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Repetition Is the Mother of a Great Many Things

Readers may already know about the delightful book The Gentle Traditionalist: A Catholic Fairy-Tale from Ireland by Roger Buck (Angelico Press, 2015). Buck is back with an equally dashing although more earnest sequel: The Gentle Traditionalist Returns (Angelico Press, 2019). So many are the excellent insights in this book that I will undoubtedly return to it in future articles. Today, my attention goes to three passages that revolve around the same theme: the power, for good or for ill, of repetition.

The power of technology is boosting the secular metaphysic like never before. Never before has humanity been bombarded like this — round the clock. Television. Advertising. Pop songs. Jingles. Internet. iPods. And it’s going to get worse… (p. 18)

Alas, they gained access to the greatest communications technology ever developed by man. Never before in human history have elites had power like this: round the clock radio, television, now internet. Never before has so much human energy been marshalled for something as meaningless—and dangerous — as an advertising jingle. Look at the technology drilling those jingles into people’s brains. Look at the academy. People go to university now — to get a degree in advertising. To learn how to manipulate people’s minds. It’s a scandal. But nobody blinks an eyelid, anymore. (p. 130)

Forgive me, but Rome never had power like this! All these pop songs, all this marketing, boring into the heads of the youngest children. Babies even. (p. 136) [i]

The advertising industry and the pop music industry take advantage of a simple principle that used to be obvious to everyone, and perhaps still is, apart from the liturgical reformers of the 1960s: repetition works. It drills into your psyche. It carves out a nest for itself and settles there permanently. (How many of us wish we could forget some stupid song or jingle we listened to ten, twenty, thirty years ago or more?) Actors understand the power of repetition as they “get their lines by heart” for the performance. Most of us know what it’s like to try to memorize a sonnet or a speech for class or for the stage. It’s hard work, but it gets easier as you pound it in, and then comes that magical moment when it’s all there, inside you.

Holy Mother Church understood the power of repetition, too. We see this in the old-fashioned method of memorizing catechism answers. We see it in the learning of “rote” prayers: the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Apostles’ Creed, Grace before Meals, and on down the line. But we see it above all in the sacred liturgy, that masterpiece of human culture and divine inspiration [ii].

The traditional liturgy has selected perfect Epistles and Gospels (just two readings on most Sundays, holy days, and weekdays of the year) for our moral training and our spiritual preparation for the Eucharistic sacrifice. These Epistles and Gospels are generally pithy and pack a punch. They are repeated year after year, always the same for a given Sunday or holy day. On ferias (i.e., weekdays when no feast is celebrated), the priest may either offer a votive Mass — whose readings, again, are quite determinate, inviting renewed engagement with them — or use the preceding Sunday’s Mass. The same is true for the entire textual structure: the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia (or Tract), Offertory, and Communion antiphon, the Collect, Secret, and Postcommunion: we know what these will be. They are easy to find in the hand missal; they come up again and again, but without a feeling of weariness, because the texts are so beautiful and profound, perfect for their purpose. There is a subtle variety within the annual temporal and sanctoral cycle that keeps weariness at bay.

The classical liturgy accomplishes a great wonder: we remember and even memorize the words of the Church’s prayer, while still being refreshed at their new appearance — an elegant balance, refined over many centuries, between sameness and difference, constancy and change. Indeed, part of the refreshment is precisely our ability to recognize the same texts, yet we think about them differently each time, since we ourselves are living a life of change. The Word of God is so great, says St. Gregory, that it grows as we grow. The texts are the same, but we are not the same, and as a result, the very stability of these texts helps us to grow and to be aware of our deepening relationship with Christ.

Nearly all of this wisdom was lost, abandoned, in the liturgical reform of the 1960s. The liturgical reformers thought they were oh, so enriching our experience of worship by adding heaps and heaps of new texts to it: two- and three-year cycles of readings, dozens of Prefaces, many more Eucharistic Prayers, orations changing daily during Advent [iii], and on and on. When you take all these texts and compound them by celebrant choices, you are dealing with a liturgy that is seldom the same, from day to day, week to week, year to year. It is a moving target. It is like running water. The memory cannot take hold of it. It is like anti-advertising for the Gospel — trying to find a way that it will not lodge itself in souls.

How different it was when, in the second week of Advent, I enjoyed the privilege of hearing three times the Mass Populus Sion! [iv]. The second and third times cut the grooves deeper in my soul. “People of Sion, behold the Lord shall come to save the nations…” “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to prepare the ways of Thine only-begotten Son…” The Epistle: “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing: that you may abound in hope, and in the power of the Holy Ghost.” The Gradual: “Out of Sion, the loveliness of His beauty…” The Gospel placing the great question squarely in front of us: “Art thou He that is to come, or look we for another?” The Offertory that comfortingly echoes the prayers at the foot of the altar: “Thou wilt turn, O God, and bring us to life, and Thy people shall rejoice in Thee…” Above all, the Postcommunion, with its absolutely “pre–Vatican II” message: “Filled with the food of this spiritual nourishment, we suppliantly entreat Thee, O Lord, that through our participation in this Mystery Thou wouldst teach us to despise earthly things and to love heavenly ones.” That stark contrast — despising and loving — is terribly challenging to our fallen nature, which clings to earthly things inordinately and spares nary a thought for heavenly ones, even though after we die, all earthly things will be forever removed from us, and we will have either heavenly goods or hellish evils as our permanent possession. According to the rubrics, this prayer, like its companion Collect and Secret, must be said every day of the second week of Advent, even on feasts of the saints.

Most of that kind of thing, too, was deliberately and systematically removed from the Missal of Paul VI [v]. It was too harsh, too negative, too medieval. We moderns need positive thinking. We should appreciate worldly goods, give thanks for them, use them well, for God’s glory and man’s betterment… Indeed, we should; but we are far more likely to use them well by bending the stick in the opposite direction, toward ascetical detachment, so that we might (as Aristotle would say) hit the mean of proper use. The Church of the Ages is wiser than dull churchmen of the present moment: she knows that we have to despise earthly things and love heavenly ones if we are to stand a chance of escaping the gravitational pull of the black hole of disordered concupiscence.

This is only one of a thousand examples of the superior psychological understanding and theological realism of the traditional missal, by which it educates our souls, gently and slowly, through judicious repetition — of the hard truths no less than the consoling ones.

But what about the common claim, among both Protestants and Catholic liturgical reformers (who share quite a bit in common with Protestants when you look into the matter), that Catholics for centuries were ignorant of Scripture?

Hello, myth: meet your demise.

In his research on early modern German intellectual history, scholar John Frymire discovered abundant evidence that ordinary Catholics, most of them illiterate by modern standards, were familiar with the liturgical readings (called here by the technical term “pericopes”) due to their annual repetition over the course of their lives. He cites an author writing in 1559 who describes what it was like in his pre-Reformation boyhood:

Because of this [annual repetition], the common people grew accustomed to the same gospel pericopes year in and year out. In fact they came to memorize most of them. During my youth I saw and knew old, gray-haired folks, simple laypersons, and peasants who could wonderfully repeat the Sunday and feast day gospel pericopes aloud and, along with that, tell you upon which Sunday this or that gospel fell or was read. [vi]

Then Frymire comments:

This was not the nostalgia of a loyal Catholic wishing for the good old days, but the recollection of Nikolaus Hermann, a Lutheran cantor in the very Lutheran town of Joachimsthal. Another Protestant, Aegedius Hunnius … admitted that laypersons knew the pericopes and the story of Christ’s Passion. The Lutheran court preacher Matthias Hoë von Hoënegg agreed. He was convinced that the pericopes contained the core elements of true doctrine so that, having memorized them, “many thousands” of simple medieval Christians had received the gift of faith necessary for salvation despite the horrors of the papacy. [vii]

Apart from the very Lutheran-sounding assumption that salvation is sola fide via sola scriptura (ably refuted in Jacob Tate’s 1P5 article), von Hoënegg makes a good point: if the liturgy’s readings and prayers transmit to you “the core elements of true doctrine,” then you will indeed be well equipped to resist a wayward pope wedded to worldliness or deviant in doctrine. It comes as no surprise that resistance to the horrors of the current papacy is mostly coming from Catholics who remain true to the Mass of Ages and derive therefrom their sensus fidei — as so many generations before them had done, back to the Reformation, back to the Middle Ages, back into the first millennium, in which our cycle of prayers and readings was born.

According to Scripture, forgetfulness is the first step on the path to apostasy. One of the most potent preventatives of sin is keeping God’s word close to one’s lips: “Your word have I laid up in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps 118:11). The past fifty years in the West in general and in the Church in particular have been characterized by an intentional forgetting that has given way to mass obliviousness. That is why we are seeing apostasy on all sides, and with it, inexorable decline: “If thou forget the Lord thy God, and follow strange gods, and serve and adore them: behold now I foretell thee that thou shalt utterly perish” (Dt. 8:19). “Keep thyself therefore, and thy soul carefully. Forget not the words that thy eyes have seen, and let them not go out of thy heart all the days of thy life” (Dt. 4:9).

Art thou He that is to come, or look we for another? No, Rome, we don’t need any other saviors or any other gospels; He has come, He is come. We are not looking for a new revelation, a new liturgy, a new doctrine, a new seamlessly garmented environmentalist catechism. “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Gospel of the 2nd Sunday of Advent).

Lord Jesus, You have cured our blindness by the illumination of baptism; You have made us to walk in your ways by confirmation; You have cleansed us of leprosy in the confessional; You have opened our ears to Your words in the liturgy; You have united us to Your glorified flesh in the Eucharist as a promise of immortality; You have enriched our poverty with the riches of Your divinity. We will not look for another, or anything different. Non nisi Te, Domine. Nothing but You, O Lord.

And I’m not ashamed of repeating it every day of my life.

[i] In a similar vein, on pp. 50–51: “He doesn’t understand anything about Christianity! All he seems to know are dumbed-down media clichés and pop songs. The Beatles, The Police, Oprah Winfrey — that’s who we should listen to. Not Plato, Aristotle or Aquinas — much less Jesus Christ. It’s like three thousand years of Western civilisation mean nothing to him. Nothing at all.” (pp. 50–51)

[ii] For more on this topic, see my lecture “Poets, Lovers, Children, Madmen — and Worshipers: Why We Repeat Ourselves in the Liturgy” and my articles “Useful Repetition in the Divine Office”; “The Ninefold Kyrie: An Example of ‘Useless Repetition’?”; “Why the Confiteor Before Communion Should Be Retained (or Reintroduced).”

[iii] This was never the custom for Advent or Eastertide, the way it had been for Lent, where each day has its own proper Mass. It is not immediately obvious that the Lenten model should be imposed on every other season; in fact, there are good arguments against it. For more on the rationale behind the old lectionary, see “A Systematic Critique of the New Lectionary, On the Occasion of Its Fiftieth Anniversary.”

[iv] This year (2019), it was three times because Sunday, December 8, 2019, was supplanted by the Immaculate Conception, leaving Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday of that week as Advent ferias when the Mass of the Second Sunday of Advent was read.

[v] All this is well demonstrated by Fr. Anthony Cekada (The Work of Human Hands — I issue my usual caveat lector about the author’s position on the validity of the N.O., which I do not share, though the rest of the book is masterful) and Dr. Lauren Pristas (The Collects of the Roman Missals and other articles). The deliberate “detraditionalization” of Catholic worship is not “fake news” or an “urban legend,” but an all too real tragedy, carefully documented by scholars. The reformers, fortunately for us, were quite open about their intentions and methods in the books and articles they published.

[vi] John M. Frymire, The Primacy of the Postils: Catholics, Protestants, and the Dissemination of Ideas in Early Modern Germany (Studies in Medieval & Reformation Traditions, 147 [Leiden: Brill, 2009]), 17. It is true that Frymire at this point in the book is describing the custom, widespread by the early 16th century, of proclaiming the Tridentine readings in the vernacular (German, in terms of his study). However, in most traditional parishes today, the readings, having been said or sung in Latin, are then read in the vernacular before the homily; and even where they are not, printed copies of the readings are readily available and commonly used, which could not have been guaranteed in the 16th century. Thus, my thesis — that annual repetition of well -chosen texts builds up the Christian faith in the congregation and leads to a deep familiarity with the core message of the Word of God — applies equally well to 16th-century pre-Reformation Germany and the 21st-century Tridentine revival. Again, I have found that simply by attending for so many years, I often recognize the Sunday Epistle and Gospel without even looking at the missal.

[vii] Ibid., 18.

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