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.

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Living With Stress

A tweet from @Deborahhollamby caught my eye this morning. She was talking about the impact stress can have on our health. Anyone who suffers from an immune disorder knows how damaging stress can be, but what exactly is stress and how long have we been subject to it? I can’t find any references to ‘stress’ in the sense that we use the word earlier than the twentieth century; so is it a modern phenomenon? A case of re-minting an old word to give it a keener edge?

‘Distress’ has been around a lot longer; and to me, at least, its root meaning, from the Latin distringere, to pull or stretch apart, is both clearer and more evocative. We all know the feeling of being torn apart by worry or conflicting duties or events in our lives which make us unhappy. Is the way we cope with distress fundamentally different from the way in which we cope with stress?

Whether we call it stress or distress, we all have to live with imperfect circumstances that can make huge physical and emotional demands on us, but I do think monastic life offers some guidelines for dealing with it that should be better known. I have often mentioned that end-of-the-day review (examination of conscience) which allows us consciously to accept both the good and the bad and turn it all over to God. That act of turning things over to God isn’t a cop out. It is a recognition that we aren’t in charge, God is. When we take ourselves from centre stage, we allow God more scope; and that must be good.

It isn’t only the end-of-day review that helps. Every time we go into choir to sing the Divine Office, we sign ourselves with the Cross and with holy water. That is a powerful reminder both of our baptism and of our desire to stand before God with clean hearts, free from anything that might be unworthy of him. Sometimes we don’t just have to purify our hearts, we have to pacify them as well. Letting go is often hard to do, but being regularly called back into the Prayer of Christ is a way of freeing ourselves from the bonds that stress (or distress) create.

For those who don’t live in monasteries, this could seem a bit remote from reality; but most of us do have odd moments during the day when we have no particular duty or job to do. Such moments can be used for turning to the Lord, creating out of the chaos of our lives something that is quiet and still. If all else fails and the demons continue to haunt us, we can remember that Jesus’ quiet time was in Gethsemane and it was on the Cross that he finally, irrevocably turned everything over to God.

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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.

 

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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.

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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?

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Witnessing to What or to Whom?

Today’s gospel, Luke 24. 35-48, tells us what happened after the disclosure at Emmaus. What fascinates me is not the disciples’ obvious failure yet again to recognize Jesus, nor that piece of broiled fish and what it says about Christ’s resurrected body (and believe me, the speculation to which it has given rise over the centuries is immense), but the words at the end:

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

Perhaps I am being very dim but the kind of witness being posited here is actually a little strange. The disciples had seen Christ suffer and die and rise again and had had the scriptures explained to them, but now he is asking them to witness to a future event: the preaching of forgiveness and repentance in his name. We hear our preachers exhorting us to ‘witness to Christ’ in various ways, but I wonder how often we think of that in terms of a past event: the death and resurrection of Christ as something located in history, made present through liturgical anamnesis, but essentially something to which we look back rather than forward. We are in the business of retelling the story rather than helping to tell it for the first time.

I am probably trembling on the brink of heresy again, but the idea of witnessing to a future proclamation of Christ which must embrace the whole world is quite stunning. It reminds us that Easter is the beginning of the story, not the end. There is still something for us to do, and do it we must, for it has been entrusted to us by Christ himself. As we shall sing at Pentecost, ‘All is made new.’

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Illustrations for the New Missal

Yesterday CTS Catholic Compass made public one of the illustrations it will be using in the new version of the Roman Missal. It’s taken from the lovely Ingeborg Psalter and you can look at it here. As a humble book designer myself, I entirely agree with one of the comments, that being from a book of similar proportions, it will make a better illustration than a scaled-down altar-piece or fresco. As a lapsed medievalist, I also agree that the illustration is in itself perfectly lovely and modern printing methods will allow it to be reproduced with an accuracy and brilliance impossible even twenty years ago. So, why do I have a niggle?

The Ingeborg Psalter represents talent in the service of religion, something which transcends time and place, but, as you can see from the illustration, is also very much the product of a particular time and place. I believe that our own generation is capable of producing art that is both faith-filled and beautiful, and part of me is sorry that the missal editors have not sought out some contemporary artist to illustrate its pages. I don’t subscribe to the view that all contemporary art is ugly and brutal. I do subscribe to the view that our churches and everything in them should be the best we are capable of. A beautiful medieval psalter is a safe choice but is it the best choice? What do you think?

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Seeing only Jesus

The last few days have been moderately awful, even without the horrors experienced by the people of Japan and Libya. Several of our friends have been going through what one might reasonably call ‘a bumpy patch’, while we ourselves have been struggling to meet a deadline, not helped by a number of additional demands over which we had no control. So we reach the Second Sunday of Lent tired and scratchy and what do we find? One of the most beautiful and arresting liturgies of the Church year.

In the middle of this season of fasting and penance, the collect invites us to ‘feast interiorly on the Word’, then the gospel takes us up on to Mount Tabor to witness the Transfiguration. How embarrassingly petty seem all the irritations of the past week. Even those things which tugged at the heart strings are transformed by being taken into this mysterious presence whose calm and beauty illumine our inner darkness. ‘And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one with them any more but only Jesus.’ That surely is the secret: to see only Jesus whatever may befall.

A long time ago, when I used to be asked to produce Office hymns at the drop of a wimple, I tried to express something of this moment of  Transfiguration in words:

A single moment holds
Eternity’s vast span,
As wondering earth beholds
God’s heaven revealed in Man.

Both sun and moon grow dim
And lesser stars yield place
As Light from Light they hymn
In Christ’s transfigured face.

Now Law and Prophets speak
Of what must soon befall
The One who dares to seek
Salvation for us all.

Here Peter, James and John
Stand awed by this strange sight
As whom they gaze upon
Shines whiter than the light.

The Father’s voice is heard —
Bright cloud hides all around —
His Son, the listening Word,
Alone, alone is found.

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Why Are Catholics So Nasty?

Whenever I want to think through a coding problem for a web site, I “waste” time by looking at a number of religious blogs. The distraction helps, and I often end up finding something useful or stimulating while the coding problem resolves itself once I have stopped thinking about it. Maybe it’s just the blogs I follow, but I have to say that the ones I enjoy most are not often Catholic. Indeed, the Catholic blogosphere is sometimes a very nasty place to be. Why should that be so?

I think it may have to do with the current fashion for damning Vatican II and all its works and exalting the minutiae of liturgical observance. Now, I am not uninterested in liturgy, said she with a dangerous gleam in her eye, but I believe reverence is more important than anything. Say the black and do the red, but don’t accuse those whose practice differs from your own of lack of orthodoxy or worse. Don’t cherry-pick the Councils, either, if you want to have a truly Catholic understanding of the Church. Those more papal than the pope worry me. The energy devoted to hating others seems inconsistent with what we profess to believe. Of course, it could just be that I am out of step with the times. I don’t mind that if I am in step with Christ and his Church, or at least not too far off-course, though I can’t judge.

In the novitiate we were urged to be always one with the mind of the Church. That means reading and reflecting and taking the trouble to find out for oneself, rather than just assuming. It also means being kind. I think we sometimes forget that. When Christians cease to love one another, they cease to be Christians except in name. The history of Christianity is marred by rows and we live today with the resulting divisions. As we prepare to go to Mass, I can’t help wondering how I shall answer the question, “What did you do to bring unity to my Church? Did you love as I have loved you?” I hope that I won’t have to say, I abused your gifts, I wrote nastily about others, I hated and divided; but shall I?

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Calm of Mind

The parish Mass this morning began with “Shine, Jesus, shine” which, as some of you know, is the community’s least favorite hymn. Yesterday’s bookcase-building plans had to be laid aside, and there followed a sleepless night for Digitalnun, so possibly not all was interior sweetness and light. In such situations there’s nothing for it but to let one’s distractions roam over what one has to be grateful for.

So, in no particular order, this is what I gave thanks for earlier today: the grey light over the church; the faith of those who gathered there; the jackdaw strutting over the lawn; the bulbs piercing their way through the dark earth; the smell of coffee; Duncan’s comical nose; the beauty of a new book; someone near me absolutely pitch-perfect (even in “Shine”!); the quietness of the monastery; the fact that I can see, hear and walk; the gift of community.

Isn’t it absurd to waste time and energy disliking a hymn when the beauty and holiness of God is everywhere? Praise him.

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