Liturgy and the Need for Context

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.

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