to be there, Jesus said whenever two or more are gathered in my name. Real penitence comes from the heart, right?

    1. "I also don't think we have to earn the right to be there, Jesus said whenever two or more are gathered in my name. Real penitence comes from the heart, right?"

      Well, you tell me. What does it mean for "real penitence to come from the heart"? And what does it mean to show real faith, real hope and real love? Catholic leaders, especially here in North America, have gotten so lax nowadays that no one makes you do anything so we can't rely on the church for guidance in these issues.

      I go to mass and tell myself that I have faith. How do I know I'm sincere. Do I screw my face up and concentrate really hard as I'm doing it? What makes it real?

  3. I know, I know, I agree with you, I feel the same way sometimes. If I become distracted by snow starting to fall or a fly buzzing around am I not being sincere? I think that's part of the paradox of faith, while there's an obvious communal aspect to gathering in Jesus' name, it is also intensely personal and private. I don't know how you measure what's in someone's heart, real faith, real hope, real love, and I don't think the Church really knows either. I think it changes over the course of our lives, sometimes its stronger than other times. Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises talks about the tug of war between Desolation (hopelessness) and Consolation (hope), I've been told or read that some saints experienced 40 yrs of Desolation, I guess in their writings they expressed feeling alienated from God, almost to the point of despair, or even if there is a God. So what kept them going to Mass every day (the ones who did),and what was their experience of the Mass? Maybe we're asking questions for which there are no answers, or trying to quantify that which can't be quantified.