A Word Fitly Spoken

I have not seen the New Zealand edition of the new Roman Missal, so when I read that the Bishops’ Conference had banned the use of iPads by priests celebrating Mass, I dug a little deeper.

It appears that the New Zealand missal is not liked by some of its users. The layout is allegedly poor, making it difficult to use when presiding at Mass. Typographically, it sounds a mess. Some priests have therefore taken to using the Universalis app on their iPad, and the bishops have objected. They have issued an instruction stating that the (printed) books proper to the liturgy must be used. Now, in principle, I agree. Sacred texts have always been given a place of honour in our churches, and there is  a long tradition of producing books of great loveliness for use in worship. Sadly, however, liturgical books can and do suffer the same typographical and other misfortunes of any printed book: ill-judged combinations of typeface, ink and paper; mean margins; awkward turnovers; shoddy binding.

The New Zealand bishops’ decision has highlighted a problem of our time: what constitutes a book? Paper, wood and parchment are traditional materials. They can be used to produce of objects of great beauty and distinction; but there can also be great beauty in digital books, created using current technologies. As one who has designed books for both traditional and new media, I would hesitate to say that only the printed book is fit for liturgical use. True, I balk at the idea of an iPad being lifted up, incensed and kissed, as we do with the Book of the Gospels during Mass; but I have seen too many priests celebrate the sacred mysteries using old, tattered missals to be overly concerned about the medium of the message. ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.’ Indeed: better the Word from a silver screen than a cracked and yellowed page.


Black and White

There are two colours that old-fashioned printers like me think about more than any other: black and white. What subtle gradations of white there are, and how important the white space on the page is! How many shades of black there are, and how delicately they affect our perception of what is printed! It is my firm opinion that until one can appreciate shades of black, white and grey one ought not to be let loose on colour as commonly understood. Colour is often used to compensate for weak design because it captures the eye and lends an obvious charm. It is rather like make-up applied to the human face: well-done it can add striking effects, but it can never achieve anything as simply perfect as bone and muscle can unaided. The key to good book design is structure: the harmonious blending of white space, typography and layout, all of them in the service of meaning. On the whole, with some important qualifications, I think that holds good for the design of digital pages, too. We need to think in black and white before we can express ourselves in colour.

Is there any analogy to be drawn with prayer? I think there is. Very often we get asked about prayer: what prayer is; how to pray; why God won’t answer my prayers (usually meaning, why won’t God do what I want). Sometimes we get lectured about prayer by Those Who Know (or think they do). We get people writing to us about some of the more difficult passages in mystical authors. We seem to be regarded both as experts in prayer (which we aren’t) or complete boobies (which I suspect we aren’t, either). So, when people ask my advice,  I always want to say, start at the beginning, don’t be afraid of the fact that you will never be as ‘advanced’ as you think you should be. God places the desire to pray in our hearts. ‘All’ we have to do is to allow him to pray in us. That is harder than you might think because it means taking our gaze off ourselves. The very learned and the very complicated must become very simple; and the process of becoming simple is never easy because we cling to our complexity for dear life. We do not like being stripped of the fig-leaves we have gathered for ourselves.

Sometimes those who write about prayer suggest that it is a wonderful adventure, full of light and colour. I hope it is, eventually. My experience, however, suggests that if we wish to learn to pray, we must first learn to think in black and white, in the colours of Calvary as well as of Eden. We must read the scriptures and learn to allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us. Just like the printer designing a page, we must give the process time and never be afraid of beginning again. The Lord’s mercies are new every morning.