The Mass Does Not Teach, yet We Learn

John Senior is a household name for three often overlapping categories of people. He is known for his list of the so-called “thousand good books,” a canon that seeks to nourish the intellectual and imaginative habitat of a thoroughly Christian worldview, indispensable to the appreciation of the “great” books. He is also known for his advocacy of the ancient forms of prayer in the face of rapid and self-justifying aggiornamento, specifically as regards the classical Roman rite of the Mass, the monastic form of the Divine Office, and the Regula Benedicti. Finally, he is celebrated for his creation and patronage (along with Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick) in the 1970s of the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Integrated Humanities Program, it was, in brief, a program of studies that worked through many of the great books and was supplemented by poetry memorization, spoken Latin, stargazing, and formal dancing. Its motto was Nascantur in Admiratione — let them be born in wonder. The program, despite its popularity, did not survive the 1970s (unlike folk Masses). It was unacceptable to Our (benevolently despotic) Betters that a public university should countenance a program that produced so many converts to so-called “Medieval” Catholicism — a reference to a group of the program’s alumni entering the French Benedictine monastery at Fontgombault, and who later returned to the United States to found Clear Creek priory (now an abbey). Bishop James Conley was also an alumnus of the program, which he entered as a Protestant and left as a Catholic, with Senior himself as his godfather.

It is my understanding that the “pedagogical methods” of the program were highly unorthodox — that is, in reference to the pharaonic uniformity of Modern Education. It is said that the three professors sat in the front of the room and simply discussed the books that were being read. The juxtaposition was at times counterintuitive: Bede’s writings contra Pelagianism read with Beowulf, for instance, which contextualizes the Anglo-Saxon epic as a literary incarnation of the perennial dynamic between nature and grace, and not merely (as is often supposed) of a red-blooded barbarian poet artificially blending in elements of his recently acquired Christianity. Students were not asked questions. They were not even permitted to take notes. They were, however, permitted (encouraged!) to knit.

I have experienced personally how to learn from what one might disparagingly call such “elitist” teaching — i.e., plugging in to the “conversation of the experts” according to one’s ability. It was a graduate seminar on Aquinas’s Treatise on Law. The students, perhaps five of us, were invited into a conversation that some exceptionally powerful minds were having between themselves. They were not teaching us, primarily. But we did learn. Indeed, it was among the most intellectually stimulating experiences of my education. I learned much, but I was not “taught.”

It has often occurred to me that this experience is a profound analogate to the ancient rite of Mass, at least from the nave side of the altar rail. Indeed, I am a spectator, as a child is a spectator: I watch to learn. I am awestruck at the privilege of “watching the professionals” talk to God and offer Him fitting worship. I watch them take care to move gracefully and naturally, for I too must glorify God in my body. I watch them speak to God, and to us in the sight of God, with an acute propriety resulting from two thousand years of distillation, when they show me how to both intimately whisper to God and announce his mirabilia in the Church’s very words and melodies. I learn that there really are some things more important than myself, more important than my ability to understand them, and in certain circumstances more important than my “right” to even hear them. I learn, and thereby I enter, or rather I am assumed, into the priest’s sacerdotal office, so that the priest’s prayer becomes one with my own prayer — if I so choose. The Mass will go on, with or without me. No one is forced to respond, though one can if he so chooses, yet all are invited to interiorly meditate on the otherworldly joy of the psalmist when he was told: in domum Domini ibimus.

The Integrated Humanities Program sought to inculcate this same wonder, not to drown it in class participation, facile didacticism, tests, and contrived course goals. It allowed the student to approach the enormous cultural heritage of the West on its own terms, as far as possible; it was not tailored to the needs, real or imagined, of the students. It showed that the “truth” of Beowulf cannot be grasped by fluency in the Anglo-Saxon tongue alone, any more than I can understand the depths of meaning contained in the ancient dialogue of sursum corda despite the fact that I can now hear it in my native language. All truth is dense, and this density renders it infinitely fascinating, if I still have a sense of wonder. I can read Beowulf a dozen times from a dozen different perspectives, and not once will it have been redundant. I may attend a sung Mass and focus on the chanted propers; I might follow along word for word with the priest’s text; I might cultivate interior acts of virtue, or meditate on a single word or phrase. I may exult in the symmetrical perfection of priest, deacon, and subdeacon moving in perfect harmony from the Introit at the Epistle side of the altar to the Gloria at the middle, seeing in it a glimpse of single yet triune action. I might shudder at the sublimity of the priest qua Christ, ritually exalted and commissioned with uttering the ipsissima verbi Christi over the bread and wine; I might be moved to penance when I see the total effacement of the priest insofar as he is a man and is expected to deny himself completely.

I can do this because I have been taught to do so, by watching the “experts” do it. The particular beauty, furthermore, is that the expert is not this particular priest, but the Catholic priesthood and liturgy itself, chiseled through nearly two millennia and surviving the Roman Empire and its fall, the barbarian invasions, the Islamic conquests, the Viking incursions, the Eastern Schism, the Avignon Papacy, the Reformation, the French Revolution, and two world wars.

The hermeneutic key that links Senior’s program and the ancient Mass is perhaps best summed up in wonder. Quaerere Deum is not the same as the cupiditas cognoscendi. The Mass is the school of prayer par excellence, precisely because it does not teach us, yet it does cause us to learn.

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