Mosebach’s Paradox

The German novelist Martin Mosebach, who has also become well known for his eloquent and outspoken defense of the traditional Latin Mass, articulated a particular problem that many in the Church today face — namely, the problem of a certain self-consciousness and critical spirit invading our prayer life as Catholics. Here is how he puts it:

 Perhaps the greatest damage done by Pope Paul VI’s reform of the Mass (and by the ongoing process that has outstripped it), the greatest spiritual deficit, is this: We are now positively obliged to talk about the liturgy. Even those who want to preserve the liturgy or pray in the spirit of the liturgy, and even those who make great sacrifices to remain faithful to it — all have lost something priceless, namely, the innocence that accepts it as something God-given, something that comes down to man as a gift from heaven. Those of us who are defenders of the great and sacred liturgy, the classical Roman liturgy, have all become — whether in a small way or a big way — liturgical experts. In order to counter the arguments of the reform, which was padded with technical, archaeological, and historical scholarship, we had to delve into questions of worship and liturgy — something that is utterly foreign to the religious man. We have let ourselves be led into a kind of scholastic and juridical way of considering the liturgy. What is absolutely indispensable for genuine liturgy? When are the celebrant’s whims tolerable, and when do they become unacceptable? We have got used to accepting liturgy on the basis of the minimum requirements, whereas the criteria ought to be maximal. And finally, we have started to evaluate liturgy — a monstrous act! We sit in the pews and ask ourselves, was that Holy Mass, or wasn’t it? I go to church to see God and come away like a theater critic.

This, then, is what we might call “Mosebach’s Paradox:” The more circumstances compel me to become an armchair expert in the nature, structure, rubrics, and history of the sacred liturgy, the more inclined I am to become a spectator and critic when I assist at Mass. Traditionalists face this problem in acute form. Many of them know quite a bit about the riches, beauties, and subtleties of the liturgy as well as the vandalism, carelessness, and even sacrilege that has been visited upon it, so they are more sensitive than most Catholics to the slightest abuse, aberration, or vacuum of meaning.

Can we get past Mosebach’s Paradox, or are we doomed — because of the tragic decision to rend asunder the Roman liturgical tradition — to be critics forever? Can we break through to a childlike apprenticeship to the sacred liturgy, giving ourselves totally to it without second guessing or analyzing, comparing and contrasting? Can we be like St. Thérèse, following the little way of confidence and love?

Even amidst the worst internal crisis the Church has ever suffered, I believe that this is something we can do, but only by laying our foundation on solid rock — the traditional liturgy itself. A wholehearted immersion in the Mass of the Saints, making it our personal point of reference, will help us shake off the dismay, agitation, and feeling of schizophrenia that so often result from bouncing back and forth between different forms of Mass, with the different worldviews, priorities, expectations, and habits they embody or encourage. In the spirit of St. Benedict, we need to make the best effort we can to achieve stabilitas loci, stability of place, by binding ourselves to one rite, one calendar, one community, one chapel or parish, one traditional Catholic way of life that is fully integrated and fully integrating.

There’s a peacefulness and naturalness that come from knowing what you’re going to get or what you’re supposed to do. As a layman, there is nothing more consoling and conducive to prayer than showing up at a traditional Latin Mass and simply being able to rely on the sameness of everything that will happen, from start to finish — everything for the glory of God and the sanctification of the people, even in the humblest conditions. There is nothing more liberating and lovely for me as a cantor and choirmaster than to show up on a Sunday morning and know, without a moment’s doubt or hesitation, exactly which chants the schola must sing, because it is laid down for us and, in most cases, hasn’t changed for centuries. It all works, everything comes together with a blessed inevitability, and one can surrender to the Mass, to prayer, to the Lord. It is a recipe for sanity and sanctity in a world that is characterized by escalating insanity and unholiness.

I’ve traveled a fair amount in my lifetime, and I’ve had two very different kinds of experiences as a traveler. The first can be described as the “oh my goodness, what kind of a church have I managed to get myself into” experience, when one is simply trying to find somewhere to catch a Sunday Mass and really has no idea what to expect — and is usually distressed or grieved beyond measure at the hootenanny one is forced to endure. The other kind of experience is exactly the opposite — the blessing of being able to locate a chapel where the traditional Latin Mass is celebrated. One steps in, and the atmosphere is devout. A bell rings, the priest comes to the altar and commences his prayers. Perhaps there is chanting, too, or just the pregnant silence of many Catholics praying side by side, focused on the one thing necessary. Suddenly it does not matter where one is on the face of the earth; deep down and all around, it is the same, even as Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Yes, there are minor regional variations in pronunciation or ceremonial, but the overwhelming sameness of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass emerges, dominates, and descends like a balm on all who are present.

It seems to me that here lies a way to begin overcoming Mosebach’s Paradox. If we can do it, if the conditions of our life allow for it, we ought to make a decisive break with pluralism, excessive variety, options galore, speaking out of both sides of our mouths, juggling with both hands, and give ourselves simply, completely, and bravely to the traditional worship of the Catholic Church. Over time, with God’s help, we will stop being theater critics. We can regain something of our lost innocence. We can indeed look for the maximum, because we know that we are touching the seamless garment of Christ, handed down to us over the course of 19 centuries, lovingly embellished by each passing generation. The traditional Mass is, in truth, a gift from Heaven — one that we could never deserve, and one that will never, ever pass away as long as the world endures. It is time now for us to yield ourselves to it and to know a peace that surpasseth understanding.

Originally Published on August 1, 2014.

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