Saturday, 18 April 2015

Liturgy, Contemplation, and the Self (Part 2)

(Continued from part 1)

From everything said in the previous post, it can be gathered what folly it is to adapt the liturgy to human or worldly concerns - folly especially because it hinders contemplation, which is the participation in divine Wisdom. The reforms of the 20th century set the focus of the liturgy off its balance, centering it more on man than previously, and dramatically reducing the theocentric symbolism. Whereas the traditional liturgy incorporated elements, in both its text and external ritual, that served to direct the mind to the mysterious action taking place – the mystery in which the soul must participate by contemplation – and hence to God Himself, the new liturgy is celebrated in such a way that is more centered on man. This is true not only of the manner in which the new liturgy is commonly celebrated in the typical parish, but of its inherent form as well. 

In the Novus Ordo, the priest often faces the people, creating an atmosphere in which they are on equal footing, rather than in which the priest leads the people onward to witness the mysterious action. In the introductory rites, the priest sits at a chair placed prominently in the sanctuary, facing the people. The attention is shifted away from the altar to the person of the priest and his relation to the people, and for a while priest and congregation appear to interact with each other rather than with God. By contrast, in the traditional liturgy, the priest faces the altar, addresses God, and whenever he sits to the side it is rarely to bring any attention to himself. The center of focus is always the liturgical action itself, primarily performed upon the altar. The people are there to witness the action, the priest to make it present; the priest and people are not themselves the main attraction of the Mass.

This is clear in the traditional rite again during the parts of the Mass that are especially ordered towards the Eucharist itself, such as the offertory and principally the Eucharistic prayer. The priest here does a great deal more than recite the text of a prayer: he performs an action. Despite the fact that the priest faces away from the people and they cannot see everything that occurs, the traditional liturgy, fully celebrated, manages to foster the strong sense that the priest is doing something. During the Canon, the priest performs many physical gestures and rituals, such as bowing, the sign of the cross, genuflection, kissing the altar, extending and folding his hands in various positions, etc., and the ministers around him likewise participate physically in the action performed. By contrast, in the new rite the physical actions are largely reduced, even when the priest faces the people and the action he performs are visible to them. The priest now seems merely to be reciting a text – he is a narrator, and the people listen to the story he has to tell. The main visible physical actions which he performs are a very few signs of the cross, and the elevations at the consecration. Most everything else is recitation, for the edification, and perhaps even education, of the people.

This may be mitigated somewhat when the new rite is celebrated ad orientem, but even so, there is still the loss of external ritual, which diminishes the liturgical focus on the divine action. This demonstrates the rationalistic tendencies of the reformers, who thought that anything which appeared repetitive and "useless" should be suppressed. The priestly action of the liturgy was reduced to the bare essential actions which constitute it, which helps to obscure rather than clarify its nature as the action of God. At the same time, the laity were allowed a more external "participation." The laity were allowed and even encouraged to take a role in the liturgy that resembled the roles traditionally taken only by the clergy. Lay readers, cantors, and Eucharistic ministers entered the sanctuary, the congregation became much more involved in interaction with the priest, and generally confusion arose regarding the true action of the liturgy in which the faithful must participate. These changes were all based on a false notion of "active participation," where "active" was taken to imply external. But true liturgical participation is essentially contemplation, and so it essentially interior. The external elements of the liturgy exist to foster this contemplation; the externals are not an end in themselves. In their interpretation of liturgical participation of the faithful, the reformers went little further than mere external participation - which is ironic given the aforementioned reduction of the more priestly action. It might be said that the priestly action was replaced with a lay action. This does not so much indicate a shift of focus from priest to people as a shift from God to man; for the traditional priestly action is essentially the re-presentation of God's work, while its reduction and replacement introduces a focus on the work of man.

Many of the new texts and prayers also demonstrate this shift of attention. In the Order of Mass, this is most clear in the new prayers for the Offertory, which now glorify the role of the work of man, while the old prayers tended to invoke the work of God as the source of the acceptance of the gifts. But the shift from God to man is even more evident in the proper prayers, particularly the collects. The difference between the traditional and the new collects is similar to the case of the offertory prayers, in regards to the emphasis on the work of God versus the work of man. While nothing in any of the new texts is doctrinally false, the precedence of the work of divine grace to the work of human effort is no longer clear in the new texts of the collects, whereas it was abundantly clear in the traditional texts. Whereas the traditional collects emphasized that the work of God is prior to the work of man, and is indeed the source of man’s merit, the new collects tend to focus merely on man’s own merit, without the strong acknowledgement of God’s role or the role of grace. This is true not only of the individual collects, but of the entire set of collects, seen as expressing the different aspects of the relation between God and man which are manifested throughout the liturgical year. Dr. Lauren Pristas used the term “semi-Pelagian” to describe the attitude of the new collects.  

Indeed, the whole reform was influenced by an attitude of adaption to the mentalities of modern man - a purpose openly proclaimed by the reformers themselves. A great many prayers and texts were suppressed which might be thought offensive to modern ears, and they were replaced or rewritten in such a way that might be more appealing. In other words, the liturgy was made to be more mundane, closer to man, closer to worldly concerns. As a result, it is easier for one worshiping in the new liturgy to be more wrapped up with himself, or for the whole human race that worships in the new liturgy to be more wrapped up with itself.

All of this, and probably much more, goes to show the difference between the traditional liturgy and the new liturgy in how they aid in attaining the abandonment of self and the world, which is so necessary for contemplation and our participation in the divine Wisdom. If we are to follow the principles of Pseudo-Dinoysius, whose mystical teaching is the explanation for the mysticism of so many saints, then we must concede that the Novus Ordo, with its greater focus on man, the self, and the world, and its lesser focus on the divine action taking place, is significantly less conducive to contemplation than the traditional liturgy. The mystical encounter with the action of Christ, and thereby the assimilation to Christ’s own divine life, is possible only to the extent that we abandon self, the world, and lower things. This tradition is founded in the teaching of the scriptures themselves, wherein we read of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican: the one whose prayer was self-absorbed and narcissistic, the other whose prayer was other-directed, selfless. The true contemplative adopts the attitude of the Publican, and in his prayer he detaches himself from the world, himself, and lower things. The construction of the Novus Ordo, on the other hand, was an indirect, but significant concession to these very things – often deliberately so. As such, it represents a rejection of the mystical and liturgical tradition of the Catholic religion.

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