Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Are you experienced?

Experience is, for all practical purposes, the ultimate source of authority or truth. The more cerebral types among us like it or not, experience will always be the standard to which any proposition, no matter how cogently argued, will be measured. Again, practically speaking.

There are times when it becomes readily apparent how crucial experience is. Experience may lead us one way, and someone else another way; doubtless, its deep impact upon our conscious and unconscious thought governs our perception and assimilation of the world around us, perhaps more than we would often like to admit.

The above holds true in matters of liturgy, prayer and spirituality as much as it does in any other aspect of life.

There is a certain author of the perennialist school with whom I often find much sympathy. In a rather well respected work of his on prayer he discusses canonical prayer and spirituality at some length. After extolling the virtues of canonical prayer, its ability to transpose us into the mind of God through hallowed tradition, he turns to the subjects of contemplative prayer and prayer of the heart (broadly speaking). It is at this point that the author comes to grips with his own experience, one which convinced him of the perennial truths of Catholicism, but also led him to abandon his Catholicism under the pretext that Catholicism had forfeited sound metaphysics and mysticism in favor of a materialist nominalism.

How could I not sympathize with this man?! Someone who, more elegantly than I, could express my experience. Of course, this author died some time in the late 90's. He watched the changes brought to Catholicism and its liturgy. Truth be told, the astounding popularity of his perennialism may well have contributed to those changes in so far as it seems to have exercised a profound influence on certain types of theologians. This author no longer recognized the Catholicism he cherished, although, to be sure, he already gone on to develop his own praxis. The nature of the attachment he had with Catholicism to so sternly criticize the changes made in wake of Vatican II was never really explained by the author. By the time the Council began he had already moved on to "his own thing." The author did not have any real experience of Catholicism during or after Vatican II, a bit of irony from a modern mystic, in the most noble sense of the phrase, who so often taught on the experiential aspect of metaphysical knowledge. Yet, if one has experienced the wrong end of the post-Vatican II stick, it is relatively easy to bypass this critique and quickly sympathize with the author.

If this author, who shall remain anonymous, had experience of Catholicism after Vatican II, if he had tended to the adoption of the post-conciliar canonical prayer as much as he did the pre-conciliar liturgy of his youth, before he went on to do his own thing, would he had written anything different? Would he have been able to turn his prowess to canonical prayer of the Roman Church as it emerged in the later decades of the twentieth century and found some deep metaphysical truth? It's hard to say, really, but it is always something to keep in mind.

As much as we can rightfully speak of the decline of Latin Christianity, and note how new religions or spiritualities seem to be filling in the vacuum, we must also acknowledge there are those whose experience of Catholicism after Vatican II, most especially in its liturgy is in stark contrast with decline. We should not go so far as to drop our critical senses and affirm a "new Pentecost," at every turn. That would delusional. We must acknowledge, however, that there are experiences that have invested the new liturgy with a certain authority.

Without setting ourselves up for disappointment, one must consider that for Africa and Asia, the reformed Roman liturgy is the liturgy; in its Mass and Office, it is the liturgy that coincides with the expansion of Catholicism in those parts of the world. One must also consider those who attend the new liturgy with the same fervent devotion that is often associated with memories of old liturgy. For such people, there has not been a rupture to speak of. Then there are those monastic houses that celebrate the Roman liturgy with dutiful monastic observance. One such abbey is a drive away from me in Spencer, Massachusetts. I have written about their liturgy before; these guys are proof that the new missal is fully capable of conveying the depth of the Tradition if the community responsible for celebrating the liturgy so wishes it. Furthermore, this can be done without restoring any elements of the old missal.

Experience has a way of establishing authority, truth, and authenticity. When it comes to the reform of the Roman liturgy, any criticism needs to be mindful of this. Any criticism of the liturgy promulgated by Paul VI eventually must reckon with the fact that, regardless of the historical and cultural arguments against a reform on such a massive scale, there are those whose experience of the new liturgy is not fraught with decline and deformation. It would be presumptuous, as I am often reminded, to simply discount or dismiss these experiences as either ill-informed or under educated. Doing so poses an inherent risk of quasi-Gnosticism.

I have studied the revised liturgy in its typical editions. I have slogged through the numerous, and at times obscure, scholarly literature documenting the project of the liturgical reform itself, and I am, even if begrudgingly so, well aware of those communities which did not seem to suffer liturgical decadence in the wake of the reform. Whatever my criticisms of the reform, where the liturgy promulgated by Paul VI is coupled with the determination that it will be an authentic expression of the Latin tradition, it becomes as much. In this respect, these experiences, in my estimation, provide the new liturgy with some level of authenticity, difficult though they may be to come by.

1 comment:

  1. For my part, when I attempted to return to the Roman Church way back in the late '70s, I was impressed both by the witness of the Pontiff whom I have long called Beatus Ioannes Paulus Magnus, as well as the text Documents of the Liturgy: 1963-1979. I noted that the actual directives of the conciliar and post-conciliar liturgical changes could be accomplished in a Catholic, and a Roman, manner. I am sure that you can imagine my surprise when I found the profound difference between the documents and the liturgical praxis of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which I have been infesting for most of my life.

    Similarly, when I had been the choir director of St. Andrew Russian Catholic Church in El Segundo, I was asked by a friend to help direct the music for a friend of his, who was to be ordained as a priest in the Old Catholic Church. As I was then a part of a professional choral ensemble, I was able to select an octet of volunteers, and to direct them in the Missa Secunda of Hans Leo Hassler, as well as a number of other chants, hymns, and polyphony, in English and Latin. While the ordination mass was in an English version of what we so amusingly call the ritus antiquior, the new ordinand's first mass was novus ordo. I found both to be reverendly and beautifully done.

    Finally, my pastor, the Right Reverend Archimandrite Alexei Smith, has been occasionally called upon to say the New Mass, and I have been present on at least one occasion when he did so. Again, when Fr. Alexei did it, he served it quite well.

    Thus, I share your conviction that the Mass of Pope Paul VI can be done well. The pity of it is that in most cases, it is not done well. I content myself with the verse from Jeremiah 48:10: "God's curse is on those who do the things of the Lord carelessly", and also a quotation from St. John Chrysostom: "The road to Hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, and it is lit by the skulls of erring bishops."