Mosebach: The Heresy of Formlessness

April 15, 2020

The Heresy of Formlessness
The Roman Liturgy and its Enemy
Martin Mosebach
(Angelico, 2018) Second edition.
xviii + 199 p.

“I admit quite openly that I am one of those naive folk who look at the surface, the external appearance of things, in order to judge their inner nature, their truth, or their spuriousness.”

So says Martin Mosebach early in this gentle and appreciative meditation on the traditional Roman Rite — what is today, following Pope Benedict XVI, called the “extraordinary form” of the liturgy for Latin-rite Catholics. It is one thing to listen to what theologians or liturgists say about the public worship of the Church, and another to see what they do. One sometimes belies the other, or at least the connection between the two is not always obvious.

“Liturgy wars” have waxed and waned for the last fifty years in the Church, since the radical changes introduced in the wake of the Second Vatican Council: the Latin abandoned, the altar turned around, the altar rails removed, the music changed, and so forth. For a long time the pre-Council rite was broadly forbidden — or was thought to be so. Benedict XVI liberalized its celebration in 2007, but today it is nonetheless the case that the vast majority of parishes worldwide celebrate the Mass in the new, “ordinary” form, and most Catholics have never attended, and most priests have never celebrated, a Mass in the older, “extraordinary” form.

Mosebach’s love is for the older form, and his book is a thoughtful account of why. It’s not a polemical book. Apart from a few paragraphs here and there, the new Mass hardly gets a mention.

His instinct to judge on appearances is, he believes, the natural attitude of “people of aesthetic sensibility”; those sensitive to artistic unity, to beauty, and to form are, in his experience, less inclined to admit, or at least to tolerate with equanimity, a putative division of form and content, which he calls “the German vice”. A loss of form, he argues, almost always entails a loss of content. To be sure, the Mass is not merely a work of art, but surely it is at least that.

The argument, which I have heard myself, that the form of the Mass, its aesthetic face, is irrelevant to the underlying reality and meaning of the Mass, he finds unconvincing. It has a certain validity, of course, for the gracious Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not dependant on the celebration of the Mass being beautiful or alluring. But surely the Mass, if by it Christ truly becomes present to us, ought to be surrounded with as much beauty, honour, and glory that we can muster. Our liturgy should, insofar as is possible, make that reality tangible to our senses. That would be fitting. That should be our aspiration. We are human creatures, after all, who know what we know through our senses. And so, when, decade after decade, this does not happen, when the liturgy is tawdry or banal, something is awry. The defect of form may possibly begin to affect our understanding, and even our apprehension, of the truths the Mass celebrates and enacts. The true reality of the Mass is not determined by its form, but neither is the latter irrelevant to the former.

Among the most fruitful observations Mosebach makes in the course of his reflections is that liturgy is a kind of revelation: it makes God known to us. We therefore ought to treat it with the reverence we own to other sources of revelation, like Scripture:

“Even in the earliest Christian times Basil the Great, one of the eastern Church Fathers, taught that the liturgy was revelation, like Holy Scripture itself, and should never be interfered with. And so it was, until the pontificate of Paul VI [that is, Vatican II]. Naturally this attitude did not prevent essential modifications, but such changes as occurred took place organically, unconsciously, unintentionally, and without a theological plan. They grew out of the practice of liturgy, just as a landscape is altered over centuries by wind and water.”

The reforms of the liturgy that occurred to create the new Mass were not of this organic kind; this was a consistent theme of Pope Benedict XVI’s extensive theological reflections on the liturgy. The Mass has been subjected to all manner of experiment in the meantime, pushed here, and pulled there, and sometimes treated as something that we make for ourselves according to our own perceived needs. (Mosebach cannily draws a connection between liturgical reformers and historico-critical exegetes of Scripture, both of whom he sees as tempted to make themselves masters of revelation rather than allowing revelation to master them.)

But this is quite at odds with the understanding that Mosebach (and Benedict) think proper. Liturgy, as with any revelation, is to be received as a gift, and it is a great advantage of the old rite that it comes to us in this way: not authored by anyone, not flexible enough to suit all tastes, not requiring the priest to be spiritually gifted in order to render it reverent. It is “begotten, not made”, to echo Mosebach’s wittiest appropriation.

This “impersonal” nature of the liturgy, its given-ness, its just-being-there, he connects to the sacramental nature of Catholicism. But the intelligibility of the whole sacramental system is contingent on its being of divine, not human, origin. “For this reason these sacraments and rites must be most strictly kept aloof from all subjectivism and all private and personal inspiration.” So with the liturgy, and for the same reasons.

**

I have said that the book is not polemical, and that is true. It nonetheless has a certain melancholy air, for Mosebach knows that the liturgy which he loves, that gift which he has received from God, has been nearly destroyed. He is conscious of living in the long, sad aftermath of something beautiful befouled and ruined. The respect which he instinctively feels is owed to sacred rites long inhabited has gone unheeded:

We must admit, with no beating about the bush, that the Roman liturgy’s fifteen-hundred-year tradition has been breached, and breached irretrievably. Dismayed and speechless, we had to watch as the supreme Catholic authority bent its whole might — a might that has grown over the centuries — to the task of eradicating the very shape of the Church, the liturgy, and replacing it with something else.

He understands the reasons given for undertaking a reform, and is doubtful of them, but emphasizes the disconnect between what the Council fathers intended and what was actually perpetrated after the Council:

Disastrously, the implementation of the conciliar decrees was caught up in the cultural revolution of 1968, which had broken out all over the world. That was certainly the work of a spirit — if only of a very impure one. The political subversion of every kind of authority, the aesthetic vulgarity, the philosophical demolition of tradition not only laid waste universities and schools and poisoned the public atmosphere but at the same time took possession of broad circles within the Church.

This is an old story, hardly original observations, but stated with a certain panache.

*

The book is not like Jesus’ tunic, without seam, woven from the top throughout, but instead consists of essays and occasional pieces gathered together on account of their shared interest in things liturgical. This leads to a certain amount of repetition, and also promotes the introduction of themes and ideas that are slightly digressive relative to the main argument, eddies in the stream, but intriguing ones.

He takes up the question, for instance, whether there is something anti-ritualist in the bones of Christianity, a religion that has, after all, been periodically wracked by iconoclasm. His own father was a Protestant who worshipped alone with a small black prayer book and nothing else. But he thinks ritualism is proper to Christianity, on the grounds that Christianity is founded on the person of Jesus, a physical presence then and now, not an abstraction, and he argues that ritual is a natural way of honouring his presence and making it tangible to the senses.

Likewise he touches on the role of music in the liturgy (a much travelled theme!), the value of our Eastern liturgies as a foil for seeing what is right and wrong with our Western liturgies, and the meaning of the much-disputed Vatican II phrase “active participation” vis-a-vis liturgy. There is a wonderful essay about his visit to Fontgombault, where the monks continue to celebrate the liturgy in its old form.

*

The writing in the book is graceful and often striking in its formulations. Mosebach is a well-regarded novelist in his native Germany, and it shows. (Indeed, the last selection in this book is actually an excerpt from one of his novels.) Writing this articulate and pleasant to read is rare in any context, much less in the realm of meta-liturgical literature, where polemics have long ago calcified along partisan lines.

*

My own experience of the liturgy answers in some respects to Mosebach’s, but not in all. I am, in general, a Novus Ordo Mass-goer, like the vast majority of Catholics today. This is partly because opportunities to attend the older rite are rarer, partly because I often feel like I’m making an especially big disruption when I attend the traditional rite with my children, and partly because I myself prefer certain aspects of the new rite, such as the vernacular readings.

I’ve been lucky, though, in my experience with the Novus Ordo Mass. The number of really awful experiments I’ve seen and heard have been few in number, and haven’t been as bad as the train wrecks Mosebach describes witnessing in Germany. Of course I’ve been to many Masses that were aesthetic horrors, but generally we’ve attended parishes where the Mass is celebrated in a way that is beautiful and even glorious. Sacred music sounds. Incense billows. The vestments are beautiful. The Mass is often celebrated ad orientem (in which the priest spends much of the Mass with his back turned to the antics of my children in the aisles). The atmosphere is reverent and prayerful.

That said, I do make an effort to attend the traditional Latin rite when I can. Perhaps I go once a month or so, usually not on a Sunday, but for an evening Mass or a special feast. I love this Mass. I especially love to go alone, when I can have the freedom to sink into the silence and remain there. (I have learned from this rite the value of simply being present, which has been a boon to my child-chasing adventures at the new Mass also.) At this form of the Mass I feel especially close to the heart of our tradition, and close to the saints (especially, for some reason, to the post-Reformation English saints), for this is the form of the Mass that they knew.

I have friends who have had strong negative reactions to the traditional Mass; I don’t share those feelings at all, but I sort of understand them. They support the troubling claim that the two forms of the rite are quite dissimilar. When Pope Benedict liberalized the old Mass he did so in part in the hopes that the two forms of the rite would mutually inform one another, drawing them closer together. And I have attended Novus Ordo Masses which were very close to what I experience at the traditional Mass, so I know the dissimilarity of form is not unbridgeable. To a first approximation, I see the older form as the standard to which the newer form should aspire, generally speaking. In the meantime, I am not interested in taking sides in any contest. My desire is that both forms be celebrated as beautifully and lovingly as possible, and that I know and love both.

In the end I appreciated Mosebach’s measured and personal approach to his theme. The book is a love letter, of sorts. Agree with him or not, I think a reader with an interest in these matters would appreciate the manner in which he makes his case.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: