A First Step in the Recovery of a Catholic Vision of Reality
Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages
By Peter Kwasniewski
Publisher: Angelico Press
Pages: 346 pages
Review Author: Thomas Storck
Rudolf Otto, the famous German Protestant theologian and scholar of comparative religion, in his seminal book The Idea of the Holy (1917), specified what he called the numinous: that fascinated awe man feels in the presence of the mysterious divine, which can be found in all religions. With regard to the Catholic Church, Otto wrote, “In Catholicism the feeling of the numinous is to be found as a living factor of singular power. It is seen in Catholic forms of worship and sacramental symbolism…in the solemnity of churches and ceremonies.” Similar quotes could be multiplied from many other thinkers, whether historians, anthropologists, philosophers, or theologians, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who perceived the immense attraction that traditional Catholic worship once exercised over human sensibilities. But today, sadly, the Church, in her most widespread liturgical form in the Roman rite, has largely turned her back on her heritage. Almost everywhere, the central sacred liturgical action of the Sacrifice of the Mass no longer projects that “feeling of the numinous” as a “living factor of singular power.” The Church decided to downplay the sacred in order to appeal to modern man, who, so it was claimed, could no longer be reached by that sense of the numinous that had proved so potent over many millennia.
Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness is a direct challenge to the thinking that produced the liturgical changes in the Church after Vatican II, changes that caused or contributed to a sudden and unprecedented loss of faith on the part of many, and a loss of nerve on the part of those who still retained their faith. Peter Kwasniewski of Wyoming Catholic College has already written one book on behalf of the traditional liturgical form in the Roman rite: Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church [reviewed in June 2015 — Ed.]. The present book continues his apologia, and it focuses more on how this venerable liturgy leads man, even modern man, to the mysterious depths of the Christian faith.
Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness is, in many ways, a personal testimony, and it highlights the author’s justification for undertaking such a project. “I try never to write about anything that has not been intimately and frequently a part of my life as a Catholic,” Kwasniewski confesses. But this is not a drawback. One is reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s remark that if someone were to ask him why he prefers civilization to savagery, at first he might just point wildly at this thing and that: there are simply so many reasons to prefer civilization that one is left nearly speechless. Similarly, there are so many reasons to prefer the traditional Latin Mass that different people are apt to focus on different aspects of the question, and, given the variety of ways of thinking and feeling, this is all to the good.
Recall that the creation of the new liturgy, the Novus Ordo Missae, or the Mass of Paul VI, was an effort to reach modern man. In 1963 Pope Paul VI wrote, “Latin is not the only obstacle” to modern man’s participation in the Mass. “The difficulty arises principally from the way in which the liturgy expresses the prayer of the Church and the divine mysteries. The variety of its forms, the dramatic progression of its rites, the hieratic style of its language, the continual use of sign and symbol, the theological depth of the words and the mysteries…all seem to conspire to impede the understanding of the liturgy, especially for the modern man, [who is] accustomed to reducing everything to an extreme intelligibility.” This captures most of the objections made against what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls the “extraordinary form” of the Roman rite. But Kwasniewski rightly believes that Paul VI’s analysis is based on a misreading of human nature, the signs of the times, and the function of the liturgy itself.
First of all, we note that, as Kwasniewski puts it, the liturgical reforms failed to “produce a new springtime in the Church,” as Pope Paul apparently expected. Although there were other factors besides the liturgy, no one can deny that we have not experienced any sort of new springtime. The reform of the Roman rite has not succeeded in initiating a true renewal of the Church.
Although even today the “ordinary form” of the Roman rite appears to satisfy many Catholics and manages to attract some Protestant converts, it surely does not convey a sense of the numinous with that “singular power” of which Otto spoke. Almost the entire ambience of the Novus Ordo — its music, the informal and even folksy atmosphere that appears endemic to it, its rejection of symbolism, and its emphasis on words — fails to lift the soul to God with the power of the old Mass. The liturgy, writes Kwasniewski, ought to make worshipers feel “humbled in its midst, provoked to prayer, stirred by singing, brought to silence, caught up in things invisible, turned inward to the depths of our soul, turned outward to the absolute primacy of God.” In short, the liturgy ought to bring us trembling before the mysterious and numinous presence of God.
What of the claim that such a liturgy of mystery no longer meets the needs of modern man? Kwasniewski repeatedly contrasts what he calls the “liturgical rationalism” or “verbosity” of the revised Mass with the ethos of the traditional form. In the revised Mass, everything must be clear, able to be immediately understood — it permits no mysteries, few or no depths that may take a lifetime to plumb. But if we may judge by the result, modern man has no great love for this type of liturgy. In fact, at the time the Novus Ordo was promulgated, at the height of the secular counterculture, young people were turning to mysticism, to drug-induced psychedelic experiences, to Oriental religious cults — to anything that might negate the hyper-rationalism of the 1950s technocratic culture.
By misreading the signs of the times, Paul VI and his collaborators missed an opportunity that is not likely to arise again any time soon. Instead of working to eliminate the rationalistic abuses and slipshod manners of celebration that had come to mar the traditional liturgy — priests rushing through a mumbled Low Mass, for example, or a wordy commentary carried on during the Mass itself — the Church jettisoned it and replaced it with a liturgy devoid of any atmosphere of mystery. Yet “the believer, for his own good, needs the liturgy to be dense, elusive, and fascinating,” writes Kwasniewski. It must have “a certain inherent density of content and meaning,” and it must not be “readily intelligible, but opaque, multi-layered, cosmic in scope, rich in paradox.”
Modern man is educated far beyond the level of any of his ancestors, but this does not mean that symbolism has lost its appeal. Although the cultural landscape seems less clearly marked out today than it did 50 years ago, the continuing popularity of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and even the Harry Potter books testifies that the present generation is still open to things beyond the easy reaches of rational thought. Perhaps one of the reasons why so much of philosophy has become opaque and anti-rational is that we have banished mysticism from its natural homes, such as in the liturgy, and our contemporaries have compensated by giving it a home where it does not belong.
For many people, even some Catholics, the word tradition has negative connotations: Tradition is something we do just because we’ve always done it — it’s the dead hand of the past, an unthinking and slavish copying of what our ancestors did. Some traditions can be like this. But tradition as a whole is something else. As Kwasniewski writes, “Prior to all arguments about which practice is better or worse is the overarching principle of the primacy of tradition, meaning the inherent claim that our religious inheritance, handed down from our forefathers, makes on us. We do not ‘own’ this gift, much less ‘produce’ it. Tradition comes to us from above, from God who providentially designed us as social animals who inherit our language, our culture, and our religion.”
I realize that arguments such as these are apt to fall flat before many of our contemporaries. But is it possible that this is partly because almost no one has been making these types of arguments for some time now? Instead of emphasizing the “givenness” of so much of existence, the mysterious forces of life that unite us to even the lowliest plants and insects, Catholics have been gleefully participating in the shallow technological culture of our age. If people of our times are so confused that they think that human will and technological manipulation can nullify the reality proclaimed by their bodies, perhaps this is in part because no one has explained to them the beauty and romance of being, of “whatness,” or of nature as something received, a norm for our lives. To the extent that Catholics have taught the moral law, it has generally been as a series of “thou shalt nots.” The fact that the moral law is also the natural law, the law of our own natures, has not been properly emphasized or placed within the context of a vision of reality in which God, man, and all of nature have their places.
But tradition means more than this. In fact, writes Kwasniewski, “traditionalism is — or should be, and has the potential to be — a principled rejection of modernity’s fundamental assumptions so as to prepare the way for a new birth of Christendom.” Any Christendom that is more than a Catholic version of a Protestant Sunday-school skit must base itself on both nature and grace. Its natural foundations must rest on the fullness of God’s creation, so that no legitimate human activity or interest is excluded from, or not “baptized” into, Catholic culture. Catholics must offer a vision of this wholeness. It is no wonder that so many moderns have rejected what they understand Christianity to be: a sort of adjunct to commercial civilization, designed simply to enforce moral precepts that are almost exclusively concerned with sexual behavior and understood to be based on the arbitrary will of God. If Catholics had had the wisdom and imagination to sketch for our contemporaries a renewed Christendom, many who rejected the reigning exploitative commercial and industrial order might have found something so new, so other, as to find it attractive.
But Catholics cannot recover, even in intention, an integrated society ordered to Christ the King until we realize that we have more or less consciously rejected so many things in our heritage connected with such a social order. “It is no exaggeration to say that due to the abandonment of Latin and the mad rush to vernacularize everything, the Latin Church is in a state of rebellion against its cultural fatherland, its linguistic self-identity,” writes Kwasniewski. The preservation of Latin in the West even up to our own time can be considered a historical accident, similar to historical accidents in many other cultures. But might such historical accidents actually be instances of the providence of God, especially when we are speaking of the culture of a huge part of Christendom? Psychological health has been defined as acknowledging what we are — acknowledging not only the heritage, both physical and cultural, of our ancestors, but all the accidental yet providential things that have shaped us over the course of our lifetimes. Whether good or bad, these things must not be denied, even if sometimes they must be overcome. The same is true of culture. If a culture pretends it is not what it is, then a kind of death overtakes it. This is not to say that a culture should never change. But the Latin liturgical and intellectual heritage in the West was, and still is, a significant part of who we are as Catholics. If we ignore or deny it, we create an ecclesial atmosphere of rootless superficiality, a superficiality that embraces the only culture within easy reach: that of noisy, electronic modernity. Contrast that with the richness that is ours almost for the asking, and it is obvious that there is no way forward unless we take with us the cultural heritage we have received.
When we deal with the ancient Roman liturgy in itself, we encounter a different set of issues. Kwasniewski devotes an entire chapter to the different forms of the traditional Mass — e.g., the High Mass and the Low Mass. Many defenders of the extraordinary form speak of the Low Mass as the “quiet Mass,” and indeed it does lack the chanting or singing of a High Mass. But the rubrics by no means sanction an entirely or mostly quiet or silent Low Mass, in which nearly everything the celebrant says is inaudible. The canon, as in a High Mass, is not audible to the congregation, but most of the rest of the liturgy is not supposed to be said so quietly that it cannot be heard by the worshipers. Neque tam submissa, ut a circumstantibus audiri non possit (nor so low that he cannot be heard), as the rubrics say.
The Low Mass is, for most people, an acquired taste, and if we wish to promote the usus antiquior, it is the High Mass alone that has the ability to attract significant numbers of people. I enthusiastically agree with Kwasniewski when he writes, “The new Liturgical Movement should be striving for nothing less than a Solemn High Mass every Sunday in every parish.” Although, to my bewilderment, not everyone is immediately captivated by the beauty of a High Mass, especially that of a Solemn High Mass, it is this form of the liturgy that can, I hope, over time attract more and more people with its beauty, mysteries, and pregnant symbolism.
The chief obstacle to the ready acceptance of the traditional Roman liturgy is that it does not exist in a vacuum. Although participation in a sacred mystery will always be a draw for many people, it is possible for someone to have horizons so limited by the secular culture of electronic shallowness that he has become impervious to the attractions of mystery and depth, either divine or human. How to overcome that is not easy to say. People with some historical or artistic formation may find themselves quickly drawn to the riches and mysteries of the traditional liturgy, but such people are not the norm.
Moreover, the liturgy has become the symbolic battleground for wider controversies about what it means to be Catholic in the modern age. The conflict about the liturgy, then, is a conflict about more than the liturgy itself, and, whether or not people realize it, one’s position on liturgical questions can reveal one’s deepest philosophical and theological views about God, human nature, and even whether truth exists and is knowable. Thus, the question of how to effectively promote the extraordinary form of the Mass involves much more than liturgical aesthetics. It is as vexing as any question in the contemporary Church.
However, the grand vision of a sacred reality that Kwasniewski recognizes and puts forth is surely an important first step — indeed, an indispensable first step — in recovering not only a Catholic sense of worship but a Catholic sense of being. The old Mass cannot be revived successfully in isolation or simply as a juridical mandate or even a catechetical tool. It must claim its rightful place at the apex of a Christian vision of reality that, as Pope Pius XI wrote, is “linked with the universal teleological order, and as a consequence [leads] by progressive stages to the final end of all, God Himself, our highest and lasting good.”
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