Saturday, October 31, 2015

Gold, Silver, and Dross

There is an inter-blog exchange going on between Opus Publicum, Liturgiae Causa and Fr. Anthony Chadwick on the tensions between liturgical idealism and liturgical pragmatism.

Practically speaking, there are obstacles set before any attempt to reintegrate a more or less traditional Latin liturgy. Bias towards anything other than the modern liturgy is often met with suspicion. More often than not, however, there is simply widespread disinterest. The liturgical tradition of the West is simply not a preoccupation of the Western Church. The well diffused adoption of the Pauline liturgy in the Roman Church (including monastic orders and in the developing world) has substantially shifted the paradigm.

Interest in the classical liturgy (again, more or less) is divided among "eccentrics" and more "reactionary" groups. Appreciation of the Roman Liturgy as it was prior to the 20th century reforms is, in this context, nearly an area of esotericism. It is, I would add, a legitimate area of interest and one that ought to have more attention - defining the terms of the discussion as between 1962 and 1970 is grossly inadequate. Yet, practically speaking, there is enough of an uphill battle to re-integrate the missal as it stood in 1962. Whatever its imperfections, the 1962 Missale Romanum has become the flagship for classical liturgical revival.

The problem with this status is that it is accompanied by a fair amount of dishonesty. The missal of 1962 is not the "perfection" of the Western liturgy, nor is it necessarily representative of the ancient tradition. The Holy Week reforms argue against either conclusion; the Latin Holy Week was truly gutted for many of the same reasons that would be used as justification for abandoning the classical Latin tradition in toto.

It has been argued (in this recent exchange and elsewhere) that the changes between the Missale Romanum of, say, 1949 and that of 1955 and then 1962 would hardly be noticed in practice. It is worth considering if such arguments are based off of the often bipolar dichotomy between the Pauline liturgy as it is commonly celebrated and the Missal of 1962 - which, by all accounts, is celebrated with more care than was the norm 40 or 50 years ago. In any event, I am often leery of such arguments; we make them from an arm chair position, not from much real experience. It is up to those remaining people with a living (and vivid) memory of the liturgy prior to the Holy Week reforms to inform us if the changes were slight or severe.

The liturgy of 1962 is the traditional Latin liturgy that most people will encounter. Most of us will not see an earlier variant celebrated, but it is important to have some historical perspective. Whatever the pedigree of its prayers or Mass sets, the Missal of 1962 also bears the marks of modernization, though to a lesser degree than its successor. The more one comes to see the Missal of 1962 as a symptom as opposed to a cure, the more disinterested one becomes in the 62-70 polarity.

Even before the Second Vatican Council or the promulgation of the Pauline Missal, the Roman Church felt the pull of modernity upon its members, cleric or lay. The Holy Week reforms reflect this tension. The abolition of the twelve prophecies in the Easter Vigil reflected a concurrent streamlining of Catholicism's spirituality and conception of the supernatural. This is particularly demonstrated by truncating the readings from Genesis to exclude the Enoch myth and the account of the Nephilim. Although the exact form of the old Holy Week readings may not trace back to the earliest days of the religion, the Enoch myth (including I Enoch) and the account of the Nephilim left their impact on the composition of the New Testament and are frequently referenced into the fifth century. This mythology was, therefore, present in the earliest strata of the Christian worldview, having a foundational role in the early kergyma via providing the mythological backdrop for the "cosmic" significance of the mission of Christ. By the 20th century, the significance of this tradition and its presence in the Easter Vigil was essentially lost; the tradition failed to be passed on and the prevailing worldview in the Roman Church was fairly indifferent to it. Without ignoring the many good things retained in Missal of 1962, we should not ignore that in various places the former missal demonstrates a shifting of Catholicism's worldview into modernity.

The structural problems of the Pauline liturgy are what they are. They were there upon promulgation, such as a terribly denuded offertory. They remain - there is plainly no strong motivation to revise them. There are further controversies surrounding the redaction of liturgical and biblical texts in the Pauline liturgy. Valid criticisms being noted, there is a temptation to default to into a quasi dualistic juxtaposition between 1962 and 1970, the Pauline liturgy being seen as somehow spiritually nefarious. Textual redactions aside, the major issue impacting the Pauline liturgy is the structural reform, particularly the dilution of the rubrics compared with the previous Latin missals. The structure is akin to an "open floor plan" for sacramental liturgy; the rite is mailable to the interests and intentions of the celebrant and the community. Noting the issues with the offertory, one can find, should one seek it, monastic communities that have made the Pauline liturgy a vessel for the Latin tradition. This said, it is also clear that the same liturgy is more often than not celebrated in such a manner so as to move beyond the Latin tradition.

Has the end of the Latin tradition begun, as Fr. Chadwick postulates? Possibly. It is difficult to avoid entertaining the thought. Although it may depend how one defines the Latin tradition. If one is a stickler for the Pre-Pian reforms (breviary included) the end of the Latin tradition has been in progress for sometime. If one defines it more as a certain corpus of prayers and chanting (and less a particular missal or structure of the liturgy), then perhaps one sees outposts here and there where the Latin tradition is cultivated in the context of the liturgical reform. It all depends on how one defines the tradition. Is the Counter-Reformation missal the criterion upon which the definition is based? If so, then one has to contend with the modernizations applied during the twentieth century before the final reform in 1970. Furthermore, one has to acknowledge there is some demarcation between pre-Reformation and post-Reformation liturgy. One could go further to the Gregorian Sacramentary and Ordo Romanus Primus, or still further into the collection making up the Veronese Sacramentary. Plainly, from a certain perspective, there have been a number of eras in the Latin tradition marked by liturgical models that were distinct for the age, only a portion of which was transmitted to subsequent eras. What we commonly think of as the Latin tradition may well be a particular (though very noble) era at the exclusion of its antecedents and descendants. In my observation, this era is normally a confused welding of Medieval and post-Reformation Catholicism, demonstrating a longing for the Medieval if only it had the will.

At this point in my life, I've vexed over the problems of liturgical reform in the West long enough (along with the general decline of the Roman Church) long enough. While in some sense it is "no longer my problem,"  I will not claim that migrating to the Orthodox Church is a cure all. I will say that Orthodox liturgical life has both provided me with some additional perspective on these matters as well as squelched the sense of "crisis" about them. One has a better understanding of what certain figures of the original liturgical movement were after in their proposals. Silent prayers and the use of the vernacular are put into some sober relief. One's attention is gradually drawn away from the Latin liturgy; the Orthodox liturgical tradition overwhelms and demands much of one's attention if one wishes to remain liturgically invested. Whether or not this is good is a matter of dispute. Certainly, it leaves little room to act on the occasional nostalgia one feels for one's former modes of prayer/liturgical observance. One could persist privately and make so doing one's discipline and observance. Yet, belonging as I do to an Orthodox diocese that has a number of Catholics who migrated away from Rome, one finds the only people who make any such determination are single or childless. Liturgical prayer is inherently corporate prayer. Having made the transition to the Orthodox Church, one finds that family life is the single greatest factor determining the degree to which one's observance of Orthodox liturgical forms begins to take one's attention away from classically Catholic observance. Practically speaking, after we've taken account of academic study and intellectual interest and returned to real life, the Catholic tradition (Medieval or modern) has little relevance for my life. For better or worse (only God knows) the Orthodox tradition has displaced it due to pure practicality and genuine relevance. There will always be an academic interest, but, realistically speaking, that interest will rarely correspond to any real circumstance.

Again, I do not claim Orthodoxy is the universal cure all. I will state, however, that the Orthodox Church provides a corporate expression and environment that the Roman Church either cannot or refuses to provide in most instances. For those few (especially in my area of the country) who can find a doctrinally sound and spiritually sane parish community, all the best to you - you deserve it. While there are many reasons (theological, spiritual, or liturgical) that may or may not get one thinking about, the most successful (or happiest) transitions are decided upon due to practical considerations. At the very least, this held true in my own case.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Book Review - The Story of Monasticism : Retrieving Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality

Tracing the contours and defining the meaning of "the new monasticism" is a work in progress. The results, as with all living histories, are somewhat tentative and the whole notion of "new monasticism" cannot seem to shake the stain of artificiality from its back. It is a term applied by observers belonging to a religion with a clearly identifiable monastic tradition (or at least those highly sympathetic to monasticism), but may or may not be rejected by those involved with it depending upon their confessional persuasion.

Greg Peters' The Story of Monasticism : Retrieving Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality is another foray into "new monasticism" from the perspective of Benedictine oblate and Anglican pastor writing as an observer of the phenomenon for evangelical Christians. Peters was raised Southern Baptist and became attracted to monasticism in college. The personal context of the author is important, providing as it does a glimpse into the sociological factors (e.g., the porousness of religious life in the United States) that have enabled a loosely defined monasticism to exert influence in traditionally non-monastic circles.

Peters' target audience is evangelical Christianity with the intention demonstrating that monasticism's principles are genuinely biblical in origin. Evangelical Christians can, therefore, accept the principles of monasticism, recognizing that some of its historical applications have occasionally strayed from the scriptural ideal. When the biblical principles are upheld, one finds numerous aspects to monasticism that are not only acceptable to evangelical Christians (or Christians in general), but indeed have special relevance for our contemporary context.

His thesis works in parts, however the whole narrative does not always convince as the data seems somewhat skewed from the start.

Monasticism in the context of this book is defined, by and large, by the noble Benedictine tradition. As a consequence, the monasticism described in the book is very much a Western or Latin monasticism, complete with its contemporary nods to the most basic points of Orthodox monasticism. Whether contemporary monasticism or "new monasticism", the whole conversation has become nearly self referential, continuing on a particularly contemporary path without much desire to submit its tenets to the scrutiny of the Orthodox tradition.

The historical narrative presented in the book rests on the presumptions of Reformation Christianity. Even though the author calls evangelicals and other Reformation inspired Christians back to reexamine monasticism, one has to accept the premise that there were historical and theological problems which the Reformation corrected in order to follow the author's narrative without critique. His target audience will likely find this palatable, however, other readers may well disagree with how the other frames Christian history in his discussion.

Much like many contemporary Catholic monastic authors, there is a serious question as to whether or not the author is honest about the relationship between asceticism and monasticism. This becomes especially crystalline when the author discusses Barth's perspective on monasticism and his proposal of a "proper understanding of asceticism," although one could also argue it was manifested earlier on by the comparatively sparse presence of Orthodox sources and the somewhat facile treatment of John Cassian. Again, there is a Reformation hermeneutic at play here, one that has become popular among many Western monastics. This ascetic-lite monasticism proposed by Barth questions the traditional vows of monasticism and understanding of asceticism's purpose in the life of the monk. The notion that the asceticism unfolds the process of physical and spiritual purification leading to the contemplative vision of God. Instead, a concept of monasticism emerges which glosses over the asceticism of its history. This monasticism pivots away from ascetic discipline in favor psychology (have a calm and pleasant demeanor) and engaging in charitable/social work. The  relative devaluation of asceticism (expressed both by Reformation inspired authors and by new monastic movements) both abandons monasticism's tradition and seems incongruous with tenets of contemplation held by many new monastics. Asceticism was traditionally seen as the process by which to prepare oneself for and enable contemplative vision. What is contemplation without asceticism? Neither "new monasticism," nor its proponents have engaged in a rigorous dialogue with the ancient sources  to satisfactorily consider this question, let alone attempt an answer.

Peters highlights what makes the "new monasticism" possible: asceticism has been abandoned in favor of psychology and social justice. When Peters reaches the point of discussing contemporary practitioners or purveyors of the "new monasticism," one finds a monastic vision grounded largely in social justice causes, including fairly specific approaches to the local economy. One wonders where the Catholic Worker movement is in his account of "new monasticism," as every example Peters highlights seems to be operating off of the movement's platform since the death of Dorothy Day.

Peters is convinced that monasticism, presumably by means of the "new monasticism," will persevere and has a future, even among evangelicals. Plainly, Peters sees monasticism as part of Christianity's mission in the post modern world. Whether or not the "new monasticism" the book seems to point towards is that future model remains to be seen. Although Peters does a fine job identifying aspects of early monasticism that could be incorporated into a Reformation based tradition, he does not engage in critical examination of the social, political, and economic mission statements of new monastic movements. The extreme temporality of new monastic movements, a serious long term weakness, is left unaddressed.

Ultimately, The Story of Monasticism is a satisfying read. It is about as comprehensive as one should expect from an expose` of a contemporary religious movement. Although, the author could have set his book apart by offering more of a synthesis and theoretical proposal for greater integration of the new monastic impulse into the broader Christian body.