Nichols: Looking at the Liturgy

July 15, 2010

Looking at the Liturgy
A Critical View of its Contemporary Form

Aidan Nichols, O.P. (Ignatius, 1995)
129 p. First reading.

Aidan Nichols is the prolific Dominican scholar of Blackfriars, Oxford.  This little book is a good introduction to the roots of the liturgical reform movement that influenced the theory and practice of the liturgical reforms that followed Vatican II.  It is also a critique — temperate, but firm — of those changes.  He argues that although some good has come from the reforms, it has been at the cost of a general cheapening and uglification of Catholic music, architecture, and ritual, and that these outcomes were the predictable results of the dominant principles of reform.

Although liturgical reform began to have significant tangible effects at the parish level only after Vatican II, Nichols reminds us that the liturgical reform movements — for there was more than one school of thought — had histories that pre-dated the Council.  One school, for instance, rooted in the inter-war period, set forth a set of basic ideas to guide reform, which Nichols summarizes as follows: the mystery of the mystical body of Christ, theocentrism, ‘glad awareness’ of redemption, the objectivity of the liturgy, and the need for ritual actions to be symbolically appropriate.  A second school, rooted in Romanticism, laid stress on the importance of piety rather than dogma, on self-expression, on aesthetics and the experience of the sublime, and on the overwhelming majesty of God.

A third school argued that reform ought to strive for simplicity and intelligibility of the language and the rites.  They argued that local pastors should have the right to alter the liturgy to suit local preferences, downplayed the special role of the priest, discouraged the use of language about ‘sacrifice’ when describing the meaning of the Mass, and emphasized the role of the community of believers. They advocated use of the vernacular languages rather than Latin. At times they were associated with opposition to certain devotional practices, such as pilgrimages, relics, veneration of saints, and so forth.

Now, anyone who knows much about the reforms that were actually carried out after Vatican II will conclude that it was this third school that carried the day, but this is not actually true.  In fact, the program for reform I have sketched in the previous paragraph dates from the eighteenth-century, from a school strongly influenced by the Enlightenment.  At the time their ideas did not gain traction, and were mostly forgotten.

It was after the Second World War that a fourth school of liturgical reform grew up. Apparently without being aware of it, this group laid out a program for reform that echoed, with surprising fidelity, the Enlightenment ideas from two centuries earlier.  It is possible, I suppose, to view this as a coincidence, but a more likely explanation is simply this: that by the twentieth-century the influence of the Enlightenment was felt throughout Western culture, especially secular culture, and when the Church ‘opened her windows’ to the world, it was the wind of Enlightenment that blew in.  When Vatican II gave them authority to do so, this group of liturgists emerged to public prominence, and their influence can be felt today in nearly every parish one visits.

A consequence of this historical development, and especially of the rather sudden elevation of these reforming ideas, was that they were never really tested against the critical insights of other disciplines, nor against the sense of the Catholic faithful.  The reforms were, as we know, jarring for many ordinary Catholics — I personally know several people who have never recovered from the sense of dislocation they experienced at the time — and in the subsequent decades voices have been raised in criticism of the results. Voices have been raised in praise of the results too, of course. The debate has been at times heated and uncharitable, earning it the unhappy epithet ‘liturgy wars’.

Nichols, thankfully, is not interested in needlessly stoking those martial flames, and he generates more light than heat. Yet he does have critical comments to make. Following the slightly ironic historical introduction sketched above, he mounts a critique of most of the leading ideas that dominated the Vatican II reforms, principally ‘simplicity’, ‘intelligibility’, ‘community’, and ‘participation’.

Let’s take the first two together, since they are two aspects of a single objective: to make the liturgy more straight-forward, more comfortable, more comprehensible, more contemporary.  Or, from another angle, it has meant making it less mysterious, less laden with historical baggage, less ritualistic.  Nichols challenges this plan head-on:

It is by no means self-evident that brief, clear rites have greater transformative potential than complex, abundant, lavish, rich, long rites, furnished with elaborate ceremonial.

The danger is that too great an emphasis on simplicity and comprehensibility in liturgical rites has the effect of trivializing them, making it difficult for deeper meanings to be read into them.  But liturgy is supposed to be, at least in part, a window — an icon — through which we encounter and perceive deeper realities.  Liturgy which stresses the ceremonious, formal, allegorical, and even (within limits) ambiguous nature of its symbols and actions provides a greater latitude and depth for such perception.

There is such a thing as ‘noble simplicity’ — one finds it in monastic houses — which cultivates a bracing austerity and economy, a heightening of experience by concentration upon essentials, but in the wrong hands simplicity can easily degenerate into mere ordinariness.  The effort, for example, to simplify the language of the liturgy, which was one of the principal objectives of the Vatican II reforms, was born from this pursuit of simplicity, and the results were often perfectly dreadful, as though the prayers were written in a modern newsroom.  Ritual, however, should rightly make use of elevated language (which in English may often mean archaic language) as a means of honouring the sacred action, and of conveying beauty. Nichols remarks that studies of early Christian rites indicate that already, at the beginning, the language used in Church prayers and liturgies was distinguished by its use of elevated or archaic syntax and diction.  This makes perfect sense, for in liturgy we should want to be raised up, so as to be less unworthy of the object of our worship, not to drag that object of worship down to the quotidian.

The ideal of ‘intelligibility’ is also open to criticism.  Needless to say, a critique along this line is necessarily moderate, for a wholly unintelligible liturgy is definitely undesirable.  Yet there is good reason to believe that too great a stress on comprehensibility, on making plain the meaning of the liturgical actions, harms the work that liturgy is to accomplish.

There are different ways to approach the question.  One is to recall John Henry Cardinal Newman’s remark — I forget where — about Scripture: that the literal interpretation of Scripture is insufficient because God’s speech is so fertile and abundant that it rarely means only one thing.  This richness is also a quality of Catholic theology: the doctrines are woven together in such an intricate manner that it is difficult to speak of one part without bringing in others, and each part can be construed under various aspects.  To take an example: the Blessed Virgin is called the Mother of God because she was the mother of Jesus, in whom the nature of God and the nature of man were united; she is also, of course, the mother of the body of Christ; and since the body of Christ is the Church, she is Mother of the Church, and she represents, in a particularly concentrated way, the Church herself, which is the bride of Christ; so she is both bride and mother to Christ, though not in the same sense; she is also the handmaiden of the Lord, the woman of humility whose greatness in the order of grace is unsurpassed by any creature; she is called the Ark of the Covenant, in whom the Word of God resided as in a safe refuge, and she gave birth to the Word by whom all things were made.  I don’t know if I should go on.  The point is that Mary means many things, and it is a real possibility that by trying to make her meaning clear and simple we fail to do her justice.  The same is true of many other aspects of Catholic theology and liturgy.

There is also an aesthetic reason to be wary of ‘intelligibility’.  Liturgy — and not, pace Wagner, music-drama — is the great and original Gesamtkunstwerk: the total, all-encompassing art-form.  At its best, it addresses itself not only, or even principally, to the intellect, but to all of the senses and to the whole person.  Nichols approvingly quotes a statement, from 1967, by one Irenee-Henri Dalmais, who said: ‘Liturgy belongs in the order of doing (ergon) not of knowing (logos).  Logical thought cannot get far with it; liturgical actions yield their intelligibility in their performance. . .’  In this respect liturgy is similar to other forms of art, such as poetry or music: it is a simple mistake to suppose that one can distill from a great poem its univocal meaning, as though the poet’s work consisted in cloaking a theme or moral in fancy garb, only so that the reader can again uncloak it.  The idea that one can ‘peel back’ the complexity and texture and symbolism to reveal the underlying thing is sometimes tempting, but illusory, for by doing so one destroys the thing.  We should not wish to render symbols, such as those encountered and enacted in liturgy, transparent and univocal, for so doing drains them of their potency.

In this respect I think it is helpful to recall one of C.S. Lewis’ essays, called ‘Meditation in a Toolshed’.  In his toolshed Lewis is contemplating a shaft of light that cuts through the darkness from an open chink in the roof.  There is a fundamental difference, says Lewis, between looking at the beam of light, in which one sees dancing motes of dust, and looking along the beam, by which one sees the dancing leaves of the trees and the blue sky.  The same reasoning applies more generally: there is a difference between seeing a thing, as if from outside it, and seeing by means of it, as if from inside it. In liturgy we want to see along the beam.  But one can be provoked from seeing along the beam to seeing the beam, and didacticism provokes in just this way.  It knocks one out of the beam because it awakens self-consciousness in relation to the beam.  In liturgy, when ‘the point’ is presented too obviously, or with too great an emphasis, it draws attention to itself, and thereby divides itself from the worshipper.  Liturgy benefits from a tactful reticence.  The bride is veiled for a reason.

Let me put this another way: there is in liturgy, as in literature, an element called ‘atmosphere’.  It is impossible to say exactly where it comes from — it arises from tone and style as well as content — but an emphasis on plain intelligibility tends to destroy it, which is why it is not found in newspapers.   Atmosphere is communicated indirectly and subconsciously, by suggestion and association, and, crucially, it is atmosphere that possesses the imagination and the heart.  It is by such possession that we are able to see along the beam.  As Lewis said in another essay (‘The Literary Impact of the Authorized Version’), ‘that which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep’.  That is the most succinct argument against the ideal of ‘intelligibility’ that one is likely to find.

The third ideal that Nichols criticizes is ‘community’.  Liturgical reformers have often advanced, under the banner of ‘community’, things that are at odds with the proper spirit of Christian worship.  At the worst, worship is itself apparently forgotten, replaced by a ‘community meal’ around a ‘table’.  Thus we have churches built ‘in the round’, altars pulled out from the back wall so that priests may celebrate the Mass versus populum, and the tabernacle removed from its place of honour at the focal point of the church structure and relegated to some unassuming niche off to the side.  So too, when ‘community’ is the focus, the particular personalities of the members of the community receive greater attention, and this is especially true of the priest.  It has been often remarked that the personality of the priest — his face, his manner, the particular way he ‘personalizes’ (that is, tampers with) the liturgical texts — is often a distraction to the congregation, but Nichols makes an additional, insightful point: when the priest’s personality eclipses his role as a ritual actor he is himself prevented from entering into the forgetfulness of self that is one of the principal gifts of ritual.  Finally, the stress on the importance of ‘community’ puts destructive pressure on ritual forms per se, for liturgy comes to be seen as a means for the community’s self-expression, an object suitable for manipulation, an instrument, perhaps, in the hands of warring liturgical factions, and this, as Benedict XVI has often said, is an assault upon the very nature of liturgy.

Lastly, Nichols turns to the ideal of ‘participation’.  Perhaps nothing has so inflamed the liturgy wars as this word has. The documents of Vatican II called for greater participatio actuoso on the part of the congregation, which has been translated into English as ‘active participation’.  This has often been interpreted to mean that the congregation must be ‘doing something’ during the liturgy: they must sing, they must be engaged, they must not be left alone in silence.  But there is a distinction to be made between interior and exterior participation.  Interior participation is the more important; exterior action is rightly judged by the quality of the interior involvement that it reflects and cultivates.  Too much exterior action can be an impediment to interior engagement.  There’s the rub.  The old rite — now the Extraordinary Form of the rite — does leave the congregation in silence for extended periods, and to that extent violates the simple-minded imperative to promote ‘active participation’, but in my experience it more effectively encourages interior involvement.  Not everyone, I know, feels the same way, but, speaking for myself, I find that in ‘high’ liturgy, dominated by a formal rite, the focus is taken off the surface detail and an inner space opens up beneath, which one can explore to the extent that one is able. Paradoxically, perhaps, the more ceremonious and impersonal the rite, the more personal and meaningful is my experience of it.

All of these points of criticism of the liturgical reforms of the past forty years are, by their nature, measured.  No-one wants a liturgy that is overly complex, largely unintelligible, or cold and alienating.  There is therefore something good to be said for ‘simplicity’, ‘intelligibility’, ‘community’, and ‘participation’ as genuine goods.  But there can be too much of a good thing, and the challenge is always to keep the various goods in balance, so that a subset does not overwhelm the rest, and that is the spirit in which Nichols’ critique is offered.  Most of the problems that have afflicted the liturgy since Vatican II have been due, I believe, not so much to the decisions and directives of the Council but to their implementation.  In part the fault lies with the poor (to choose a word that is probably too mild) judgement of those who undertook the practical business of reform, and in part with the bishops, who failed to guide and discipline the process.  As a result, much of what issued from the liturgical publishing houses was clearly at odds, and continues to be at odds, with the wishes of the Council Fathers.

We live in a culture that is reflexively anti-ritualistic. As such, Catholics should be especially conscious of our responsibility to protect and stabilize the ritual heart of our faith, for without special protection it will fall prey to the powerful forces around it.  All too often, we have been derelict in this duty.  The remedy, Nichols writes, is, first, to strive mightily to prevent any further erosion of our liturgical patrimony, and, second, the ‘prayerful, dignified, correct, and, where appropriate, solemn celebration of the Novus Ordo‘ (and, we may now add, the Usus Antiquior).  Slowly, with the encouragement and example of the Holy Father, we can try to recover what has been lost.

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11 Responses to “Nichols: Looking at the Liturgy”


  1. This is really superb – many thanks! Sustained reflection on the meaning and nature of the liturgy is sorely needed at the moment.

    Ironically, Aidan Nichols is the author of the only comprehensive single-volume history of Anglican theology. Weird.

  2. Jim Says:

    Interesting. I enjoyed Nichol’s biography of (as he then was) Cardinal Ratzinger, but found his book on political theology, Christendom Awake, woefully lacking. Perhaps I was hoping that the title of that book was playful and so, when it turned out to be serious — that the solutions to the problems of our time is a return to the medieval political order — I must admit I lost patience. But an aside.

    My question in much of the discussion around liturgy is what I admit to be a rather personal and somewhat subjective one. That is, given that we are now forty years after Vatican II and the cultural changes that go with that is whether the liturgy that Nichol’s seems to be suggesting can be done naturally in a way that engages most people in the pews? What I mean by this is whether it is not vulnerable to something you sometimes see in Anglo-Catholic circles — the creation of a liturgy that is historically accurate to one time period or another but where the focus of the congregation and priest is on the liturgy rather than what lies behind it. It is easy for the archaic ritual to slip from being majestic to being performance. When I was an Anglican, it always bothered me that (with all due respect to the beauty of liturgy in St. Thomas’s) that this human perfomatory aspect often seemed to took over and, when it did so, you almost needed graduate work in art or music history to follow what was going on. Somehow, that sat well with me for Christmas and Easter, but seemed simply fussy for a regular Sunday in ordinary time.

    I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I’m fonder of simplicity and intelligibility than Craig’s presentation of Nichol’s seems to be. I’ve been to my share of banal masses — but even at their worst, I would say that I’d prefer the jewel of the Eucharist presented in a poorly carved wooden setting than obscured in a baroque setting of gold.

    All of the above may have to be reconsidered on my part solely because organ music keeps the little one happy during mass, but I’m not sure that’s germane to the overall argument ;)


  3. I think Jim’s comment above is important. A liturgical rite should be sufficiently flexible to be celebrated with greater or lesser solemnity, depending on the particular resources and needs of the congregation. A downtown parish like St Thomas’s will not celebrate the Eucharist in the same way as a small mission in the Northwest Territories. In a large city, a variety of parishes will celebrate the service in different ways, according to their resources and differing traditions; an individual may respond better to the greater simplicity of one form of worship than to the lavishness of another. Yet at the same time, the rite needs to have a basic integrity in its form and content that reflects a catholicity of belief and practice. There are in fact three dangers here: the two opposite extremes of excessive “High Church” stringency and “Low Church” parsimony, and the extreme of excessive permissiveness that we see in the contemporary Anglican church, where the practices of Anglo-Catholics, low-church Evangelical Protestants and liberal modernists sometimes drift so far apart as to obscure any sense of a common identity.

    I might add, however, in defense of the “high” churchmanship that is my own preference, that in the numerous conversations I’ve had with parishioners from various backgrounds, it’s only the more educated, intellectually-oriented churchgoers that worry about “understanding” the music and ritual action of the service. (Certainly it bothers me if I don’t understand the liturgical and musical content of a service, but that’s because my experience as a churchgoer is inseparable from my professional expertise as an organist, which is not a state of mind to be widely recommended!) I think the whole idea of “intelligibility” in a church service is deeply flawed if it suggests that the service has a propositional content to be grasped in the sense that we might read a newspaper. But if the focal point of the service is not some concept to be grasped but rather an action to be performed, I think there’s a place for mystery, and indeed for occasional incomprehension, which at least has the advantage of breaking up our routine habits and expectations.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Apologies, gentlemen, for taking a few days to respond to your comments. I really appreciate your thoughtful remarks.

    I don’t disagree with you, Jim — at least I don’t think that I do. Liturgy is performance in the sense that it performs a sacred action or rite, but there is always a danger that it can tip over into performance in a perjorative sense: a spectacle that draws attention to itself, rather than focusing attention on what is sacred. There are, generally speaking, two ways in which the performance of liturgy can draw undue attention to itself: by being outstandingly beautiful and excellent, or by being especially bad and horrendous. Obviously we don’t want the latter at all, but we do (I argue) want the former, at least sometimes, in the sense that we want our worship to be as beautiful and appropriate as possible. I think a good way to prevent excellent liturgical performance from becoming self-regarding is for it to be harnessed to strict rubrics, such that the personalities of the actors do not come through. Another way, at least as far as music is concerned, is to keep the choir out of sight, preferably in a loft at the back. (This is one point on which I am critical of St. T’s: the architecture of the church, lovely as it is, does tend to encourage the transmutation of the congregation into an audience.) It is also important, I think, that the theological context be robust: liturgy is a handmaiden, an expression of praise grounded in doctrine and theological tradition. When the theological backbone is not present the liturgy runs the danger of being about liturgy and little else, and that is not good. I think you are making the same point, albeit in a clearer way.

    Osbert’s point about flexibility in the rite is well-taken, and again I agree completely. Just yesterday I attended an early morning Sunday Mass that had no music at all, and yet the inherent dignity and beauty of the rite came through beautifully. The real problem is when things are added to the rite that work against it, so that it becomes chatty, or tacky, or syrupy, or whatever other indignities are visited upon it. Give me noble simplicity over such things any day (and twice on Sundays).

    I confess that it has never occurred to me to worry that I am not “understanding” a high liturgy. Such worries are, I expect, part of the problem that I am trying to articulate: an expectation that the rite is to received intellectually, rather than just experienced. Attending a few Orthodox liturgies may help to cure you of this expectation!

    Many thanks, again, for your thoughts.


  5. This is really excellent, a very fine essay in its own right.

  6. Janet Cupo Says:

    I’m so glad that Maclin linked to this because I’ve been too busy to read it and it is wonderful.

    Something struck me while reading it that I hadn’t thought about before. There has been so much bandying about of the term sensus fidei, and I never realized before the irony in the fact that those who were so determined that their sense of what should be done prevail that they had no qualms about riding roughshod over the very real sense of many average, faithful Catholics that something wasn’t quite right.

    AMDG

  7. cburrell Says:

    Janet, unanimity is rare in this world, which makes appeals to the sensum fidei always a matter for the greatest discretion. When it is made to carry weight in a partisan debate on which the Magisterium has not spoken, my spidey-sense begins to tingle.

    Anyway, thanks, Maclin, for linking in, and thanks to everybody who took the time to read this rather long post.

  8. Giovanni Says:

    This book is complementary to Jonathan Robinson’s (Superior of the Oratory in Toronto) book “The Mass and Modernity”; which you had read and critiqued on a previous occasion. Especially the part where the liturgical reforms were influenced by the (so-called) “Enlightenment” ideas.

    One of the things that saddens me most about typical Novus Ordo parishes is that “Community Centre feel” before and after Mass. People meet, greet, laugh, talk loudly and chat as if they were at a social function, not in a church. Isn’t that the idea of the parish hall? What if someone want to pray before and after Mass for preparation and thanksgiving?

    –Giovanni

  9. Adam Hincks Says:

    I recently read The Genius of the Roman Right, which you might be interested in checking out. It is a lightning quick (about an hundred pages) overview of the history of the Roman Rite, oriented to putting the upcoming translation in perspective. I found it very informative.

  10. Adam Hincks Says:

    Whoa, did I really make that spelling mistake? Why doesn’t your blog have a “preview” option for responses?

  11. cburrell Says:

    It is a good question, Adam. I have looked in the blog settings numerous times, but I cannot find any way to turn on previewed comments. I suppose I ought to re-program this blogging platform from scratch, but…not tonight.

    In the meantime, I’ll add your recommendation to my list of books about the politics of central Italy.


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