Historically authentic productions of Shakespearean plays are occasionally in and out of fashion. Recently a movement championing “original pronunciation” purports to let us hear Shakespeare’s words precisely as they would have been spoken when the plays were originally written and performed.
It is artistically irresponsible to mount a performance of a Shakespearean play — or a play from any era — without some sense of the time and culture it comes out of. Historically informed performance is extremely important if we are to be true to the stories and our own tradition.
However, the extremist point of view that advocates for a high degree of fidelity to historically authentic performance practice is ill-conceived. Setting aside the issues of historical unknowability (which is no small issue to bypass), there is a more fundamental problem with the idea of a “historically accurate” production of a venerable cultural work.
You could build a time machine and transport the original Globe, a troupe of Elizabethan actors, and old Will himself into our midst and ask them to perform for us. It would be educational. It would be thrilling. But it would not be historically authentic.
No matter how historically accurate the production of a Shakespearean play is, there is one thing you cannot reproduce: an authentic Shakespearean audience.
This is not a problem, it is simply a fact. And it is something that theatre artists are all too well aware of. But it is a reality that extends beyond theatre. It affects, of course, music, literature, and all the arts. We only need to look at an ancient building or a Renaissance painting — not a historically accurate reproduction, but the real thing — to realize that we cannot have the experience intended by the creator.
Even if we could somehow tear down the walls of contextual framing — museums, art appreciation classes, historical preservationism — even if we could remove the mediators between us and the art, there is still the reality of us.
I don’t mean to suggest that “human nature” as such has somehow changed. We have the same longings and fears, the same loves and hatreds. What we lack with the past is not essential nature but a common language.
If I shiver in near ecstasy at the sound of Gregorian chant in parallel organum over a sung drone, am I reacting to something in the music, or to the distance between that music and my personal experience?
Or, to go in the other direction of familiarity, what is it about a rolled B♭add9 chord on a warm piano that immediately lowers my blood pressure? It certainly isn’t the acoustic stability of the wave forms in a chord with two major seconds sounding on a temper-tuned instrument.
Our romantically rational explanations about the mathematical basis for the Western musical tradition tend to fall apart when applied to reality.
Does this apply to liturgy as well? I think it does.
The Vatican II-era liturgical reform sought (among other things) to return the Church’s liturgy to some pristine form from the early days of the Jesus movement. More recent scholarship indicates that many of the assumptions made about early liturgy at that point were flawed, leading to innovative practices like the inclusion of Old Testament lessons into the calendar and the present form of the Responsorial Psalm.
But the fact that they got some of the historical details wrong is hardly the point. The project is flawed even if we had accurate records. We are not first-century Christians, and a reconstructed first-century liturgy might be very informative, but is hardly authentic for us.
Unsurprisingly, the reaction against this movement — the so-called “Reform of the Reform” and the rise in attendance at Traditional Latin Mass — tends to exhibit the same flaw, just on a different time scale. Rather than looking back to the first-century, contemporary traditionalists tend to idealize the liturgical practices of some specific point in more recent history.
The most obvious example of this is the affected Baroque styling of many Extraordinary Form liturgies, combined with a compulsively scrupulous attitude toward rubricism, bordering on idolatry. But that is not the only example of aspirational historiography working in liturgical preferences. I have friends who champion liturgical forms ranging from Syriac to Sarum, and everything in between. I myself am guilty of drawing too much from an imagined Medieval worldview that probably resembles Middle Earth more than the Middle Ages.
We can recreate the Traditional Latin Mass, but we cannot recreate a traditional Catholic congregation. Yes, liturgy forms people. But the old rites grew up in the Old World, a world that also formed them. They had a different philosophical context, a different cosmological understanding, a different anthropology. Significantly, they had not lived through the liturgical reforms or had access to so many different paradigms of religious worship.
There are some who, having realized this communication gap, this difficulty in connecting the ancient liturgy to the contemporary experience, have stripped the liturgy of so many of its “accidents” (as they imagine them) that only God’s extraordinary mercy preserves the essence intact — if it is preserved at all. Calls to “communicate in a new way” too often involve little more than infantilization and secularism.
It’s worth noting that the progressive liturgical community is fond of titling workshops, books, and musical collections with some variation of “old wine in new wineskins.” It’s an evocative phrase, but it brings to my mind images of bursting wineskins and lost wine. I’m also troubled by the idea that our liturgical forms are essentially secondary containers for the content of the liturgy, which could simply be transferred to a new container without damage or loss.
On the other hand, the loss of a contemporary context within which the rites of the church make any sense has become a reason for traditionalists to double-down on their insistence that the precise forms of the Vetus Ordo be retained. “Beauty will save the world,” they say; it is hard to disagree with them.
However, the growth in popularity of traditional liturgical forms among a certain segment of the Church is not enough to prove that this approach is the right one. In many cases, the drawing in that takes place is paralleled by an exodus to more “normal” parishes.
Beauty might save the world, but it won’t save everyone in it.
Supporters point out that even if this happens, it’s only a few dissidents — that one old hippie, that liberal woman. But we worship a God who leaves the ninety-nine to seek after the one that has gone astray; a God who runs out to meet the prodigal son despite the grumblings of the faithful who remained. And it’s a lot more than one percent of the flock who have wandered far from the fold. Surely they are still our responsibility.
I can’t help but notice that so many of the people I know who thrive in traditional liturgy seem to have been especially predisposed to it. The circumstances of their lives provide the context within which these specific forms can communicate and the essence — Christ’s true presence and His eternal sacrifice — can be revealed and perceived. This predisposition is equally present in those from conservative or traditional backgrounds who have been properly schooled in classical culture and in those who have been broken and disaffected by modernity and have found a shelter from it.
But is everyone so predisposed? I’m skeptical.
Though I am convicted that all people long for the sacred, and that the sacred is present in Eucharistic liturgy in a way unlike anywhere else, I do not believe that there is any one form or style that will allow all people to access an experience of the sacred.
It is true, of course, that the sacramental and supernatural graces are freely bestowed on — and received by — all who participate in the sacrifice of the Mass, whatever their personal experience or perception of it may be. But it would be inconsistent and reductionist to rely on this aspect of God’s grace without being concerned for the social, emotional, educational, and psychological impact that the liturgy has on those present for it.
It is inconsistent because the same argument could be used to silence those who feel so displaced and irritated in typical contemporary liturgy. If the supernatural grace is all that matters, the entire concept of a liturgical movement is moot.
It is reductionist because it practically eliminates the need for sacramentality in the first place. Surely God could wave His cosmic magic wand or snap His heavenly fingers and bestow on us whatever supernatural graces or spiritual benefits He desires us to have. If our experience of physical reality is unimportant, than physical reality is also unimportant. This mode of thinking tends toward Protestant Puritanism on the one hand and New Age Ethereality on the other.
The “stuff” matters. Not just the valid matter of the species, but every detail of liturgical celebration matters. It has meaning. And if the culturally-begotten forms have meaning, then most assuredly their meaning changes when the cultural context changes.
Unfortunately, the liturgy is not so easy to translate as the framers of the Novus Ordo (or the hip parishes with projection screens) imagined. The controversy and difficulties over spoken language, where it is at least theoretically possible to assess accuracy and fidelity, point to the near impossibility of such a project in the realm of the subjective and subconscious meanings of art, music, and gesture.
What music of today speaks to us the way Gregorian Chant spoke to our ancestors? What type of clothing would communicate today what vestments communicated a thousand years ago? How can we understand anointing, or foot washing, or genuflecting when not a single one of those activities have any parallel in our secular lives?
The solution to this problem cannot be that we simply translate or adapt the liturgy to make it accessible to a modern audience. Given the intentional disposability and ironic self-awareness of contemporary cultural artifacts — including most of our language — there is little evidence to suggest that we could ever again find the kind of culturally relevant parallels that such a project of adaptation and translation should rely on. The faddish adoption of contemporary musical and architectural forms, and the clear damage that constant “progress” on this front has wrought, provides an even more convincing argument, if only the people engaged in such work could see it.
And yet such a bridge is so badly needed by so many people. The moral and spiritual poverty of this age are readily apparent, noted even by those who celebrate and work for secularization. The sense of homelessness and insecurity is pervasive, even as economic prosperity has steadily increased over the last two centuries.
What then? If we cannot go back and we should not go forward, where do we go?
I say we must go inward, to explore the richness of our tradition. Outward, to bring it to the people. Upward, in aspiring to give glory to God. Downward, to restore and reinforce our foundation.
To move inward we must continue the work that has already begun on so many fronts. Summorum Pontificum, and the parallel movements to rediscover or revive ancient liturgical practices, is the institutional cornerstone of the reclamation of our tradition. Work on historically-informed performance of Gregorian chant, as well as the translation or adaptation of our sung prayer, contributes to this effort. The trend away from Roman influence in Eastern Catholic liturgy and architecture is a part of this work, as are the efforts in the Anglican tradition who have sought for over a century to find the core of their own distinctive liturgical culture. Even in the Orthodox church, I am told, there is a seeking for what has been lost in modern Westernization.
Outward, of course, implies that we must constantly seek to engage with the world outside of ourselves. The modern era has seen a flourishing of Christian witness in the public sphere concerning issues of economic and political justice. But too often the drive to effect societal change has stripped Christian political thinking of its theological core. On the left, Catholic understandings of subsidiarity and a preference for the poor have devolved into state-socialism and welfare addiction; on the right, the zeal to protect the sanctity of life and marriage has led to a persistent effort to goad government into defining moral truth, which it is all too happy to do. What we need, I think, is a consistent public witness to spiritual truth, grounded in a sacramental understanding of the world. I’d like to see fewer marches asking politicians to stop abortions, and more marches asking women specifically to choose life over convenience or fear.
We must go upward, seeking to glorify God in all things that we do. This is easy to say, and quite obvious, but how sincere are we in our efforts to glorify God over ourselves? It is possible, I think, that many of our well-intentioned liturgical practices do not glorify God at all, but rather ourselves, our tradition, or the institutional Church. A small community scraping together their resources to build a beautiful, traditional house of worship is an offering of love, a sacrifice that brings God true glory in this world. A wealthy diocese spending ten times that amount for a single piece of furniture is close to blasphemy.
Finally we must move downward, to build a foundation. What I mean by this is that we must create (or, if you like, restore) the context in which the liturgy can communicate.
We can neither translate everything into some contemporary idiom, nor can we simply drop an ancient liturgy into the midst of modern people.
Neither the casual English of The Message nor ancient Greek are appropriate or effective languages for most people to encounter the Word of God in scripture. Ideally, we move back and forth, between linguistic study and modern translations, combining practical “life application” reflections with deeper explorations of the history and theological significance of the text. We sing the scripture and read it at home, and break it open in sermons and Bible study. So it must be with the liturgy.
If it is true, as Odo Casel observed, that modern people are unable to perform a true act of worship, then we must engage in a process that transforms people and guides them out of modernity, out of the abyss of secularism. This work includes both catechesis and community development outside the liturgy as well as careful adaptation of the liturgy itself and the elements that surround it.
Whatever (valid) form of the liturgy you are celebrating, and in whatever language, it is not enough to simply “Say the Black, and Do the Red.” Nor is it enough to mean well and be sincere. Both literally and metaphorically, we must teach people how to sing, or else what we ask them to sing is of little consequence.
The liturgy requires a context. We must provide it.
Adam writes about philosophy, theology, libertarian politics, anarcho-capitalism, software development, the Open Source movement, Christian liturgy, and sacred music.
Thank you for your excellent essay warning of the dangers of archeological celebrations of Mass. I wish to say concerning the first half of the essay:
1. A Mass that has been celebrated for more than 1,500 years in all kinds of conditions, including (possibly most often) privately, may be less subject to the need for context of time, place, and audience than a Mass written by a committee in a particular decade of a century at the tail end of an era now past. The Old Mass is not the “Tridentine Mass” or the Mass of Pope Whomever, but—well, lets go on to:
2. Every Mass provides its own context and is open to meanings new and old. Catholics attending Mass today understand the crucifixion as the Apostles on Good Friday did not.
3. Even affection can be positive. As a historian wrote, “Great cultural changes begin in affectation and end in routine.”
On the second half of your essay, I do not yet know how say anything useful. I look forward to reading others’ comments.
P.S. Regarding the statement by Odo Casel, allow me to quote (the fictional) Bishop Edmund Forester: “The Mass itself was our school of prayer. It was there that we learned to be self-effacing, detached, recollected and to adhere to the Divine Presence. It was also at Mass that the simple faithful practiced prayer throughout their lives. They may have known little theology but they prayed as theologians often do not. Moreover, the simplest of them attained to heights of prayer and sanctity far beyond me.”
I think the crux of the matter here is what Dom Alcuin Reid calls the ‘organic development of the liturgy’. To a great extent Catholic liturgy has gotten stuck in two epochs: 1770 (Extraordinary Form) and 1970 (Ordinary Form), and, when it comes to creating a more truly sacred ethos in celebrations of the Novus Ordo, it is common practice to simply implant ‘old’ things into the new Mass: thus we have some ‘Reform of the Reform’ establishments wherein the 1770 EF genre is plopped into the OF, as if Baroque-style vestments and lace surplices are what constitutes TRADITION (imagine it spelled in megaliths like: MONTY PYTHON)
There is also, lamentably, a certain fetishism in some EF circles that require Fiddlebacks and lace as much as unleavened bread and grape wine for the validity of the sacrament, to the extent that when Summorum Pontificum was released several vestment companies started making and marketing NEW neo-Baroque vestments!
Now, granted that if you are attending Mass (either form) celebrated in the uber-Barok St. Martin’s Abbey (Abtei Weingarten) in Ravensburg, Germany, Baroque vestments would be expected and would harmonize with the building; on the other hand, if Mass were celebrated in the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris, Baroque vestments would not only be completely anachronistic historically (which in the long run, really does n’t matter a whit), but would be a very jarring contrast to that early Gothic church. There has to be a way for the liturgy to live and breathe, authentically, in the 21st century, in both forms; at present it is moribund: either swathed in Baroque affectation of ’70’s mediocrity.
Adam, you have given all involved in liturgical renewal (reform, revivification) much food for thought. Now, the next phase: we have, more or less, diagnosed a/the problem; what is the solution? If, indeed, there is one. In other words, without trying to dig up the past in an archaeological way, how should we implement Adam’s four (simultaneous) ways of attacking the problem: Looking in, out, up, and down?
“In the long run, really doesn’t matter a whit.” Yes. “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”
Not what I meant:
(1) We need a living and breathing liturgy, not an historical reconstruction of liturgy as it was celebrated in St. Denis in the 12th Century. even though aesthetically it is good for visual aspects of the liturgy to harmonize with each other.
(2) The validity of the Sacrament doesn’t depend on the style of vestment or architecture.
Don’t (1) and (2) mean that liturgy is secondary to ritual and should “organically” derive from it? If that is so, liturgy is not a “problem” that requires a “solution”. But I am not a liturgist and defer to liturgists.
To my mind ‘Liturgy’ is a complex of rituals. The same rituals (e.g. incensation of the altar) might occur in different liturgies (Mass, Vespers).
No, the Sacred Liturgy in itself is most definitely NOT a problem that requires a solution; however, I think that the liturgical praxis in many places leaves a lot to be desired. The ancient liturgy reached its nadir in the 18th Century, and never rebounded: There was a slight improvement, moving away from Baroque praxis in *some* places in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but on the whole, Baroque reigned supreme — that is until the Novus Ordo was issued and the pendulum made a very sharp and alarming back-swing to the extreme opposite, and gave us a “noble simlicity” which pandered to the lowest common denominator.
There *has* to be another option apart from Baroque and LifeTeen, to paraphrase Adam Wood.
This is really nothing more than the same complaint that A.W.N. Pugin made in his “Earnest Appeal for the Revival of the Ancient Plainsong”, or Dom Prosper Gueranger, or even Louis Boyer (who, by the way, was not pleased with the post-Conciliar Missal).
To extract an example from another area:
Part of the reason that “Le Nozze di Figaro” was so popular was that it dealt with real people, so to speak, living in the present: the costumes were contemporary 18th century costume, not some stylized recreation of the garb of a mythic Rome of Caesar. I think to put this opera on with 18th Century costume, in a way misses the point: it doesn’t make it contemporary, but a period piece that can only be observed from the outside. Now, I’m not advocating for a production of “Figaro” where Susanna dresses like Miley Cyrus, and Don Basilio like Justin Bieber, but a production that seeks to bring these characters into contemporary life: Perhaps La Contessa could wear a lovely canary-yellow suit like Her Majesty?
I think I agree with you, though whether I agree with you deeply I can’t say, since liturgy is out of my depth.
My tentative suggestion is to start with what moves one today, no matter how new or old, and to form a liturgy compatible with that. For example, Gregorian chant moves us in the 21st century. What is an appropriate contemporary “chant liturgy”? Whether or not that appropriate chant liturgy for today would be “period,” “completely anachronistic historically”, or something in between, would be interesting to discover.
“We can neither translate everything into some contemporary idiom, nor can we simply drop an ancient liturgy into the midst of modern people.” Adam really nails it here in his essay. While the former approach “dumbs down” the liturgy too much for the sake of the people, the latter tends to ignore the needs of the people entirely.
And this illustrates very well the impasse at which Catholic liturgists have arrived. Neither form of the Roman Rite as it is commonly celebrated is thriving. I recently read in a history of the Liturgical Movement that in the eighteenth century the liturgy had at that time also “ceased to be a vital force in Catholicism.”
The impetus for the Liturgical Movement came from a desire to reignite a fervor for the liturgy and to unite the faithful with the priest in the celebration of the Mass. That desire was crystallized by Pope St. Pius X’s call to restore chant to the people in Tra le sollecitudini that they be “taught to say or sing in Latin those parts of the Mass that pertain to them.”
That is the essence of the original Liturgical Movement (before it was derailed); that was the repeated call of the preconciliar popes and that is the sentiment enshrined in Sacrosanctum Concilium.
Has that dream of the original LIturgical Movement ever been realized? What will happen when it is? Cardinal Ratzinger believed that at that fateful moment when “the essential criteria” of Sacrosanctum Concilium is observed, including the application of those criteria to the EF, this is what will happen:
“The moment when this liturgy truly touches the faithful with its beauty and its richness, THEN IT WILL BE LOVED, (my emphases) then it will no longer be irreconcilably opposed to the new Liturgy, providing that these criteria are indeed applied as the Council wished.
“Different spiritual and theological emphases will certainly continue to exist, but there will no longer be two contradictory ways of being a Christian; there will instead be that richness which pertains to the same single Catholic faith.”
So, there it is, the winning liturgical formula as outlined by Cardinal Ratzinger: the Mass, in both forms of the Roman Rite celebrated 1) with the people singing or saying in Latin those parts of the Mass pertaining to them, 2) celebrated “in community with the active participation of the faithful” with responses and acclamations by the people and 3) also appropriate actions, gestures and postures.
Very good points, methinks. As Mr Wood says, those of us who have a natural predisposition towards the traditional liturgy aren’t the only people who need the Church, and I think it’s undeniable (sadly) that some of the accoutrements of the traditional Mass can alienate people. They also leave traditionalists open to charges that we’re more interested in nice music, toys and baubles than in right worship.
I think that in the present climate, a sensible aim would be to get rid of some of the real funny business from the OF so that it no longer actively CONFLICTS with the EF or undermines the Church’s teaching, while also making the celebration of the EF more common so that the average Catholic starts seeing the connection between the two.
What we want, I think, is to have the two alongside each other, so that people can see that both forms sing the same song, but that the EF sings it in a higher key. That should help us get beyond the rather polarised situation we have now.
“Both forms sing the same song, but … the EF sings it in a higher key.” The Church should not neglect “that most wonderful of inventions, the silent Low Mass.”
Ah … the silent Low Mass. Glad you brought that up, Leo. It can be argued that it was this atrophied manifestation of the Roman Rite which launched the liturgical revolution. I think it’s pretty clear that the preconcilar Popes Pius X, XI and XII disparaged the non-vocal participation of the faithful at mass and used fairly harsh language to do so.
They didn’t want the faithful at Mass to be “detached and silent spectators”, “outsiders or mute onlookers”, “mute spectators”, or, meditate well on this one from Pope Pius XII: “dumb and idle spectators.”
Then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s words are gentler, but he nonetheless “damns with faint praise” the widespread preconciliar practice of silent worship from the pews: “On the other hand, it must be admitted that the celebration of the old liturgy had strayed too far into a private individualism, and that communication between priest and people was insufficient. I have great respect for our forefathers who at Low Mass said the “Prayers during Mass” contained in their prayer books, but certainly one cannot consider that as the ideal of liturgical celebration!”
I’ve learned from OnePeterFive not to be cowed by Popes. Allow me to quote lesser lights: “I always prefer a Low to a High Mass; it is to me more devotional”—Elizabeth Herbert, Lady Herbert of Lea. “It is actually a Low Mass which offers more opportunities for contemplation than a High Mass, despite the obvious beauty of a properly sung High Mass. With noise constantly drumming in our ears every day while we work, shop and interact with family and friends the exquisite silence of those parts of the Mass that demand quietude serves as a true ‘recharging of our spiritual batteries'”.—schmenz. “That most wonderful of inventions, the silent Low Mass, really did recharge the battered battery [what’s with batteries of the soul?] of the human soul. Canon Slattery said it particularly anonymously. His own personality never intruded in the least. He was merely the animator of a set of vestments and manipulator of the sacred tools. Even the parts of the Mass which were said aloud did not bear the idiosyncrasy of his intonation; they were the distant rumble of God’s thunder.”—Fr. Bryan Houghton.
I can see how Popes and liturgists can look down at Low Mass, but having been an altar boy in a cathedral in the 1950s and 1960s and living in a family with three other children, I can also see that in those days ordinary Catholics might have agreed with Lady Herbert in preferring Low Mass, except on feast days. Of course, in those days ordinary Catholics didn’t know they had to be reformed. How wonderful that thanks to the liturgical revolution the Church sees at Holy Mass the Mature Catholic of today.
Confession: as an altar boy, I preferred High Mass. It was longer, grander, the bishop was there, I had more things to do, people looked at me.
Knowing that Popes Pius X, XI, XII and Benedict XVI (none of whom are lightweights) echo each other exactly on the subject of the silent Low Mass is enough papal consensus for me. In other words, this isn’t the opinion of a maverick.
Also, if you choose to go your own way on this, which is a legitimate option I guess, do so realizing that those communities devoted to the silent Low Mass have remained small, failing to grow and will continue to do so.
I wrote this a few years ago, and I might phrase a few things differently now, but this is an alternate perspective on the debate:
I had my knuckles cracked by nuns in grade school. I didn’t leave the Church until college, around 1965. Never having undergone psychoanalysis, I don’t really know if knuckles had anything to do with my leaving. I came back because drugs were not the answer. Not that this has anything to do with liturgy.
Liturgically speaking, this is in the realm of what I am talking about.
As is the liturgy celebrated weekly by JuleColl’s community — a sort of populist Missa Cantata.
Did you hear the Magisterium speaking? Does a consensus of echos by Popes make an opinion about the experience of lay Catholics correct? Does the acceptance of that opinion by people who write articles make it right? Does the Emperor have clothes?
This might be case where a child that sees may be the one to listen to.
The onus of ‘making liturgy [accessible] to our congregations is certainly an ideal which must be shared by priest and liturgical ministers (yes, I hate using that term, but…)
There are two ways: long-run and short-run. Long-run is continuous instruction–largely the task of the priest. Short-run is shared by priest and ‘ministers’. It’s also instruction, whether through printed programs or audibles: “Here’s what we’re singing, this is what to listen for, this is why it works.”
I would bet that none of the above was done for at least 1500 years.