Monday, May 27, 2013

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.