The Mass: ever ancient, ever new

I rarely comment on liturgy, not because I am uninterested or lack any opinions (far from it!), but because I am sometimes uneasy about the way in which the subject is discussed. The introduction yesterday of a new translation of the Mass has prompted a few thoughts, however.

The language of prayer used in church has always an objective character. It is not a question of ‘what works for me’ but of what expresses the Church’s faith. It is, if you like, theology turned into poetry and drama. The words matter; the actions matter; the setting matters. It is a holy sacrifice in which we are called to share; so what we are matters, too. Every form of Mass sanctioned by the Church is, in the most literal sense, traditional: something precious handed on through the generations — one with every other Mass that ever has been or ever could be celebrated, one with the sacrifice of Calvary itself. Sometimes I think we forget that. Because we are interested in liturgy, because we enjoy the ‘doing’ of it, we treat liturgy like anything else, allowing ourselves a freedom I’m not sure we actually have. Liturgy in the Catholic Church is a ‘given’: one that requires whole-hearted collaboration and provides endless scope for true creativity (note the emphasis) of course, but a ‘given’ nonetheless.

We have decided in community that we shall say nothing, good or bad, about the new translation until six months have elapsed. If anyone is familiar with the Latin texts and has some years’ experience of liturgical translation, it is important to lay aside any prejudices or preconceived notions. We need to see the Mass with fresh eyes; listen to it with fresh ears. Discussion can get in the way of that, and with the approval of the new translation, the time for discussion is in any case effectively over.

Liturgical discussions often turn nasty because they are not really about liturgy at all. They are an excuse to vent negative feelings, using an irreproachable subject as pretext. The Mass is too important for that, too holy for that. Maybe over the next six months we shall have an opportunity not only to rediscover the Mass but also to discover something new about ourselves, too. The one thing you can be absolutely sure of is that the more we seek to know God, the more we get to know ourselves.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Something for the In-Laws

Everyone loves today’s first reading at Mass (Ruth 1:1, 3–6; 14–16, 22). Looking at the wedding flowers in the church and reflecting how often the ‘Wherever you go’ passage is used of the love of the bride for her groom, I couldn’t help thinking that we’d do better to use it as an encouragement (and exhortation) to the in-laws. Ruth makes that beautiful declaration to her mother-in-law. It tells us something important about the relationship between the two women: the love and mutual concern they had built up over a period of years and its resilience in the face of many trials.

It can’t have been easy for either: Ruth, the Moabitess, the complete outsider, being welcomed into the Jewish family circle; Naomi, the mother of two sons, seeing them both marry ‘out’ and then die before her. It could have led to endless discontent and bickering, but it didn’t. At a time of supreme difficulty, famine, the bond between the two women showed itself immensely strong. We should rejoice that it did, for Ruth was to become one of the ancestors of Jesus — a reminder that there are no ‘outsiders’ in the family of God.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Assumption of the B.V.M.

In previous years I have written about the Catholic Church’s teaching on this subject. Rather than go over that again I thought I would spend a minute or two this morning reflecting on the position that Mary holds in the life of ordinary Catholics. For a fuller treatment, take a look at one of my earliest eBooks, Magnificat (link opens in new window).

Our essential belief about Mary is that she is the Mother of God, Theotokos, God-bearer. Everything else flows from that. Her preservation from the stain of original sin, her assumption, body and soul, into heaven after death, her invocation as greatest of the saints: all these derive from her role as Mother of God. The Church describes the reverence we show Mary as hyperdulia, not to be confused with latria, the adoration given to God alone, or dulia, the reverence we show, or should show, one another as human beings.

What this teaching doesn’t really convey is the warmth of Catholic devotion to Mary. She is both God’s Mother and ours: someone whose prayers we ask with confidence because she knows exactly what it is like to cope with the multitudinous demands of ordinary life. She is one of us, yet shows us what it means to be truly blessed. Hence all that tacky ‘art’, those sentimental hymns, the slightly over-the-top expressions of love and devotion. They are our imperfect human way of rejoicing in the gift she has given us: Jesus Christ our Saviour. Perhaps because we are women ourselves, or perhaps because we belong to such an ancient tradition in the Church, Benedictine nuns tend not to talk much about Mary. We have no special devotions, no flamboyant gestures. We don’t need them because Mary is very close. She is, in truth, Our Lady.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Transfiguration

The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch
The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch, © Stanbrook Abbey

The Transfiguration is one of the most luminous of feasts. Whatever happened at Tabor, whether at night as many suppose, or during the day, something of Jesus’ glory as God was revealed to Peter, James and John. No wonder the Cluniacs made this feast peculiarly their own: it breathes a very Benedictine sense of the divine glory being in everyone and everything.

That is very far from pantheism or a lovely warm fuzzy glow about the essential niceness of everything. It is instead a call to action, to a way of being. The Transfiguration reminds us of the glory of being human as well as Jesus’ glory as Son of God. When we really take that on board, we cannot go on acting as we once did, using (and possibly abusing) others for our own ends. We cannot be rude or impatient or scornful. Or rather, we can, but if we are any of those things, it is a sign that we have not yet allowed the grace of God full scope in our lives.

Earlier this week I was involved in a series of emails with people who claimed to be Christian but were the reverse of courteous. The correspondence demonstrated something I have often remarked upon: unless we treat our online communications as seriously as our offline communications and observe the same standards of truthfulness and courtesy, those of us who claim to be Christian are doing a tremendous disservice to our Faith. The internet/email/social media are as much a sacred space as any other. Here, too, we must allow the glory of God to shine through, for the Transfiguration is here and now as well as in eternity.

A note on the illustration
The illustration comes from a reprinting of the card D. Werburg Welch designed for the Abbé Couturier’s movement for Christian Unity before World War II. It was originally issued in several languages with a prayer he had composed. When I was printer at Stanbrook, it was reissued both on handmade paper and in a commercial edition.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Praying in a Different Mode

For the past couple of weeks, while away from the monastery, I have experienced many different forms of liturgical prayer. Instinctively, of course, I recall the forms I am familiar with. The rather lengthy Vigils with which we habitually begin the day has no real counterpart in the Roman Office or the many variants derived from it. Yet without that long exposure to psalmody, scripture and the Fathers the day seems somewhat ‘lightweight’. However, on the principle that when in Rome, etc. I have been trying to learn to pray in a different mode, as it were. It has reminded me that liturgy is not about what we ‘do for God’ but entirely about what God does for us. He has no need of our psalmody or our singing, but he gives us both as a way of approaching the mystery of his being. So, yes, I do miss Vigils and Latin Vespers and lots of other things, but I am perfectly content because I know that it is praying in this way, now, and in no other, that I can hope to meet God. Something to remember when attending Mass, too.

 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Humility of St Barnabas

When I was a novice we used to remark on the fact that St Barnabas was always celebrated liturgically as a Memoria. (In simple terms, that means he got four candles instead of six, and no gloria.) Yet, if one reads the New Testament attentively, it is clear that Barnabas was a man of considerable spiritual authority in the early Church. Whether or not we believe Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, that he was one of the 72 disciples sent out by the Lord, he was obviously an early convert and was placed first among the prophets and teachers of Antioch. It was he who stood surety for Paul in Jerusalem after the latter’s conversion. When the mission to the gentiles was inaugurated in Antioch, Barnabas set out for Tarsus to persuade Paul to join in the work of preaching.

We can chart the course of the next few years: Cyprus, then Perga, where John Mark departed (‘deserted’ according to Paul), Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, back to Antioch again and the debate about circumcision, and finally, the parting of the ways, when Barnabas went with John Mark back to Cyprus and Paul and Silas revisited the churches of Asia Minor. Somewhere in the course of these years the disciple began to eclipse the master, but the friendship between the two persisted (see 1 Cor 9. 5 to 6). There are many contradictory traditions about his last years but his best epitaph is that given him by Luke, ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.’

Why, then, do I talk of his humility? His openness to the Greeks, his readiness to lay aside many of his most cherished Jewish traditions, cannot have been easy for him; nor can it have been easy to see his pupil and protegé ‘overtaking’ him, so to say, in influence. He was a man who inspired affection and whose nature enabled him to remain friends with both Paul and John Mark, despite the quarrel between them. I think he must have been essentially modest. Perhaps the lack of a gloria on his feast is as it should be. On the eve of Pentecost it is good to be reminded that the Spirit blows where he wills and allowing ourselves to be guided by him is our greatest glory.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Women at the Altar

Like many Cantabs, I have been following at one remove the goings-on at Fisher House, Cambridge, and the row that has erupted over female servers at Masses in the Extraordinary Form. Rome has now clarified that women are not to serve at such Masses. Anyone with a smattering of liturgical understanding and knowledge of how Rome operates will understand how and why such a decision has been made. Note that understanding (and obedience) does not necessarily imply unequivocal endorsement. There are situations where a server is required if a priest is to be able to say Mass (ask any nun who has watched an elderly and confused priest struggling through Mass and failing to consecrate the elements). In my view, it is more reverent to have a server (of whatever sex) quietly waiting at the side than an incomplete Mass or much to-ing and fro-ing on the altar steps. That, however, is not the situation at Cambridge or in most parish churches, nor the one for which Rome is legislating.

That said, what do I find upsetting about the reports coming in from Cambridge? Two things. First, the language being used strikes me as profoundly irreverent. We are talking about the Mass, for heaven’s sake, and the accusations and counter-accusations, the talk of boycott and delation, the concentration on what I would regard as secondary matters at the expense of what is primary are, to me, disturbing. St Benedict distinguishes between good zeal and bad, seeing one as building up and the other as destructive. The point is, both are zeal, i.e. energy and enthusiasm at the service of an ideal. I personally do not doubt the good faith of any of those involved in the dispute, but I cannot help wondering whether the nature and intensity of the row is going to prove damaging.

The second thing that troubles me is more difficult to articulate. Catholicism is not a pick-and-mix religion and the liturgical norms determined by the Holy See will always be scrupulously observed here. But, not for the first time, I have the uneasy sense that there is another agenda at work among some of those who argue most vociferously. The dismissive, one might say belittling, language used of women and the presentation of liturgy as something chaps do and chapesses don’t is becoming unpleasantly commonplace. I don’t believe that everyone has to do everything (St Benedict has something to say on that subject, too) but I do think we should ask ourselves whether we are becoming exclusive in a way that is fundamentally at odds with our Tradition. Paradoxical though it may seem, as we assert some things as a strengthening of our Catholicism are we in danger of becoming less catholic?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Emmaus Moments

We read the Emmaus gospel twice during Eastertide, once during the Octave and again today, the third Sunday of Easter, but life is full of Emmaus moments: times when the veil is lifted and we see, as if for the first time, something that has been there all along but of which we had previously been unaware. These mini-revelations can become epiphanies, revelations of God himself.

Yesterday I went into the greenhouse to check on my seedlings and looked up to see the raindrops falling from the roof — beautiful iridescent drops of water, falling as thickly as those Julian of Norwich saw falling from the eaves of her house so many centuries ago. She likened them, if you remember, to herring scale, but what she was referring to were the drops of blood that fell from Christ’s head as he hung on the Cross. If you look, even here, on a rainy day in a quiet English village, you can can ‘see his blood upon the rose/and in the stars the glory of his eyes’. Emmaus moments are many.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Filled with Awe and Great Joy

The Resurrection of Christ
Michelangelo: Sketch of the Resurrection

After the splendour of the Easter Vigil we now have a quiet hour or two when we can reflect on what the Resurrection means for each of us. All three synoptics tell us that it was the women going secretly to anoint Jesus who were the first to hear that ‘He has risen from the dead’. In our very male-dominated Church, it is easy to forget that women were (and are) apostles of the Resurrection, called to ‘tell the disciples and Peter’ what they have seen and heard. To be an apostle in this sense, to witness to the reality of the Resurrection, to proclaim it fearlessly, is indeed to be filled with awe and great joy.

May you have a blessed Easter.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Paschal Triduum 2011

Easter WordleTonight we begin the most important part of the Christian year. The whole week has been full of surprises, stretching our understanding of time and space. Now, as we go deeper into the mystery, the liturgy is a sure guide to what would otherwise be overwhelming. The three days are one; just as the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ are one salvific act; and we must take our part in each. We must taste the bitterness of our own sinfulness if we are to relish the sweetness of our salvation. We must make the journey from death to life.

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper will remind us of Christ’s gift of himself in the Eucharist and in the Priesthood. It will remind us, too, that the priesthood of the New Testament is one of loving and humble service. We shall accompany Christ to Gethsemane, kneel beside him during the dark hours of doubt and dread; feel the betrayer’s kiss on our cheek; endure the long, long night of questioning and abuse.

On Good Friday the liturgy will revert to a very simple, ancient form. We are in a world without light, without sacraments. There is only the bleak narrative of the Passion and the prayers, piling up like the waves of the sea. As we creep towards the Cross we carry with us the burden of a lifetime’s sin, sin that has been nailed to that Cross and forgiven with the death of our Saviour.

Then comes Holy Saturday, empty, still, silent as the tomb. We are waiting, waiting. On Easter Eve, when the new fire is kindled, we share in the explosion of life and joy that is the Resurrection. The Exsultet dares to say what we cannot: ‘O happy fault . . . O necessary sin of Adam’. Only one word can express our joy, and throughout the Easter season we shall sing it over and over again, ‘Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.’

May your celebration of the sacred Triduum be blessed. We shall keep you in our prayers.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail