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.