Monday, June 15, 2015

Living in the Age of Liturgical Artificiality

Most sincere thanks to Fr. Chadwick for directing the way to this post summarizing the "editorial discussions" around the idea of reforming the Rite of Braga to be more in line with the Missal of Paul VI.

As we get further removed from the immediate aftermath of Vatican II and the final reform of the Roman liturgy in the 20th century, I suspect more memoirs or primary source documentation will come to light which detail the process of reforming the Roman liturgy (by committee) and the corresponding impact it had on the other extant Latin liturgies, concluding with the Carthusian liturgy (the last of the rites to be reformed, if memory serves).

The documentation portrays a cold and somewhat sterile process of analyzing the Rite of Braga and taking vote on various proposals. Akin to Buignini's  mammoth volume, the report on the reform of the Rite of Braga confronts the reader with an at times unexplainable desire to deconstruct an ancient liturgy. It is hard not to feel a combination of confusion and dejection that there was so little regard for a venerable liturgy. Much as there is little room debated that the Roman Rite going forward will work off of a Pauline template, it is also impossible not to acknowledge that so much of Latin Christianity was tossed away as though it were some unfashionable household piece.

The above being noted, the "organic development" types will unfortunately use this as grist for their mill. Yes, the process strikes one as cold. This said, of the survive documentation we have concerning previous changes in the liturgy, whether Roman or local use, I would argue the debates by the committee follow a pattern keeping with liturgical reform of most any century. The available evidence suggests that in almost every century someone (bishop, abbot or monarch) almost always arbitrarily calls the shots on liturgical reform within his sphere of influence. He may have his reasons why, but it hardly conveys the notion that a given insertion or change stemmed from internal laws of the liturgy. For instance, we are hard pressed to find any substantial rationale behind Gregory the Greats significant reform of the Roman rite other than personal preference. Certainly, he did not bring the Roman liturgy to a more pure type and, by all contemporary accounts, seemed guided by the desire to shorten it. An exception to this may well be the psalter set down by Saint Benedict. It seems reasonably clear that Benedict was working within a well established pattern in Western Monasticism. The points at which he pivots away from it seem determined by his particular vision of the monastic life. As such, there is, I would argue, a rhyme and reason behind Benedict's psalter schema.

The fate of the rite of Braga seems to be that of gradual obliteration. The rite is dying and there is little interest among the church responsible for it to see it function outside of very limited occasions. Liturgical aficionados name-drop the rite and probably have a genuine interest in its history. Only a few years ago, a priest from the region and knowledgeable of the rite celebrated it publicly in the United States at Holy Name in Providence, Rhode Island. There was genuine interest among the people attached to the "Tridentine" liturgy. It would seem logical that those orders who have preserved the Missal of 1962 could find space for the rite of Braga. If they could, would it be appropriate, or would it be a case study in liturgical artificiality?

Liturgy requires a suitable context. This context is made up of a myriad of features. Dogmatic, literary, regional, etc. The context is disrupted when features are added to it that were previously non-existant. No matter how noble or how far back in the past, such moments effectively reset the context at the moment of their induction. Their ability to be successfully absorbed into the liturgy determines the degree to which they were complementary with the original context. The Rite of Braga has its own context, comprised of many parts, including cultural, ethnic and regional. If a Traditionalist order or group adopted the rite of Braga with the other factors comprising its context? By way of example, it would be akin to secular cleric or other religious order utilizing the Dominican Rite. It could be done, but it would raise a number of flags. What business would a secular cleric or other religious order have publicly celebrating the rite that belongs properly to the Dominicans? Shouldn't such a group enter the Dominican order if they are going to use said order's rite? The Dominican liturgy has a particular context. Anything outside of that context is liturgical artificiality, or liturgical tourism at best. Similarly, the rite of Braga has its context, outside of which it doesn't necessarily belong or appear naturally suited for. It is debatable if today's crop of Traditionalists, be they in communion with Rome or not, could successfully, legitimately, and authentically abate the gradual disappearance of the rite of Braga.

True, the Roman liturgy eventually spread outside of its territory and its context came to include the majority of the West. Although the Roman liturgy itself provides an example of how changing the component parts of the context initiates a disruption that requires a long process to resolve. The reform of the Roman liturgy introduced three new "Eucharistic prayers" that had no documented place in the history of the Roman liturgy. The same reform has also facilitated other changes that, arguably, are foreign to the context of the Roman liturgy as it was by the mid-late 20th century. Time will tell how well or how poorly these changes are absorbed into the Roman liturgy. Certainly, there are communities that found a balance and seemed to have assimilated the Roman reform. There are others which continue to experience contextual disruption. In this respect the Roman liturgy is symptom of the greater phenomenon on our times, the general liturgical artificiality.

The notion that we live in a period of liturgical artificiality easily offends. The formulation, however, is simply another way of stating that we live in a period where the traditional demarcations and definitions of a liturgy are being blurred with great frequency. The "natural" context of both the Latin and Greek liturgical traditions is no longer static. Rome's liturgical reform is perhaps the most blatant example of this. The Roman liturgy as it was essentially assumed was thoroughly recast, incorporating a mix of theological redaction, euchological restoration (from some occasional arcane sources) and even an influx of non-Roman material. Across the liturgical spectrum, we see a general phenomenon. Western Rite Orthodoxy has used a combination of restoration of hypathetical early Roman practice and infused Greek liturgiology to produce some of its sanctioned liturgies. There is also some attempt to revive the Sarum use as well as other medieval liturgies, although this is to a lesser extent. This is to say nothing of the general trend towards inculturation of the modern Roman rite. On the Greek end of spectrum, we see similar processes at work. In the United States, the Orthodox liturgy increasingly finds itself sustained by a non-ethnic matrix as people from ethnic backgrounds that are not traditionally Orthodox come to comprise more of the base in local churches, particularly outside of urban centers. This is to say nothing of the very un-ethnic makeup of Greek Orthodoxy in many parts of Latin America. In some instances, the Orthodox liturgy is being transplanted entirely outside of Orthodoxy. The Ukrainian Baptist Church uses a very Greek liturgy while fully adhering to most aspects of Protestant theology.

Some of the examples may seem major, some minor, others just purely eccentric. All of them speak of this particular moment in the history of Christianity where the exchange of ideas and practices is global in scope. In this respect, there are a perhaps loose parallels to the earliest centuries of Christianity, when set forms had not been solidified and when there were still ready avenues for cross culture pollination. For all of its lacunae, the first four centuries increasingly prove themselves to be the source of inspiration for much of contemporary liturgics because the evidence that exists paints a picture of a dynamic (and occasionally arcane) liturgical landscape. In this picture, the Christian liturgy has yet to be streamlined into Latin and Greek types, let only reduced to essentially to the uses of Rome and Constantinople. In these early centuries, we see a liturgical nexus that at times defies established liturgical convention, yet, we are tantalized by the missing pieces of the picture and the inability to fully reconstruct the sources for evidence we do in fact possess.

We know enough to know that the earliest strata of Christianity had an exchange of ideas, and many regions were all too anxious to know what other regions were doing in the area of liturgy. The reasons why remain allusive - it seems reasonable to suggest that there simply was no dominant See at this time to wield decisive influence. Where these ideas came from, why some were chosen and why others vanished is still somewhat obscure.

There is a certain way of looking at the history of Christianity that suggests that the Christian liturgy had its context ruptured early. We have to recall Jesus' manner of death was thoroughly imperial and often times reserved for those who would be considered guilty of insurrection, however loosely defined. He is not crucified for being a miracle worker or any latent theological or christological issues. He is crucified for political reasons. In such a light, the Christian liturgy is, at its most natural level, a latent act of rebellion, insurrection, and resistance. To whom or what? I suppose every generation has made its own call. We can venture a few healthy guesses as pertains to the Apostolic era, however to do so requires a study of second temple Jewish writings (which the New Testament is) and a discussion of the corresponding cosmology - both of which would not be justifiably treated in this space.

Nevertheless, it raises a question, a most profound one at that. What is the genuine context of the Christian liturgy? What is its true source and purpose? How much of that is obscured by subsequent theological development and sociological change? And can you ever really get back to it, or has Christianity gone too far down its particular trajectory? The age of liturgical artificiality may well prove, with a good bit of hindsight, to be another distraction of Christianity's core purpose. In which case, you can add it to an outlandishly long list of distractions.

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