Monday, September 22
The Mass, on Its Own Terms
The more I'm exposed to traditional liturgy (both the Novus Ordo done in a traditional way, and more specifically the Tridentine mass), the more I'm willing to simply take it on its own terms, and at its own pace. To demand a prima facie, positivistic account of it robs it of much of its existential potency. Certainly, there is room for a more critical approach in liturgy, but understanding the mass at a deeper level, and the Tridentine mass in particular, requires immersion rather than clinical exterior analysis. There is much that is arrestingly mysterious, numinously weird, or just plain odd when you let it all wash over you, and you feel all the better for the experience.
Last Sunday evening, a week ago, my parish held a Solemn High Mass of the Extraordinary Form to mark one year of Summorum Pontificium. There were over twenty servers and ministers packed into the dark, gilded sanctuary of Our Saviour's; I sat amongst them, feeling wonderfully lost in a sea of attendant acolytes. I had been to mass already that morning, and felt less of an imperative to follow, exactingly, every last little word. The Church has never demanded of us such a strict interpretation of active participation--indeed, probably most medieval peasants couldn't hear a word of a Low Mass said in a mysterious tongue beyond ranks of choirstalls and an enormous wood screen. But it is hard to shake the habits formed of a short lifetime of middle-of-the-road Novus Ordo massgoing, so it is always a comfort for me to get my obligation out of the way and simply enjoy a second showing of the liturgy on its own peculiar terms, to throw oneself into it and demand no explanations, but let it explain itself in its own good time.
So there I was, in cassock and surplice, one of a long line of servers tucked to one side of the altar. Color and shade were everywhere--the darkened void of the church nave, the dull gilt-bronze of the Pompeiian baldachin, the apostles, the sea-green underside of the altar canopy with its masklike Deco tetramorphs, the priest and ministers in cherry red covered in tarnished-gold neo-Baroque arabesques. Everything seemed significant, and inexplicably moving, as if I was seeing reality again for the first time. I passed mentally from the homeliness of an MC's cassock closed at the neck with a safety-pin, or, much later, when chalice and cruets were kissed and handed back and forth, as if the lovable figure of the priest, the other Christ, was to be ceremoniously, discretely smothered in ritualized osculae. That was a moment that seemed, if perhaps in slow motion, as affecting and real as any unscripted embrace, and accomplished by the simple mechanisms of rubrics, rather than the specialized talent of an actor.
The mass is not a long succession of disjointed readings and olla poladrida songs; it is one long song, as creation is. It is a play, with no author and many authors stretched out across space and time, that demands not realism or even real talent from its performers, save for the ability to follow careful directions. And yet it is more sublimely and messily evocative of the life of Our Lord than any gorily realistic Passion-play. The subdeacon, hiding himself like a child behind his humeral veil, may have an obscure if practical purpose; but, however childlike and strange he looks, peeping above his shroud, he is a figure of angelic smallness in the presence of the Godhead. He is the mighty seraph, reduced to holy fear before the Eternal Father.
What we see in the solemn liturgy is the collision of a thousand providential accidents; it could never have been created this way on purpose, save through the quiet creativity of the Divine. At times, to get it, you simply must step back and think all of mankind's collective creativity has been focusing on this one point now, and that God wants me to see these bright colors, these dark shadows, these tones and interlaced chants, the billow of incense, the tidy rightness of six candlesticks and a cross under a peacock-colored vault. There is room for improvement, or criticism, or mutual enrichment, but to demand all these right away, without tuning yourself to the deeper music of these mysteries first, risks missing the point.
The old mass--and the Ordinary Form well-done, to a lesser extent--shapes you on a conscious and unconscious level. You cannot demand immediate results, but it permeates you slowly and gradually, until you step out into the muggy evening and realize your clothes reek of the pleasantly Levantine odor of incense, and eternity. In time, you realize it is sufficient to simply hand oneself over to God and let Him show you what little detail in the greater scheme of things He wants you to see amid the gracious bows, genuflections and fluttering, mandarin-like deacons and subdeacons in their tunicles.
What seem like ceremonial niceties or extraneous filler can in time be overlaid with a whole Rorschach-like collection of meanings that in turn lead to other meditations, ad infinitum. The altar is incensed by the priest, and he is reminded of the sacrifice he must offer as Christ's other self; he hands the smoking censer to the deacon and the subdeacon, and receives incense himself, remembering the dignified and terrifying burden he bears.
And then the servers and clergy, for they, too, have some share in the duties and honors, if, especially in the case of the simple layman in cassock, it is perhaps only a temporary, honorary, emergency sort of honor. And then, at last, the laity, whose own dignity has not been forgotten here. Enough of this, and long-dormant synapses start to fire and reconnect in your brain, and the world becomes a very different--and far more interesting--place. The Pax--two ordinary old men in stiff, complicated robes, embracing. So immersed in this foretaste of heaven are you this strange scene seems normal, and you wonder, did Peter and Paul look this way when they clasped arms?
Even those odd, long, strange pauses--the silence of the Canon when the organ is ordered to stay silent; the stillness that follows when priest and attendants sit down during an over-long Credo and wait and listen; the numinous, waiting urgency that always seems to reign in the pews as the congregation watches the priest whisper and mime his way through the Canon--take on a new and mystical meaning, whether intentional or not. "And there was silence for half-an-hour in heaven." The mass's authors, if we can even speak of the mass having an author, may have not intended it to be read that way, but it does not matter. God is the play's ultimate author, and embraces every possible permutation of meaning in this masterwork.
We rounded out the evening by veneration of a tiny splinter of the Holy Cross, the servers approaching the coped priest by twos, genuflecting, kissing, and exiting into the sacristy. Ten or so servers and seminarians, all lined up along one wall, waited for the priest to return and dismiss them, without so much as a word. Not fear, or forced solemnity, but because it was the only natural response. We were finally dismissed by one of the Masters of Ceremony, as the priest had taken the relic to the rail, accompanied by two taperers, and the faithful, side-by-side, took their turns to kiss the silver cross that held a splinter that (momentarily) had killed God. I unvested and stepped back out into the nave as a civilian, and watched the laity at their devotions from the other side of the rail. A young couple smiled and nudged each other sweetly as they waited their turn, reverent but wholly at ease. I stepped from the arctic air-conditioning of the church narthex into the close early-fall evening heat. The monolithic front of Grand Central Station looked slightly pink in the sunset light, and I felt at peace.