Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Liturgical Reform

(a long one)

With the motu proprio and all the rest, it's worth thinking about liturgical reform. A good place to start is by thinking about the Liturgy of the Hours.

The Liturgy of the Hours is, of course, the series of offices that clerics and religious are required to pray, and laity encouraged to pray, through the day. The core of this liturgy is the Psalms, and that's important. The Psalms are the liturgy of Israel and the liturgy of the Bible. St. Athanasius (and many others) said, "The Psalms contain the whole of Scripture in the mode of praise." In other words, the Psalms are the Bible-for-prayer. There are big debates over how Catholics ought to think about revelation, but I'd put it this way: in the course of the development of the Temple liturgy, these 150 worship songs emerged as definitive and inspired. The community recognized, one way or another, that these were true, as in, big-t True, proclaiming what needed to be proclaimed. They spoke the truth about God then, and they foretold the truth of the Messiah to come. And so they were the liturgy.

Already in the New Testament the Psalms emerge as the continuing prayer of the Christian Church. (I won't do a Scripture study here to prove it, but it's true.) And this was natural enough -- I don't think it occurred to the early Church that there was any rupture with what had come before. The true rupture, they would say -- and this is the reason for all the debates that later got labeled, anachronistically, as anti-Semitism -- is the Jews who rejected the culmination of revelation in the person of Jesus the Christ. In any case, the liturgy continued, fulfilled. The Christians sang the Psalms because they still worshiped the God of the Psalms and now the Messiah of the Psalms, too, and, like any Jews, they believed the Psalms were divinely inspired. So they continued the Temple liturgy. They sang the songs.

The desert fathers are great on this. I'm no expert, but I've taken a couple classes on the desert. Basically, once Christians were no longer being executed en masse (after Constantine, so fourth century), they had the freedom to seek God unhindered, and many hit the deserts of the Levant, especially Egypt. And what did they do? They prayed the Psalms. In fact, they spent all day sitting there repeating these sacred songs, digging deeper and deeper into the God and Messiah revealed and praised therein. This had been happening in the ordinary Christian communities as well, but you really see it take off in the desert.

Then comes Benedict (sixth century), who codifies this way of "desert" monastic prayer for the West. The Rule of St. Benedict does a lot, but at the center is the opus Dei, the praying of the Psalms.

Now, this narrative is all sort of beside the point, and you could trace the lineage other ways, but the point is, the praying of the Psalms is an unhindered tradition. It's nothing made up or discovered. We pray the Psalms now because we have always prayed the Psalms. The early Church prayed them, Jesus prayed them, and Israel, the pre-Church, prayed them. They are the truth of God in praise. And that is Christian prayer.

One more intriguing point. According to the old Catholic encyclopedia (1907-1914), part of the genius of the Roman Psalter is its, well, its lack of genius. A couple psalms are selected for special significance. You've got Psalm 51 allotted to Friday, because it's a penitential day. You've got those last psalms of praise put in the morning, because it's good to praise God in the morning. And a couple more. But otherwise, the traditional Roman Psalter has a pretty boring organization. For example, vespers on Sunday is Psalms 109-113, Monday 114-120, Tuesday 121-125, etc. There's a genius here. But the genius is in austerity, because the point is, we're praying as God, through his holy Church, beginning in the Temple, has given us to pray. When you pray such a boring organization of the Psalms, you see that the liturgy of the hours is not some neat-o kean-o "order of worship;" it's just the Psalter, more or less straight through. Because nothing we can do can really add to the glory of God's Word.

Incidentally, I think this is what the Mass is really about. The Mass really comes down to one thing: reading the Scriptural narrative that says "This is my Body, this is my Blood, do this." Unfortunately, the austerity of this is sometimes lost in popular versions of in persona Christi. Pay attention to how the actual liturgy of the Mass goes. It's all in the third person, spoken to the Father. Contrary to popular belief, in persona Christi does not mean that suddenly the priest jumps in and "becomes" Christ. The words of institution are in quotation marks, surrounded by third-person narrative. In persona Christi means just that the priest is the one who gets to read this narrative in its authoritative context. (Proof of this is both a study of the phrase in persona in the middle ages, but even more, a very simple glance at the actual liturgy, what Catholics do when they pray.)

To be sure, "do this in memory of me" is Christ's promise that when the Church, duly ordered, with an ordained priest as celebrant, invokes these words, they are true: it is his body and blood. Still, we mustn't forget that what is happening at the Mass -- all that is happening -- is that we are invoking the words of the Bible. We are just repeating, over and over again, the central words of the Biblical narrative. As with the Psalms, that's just what Christians do: we worship by proclaiming the revealed words of God. We have, really, nothing to add.

Now, we do add things, and that's appropriate. What we add is solemnity. It's appropriate not to just leap into the Institution Narrative, but to indicate, as best we can, that we're taking this seriously. It's appropriate, with both the Psalms and the Mass, to add some other Biblical readings. The New Testament, in particular, is a way of connecting ourselves, standing-with, the early Church. We should appreciate the primativeness, the austerity, of reading letters -- letters -- written by St. Paul. More than anything, we are invoking the Church through the ages. By reading Paul, we try to enter into what it was like for those first Christians, who stood in awe before the words of Christ. Ditto for the Gospel reading, and the Psalm, and the Old Testament reading, if there is one.

To be sure, these readings are inspired. They speak the divine, revealed truth. But in a sense, the only point is to "pad" our reading of the Institution Narrative with things that help us enter in, that set the scene, that remind us that we belong to that same people of the early Church, that we stand before the same God, that Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

We pad that reading, too, with prayers. That's fitting. The prayers should be sober. They should be . . . liturgical. Because it is, well, unfitting in a kind of prayer that is essential repetitive, Biblical, repeating someone else's words, to get too caught up in our own words. I always want to say this to Protestants: push too hard on the "pray with your own words" thing, the opposition between "your own words" and some dusty old written prayer, and you lose the Bible, because it is not my own words. That's just what the Bible is not. Or rather, Biblical prayer -- Catholic prayer -- means making God's words my own. To pray the Psalms is, in a sense, to forsake my own words, my own way of praying, and receive from God what prayer can be, should be. Biblical prayer is more truly our own than our own stupid words. And so liturgical prayer should be appropriately somber, appropriately liturgical, appropriately not-our-own, so that it can frame, and support, the real center of our prayer: the Psalms (in the liturgy of the hours) and the Institution Narrative (in the Mass).

Liturgical prayer should also be traditional. A very sad thing about the "new" texts of the Mass is that many of them were made up, more or less willy-nilly, by liturgist committees in the 1970s. Some of the prayers are very nice. And they are the prayer of the Church: that is fitting, because the Bible is the prayer of the Church, and we should pray with the words we receive. But in the Old Mass, the prayers came down from tradition, and the central euchology was from Sts. Gregory the Great and Leo the Great, the only two popes named doctors of the Church. That is fitting. Because it reflects that the Bible is handed down to us, that it is passed through the tradition. It is fitting, too, because these guys were great theologians, great writers, and great saints, so they wrote great prayers. But more importantly, they were popes, at the center of the Church, at the beginning of the age of the Church (the middle ages), in a sense, at the beginning of when liturgy was really congealing, putting together the Christian way of praying the Scriptures. To pray their prayers is to stand with the Bible, to receive the Bible, handed down to us through the ages.

Now for reform. Because I am not saying, let's go back. Let's just do it the way we did in 1962, and forever before. (Incidentally, as a subsequent post will somewhat argue, it was not forever before. The Council of Trent, sixteenth century, made the liturgy rigid in a way it had never been before. It was profoundly modern -- not profoundly bad, but profoundly modern.) I believe in reform. But here's what reform means.

The Bible must be first. Catholic prayer is Scriptural prayer. Vatican II called for a broader reading from the Bible. Fine. I mean, that's debatable, because the Psalms already contain the whole of Scripture. But the Psalms are better understood, and better understood to be the digest of Scripture, if you read the rest of Scripture. The modern situation, in which Catholics are ignorant of Scripture, is untraditional. In the Middle Ages, in the early ages, Christians lived and breathed Scripture. Thomas Aquinas, philosopher, theologian, whatever you wish he were, was a Bible teacher; that's what he did most of the time. And that must be restored. Indeed -- and I think this is the central thrust of Vatican II -- it must be extended, more fully, to an educated laity. We must all live Scripture as did St. Thomas -- and absolutely every one of his great contemporaries.

So Vatican II called for more Scripture in both the liturgy of the hours and the Mass. But it also called for a paring back. And this, too, I believe, is important. Because before Vatican II, and in anti-Vatican II circles now, there is a radically un-Catholic way of thinking that the liturgy is not Scriptural, that the Bible is somehow marginal to the liturgy. That is diabolical, directly contrary to the Catholic truth. Part of the reason for this mistake is that so many accretions have accumulated that it is not clear what's really going on.

So let me make a controversial case for Eucharistic Prayer II. It's the one usually used. The priest who married us -- a very holy young priest -- insisted on it because it's short, even though he thinks that's bad. Crowds just won't tolerate something longer. But the shortness, in my opinion, is its strength. Unlike the more traditional Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer I in the new liturgical books, Eucharistic Prayer II gets right to it. In the Roman Canon there is a danger -- a danger, not an inevitability -- of losing the Scripture in the beautiful prayers. We get so caught up with those beautiful (truly beautiful!) lists of martyrs and angels and all the rest, that we forget that the Eucharistic Prayer is about the Institution Narrative, the words of Jesus, the Bible in quotation. It is well that this central core be solemnized, but the danger of the Old Mass is that the solemnization covers up what is being solemnized. The Eucharistic Prayer -- and the whole Mass - should do one thing, and only thing only: emphasize that Institution Narrative. When it gets hidden, the liturgy is lost. We can debate, to be sure, whether the Roman Canon is successful. But we need to be clear about the single criterion of success: solemnizing the words of Jesus.

I think the most striking "advance" in the new Mass is the elimination of the prayers after Mass: the recitation of John's prologue, and the prayer to St. Michael of Leo XIII (late nineteenth century). These are nice things. Good little devotions. But, in my opinion, they do more to hide the meaning of the Mass than to reveal it. The Mass is not a catch-all of good things Catholics should pray. It is the words of Jesus, solemnized. The new Mass, in my opinion, is successful in making clear the order of the Mass: we prepare ourselves, then we read the Scriptures, with a homily to help us enter into them and a creed to summarize that the readings are about faith, then we solemnize the Institution Narrative, pray as Jesus taught us, receive his Body and Blood, and finish. That's it. It should be done solemnly, prayerfully -- much more prayerfully than it's almost ever done -- but it should be simple and austere. That is the Roman liturgy.

Another advantage -- and another controversial point -- is the use of the vernacular. I love Latin. I am a Latinist; I teach Latin, I spend much of my day reading Latin; I read the Bible in Latin, I pray in Latin. But Scripture is about words. The argument is sometimes made that Latin is good because we don't know what we're saying: that way it's more mysterious. But that argument is flat-out pagan. Christianity is founded on faith, and faith is intellectual. You need to believe something. The reason we pray the creed is because it tells us something really important about who God is, something we can't get from mystical reflection. The reason we pray all those Ave's in the rosary is to try to penetrate the words of Scripture they contain, to peer into the mysteries of grace. Nothing in mystical experience -- nothing -- no beautiful chant, no smoke and candles, no nothing, comes close to the words of Jesus: This is my Body, this is my Blood. And those words themselves are meaningless, horrific, worse than un-Christian, unless we learn who God is. And the Christian God is bigger than our imaginations. He must be articulated with words, with creeds, with the Bible. The Bible is a far deeper mysticism, because it allows us to articulate what we don't understand; ironically, the romanticism of smoke, candles, and Latin lets us rest too much in our own understanding, never challenges us to transcend the limits of our intellect. Faith requires hearing.

There should be Latin in the Mass, and there should be ancient prayers, because the Mass needs to communicate the act of tradition, of being handed down. The Mass needs to make as clear as possible that what we are doing does not begin or end with us. It is received. Scripture can be solemnized no other way. Latin is important for that reason: it expresses that the Mass is ecclesial. But we cannot let the Mass be lost in a cloud of unreason and unintelligibility. It must be Christian, and therefore it must have words, real words, words that we can understand -- or rather, that we can not understand, that challenge us. To read the Scriptures so that the congregation does not understand is not to read the Scriptures. Period.

There is a happy medium. There should be Latin, but there should be an appreciation of the vernacular, the importance of intelligibility. The accretions that distract us from the essence of the Mass (and encourage us to rush through all those bizarre prayers) should be pared back, but there should also be continuity. Reform of the liturgy should begin, of course, with saying it prayerfully, and making sure the homily is Scriptural and Christian. But next, the Pope should restore the ancient prayers of St. Gregory and St. Leo. We should beware of made-up prayers; as Vatican II said, when the prayers are reformed, they should be drawn from tradition, connecting us to the ages of tradition, of the Scriptures being handed down, not pieced together in committee. They should challenge us to think beyond the mentality of our age, because Scripture is beyond the mentality of our age.

The Scriptures and at least some of the prayers should be translated, but not dumbed down. It should be challenging language. King James could work, because it is a literal translation, a translation that adheres to what was said, instead of trying to make it sound current and easy and modern. The Bible is not current and easy and modern. The Bible should kick our butts, every time. That is Catholic liturgy.

With that, I'll close.