Monday, May 27, 2013

Beginner's Steps to an Orthodox Liturgical Library

Here's a great webpage with some helpful hints for those interested in establishing an Orthodox liturgical library, a logical next step for any liturgist after he or she has found sure footing and familiarity with Western ground.

Liturgy, Anagogy, and Transcendence.

Liturgy, it seems to me, is in parody with monastic thought through the centuries, in so far as liturgy should have contemplative and practical dimensions. I use these terms in the monastic sense, as seen in the writings of Cassian and Evagrius, although I do not apply the same steps in the progression of the soul to the liturgy. In Cassian's system, one masters the practical to open the eye of the soul to see the nature of spiritual things and obtain contemplative knowledge. Liturgy, in some sense, is the praxis of contemplation, the concrete action that manifests where the spirit has been amid a transcendent encounter with the Deity. It ought to, then, transcend the mundane, the prosaic, the mediocre, and the quotidian life. Liturgy ought to, much like Pseudo-Dionysius's progression from affirmation to negation, lead one to an ascension beyond mind and soul, into the fathomless "abyss" of the spirit, to the depths of the divine beyond the human sphere.

Outside of certain monastic settings, the above is precisely what Western liturgics fails to do. It has very little to do with the Missal in use. Whatever the scholarly criticisms one may have with the Missale Romanum of Paul VI, there are enough predominately monastic environments that aptly demonstrate its suitability for anagogy. There, conversely, enough celebrations of "Tridentine" Missal weighted down by corpulence of the Baroque. Plainly, though, the Western liturgics typically fail to elevate the mind to something transcendent of reality; our normal liturgical experience painfully reflects our reality, often times being at parody with our suburban formation, the curse of the quotidian life, to echo Henri Lefebvre.

The recent fanfare among certain parties regarding a survey of the recent English translation of the Missale Romanum exemplifies the problem. In the Roman Church, the liturgy has become something governed by committees, polls, PC interests, and (in the United States) the vapidity of suburbia (with a few food drives and fundraisers for the less fortunate thrown in). It's a harsh criticism, but one verifiable upon review. In the West, our liturgy reflects our shallow culture and our mediocre daily life. At best, it is most often reduced to a political forum, left or right. A Benedictine monk I occasionally write to made the observation, and I fully agree, that the liturgy of the Roman Church has been reduced to sign of ideological victory for which interest happens to acquire the proper levels of influence. By presenting new translation in such discontinuity with the previous one, the last vestige of the liturgy's semblance of timelessness has been stripped away (in English speaking countries, at least) and it has been reduced to a political tool that can be revised to reflect ruling tastes. The previous translation failed on many if not most accounts. The process and product of the new translation, however, has firmed the notion that liturgy is produced by committee and its aims are predominately "quotidian."

The above, however, could not have come about were there not a deeper crisis in the Latin Church. Liturgy is most often an afterthought. Even among some of the more ornate celebrations of the Roman liturgy, the focus is not so much that anagogical journey the liturgy both reflect upon and facilitate, but rather concretely reflecting the aesthetic, social, or political convictions of the local liturgy committee. This state could not have come into being had not the liturgy been relegated to perfunctory status in previous centuries. The original liturgical movement was nearly hostile towards traditional Catholic devotions. This was not on account of modernist whims for deconstruction. Rather, Catholic devotionals had long blunted the liturgy and cultivated a suspect theology, a situation back in full force today. The tyranny of devotionals coincided with the increasing perception (perhaps brought about by general illiteracy rather than a lack of knowledge of Latin) that the liturgy was the clergy's business only. To this, I would add one further detrimental affliction upon the liturgy in the Latin Church, the imprisonment of monastic spirituality in the monastery, in contradiction with the greater integration of monasticism among the Orthodox. In every discussion of liturgy, this is the greater context in which it takes place.

The liturgy in the West has devolved, largely because we approach it as a thing to be constantly re-crafted. It has become wholly a product of the terrestrial sphere, amid which God is truly made in man's own image and likeness. All talk of translation, reform, and further revision of rites turns the liturgy into the most ordinary of activities. Canonical prayer, for our benefit, must be approached as anything but ordinary. One has to wonder if the Roman Church can rediscover liturgical anagogy if henceforth discussion on revisions, reforms, and other such matters were suspended and the liturgy were prayed as it is.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

New Survey on the Roman Missal.

A few months ago there was a published survey on the new translation of the Missale Romanum. The survey had positive results and made certain sectors who have promoted the new translation as an improvement very happy. The folks at The Chant Cafe` especially. Now, another survey on the new translation has recently been published. This time, the results are somewhat scathing of the new translation and drawing criticism from more conservative quarters.

Debates about methodology abound - as they did with the previous survey. Two points to raise. First, the new translation is a superior translation to the former - which wasn't a hard feat to accomplish by any means. This being said, as someone who knows Latin and uses it quite regularly, the new translation still leaves much to be desired. There are elements to the Latin original the English language simply doesn't capture, at least via the translation techniques used thus far. Second, the majority of priests I've spoken with are somewhat apathetic to the new texts, neither lauding it from the pulpit or performing histrionics on their difficulties pronouncing the text. THAT is a bad sign. It would be better to have translation that is universally detested with much vitriol than to have a translation that, overall, inspires a tepid reaction. Quarters pro and con the new translation will highlight any reaction that enforces their perspective. That's natural, really. Although if the general reaction to the new translation were one of apathy, then it would assure the immediate future of the liturgy in the Roman Church is one of neglect, a mere perfunctory action fulfilled to keep apace.

Just keep kicking that dead horse...

Here's a quote:

"So it is in our time. Benedict XVI and his papacy were epic for liturgy and music and for those who care so intensely."

No, not really. Although the Western standard of liturgy has fallen to such a low watermark it is easy to think so. Benedict tried to re-institute the sterile celebration of liturgy that has typified the Latin tradition. If you want  "epic" liturgy, there's got a fine Trappist abbey I can point you towards and a host of Orthodox cathedrals offering the Divine Liturgy. Benedict's papacy was evidence that Latin liturgical theory and praxis may well be exhausted, languishing under the weight centuries of reticence compared to the Orthodox liturgical tradition.

The prime problem, it seems to me, is that episcopal celebration is the model upon which the Latin liturgy, in all its varieties, has rested. The solution, it seems to me, is to re-orient the liturgy to the monastic tradition. Plainly, monastic celebration must become the exemplar, if not the norm, in the Latin West.

The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction (Book Review)

The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction
By Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke

Eostericism abounds. What was once the religious purview of societal elites from the ancient world to the modern has been thoroughly capitalized and publicized. It has become, in some form of derivation, the popular praxis of the the "everyman," that overarching cultural mode known as secular humanism. Every time I address topics of an esoteric or otherwise occult or new age bent, I often receive emails wondering why I would devote space to such topics. My answer is simple and consistent: the concept of God is changing and a broadly defined esotericism is the primary influence upon this transformation. Or, as I put it to a Lutheran pastor once, "if you don't think the people in your congregation are reading, you're living in la-la land." Crude, but to the point. Theologians, whether ecclesiastical or academic, are living in a bubble, largely talking with other persons in the same bubble and largely unaware of their greater irrelevance to a culture whose form of "God-Talk" is nearly a foreign language.

This being said, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke's The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction is, as its title implies, a very accurate primer of the development of esotericism from its earliest (and fairly ancient) manifestations to its recent popularization. More importantly, this volume is an academic effort. The author, an academic himself, spends time in the introduction highlighting esotericism's entrance into the university as a proper field of study - early in its development, but growing.

The volume collects a wealth of historical information, elucidating for the scholar and perhaps disillusioning for fanatics, both religious conservatives who see the devil at play in all variant things and adherents to various esoteric currents who will likely watch their mythology dissolve before their eyes. All of which is to say that the book is accurate in its presentation of information and supplies demonstrable proof of esotericism's intellectual legitimacy when its contemporary mythos is stripped away. Goodrick-Clarke begins by identifying the ancient texts that eventually became the inspiration for esotericism (broadly speaking) in the   late medieval/early Renaissance period. Famous figures such as Albertus Magnus (Aquinas's master) and Marsilio Ficino played crucial roles in the development of a truly Western esoteric stream. Ficino succeeded in renewing Western interest in the first century Corpus Hermetica. The Corpus Hermetica' popularity was so vast it not only became the topic of regular commentary, Hermes was honored with a Mosaic in the Duomo of Siena. For a religious or theological audience, Albertus Magnus may well be the most important name in the documented development of Western esotericism. The famous teacher of Thomas Aquinas (the lynch pin of Roman Catholic theology) developed a mature system of natural magic or occult astrology in his Speculum Astronomiae. Therein, Albert posits the influence of celestial powers upon physical events and the prospect of ultimately manipulating the course of human events through a successfull reading or divination of the stars. This work of Albertus Magnus, Goodrick-Clarke argues, was itself a maturation of the system of natural magic developed by the Benedictine Monk, Johann Trithemius, whose output seems to have acceded that of Albertus Magnus on these matters.

The development of Western esotericism continues well into the Reformation period and the Enlightenment. Indeed, it may be said the "second wave of esotericism" comes to the fore at the instigation of the Reformation. The Reformation's insistence on individualism, personal piety over a solid corporate identity and rejection of ecclesiastical authority proved to be fertile ground for the flourishing of Western esotericism. The work of the Anglican clergyman Dr. John Dee, most famous for his accounts of invoking heavenly powers and receiving communication is somewhat briefly handled, although the author accurately establishes is place as perhaps the most reputable scholar in Northern Europe at the time. Conversely, Jacob Boehme is given adequate length and it seemed as though his works were treated in greater detail. This is understandable to some extent; Boehme was perhaps the most poignant reaction to the solidification of Lutheran orthodoxy and identity after the death of the movement's movements founder. As the author follows the development of Rosicrucian mysticism, Freemasonry and Illuminism, he demonstrates how such movements fall within the full spectrum of Protestantism's development. The material on Illuminism is most timely. Conservative Christians have revived the notion of an Illuminati conspiracy in recent years and in so doing have often provided an incomplete chronology of the movement with aim of presenting some sort of satanic super structure of world politics. Simply, it's rubbish. Illuminism, rather, was a complex interaction of Enlightenment era methodology and principles with a rejection of the growing materialist view of the cosmos and man's place within it.

As should be expected, the book provides an account of spiritualism, Theosophy and the rise of modern esotericism. In so doing, the author aptly implies that the antagonism towards Christianity or Judeo-Christian mythos is rather accidental, likely born from more contemporary esotericists failing to be well versed in the greater context of esotericism and merely functioning as reactionaries to contemporary cultural trends. After reading this volume, one will find it impossible to ignore the influence of Western Christianity on Western esotericism. Plainly, it may be stated that Western esotericism is an offshoot or development of Western Christianity. As the author observers in the opening sentence of the introduction, "Western esoteric traditions have their roots in a religious way of thinking." Western esotericism in its origins did not so much seek as to deny religion so much as it sought to fulfill religion, often by denying the limitations of certain conventions of language, thought, or imagination. In its Renaissance appearance, esotericism was the fulfillment or conclusion of the Catholic imagination, pursuing many elements in Roman Catholicism that have traditionally been left undeveloped in favor of a more comprehensible system designed for mass adoption. The same holds true for Protestantism; in an attempt to compensate for the elements of the religious imagination lost by the Reformation, esotericism in Protestant cultures created complex hierarchies of interior illumination, under the influence of the Reformation's focus on individual religiosity and opposition to any ecclesiastical authority - a point of development that accounts for much of contemporary esotericism's antagonism to its source of origin.

As to be expected, there is much more to the content of this book than one can adequately convey in a review of any manageable length. The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction is highly recommended for those looking for a concise contextualization of modern esotericism.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

One Point Where the Orthodox Would Likely Hold Rome's Feet to the Fire.

Robert Taft addresses it himself, actually. Courtesy of Dan Nichols.

The Roman Church's current sacramental discipline regarding first communion (and chrismation), denying children communion until the age of seven,  is the product the breakdown in Latin theology as it became isolated from its Greek predecessor.

The scholarly argument against the practice of the Roman Church is substantial. Nevertheless, though this practice was born from a decline in theology, it is the source of many sentimental religious occasions in the Roman Church and it seems unlikely there would be much desire to change it.

Again, for the record, I side with the Orthodox on this issue.

Fr. Robert Taft and Where East and West Diverge

Robert Taft is, among liturgical scholars, a jewel in the Roman Church right now. Bi-ritual and highly knowledgeable of the Orthodox Church and its liturgy, Taft has always had much to teach both students of the liturgy and persons interested in Orthodox Christianity. Dan Nichols has recently linked to an interview Fr. Taft gave to First Things.

Taft's estimation of the Orthodox situation and the ability of "peer pressure" to get certain anti-Roman elements in line and the prospects for reunion are, I think, somewhat naive.

No one, I don't think, doubts the theoretical possibility of reunion, however, one denies the complexity of the issue if one doesn't reckon with three major theological critiques the Orthodox have with the West. Papal Infallibility and the Immaculate Conception are well known, however, the Orthodox have a more encompassing critique of the West's theology, both its severance from the Patristic theological method and its tendency to regularly reinvent theology without much regard for greater context.

For the most part, I side with the Orthodox - there is something to be said for having a coherent theological tradition. It is foolish to think, however, that the Orthodox would be willing to live and let live. Communion is a serious matter for the Orthodox; the Orthodox Church will not entertain reunion until the West undertakes a substantial critique of its own theological development. Again, I essentially side with the Orthodox. The Roman Church has often invented theology with no concern for continuity with the greater tradition, largely because for a long period of the time the scant knowledge of Greek and Hebrew divorced Catholicism from the greater tradition and create a tradition unto itself.

There have always been differences between Latin and Greek Christianity, however, at a certain point one must be willing to distinguish between differences born from cultural diversity and those born from intellectual isolation. It so happens that Latin Christianity developed many of its treasured traditions while in isolation from the large cache of thought that preceded it. This is not meant to be overly harsh, rather, it is meant to offer some perspective.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Perspective on the Breviarium Romanum.

Much time is spent analyzing the reform of the Roman Mass. This is understandable given that the liturgy of the Mass is the most common Christian liturgy and subject to the most exposure. By comparison, scant time and attention have been given to the reform of the Breviarium Romanum to the Liturgia Horarum. What has been written is either an overview of the changes, an introduction to the new liturgy of the hours or a polemical piece decrying the old use and overly lauding new divine office.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle.

I recently visited Baronius's website to look up information on their much praised but indefinitely out of print three volume Latin-English Roman Breviary. Baronius, to its credit, included a review from Alcuin Reid. Reid notes, as any careful author should, that one must be careful not too treat the Breviarium Romanum as the pinnacle of canonical prayer, so far as the divine office is concerned. The Breviarium Romanum in force until the promulgation of Paul VI's Liturgia Horarum has its faults. Reid notes,

"Indeed, this reviewer would say that aspects of them were radical, and that to apply the adjective “traditional” to elements of the Pius X Breviary is not possible. They are “authoritative,” certainly, but, for example, to abolish the tradition of praying the Laudate psalms (Pss 148-150) each morning at Lauds—which tradition in all likelihood Our Lord himself observed according to Jewish custom—is no small matter. So too, to retain Pope Urban VIII’s awful revision of the Latin breviary hymns (in both the 1911 and 1961 editions) is hardly “traditional.” The 1963 Breviarium Monasticum, which never suffered these injuries, would be much more deserving of the epithet."
We need, then, to keep some perspective when analyzing the pre-Conciliar Breviarium Romanum. While I would not necessarily agree with Reid's stance regarding the pre-Conciliar Breviary's distance from the tradition, one cannot ignore that it contained elements of departure from antiquity. This being said, Pius X's reforms had, at their heart, the aim of restoring the ancient practice of reciting all 150 psalms in a weekly cursus, something that had been lost in the Roman Office and is the heart of the structure of canonical prayer.

This is to say nothing of the mangled hymns of Urban VIII, a point at which the Liturgia Horarum actually has a leg up on the traditional breviary. A point which quickly becomes moot when one considers the mangled psalter of the the Liturgia Horarium. Dividing the psalter up over four weeks denudes the hours of their contemplative vigor. Removing verses or whole psalms out of consideration for the sensibilities of late 20th century Western culture strips the psalter of its dynamism. Yet, these decisions, as with the decision to restore the ancient texts of the Latin hymns, were in reaction to very real deficiencies in the "Tridentine" books. The secular clergy were bound to a daily office that in toto did not necessarily correspond to the life of a diocesan cleric. The then burgeoning success with vespers, thanks in large part to the liturgical movement, demonstrated that the divine office assuredly had a place outside of the monastery, although some questioned the rationale for making the office obligatory in its full mammoth form.

Be this as it may, when one compares the Breviarium Romanum with its successor, one cannot deny that something has been lost. Rather than simply add options which could abbreviate certain hours, the decision was made to fundamentally alter the essence of the divine office. Reid's observation, however, should pull the astute reader back from the temptation to "divinize" the old office and ascribe if with heraldry it does not entirely merit.

One could argue that beginning with the revised hymns of Urban VIII, the Roman breviary functioned as a sort of forum for all of the more modernizing tendencies in Western Christianity. The old Roman customs ever so gradually disappeared at the behests of the sensibilities of the age, culminating in the full recast of the Roman office after Vatican II.

This is all to say, and I'm not certain Reid would agree with me here (in fact, I assume he would not) that we must be very careful when we lionize the so-called "Tridentine" liturgy as the pinnacle of liturgical development. To be true, my preference is for the old books. This preference is with the qualification that the liturgical movement, at its peak through the 20s and 40s, was correct in its aims at the time. The Roman liturgical books were a treasure that had been corroded through centuries of misuse and neglect. The goal was restoration of the books to an earlier praxis, not a reform of the books to a new sensibility. The hope was that such a restoration would make the liturgy itself, without the cavalcade of pious devotions, an access point for theological breadth and divine encounter. This is all predicated upon the conviction that the Traditional liturgy as it was commonly celebrated was an aberration from the way the Traditional liturgy should have actually been executed and experienced.

Perhaps more so than the Roman Mass, the Roman Office has really taken it on the chin in the process of liturgical reform. Although, when one has the proper perspective, one sees how the Liturgia Horarum cannot be isolated from liturgical tendencies that had already left their mark in the "Tridentine" breviary. Yet, the Breviarium Romanum illustrates what role the Traditonal liturgy should have in our contemporary context. By keeping proper perspective on the Traditional books as they came to us in their "Tridentine" form, we can inform ourselves as to what was lost without going so far so as to enshrine an expression of the Traditional liturgy that itself veered from the oldest documented exemplars of praxis.

Interesting piece on the traditional Lectionary.

The folks at Rorate Caeli (either love'em or hate'em) recently posted an interesting Una Voce position paper on the traditional or "Tridentine" lectionary. You can find the paper here with a link to the author's blog. 

Briefly, this is one of the more well balanced assessments of the traditional lectionary's often unnoticed strengths. There are, of course, some qualifications that should be made. The author correctly points out the parallel between the gospel readings of the old lectionary and the subject matter of Gregory the Great's sermons. In this instance, we have some connection to the sixth century in the cycle of gospel readings, however, we need to exercise some caution in that we do not know if the lections that were transmitted to the "Tridentine" liturgy are the precise ones utilized then. Given the tendency towards creeping brevity in the Roman liturgy, it would not be impossible that the lections of Gregory's time were still somewhat longer. This, however, is relatively minor. 

There remains, among liturgical scholars, an unanswered question of whether or not the reform of the Roman liturgy (apart from the questions of more gravitas) should have occasioned the development of a three year lectionary. Certainly, I don't think anyone would hesitate to admit that the three year cycle is indeed an innovation based off of modern liturgical theory. Whether or not it was legitimate to do such a recasting of the Roman lectionary is another matter. There is, plainly, little if any precedent for the cycle of readings as it was constructed for the Missal of Paul VI - the modern lectionary is an intellectual construction. Yet, there is evidence pointing to dualing customs in Italy of a lectionary comprised of three or two readings. There is some evidence of Italian usage of a three reading lectionary, although, we do not have a complete cycle to work with. The evidence is, thus far, partial if not fragmentary. 

There are numerous lacunae concerning the old Roman usage of the lectionary. We have a fair sense of the Gospel readings during the sixth century due to Gregory's sermons, however, it must be noted that Gregory the Great did a substantial restructuring of the Roman liturgy and it is still some time later before we get a more complete picture of the Roman liturgy. The Roman liturgy, even during Gregory's time, is still murky, more so when we try and peer into earlier centuries. The Hadrianum provides us with a glimpse of the Roman liturgy shortly after the time of Gregory the Great.We can do some reconstruction, but there are still frustrating gaps remaining when trying to create a model of the liturgy at the time of Gregory. The so-called Vernonense Sacramentary provides us with a provocative glimpse into various Mass sets of probable early Roman origin (at the very least, Italian). When studying the content, one is often pained at the losses the Roman liturgy has suffered over the centuries. These pieces of early evidence, however, are concerned only with the euchological corpus. The nature of the lectionary at time, particularly in those elusive pre-Gregorian centuries, remains largely unknown. 

All of this is to say that the author's point about the pedigree of the "Tridentine" lectionary ought to be taken seriously, in so far as it has precedence and a historical case that can be made in its favor given the lack of any traceable evidence from the earlier centuries. Additionally, for the careful reader, the author does aptly suggest that onus rests upon supporters of the new lectionary to justify its implementation. The new lectionary is a construction that came, literally, out of nowhere and reflects the thinking of biblical scholarship and currents in theology of 1960s. The perennial value, of, say, paschal mystery theology is disputable, so too its influence on the reform of the Roman  lectionary. The new lectionary, far from having an established pedigree, is on the verge of theological obsolescence.