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Revenge of the Rigid: On Rejecting Grillo, Primitivism, and the Electric Slide

I often like to imagine how the radical liturgical reforms after Vatican II would have proceeded in the internet age. Certainly the quick availability of information and the means by which to network globally in seeking answers would have made the position of the extreme wing of reformers more precarious, and certainly the analog “fog of war” which the Bugniniites hid behind would have been more easily penetrated. A great example of what things may have looked like come from our own Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, who has been doing an astounding bit of sleuthing into the work of Andrea Grillo, one of the minds rumored to be either indirectly or directly involved in the language of the Pope’s latest Motu Proprio.

Unnatural Ideology against Nature

Keeping with this line of inquiry, a recent quote which Dr. Kwasniewski shared managed to shatter me, drawing straight lines between various disparate hunches, observations, and theories which have plagued me for many years. Writing of the new liturgy, Grillo says:

Indeed, in order to appreciate the Eucharistic liturgy, to enter into its theology, to savor its human and spiritual power, we need to recover the hidden but effective layers of our humanity. The plan of Eucharistic reform sought by the Second Vatican Council, with the intent that the Church might emerge from the blind alleys of clerical reduction, devotional parallelism, formalistic dryness or informal disfigurement, introduced a profound reworking of the experience of faith, calling for a new experience of ritual action, which would include ‘active participation’ as a rule. Liturgy is a common language in which we participate in community.

For this to be true, and for us to become a priestly community, we must recognize that we are celebrating as adult men and adult women, but all of us are capable of rediscovering the animal, the child, the primitive, and the madman that dwells within us and from which we live. Without this profound and elementary rediscovery, no one can truly celebrate. He can at best be rigidly present at a ceremony, or retreat into a meditation or focus on an idea. But this is not celebrating. (Un abbecedario per la messa: 30 immagini e 30 parole, trans. K. Hall).[1]

What Grillo describes is the embrace of cultural suicide and a willing devolution in conscious spite of our highest cultural achievements and spiritual yearnings. Furthermore, if Grillo is right, then such a quote illuminates a vital part of the divide between those who dive headfirst into every popular innovation and fad and those who cling to tradition. Grillo is here insisting that the modern liturgy can only function within the individual if that individual first embraces the inversion of the elevated and sublime Catholic worship of previous ages in favor of a pure primitivism. That such a new liturgical reality is itself unnatural and therefore unachievable without the clinging rigidly to a strict ideology seems not to dawn on him. For across peoples and cultures, we observe that natural law tends to elevate the higher forms of beauty and culture and impose moral laws against the unleashing of more primitive, disorderly forces.

For Catholics who came of age or were converted after the council—indeed, for those of us who understood very little about the rupture between the old and new worlds—Grillo’s statement here explains why so many of us remained so deeply uncomfortable in modern liturgy even before we knew that another options existed. It also reveals why so many would seek to trample and remove those other options from our world. This is the revenge of the rigid, seeking to impose ideology upon human nature.

Discovering the Logos of Music

To zoom back out from the specific and into a personal social narrative, I will admit that ever since early childhood I have been deeply uncomfortable with popular culture and the way people behave when unified by simplistic fads and passing fashions. I never wanted to do the electric slide, be in the center of the dance circle while music not fit for even canine consumption blared and bonked, let alone make the silly face and join the crowd in making an fool of myself. Such social experiences were not only uncomfortable, but they were utterly painful at times. More than once I was told to loosen up, not be haughty, or “just have fun.” If the question was not about pop culture but rather liturgy, I’m rather sure I’d have been called “rigid”.

As my journey into classical music and becoming a professional composer took shape, my study of higher culture revealed to me the astounding divide between contemporary popular culture and the high culture of the west, while more recently I have contemplated the differences between popular culture and authentic folk culture.

Yet in experiencing both high culture and authentic folk culture, I rarely found myself as uncomfortable as when in the throes of our modern popular culture. Whether such expressions drew us to the elevated and sublime or unified with more primitive instincts, there was an authenticity in high and folk experiences which brought with it comfort and natural satisfaction. And this was even before we considered the deeper social connections which such experiences could create.

I remember telling my wife once: “I’m surprised that it turns out that I don’t hate dancing. Rather, I hate what modern culture has done to dancing, which makes me feel awkward and horrifically stupid when I partake in it, and that is even before the jarring stupidity of its driving music is considered.”

I began to suspect that I never really needed to “loosen up” at all, but rather that the popular culture and its antecedents presented us with a broken apparatus which made people with a sense of dignity—let alone a yearning for transcendence—feel markedly out of place. If I was tense, it was because I was witnessing a poisonous devolution against which tension is a natural and rational response. It’s ultimately not an easy position to take in our time, as 99.9% of people will disagree with you, but I think that the clear-headed reappraisal of modern popular culture is essential for anyone who truly wants to be free enough to accept sanctifying grace into their lives.

I knew then that it wasn’t a matter of opinion to say that, for instance, Bach or Palestrina could lead you to a numinous experience in a way that no popular song could even begin to do: it was rather a matter of perspective unclouded by aesthetic and cultural detritus. Later, having stumbled into the unfortunate liturgical wars, being called “rigid” or “culturally narrow” by liturgical modernists never really left a mark, because I was able to articulate clearly and at great length about aesthetic experience, culture, and why certain forms and expressions could lead one to the numinous and the sublime while others couldn’t. This is nothing less than the logos of music, which is true based on natural law, not ideology.

Yet Grillo’s rumination here is illuminating to me in explaining why modern and pop-infused liturgical expressions are not only uncomfortable experiences for the numinously sensitive, but are actually deficient by nature. They quite literally assume—like the modern popular cultural activities they are so clearly linked to and influenced by—that higher thinking must be discarded in favor of a more primitive “inner man’s” experience. Indeed, we are told that if we can’t just loosen up and let go of our higher faculties, we are bound to “at best stiffen in a ceremony, or retreat into a meditation or focus on an idea. But this is not celebrating.” In other words, be “rigid.” To anyone who perceived the culture of “coolness” as an imposition rather than a joy, this should sound familiar indeed.

Anti-Culture against Nature

If such a goal is at the heart of the modern liturgical impetus, then it is troubling and revealing in at least two more tragic ways. The first tragedy is in how this approach seeks to divide man from a total experiencing of liturgical prayer. This type of prayer seeks to unify every aspect of the person from their toes to their inner spiritual groans to their highest flights of contemplation. This unnatural ideology instead prefers a flattening of us into a “madman” or “animal” or “primitive” who celebrates unthinkingly with the willing crowd.

The second tragedy is perhaps even more profound: in seeking to primitivize the individual and their liturgical experience, they truly bring us to a thoughtless place, as much of the world has lost any authentic folk culture which could catch and cradle such a liturgical experience. The willing participant therefore can find themselves outside of high culture and beneath folk culture, in a place which can easily be termed an “anti-culture.”

Such approaches also destroy what is left of folk culture, perhaps permanently. It seems that folk cultures generally cannot be reconstructed in any meaningful way: that is their particular nature and fragility. Thankfully high culture, often being a codified crystallization of numinous striving, can be packaged and re-opened wherever an open mind and heart can accept them (when the rigid ideology is relaxed and open to true “dialogue”).

This is why classical music has been so effectively embraced in Asia while Europe commits cultural suicide, and why a small Catholic Classical academy can have a culture of ancient Greek theater (with a high level of cultural understanding) in their midst. Authentic high culture can be preserved, and so long as a young child can read the language—be it poetry or philosophy or music notation—it can be perceived anew again in each generation.

Plato and Aquinas and Shakespeare and Bach speak in startling freshness to each new young person who openly encounters them, which is why many have compared tradition in the Church not to a musty museum, but rather a true and living fire. It is only those weighed down by filth and ideology or the burden of their unacknowledged sin who hate such things and want them crushed in favor of the animalistic. And when they say that the old ways are gone and cannot be reconstructed, they add another terrible lie to their profile, a lie which is shattered by every young mind which discovers philosophy and every young hand which learns its first fugue (let alone every young family which finds comfort in a traditional Catholic rite). The living fire not only mercilessly consumes the primitive and the ugly, but it fuels endless authentic new flights of contemplations and pursuits of Beauty Himself. It is a shining beacon on a hill, and at most all its enemies can do is obscure it, or teach others to call it a hateful thing when it can no longer be obscured (this, indeed, may be at the spiritual root of the rise of modern Critical Theory, but that is again another topic for another article).

It really does come down to an unpopular binary choice: It’s the cloistered chant or the cha-cha, the liturgical dance vs the meditative silence, the sheering expression of polyphony vs the bass booming during the electric slide. And certainly there are people who – stuck entirely in the popular culture but perceiving the luminous power of high culture, seek to have both. They ask: “Can I not sing chant and still be a break-dancing Priest? Can I not have both?” No, you cannot. You simply cannot embrace both worlds if you really understand what each of these worlds is ultimately pulling you towards. This is because one of these is anti-culture against nature itself.

Our Duty

It is the power of organic form—built over time like the best of folk culture—and the refined striving of high culture similarly built over time which leads so many of us to experience traditional Catholic liturgical rites as a soothing balm and the greatest of goods. Whether east or west, reverently practiced traditional rites are now some of the only places on the planet where we can encounter the highest form of worship, the highest level of form and aesthetic expression, and all within a confines which keeps the modern world outside of its sacred chambers. It is, in short, a place where we can be most fully human, and it explains why we are incapable of just “letting it go” and “joining the crowd.” We can’t just make the silly face and do the silly dance: our souls desire more from this short-lived experience than patent foolishness even in its most refined forms.

Those possessed with a hatred of what is sublime or elevated—or those still deceived and enslaved by (now outdated) counter-cultural notions of popular interaction and devotion—will seek to stamp out traditional rites. For our part, it is not a matter of simply not letting them do so. Rather to maintain what is most deeply human in us, we simply cannot let them do so. In our modern times, droves of old hippies die away while the vacuous and dangerous aspect of our derelict modern culture becomes more apparent.

If God allows this world to persist, it is certainly our duty to make sure that the Church remains at least one place where unfettered beauty, culture, and authentic worship may be found. As to the Grillos, let them and their vapid philosophies be a part of a future seminary course on what went wrong so many years ago, while the common Catholics are mercifully ignorant of such names and the destructive ideas they espoused. It’s either that, or perdition.

[1] In effetti, per gustare la liturgia eucaristica, per entrare nella sua teologia, per assaporarne la potenza umana e spirituale, occorre recuperare gli strati nascosti, ma efficaci, della nostra umanità. Il disegno di riforma della eucaristia voluto dal Concilio Vaticano II, perché la Chiesa uscisse dai vicoli ciechi della riduzione clericale, del parallelismo devoto, dell’inamidatura formalistica o dello sfiguramento informale, ha introdotto una profonda rielaborazione della esperienza di fede, chiedendo una nuova esperienza della azione rituale, che prevedesse la “partecipazione attiva” come regola. La liturgia è linguaggio comune, al quale partecipiamo in comunità. “Perché questo sia vero, e perché noi diventiamo comunità sacerdotale, dobbiamo riconoscere di celebrare come uomini adulti e donne adulte, ma tutti e tutte capaci di riscoprire l’animale, il bambino, il primitivo e il pazzo che abita in noi e del quale viviamo. Senza questa riscoperta, profonda ed elementare, nessuno può davvero celebrare. Può al massimo irrigidirsi in una cerimonia, o ritirarsi in una meditazione o concentrarsi su una idea. Ma questo non è celebrare

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