Why do we pray? We can answer this question in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas if we keep in mind that prayer is an act of the virtue of religion. Understanding this virtue, and how it orders us to God, points to the salvific power of prayer to obtain what God has willed for our benefit. But how does it work? The third video in this series addresses this question.
The Virtue of Religion, as we saw in the first video, is the virtue whereby we order our life to God and to giving Him fitting worship. St. Thomas Aquinas carefully explains that this virtue has distinctive interior and exterior actions whereby we journey to God. In this video I explain briefly Devotion and Prayer, which are the two interior actions. Devotion and Prayer are what give life to the virtue of religion and are key ingredients to the Christian spiritual life.
Many times when I mention St. Thomas' "virtue of religion" in conversations, I get winced stares of utter confusion. On the one hand, this makes me excited because I am most fain to share what I have learned from my studies of St. Thomas (my brothers are probably getting pretty bored with my rants on religion); but on the other hand, it makes me a little sad because the virtue of religion is such an important and integral part of living the Christian life. With the help and inspiration of Br. Brad, our videographer, several videos will be put out explaining Aquinas' teaching on the virtue of religion.
"Sacred Scripture is the soul of theology," says the Second Vatican Council document Dei Verbum. What does this mean? What principles does the Church give Catholic exegetes for interpreting the Sacred Text. In this first of a series on interpreting Sacred Scripture in an ecclesial conext, I lay out the basic principles the Church sets forth for understanding and interpreting the written Word of God...
"Morality" and "moral rules" tend to bring up hot topics in our current culture. Thomas Aquinas, though, highlights the role of "virtue" in the moral life as the key to happiness. In this series of instructional videos, I will explore, question by question, St. Thomas's treatises on the virtues in the Summa Theologiae that lay out the basic foundations for Aquinas's notion of virtue. The first installment centers on the first question in the treatise, which deals with the definition of virtue. I explain how St. Thomas uses Aristotle's "four causes" to flesh out the essential notion of what a virtue is. As we will see throughout the series, practicing virtue does involve our feelings and emotions, but only insofar as they are ordered by the mind and our reason...
Though Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Simon & Schuster, 2012) was published almost two years ago now, I just got around to reading it over Christmas. It is one of those books I could hardly recommend more to sincere Christians who are trying to sort out the role of Christianity in the public square today. Douthat is an op-ed writer for the New York Times (one of the two token conservatives on staff), whose first two books and multitudinous articles have established him—young as he is—as a prominent cultural critic and observer. Douthat has been praised especially for his balance, which is on rather remarkable display in his most recent book. He sets forth his own positions incisively and with an engaging writing style, while mindful of the weaknesses within the groups he represents; yet is also able to see the strengths and potential good in his opponents' positions. In other words, he betrays a genuinely Catholic sensibility.
Every Christian in America today is aware, on some level, of the ideological battles that rage between and within different communions, the various camps often (and unhelpfully) drawing their vocabulary, attitudes, and posture towards the world, from the clunky categories of the American political scene. As a Generation X convert to the Catholic faith myself, I often have to work very hard to figure out how battles that were fought in the 1960s and '70s—over, say, formal or informal liturgy, abandoning or sticking to traditional theological vocabulary, whether clerics should wear distinctively religious attire or not—are still relevant today. Many have noticed that these post-Vatican II battles, or at least the language and set of cultural assumptions within which they emerged, seem even more remote to the generation following mine, the "Millenials."
The first great service of Douthat's book is to familiarize someone like myself with the "world" of 1950s American Christianity, then the various historical and social forces that, in the ensuing decades, led to the quite complex and varied situation we have today. This is the burden of the first half of the book. The second half goes on to detail a set of "American heresies" Douthat sees operative in the minds and hearts of most average American Christians today. The first half, though, begins by drawing off political trends, social scientific data, theological movements, and broader cultural features, to paint a picture of what Douthat calls the "Lost World" of the 1950s. It is not a lament for a pristine era—to my mind the author is careful not to fall prey to false idealization, despite what some reviewers have said. Rather he sets forth, for the sake of comparison, a broad array of features that characterized the American Christian scene circa 1960.
He points out, for example, that in the 1950s Christianity had a—startling to even utter—strong public presence in the United States that was, on the whole, respected by politicians and intellectuals alike. Having grown up myself in the 1980s in what is known as the "mainline" (as opposed to evangelical) wing of American Protestantism, I was astonished to see that the mainline denominations—Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.—actually experienced growth in the post-WWII years. (Since the 1960s they have experienced an almost universal decline in numbers.) The public prominence of such figures as Fulton Sheen, Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr., bore witness to a Christianity that was, though confessionally varied, intellectually respectable, politically engaged, and strong enough to wield significant cultural influence. Thinkers, writers, and scholars forged within a Christian worldview abounded, able both to engage and win respect from the highest levels of academia, as well as assert a public presence that shaped Christian thinking and consciousness: W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Flannery O'Connor, from the literary side; Christopher Dawson and Arnold Toynbee as historians; John Courtney Murray and Jacques Maritain as theological-philosophical minds who summoned their impressive abilities to political influence.
And then came the '60s. Douthat suggests five factors that, taken together, contributed to the deep fractures American Christianity experienced in the ensuing decades: (1) political polarization, and an increasing politicization of religion; (2) the sexual revolution; (3) globalization; (4) the religious consequences of increased wealth; and (5) class. Politically, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement sparked generational conflicts between an older Eisenhower-era generation in favor of change, but the slow and gradual type; and the younger leftward-leaning generation who demanded more confrontational "shake things up" tactics. Religion within this atmoshpere became increasingly wedded to political agendas, a trend Douthat illuminates by contrasting two pairs of leaders, one from the "old" and the other from the "new" order. In the 1950s and '60s, Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr., though coming out of politically opposite constituencies, managed to transcend their political affiliations, and remain effective Christian witnesses. Graham grew to respect and eventually support King's work; and King would have been, as much as Graham, recognized as a Christian clergyman of public import. By the 1980s, on the other hand, an unseemly picture emerges: Pat Robertson, in a manner the heir of Graham's largely white, conservative constituency, intentionally allying himself with the Republican Party vis-à-vis the Christian Coalition; and Jesse Jackson, on the left, summoning his religious clout to the full support of the Democratic Party platform. Each makes a bid for the 1988 Presidential election, a spectacle almost inconceivable for their 1950s and '60s forbears, who seem to have come out of a less-partisan, and hence relatively more united, Christian milieu.
In turn, the sexual revolution, globalization, and a burgeoning post-War middle-class, confronted America's Christian leadership with a juggernaut of issues it could hardly have foreseen, and had little idea how to effectively address. From the radical shift in sexual ethics and moral reflection brought on by the availability of contraception; to the seeming relativization of Christianity's uniqueness in light of a "global world" that seemed to draw Asia and alternative religious experiences nearer; to the slough of problems the gospel associates with wealth flooding into an upwardly mobile Baby Boomer generation; to theologians like Harvey Cox and James Pike who seemed altogether cheery about Christianity's capitulation to, and merging with, the rising secular state: all these amounted to a perfect storm for America's Christian leadership, who found themselves increasingly on the outs with the trends and direction of mainstream culture.
Douthat classes the responses to these challenges into two broad categories: accommodation and resistance. In the accommodationist camp one found men like Cox and Pike (mentioned above), along with Protestant mainline, and the lion's share of influential Catholic thinkers and bishops. If the world is speaking of progress and political action, and is tired of "old fashioned" ways of doing things, then, well, the Church ought to abandon these old ways as much as possible, since modern man finds them so displeasing. Jesus was interested in social justice and challenging the existing authorities; so ought we be. Jesus met people where they were at; so we ought to be less concerned about formality in liturgy, and adopt a more folksy guitar and tambourine approach, in line with what young people are "really" interested in. One very interesting section along these lines draws comparisons between the language of men like Cox and Pike—who came to positively and unashamedly deny central Christian truths—and the language of the 2nd Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, whose optimism about the possibilities of the "City of Man" often seems, at best, anachronistic, and at worst, almost incoherent. Exemplary of his detachment, though, Douthat reminds someone like myself—who, in the year 2014, finds himself on most points in favor of re-implementing in a new context, the "more traditional" ways—that in 1965 the accommodationist approach was altogether arguable, reasonable, and even compelling. Christianity faced an array of issues that were unprecedented in Christian history. Why not tinker with the way doctrine is couched, and the manner liturgy is done, in order to draw more souls to Christ? The real effects of accommodationism, needless to say, were another question. Douthat quotes James Hitchcock to summarize (107):
"Progressive clergy shed their vestments on the sacristy floor, threw their incense in the trash, and sold their golden vessels to antique dealers, only to discover that somehow the puritanical young men and women who had marched with them on the picket lines had got hold of all these discards and more besides—tarot cards, Ouija boards, Tibetan prayer wheels, and temple gongs. The Latin had been eliminated from the Mass so the young could comprehend it, but they preferred instead to chant in Sanskrit. Campus chaplains had ceased trying to sell prayer and were selling social action instead, but their former constituents were hunting up Hindu gurus and undertaking systematic regimens of meditation and fasting. Some clergy lectured the Church severely about the evil of sacral liturgies which are "escapes from life," but the young increasingly preferred drug-induced euphoria and hallucinations."
The fruits of accommodationism were increasingly smaller congregations, who seemed increasingly less committed to traditional Christian truths, from the theology of God, who now was to be "nearer" to me and so grow and change and learn things like me; to moral and sexual issues, which on any number of points contemporary Christians were either indifferent to or positively rejected; to recognizing any substantial need for "institutional religion" at all.
On the other side was the "resistance" approach of evangelicalism and a smaller group of Catholics, who found themselves unlikely allies in an emerging "culture war" against the rising tide of secularism. The journal First Things came out of this improbable alliance (first issue, Spring 1994), as did the increasingly politically aligned pro-life movement. Though generating a significant amount of internal strength and sense of purpose, and doing what no other post-1960 Christian community seemed capable of, winning converts, weaknesses emerged almost in lock-step with the growth. A certain strain of anti-intellectualism emerged in debates over evolution and biblical inerrancy, and an often too-close-for-comfort political association with "old time Reagan republicanism" made the claims of the emerging "Christian right" less credible. Their culminating victory almost became the defining defeat. With the election of George W. Bush to the White House, a convinced and assertive evangelical had finally made his way into the Oval Office. Yet Bush's administration was hardly against using government power to effect cultural change (a supposedly forbidden practice for conservatives), and the unfolding debacle of American intervention in Iraq, whatever the original intentions, dealt repeated blows to the American Exceptionalist camp's vision for a Judeo-Christian America, and a Representatively Democratic World. "Among young people, in particular," Douthat writes, "Evangelicalism's appeal waxed among Generation X...but then waned as the Xers gave way to the Millennial Generation. A quarter of Americans under thirty identified as Evangelical in the middle 1980s, but by the election of Barack Obama in 2008, that number was below 20 percent and dropping" (138).
The Resistance movement, particularly its Evangelical base, tended to thrive on a "para-church" approach that rejected the establishment institutions and sustained itself through high-profile personalities and leaders: from Billy Graham to Chuck Colson to Francis Schaeffer to Jerry Falwell. But, Douthat writes,
"[T]hough the 'para' groups were immensely successful at religious mobilization, they weren't as effective at sustaining commitment across a life span or across generations. They were institutions for an anti-institutional faith...organized around personalities and causes and rarely created the sense of a comprehensive, intergenerational community that both Mainline churches and Catholicism had traditionally offered. You couldn't spend your whole life in Campus Crusade for Christ, or raise your daughter as a Promise Keeper, or count on groups like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition to sustain your belief system beyond the next election cycle. For that kind of staying power your needed a confessional tradition, a church, an institution capable of outlasting its charismatic founders. Instead, Evangelicalism became dominated by empire-building megachurch pastors whose ministries often burned brightly and then just as quickly burned out."
One could find, I would further assert, parallel trends in the Catholic neo-conservative cluster that defined themselves against the mainstream Catholic leadership: effective in important ways at gaining adherents and martialing forces, yet ultimately with little to show in culturally-shaping influence.
The first half of Bad Religion gives an important, even vital, context to Christians today seeking a place to move forward. But the second half of the book is even more rewarding, and more practical. Douthat's thesis here is that, contrary to popular belief, we do not live in an un-religious or absolutely un-Christian America. Rather, any number of social scientific studies and other cultural indicators show that Americans are more religious now than they have ever been. Instead, Douthat argues, we live in an age of Christian Heresy. If a "mere Christianity" (to borrow Lewis' phrase) is conceivable, a Christianity whose fundamental affirmations Christians through history would recognize—be they Protestant or Catholic—fewer and fewer Christians today believe in it. The heresies Douthat pinpoints, in turn, are:
(1) the historical Jesus heresy, which explains away the historicity of the Gospels, while holding up pseudo and Gnostic versions of the Nazarene as somehow more to be reverenced; it is the Christianity of Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and John Dominic Crossan, on the scholarly side, and Dan Brown on the popular side;
(2) the prosperity Gospel of preachers like Joel Osteen, whose pervasiveness Douthat sets forth in frightening terms—who knew there were so many, or how much influence they have?—Douthat actually points to authors who have argued, almost convincingly, however far-fetched, that the housing bubble of recent years was virtually caused by prosperity preachers (!);
(3) the "God-within" heresy of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, where God becomes identified with my own inner-feelings and primordial instincts, whose Divine Voice might tell me to abandon my marriage vows (as Gilbert claims the Voice told her), and go on a spiritually narcissistic romp through Italy, India, and Indonesia in search of "self-actualization"; it is the god which denies original sin, and identifies the Deity with human nature, as well as trees, rocks, streams, sentimental romantic flings, and good Italian espresso;
(4) the "City on a Hill" heresy of American Exceptionalism; it is the God of, on the right, Glenn Beck, Michael Novak, and R.J. Rushdoony, who would see America as the culmination of God's divine plan for the human race; and, on the left, of the secular messianists of the Woodrow Wilson stamp, who believe America to be the standard-bearer for all things properly good, progressive and democratic, as the Lord of Heaven rightly wills it, and wills it inevitably for the whole world.
Douthat concludes with four possible options for the Christian world of contemporary America, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses: (1) the "postmodern opportunity," which exploits the cultural breakup of recent years to fashion "emerging churches" and "para-" groups that seek change society from the "ground up"; their temptation is to simply become, as Douthat puts it, "warmed over accommodationism"; (2) the "Benedict option," named after the monk and saint, which operates on the principle that Christianity must contract—if necessary into sub-cultures that retreat from the mainstream—before it grows; the danger here is to risk "paranoia, crankishness, and all the other pathologies of the religious ghetto...effectively giving up on those co-believers who aren't capable of opting out" of mainstream social engagement; (3) the "Next Christendom," which recognizes and builds on the strong emerging presence of Christianity in the "global south," reckoning within the borders of the United States with the continued influx of immigrant populations from the developing world; here Douthat makes the understandable observation that "not every form of cross-pollination is healthy," for the newly arrived representatives of Christianity from outside America's borders may import as many faults as positive and fresh emphases; and (4) to simply lower expectations as to the possibilities for Christian public and cultural influence.
By any reckoning, Bad Religion is an impressive and formidable effort. It would make excellent study material for a parish group. For sheer breadth, it's one of those books that is an education in itself, drawing together statistics, names, and social and cultural trends, into a richly informative overview of the state of Christianity in the United States in 2012 anno domini. What is more, Douthat manages to articulate—as I mentioned at the outset—highly controversial and complex social, political, and ecclesial trends in a manner both accessible and balanced, giving the reader much to mull over, whatever his or her personal ideological posture. I came to agree with almost everything Douthat argues in Bad Religion. Where I disagreed it tended to be a matter of emphasis here or there, or where I wanted him to better explain some unstated assumptions (e.g. the existence of a "mere Christianity," or the concept of "heresy," apart from the Catholic Church); assumptions of which I knew he was aware, but which lay outside the purview of the book. In any case, for the Catholic, Christian, non-believer, and everything in between, Bad Religion is worth the time, and is sure to reward the interested reader with much fruit for reflection, discussion, and debate.
"He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him. He had cured many of them and, as a result, those who had diseases were pressing upon him to touch him" (Mk 3:9-10).
Word about Jesus spreads so quickly. How fast does the Word of God move in our lives and in our hearts! If today you knew of a man who, by merely touching him, would cure you of your most afflicted disease, would you not travel far and wide? Yet this man isn't of folklore or some newspaper headline; he is real, it is the Lord!
The crowds, the huge throng of people seeking Jesus for healing is reminiscent of the first reading. When King Saul and David walk through the cities of Israel after their victory, the people acclaim them for the thousands they have slain. Numbers. How interesting that numbers can incite jealousy within our hearts. "That other person did more than I. Is he better than me?" Were not both King Saul and David doing the will of God? I can easily count in my own experience the number of times I've been tempted to take an unholy pride in mere numbers: "Look! We had ten Baptisms at Easter Vigil this year!" Rejoicing in the work of the Lord is a beautiful thing, and yet how easily can the heart be tempted to quantify His work; tempted to think not of God's power, but of "our" work and rejoice in "our" accomplishment. It is good to rejoice, and yet how easily can we be led to jealousy!
In His mission, Jesus isn't preoccupied by a human jealousy of numbers. His mission is to do the will of the Father, a mission that because He is the Word, compels Him to preach the Gospel. Just as with King Saul, the leaders in Jerusalem will become wildly jealous because of the massive crowds that follow Jesus. Ultimately the ugliness of human jealousy will rear its head and again cry for death. Jesus however, as the Son and Word of God has the power to redeem us, to bring about the powerful manifestation of God's love in the Triumph of the Cross.
We must always seek to confirm one another in faith, and encourage each other in the work that God has given us to do in His Name. It is through the saving power of the cross that all our jealousies can be transformed. Let us be like the townspeople that heard of Jesus, Let us repent and flee to Him who has the power to save us.
A priest friend of mine from the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, is wont to say, "ritual frees us to pray." In my own experience of trying to pray and participate in the Mass, this quip has proved true again and again. When a priest simply follows the rubrics, says the words as they are written, and doesn't worry about trying to be entertaining or engaging with me, I feel at ease and am able to put my mind and my heart to work in offering the Sacrifice with him: I am free to fully, actively, and conciously participate in the mystery that is taking place. However, when the priest adds, removes, or changes things, I immediately become distracted and worried: "what is he doing?"; "did I miss something?"; "why is he doing this?". Instead of an experience of Christ in the liturgy, changing the ritual of the Mass provides me with an experience of the personality and whims of a priest. I avoid judgment of the priest's intentions, but I can't help but feel that something is not right when such deviations occur. Some might be inclined to dismiss my experiences as examples of unbalanced rubricism, pharisaical punctiliousness, or neurotic scrupulosity. A balanced liturgical sensibility, so the reasoning goes, does not fret if this or that phrase is changed, if the priest extemporaneously interpolates prayers, or other such things. It may come as a surprise to this contemporary sensibility, however, that the Church and St. Thomas Aquinas place the utmost importance on rubrics and the ars celebrandi (art of celebrating) as safeguards that ensure proper, worthy, and participatory worship.
That priests do not have the right to change rubrics is not a matter of debate. The Code of Canon Law 846 §1 states "In sacramentis celebrandis fideliter serventur libri liturgici a competenti auctoritate probati quapropter nemo in iisdem quidpiam proprio marte addat, demat aut mutet," that is, "In celebrating the sacraments the liturgical books approved by competent authority are to be observed faithfully; accordingly, no one is to add, omit, or alter anything in them on one's own authority." Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council document on the liturgy, states "Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop...Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority"(SC 22). The General Instruction of the Roman Missal #24 states, "the Priest will remember that he is the servant of the Sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass." Moreoever, Pope Benedict XVI expresses very clearly in his exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (#38) that "The primary way to foster the participation of the People of God in the sacred rite is the proper celebration of the rite itself. The ars celebrandi is the best way to ensure their actuosa participatio. The ars celebrandi is the fruit of faithful adherence to the liturgical norms in all their richness; indeed, for two thousand years this way of celebrating has sustained the faith life of all believers, called to take part in the celebration as the People of God, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (cf. 1 Pet 2:4-5, 9)."
On top of these objective facts and rules, St. Thomas Aquinas provides a very compelling reason for following rubrics in his large treatise on the virtue of Religion in the Secunda Secundae. Worship, he explains, is the proper act of the virtue of Religion (cf. II-II.81) and the proper response of human beings in relation to God. Religion, moreover, is the most important moral virtue, since it draws people nearest to God while being distinct from the theological virtues. Worship, therefore, is one of the most important actions that human beings have the dignity and duty of performing. Citing St. Augustine, Aquinas argues that the greatest lies or offenses are those that are against Religion (II-II.93.1). The more important an action or virtue, the greater is the offense against it. To express an untruth against the worship of God is especially grievous. Aquinas argues that when a priest does something external that is not in accord with the ritual, he is performing such a lie insofar as he deviates from the given order of the rite: "even as he would be guilty of falsehood who would, in the name of another person, proffers things that are not committed to him, so too does a man incur the guilt of falsehood who, on the part of the Church, gives worship to God contrary to the manner established by the Church or divine authority, and according to ecclesiastical custom" (II-II.93.1co). The essential principle of Aquinas' assertion here is that the priest during Mass acts in persona Christi. As such, he should no longer act for himself but for Him whom he serves, and the Church, which is His Body. To depart from the rubrics of the Mass is to be a bad representative of Christ and the Church. And since offenses against important people are more serious, to depart from the rubrics is a grave insult to Christ and the Church. That is why Aquinas places such actions under the vice of superstition, which is any form of undue worship of God. Superstition is the vice against religion whereby worship is offered, not in excess or with too much solemnity, but rather "to whom it ought not, or in the manner it ought not" (II-II.92.1co). Therefore, to depart from the rubrics or the solemn and proper ars celebrandi of the Mass is an act of superstition.
Can St. Thomas Aquinas and the official documents of the Church magically solve all the problems of supersititious celebrations of Mass? Not easily, quickly, or perfectly. What can help, though, is for more lay faithful to become informed about what the Mass is, how one is to participate in it, and why it is so important for us in the era of the New Evangelization. With better knowledge, the lay faithful will begin to desire more ardently, and seek from their priests more effectively, an ars celebrandi that frees them to worship the One True God who has called us into communion by the bonds of faith, hope, and love.
*picture from http://www.blurryphotos.org/episode-6-superstitions/
A Reflection on Isaiah 40:1-11
In Yosemite National Park, there are many natural wonders to see. Perhaps the most famous of these are the beautiful and delicate waterfalls that pour into Yosemite Valley, which was carved out by a glacier during an ice age, about 1.3 million years ago. These waterfalls spill over the walls of the valley, which are themselves lined with granite rock formations soaring high above the valley floor. The top of one of these formations, called Glacier Point, offers a stunning view of the valley and, for those brave enough to stick their head over the railing, a three thousand foot vertical drop. The sense of height is dizzying, but the view is absolutely spectacular. It is the kind of experience that reminds you of how very small you are in the big scheme of things. Here is a huge and amazingly beautiful place, that was formed millions of years before you arrived and will be there millions of years after you are gone. In the waterfalls and granite cliffs of Yosemite, there is a power and strength that surpasses that of any human being, a glory that no one could ever match. Another one of these massive granite walls is called El Capitan, because, well, it is the Captain -- it is so mind bogglingly enormous. If you stand near the base and look at it long enough using binoculars, you can barely make out tiny ant-appearing objects, which are actually brave rock climbers who take days to scale its sheer face. This thing is huge.
When Isaiah says: “Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings, Cry out at the top of your voice,” this is what I imagine: climbing El Capitan and then crying out at the top of my lungs. But what shall I cry out? According to Isaiah, the message is: “All mankind is grass, and all their glory like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower wilts, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it.” Now this is a strange message. In the rest of this passage we hear of comfort, freedom from labor, the need to prepare the way for the Lord, and of the power of the Lord. Why is the herald of good news to cry out, “All mankind is grass”? What kind of Good News is that? Well, God has created us for glory, or more precisely, to share in his Glory. But when we cling to our own glory, then we cannot share in his.
Like a child who is brought to see the wonders of Yosemite, but who is too glued to the screen of the their electronic doodad to notice them, we cannot see and share in the glory of God if we do not lift our eyes from our own problems, plans, and preoccupations. This is evident in a more dramatic way for those climbing El Capitan. There is a saying among rock climbers: respect the mountain. If you don’t respect the mountain, you die. Isaiah is telling us to respect the mountain, to respect God, who comes with his strong arm. And we can’t do this if we are proud, if we don’t see how absurdly silly it is to cling to our own tiny and fleeting accomplishments when God wants to share a glory more massive and permanent than El Capitan with us.
Certainly, there is risk involved in this kind of reflection. Like the vertigo you get from looking down from Glacier Point, looking at the power of God and thinking about him laying low all the protective mountains and hills in our lives can cause spiritual vertigo: we don’t want to look, we want to step back from the edge and stay in our own small comfortable world, where we are the center. But if we only knew, if we only knew that true comfort comes from God, we would turn to him. And so Isaiah tells us that we need to remember that we are like the grass. The grass withers and the flower wilts, and only the Word of the Lord stands forever; the glorious Word that we are preparing to welcome into our lives in this advent season of humble purification.
"And when they came to threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God."(2 Sam 6.3)
I recently had the tremendous opportunity to fly in a single engine prop plane. A friend of mine with a pilot's license is part of a club that shares planes and resources and such, and had been inviting me to go up with him for some time. Stupendous. Majestic. Enthralling. Wonder-filled. Got me, naturally, thinking about liturgy! Specifically, about the ancient liturgy proper to my order, also known as the Dominican Rite.
The archdiocese of Miami posted a few months back one laywoman's account of experiencing the Extraordinary Form for the first time.1 She relates that, despite the preconceived notions about this mass she had imbibed from the media, her experience was remarkably enriching. She recounts an initial confusion, bridging into an entranced awe, and then a gradually free surrender to the beauty of a liturgy which was, on the one hand, entirely outside her experience, yet on the other, mysteriously and profoundly united with the saints in heaven and through history. Fr. Z linked her article on his blog, which seems to have spawned several more accounts (here, here, and here).
I add my voice to this growing and, as it were, polyphonic chorus. As a Gen-X convert to the Catholic Faith (raised Presbyterian, entered the Church in 2003), my exposure to any mass prior to about 2001 was rare, much less the old rite(s) of preconciliar days. The last thing on my mind upon initial conversion was the existence or possible importance of older liturgical forms. Although I did tend to drift towards more relatively sober and reverent liturgies, at that point most of my needy soul's gaze was inebriated with the riches of Sacred Tradition, the philosophical and theological patrimony of the Church, the gift of an ecclesial hierarchy that unites the Church's faith across space and time, and above all the supreme gift of the Blessed Sacrament. The more I have grown in my Catholic faith, however, the more I have come to realize the importance of liturgical form.
On this question, one often hears it said that the "externals" of liturgy are secondary to the really important thing, which is one's relationship with Christ. This is true in principle, but misleading. Outward forms matter for the same reason the Incarnation matters: as bodily creatures we perceive the invisible through the visible; the form through the accident, to use scholastic language. When the "accidents" of liturgical aesthetics are shoddy, undignified, or banal, this can implicitly communicate -- especially through long repetition -- false ideas about the character of God. But I get ahead of myself.
My first consistent encounter with the Extraordinary Form was on my "residency" year in Anchorage, Alaska (2010-11), where one mass every Sunday is offered according to the Dominican Rite, the ancient rite proper to the Order of Preachers.2 At the time these were Low Masses (no choir, one server, much silence) and my initial experience of it was a kind of dumb reverence. I sat and gazed inquisitively at the priest facing away from the congregation -- or rather, towards the East(!), at the server bustling back and forth seeming to obey minute rubrics with military-like precision, and on certain intermittent occasions being graced with the priest's voice or direct address: a "Dominus vobiscum" here, a "nobis quoque peccatoribus" there. The feel and flow of the Mass was unfamiliar but silent and rather unassuming. I was not distracted or paying much attention to the priest's personality quirks; I was not even so conscious of the words being spoken, except for trying to pick out a Latin phrase here or there. Yet it was all oddly entrancing. In a way I could hardly describe, I felt transported into a reverence for something mysterious I did not understand, but in which I sensed a profound unity, coherence, discipline, and depth.
The rhythms of the natural world come to mind. Some may have seen the excellent, excellent (did I say excellent?) BBC series Planet Earth. Transported to inner sancta of the jungles, deserts, ice plains, sea-depths, and mountain ranges of our world, one frequently wants to burst out while beholding the marvels, "this looks like another planet!" All manner of bizarre, enchanting, and startling phenomena carry themselves out day-to-day on earth, in an order mind-bogglingly elaborate, yet somehow reassuringly solid, steady, and consistently turning. Hamlet was right: there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Horatio's philosophy; or in anyone else's for that matter. Such expansive complexity overspreads every inch of the cosmos, yet underneath it a profound and awe-inspiring order shines through. God apparently was interested in aesthetics, in the "externals" of the cosmos, when He created it.
Which brings me back to the liturgy and planes. The wonder one experiences when watching Planet Earth occurs in concreto, as it were, by going up in a single-prop plane. Part of nature's power to evoke awe lies precisely in its lack of familiarity, in its uncontrollability, in the fact that it can bedazzle you (like this) but also spike your neck-hairs (like this). Part of the thrill of a plane flight, too, lies precisely in a certain "cost" paid up front: the danger of being thousands of feet up in the air, your life at the mercy of the human engineers who designed the plane, and the sheer know-how of the pilot guiding it. In other words, the experience of anything transcendent evokes a reverence for something other, unfamiliar, unpredictable, and even dangerous. It should not surprise us, then, that a Mass with centuries of venerable tradition behind it expresses the adoration of God in forms and appearances -- governed by minute and complex rubrics -- that are unfamiliar to our daily experience. If Nature is complex, yet profoundly beautiful and ordered, all the more the outer-reaches of reality we peer into when the Triune God is adored at the Mass. God's exceeding beauty, goodness, and majesty would seem to call forth naturally -- or supernaturally, as it were -- liturgical forms that are unfamiliar to us, that enkindle the twin instincts of admiration and, well, something that makes your neck-hairs stand up.
To carry the plane analogy a bit further, I recall sitting on the runway before take-off that brisk early morning. With a certain reverential wonder, I admired the symmetry of the plane's wings, the aerodynamic perfection of the body, the simple and compact yet, used rightly, wonderful winged potential of this piece of modern machinery sitting silently before me in the pre-dawn light. Awesome. So too, I was glad my friend Doug was scrupulous in checking the specs of the plane before flight (every door, tire, wing flap, and fluid level) since in a few moments this elaborate device would soar us into the heavens at the peril of our lives. His technical knowledge had to be quite elaborate, and his execution virtually flawless, in accordance with the greatness and difficulty of the task. Similarly, it is fitting that liturgy, which is ordered to offering the God of Heaven right worship and lifting souls to union with Him, should reflect the majesty of this God by being complex yet ordered, diverse in movement yet unified in purpose, highly detailed in rubric yet graceful and awe-evoking in overall appearance. If planes that launch bodies into both awe-inspiring and potentially dangerous physical flights require diligent and careful attention, even more the liturgy, the privileged flashpoint where Heaven itself shines through to us who dwell upon the earth.
In the last half-century it has been common to want and "design" liturgies that are more simple, common-place, and closer to the informal and popular customs of the surrounding culture. Whatever we want to say about the manner in which this "inculturation" occurs, what Newman called the "unutterable beauty" of the Mass hangs absolutely, I would assert, on the manner in which the liturgy respects and so reflects, God's simultaneous immanence and transcendence. God humbles Himself to appear as bread and wine, yes; God is closer to us than our inmost self, yes; God is compassionate, gentle, and forgiving, yes -- thank God for our sakes that He would come so near to us! But He is also infinitely removed from our experience, and acts in unpredictable and often very politically incorrect ways. He zapped Uzzah for the apparently understandable action of trying to steady a tottering ark, since Uzzah was not a priest (2 Sam 6:3); He killed Nadab and Abihu for using the wrong type of incense for sacrifice (Lev 10:1); and He metes out punishment to those who would contravene His commands, even disciplining those he loves (cf. 1 Sm 15.3, Ex 12.2, Num 31.7-18; Heb 12.6). He is "good to all, and has compassion on all He has made" (Psalm 145:9), but is also a "consuming fire" whose holiness excludes anyone who is not themselves holy from seeing Him face-to-face in heaven (cf. Heb 12:29 and 12:14).
Today we are not used to thinking of God in these terms. But we cannot get God's immanence without respecting His transcendence. If we want the fullness of God's love, we must (by grace, of course) accord with the strictness of His justice. Adoring His infinite majesty is the condition for uniting with and growing in His intimate love. I have been drawn to the ancient rite proper to my order quite simply because there is a depth and beauty in it, experienced precisely through the complexity and "other-ness" of its outward form, that (for many reasons) is often not accessible in vast swaths of the Church today, where the new Mass was not implemented in a way that organically developed from the pre-Vatican II years.3 And it is precisely, in one sense, this outward and highly ordered complexity that kindles the twin instincts of admiration and fear, of astonishment with a hint of alarm, which one feels in the natural wonders of earth, or in the experience of flight. Instead of the "externals" of Mass being odd and annoying superfluities one must "get past" in order to focus on the really important thing, I have discovered rather that they are genuine reflections of the honor, attention, and dignity due the Triune God, as well as highly fitting for facilitating the individual believer's personal encounter with this God.
As my formation has proceeded (I look forward to ordination in May, 2014), my liturgical sensibilities have come to be deeply shaped by the Dominican Rite, with a practicum offered now in our formation by Fr. Augustine Thompson -- perhaps the world expert on the rite -- and plentiful opportunities for serving, both at our house of studies and in the Bay Area. It seems a wise proposal of Pope Emeritus Benedict that, for now, the two forms of the Mass -- old and new -- should exist side-by-side, that they may influence one another. The old rite needs to undergo legitimate, careful, and discerning reform; and the new mass needs to re-establish a more direct and organic continuity with the Church's sacred tradition and practice. I would go so far as to assert this sort of legitimate liturgical reform as "storm center" of the vaunted New Evangelization, insofar as John Paul II launched the latter in 1992 as a Eucharistically centered affair -- but that would require another article. For now, we pray God would give all Catholics the fidelity, awareness of his Presence, and single-minded devotion to His glory upon the earth, to order our lives around worship in Spirit and in Truth.
All liturgical images above were taken at a Solemn High Mass recently celebrated, according to the Dominican Rite, at Star of the Sea parish in San Francisco, with Fr. Anselm Ramelow, O.P. presiding, and all other ministries served by student friars of the Western Dominican Province. They appear here courtesy of the Traditional Latin Mass Society of San Francisco.
1 Sometimes misnamed the "Latin Mass," since of course the new mass can be done in Latin also.
2 See my confrere Fr. Augustine Thompson's website for the most comprehensive internet resource on the Dominican Rite. Incidentally, Holy Family Cathedral now has Missa Cantata's regularly, and recently offered a Solemn High Mass.
3 To be clear, I do not assert the intrinsic superiority of the Extraordinary Form over the New Mass. The Holy Spirit evidently wanted, and still wants, a genuine liturgical reform to occur in the contemporary Church. My assertion is rather of a piece with Pope Emeritus Benedict's frequent observation through his career: liturgical reform was needed by the mid-20th century, but the way it happened in practice after the Council too often resulted in hasty decisions to jettison traditional forms, without respect for the internal dynamics of the liturgy that could have led to authentic development. Click here for a recent article by respected liturgical theologian Dom Alcuin Reid, O.S.B., on the ambiguities that lent Sacrosanctum Concilium to misinterpretation, and the positive seeds that are still to be nourished.