Martin Mosebach will be familiar to a number of readers as a trenchant traditionalist, and the author of The Heresy of Formlessness. The talk below is the best thing I’ve read on liturgy and tradition for a long time. Any traditionalist who can should read it – Ed.
It’s tricky with contemporaneity: when you try to grab and hold onto it, you end up holding the dead tail of a lizard in your hand. Arrested contemporaneity is necessarily always about to go out of date. The radical form of the liturgy, by contrast, cannot go out of date because it does not belong to time, but moves outside of time.
by Martin Mosebach, Roarate Caeli: address Given at Holy Innocents Parish, New York, May 12, 2015 – translation of a talk Mosebach was asked to give by the Bishop of Limburg/Lahn on Ash Wednesday 2013.
When it became apparent in the early 1950s that television sets would soon be in many households, German bishops deliberated about whether it would be wise to allow or even promote television broadcasts of the Holy Mass. Indeed, people thought about such questions sixty years ago and they asked the great philosopher Josef Pieper for an expert opinion. In his opinion, Pieper rejected such television broadcasts on principle, saying they were irreconcilable with the nature of the Holy Mass. In its origins, the Holy Mass is a discipline of the arcane, a sacred celebration of mysteries by the christened. He mentioned the lowest level in the order of priests – done away with following the Second Vatican Council – the ostiary, or doorkeeper, who once had to ensure that the non-baptized and those temporarily excluded leave the church and move to the narthex following the liturgy of the Word. The Orthodox still do so in some places; the call of the deacon, “Guard the doors” is heard in every Orthodox liturgy before the Eucharist. While in Georgia I once experienced this demand, often merely a ceremony of a recollected past, being taken literally. A monk approached me, fell to his knees and apologetically asked me to leave the church since I, as a Roman Catholic, was not in full agreement with the Orthodox Church. I gladly acquiesced as I think not everyone has to be permitted everywhere all the time. Sacred places and holy acts are first declared quite plainly by the drawing of boundaries and such boundaries must somehow be visible and palpable. Still, anyone who has not given any thought to the dubiousness of filming the Mass has perhaps on occasion felt uncomfortably moved when they saw believers receiving communion on television or as the camera rested on the face of a celebrant chewing the host. Are such feelings truly only atavistic, produced by ancient magical fears? Other cultures are also acquainted with an aversion to photography. It is as if it would disturb a spiritual sphere.
So it is all the more surprising that a photograph of a Mass has become very valuable to me.
I always have it in view on my desk. It is a black and white picture of a church interior badly damaged by bombs; massive columns still bear a vaulted ceiling but the rear wall of the church is completely collapsed, providing a view of a burnt-out neighborhood lying in ruins. The piles of stone almost penetrate the interior of the church. But the chessboard floor around the altar has been cleared. Three clerics are standing behind one another in a row on the altar steps wearing the large chasubles and dalmatics of the modern “Beuron” style. The open mass book is on the right side of the altar; we can see by the position of the celebrants that they are at the Kyrie at the beginning of the Mass. To one side, in front of a column damaged by bomb fragments, stands the credence table, flanked right and left by two adult acolytes in cassocks and rochets. The congregation is not visible; it must have been quite a distance from the altar. A great feast is being celebrated here as the High Mass reveals. The world has literally collapsed, but the calendar of the Church year mandates this feast. It is celebrated wholly regardless of the circumstances of the times. These circumstances, as disastrous as they are, retreat for the duration of the liturgical feast. In a unique way, my photograph captures the collapse of two dimensions of time: the horrors of war (who knows in what way the five men in this document have been affected, who of them have lost relatives and homes?) and at the same time an exit from this time. It is an exit from the merciless power of their suffering, a turning away from the hopelessness of contemporaneity, not influenced by delusion, but in the awareness that the reality opened up to us by the liturgy is always present, that it perseveres, as if only separated from the present by a thin membrane, through all epochs of world history in one eternal Now. And this Now is entered by the partakers of the Mass through the portal of the 42nd Psalm, which is about thediscernatio between the supplicant and the “gens non sancta.” Through this distinction, the people, all of whom belong to the gens non sancta, become a holy people for the duration of the liturgy; the actual circumstances of their existence, whether the horrors of destruction or the self-sufficient satiety of peace-time, dissolve at this boundary crossed in the liturgy. The focus of the celebrants on the cross and the altar denotes a simultaneous turning-away. Standing in a row, they are like a procession that has come to a halt – come to a halt because it has attained its highest possible objective on earth.