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Against Liturgical “Comprehensibility”

11 February, 2016 2 Comments

Are we smarter than St Augustine, who is said to have compared his attempt to understand the Trinity with a child’s attempt to fit the ocean into a hole he’d dug in the sand?

By Lyle Dunne

Lately I’ve had a number of conversations about Mass in the Extraordinary Form; one, arising out of an on-line discussion on this article (which I mentally subtitle as “And That’s Why We Can’t have Nice Things”) echoes a debate I’ve had with a number of friends and relatives over the years.

Their point, which they consider a knock-down-drag-out argument, is “surely the main thing is for everyone to be able to understand the words of the Mass?”

My usual response has been to say well, you have to remember it’s not primarily a conversation, and too much focus on the words risks missing the point.

But I’m starting to think “understanding” is more complicated than it looks.

For a start, the words of the Mass are not just statements, especially not statements for us.

Some are prayers, in the sense of petitions, but overall the words are performative. As with“I now pronounce you man and wife”, the words don’t primarily describe, but enact.

Sometimes the words of consecration, in English at least, feel a bit too much like a description of the last supper, rather than words which re-enact (or, rather, enact) the last supper, and the sacrifice of Calvary. This sense of “This is My Body” in quotation marks is exacerbated by the shorter Eucharistic Prayers, which seem to get to the consecration almost before you’ve knelt down.

The Latin – and the silent Canon in the EF – minimises this risk.

But does everyone have to understand everything, immediately?

“Immediately” makes me think of Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ, who took the view that in poetry, it was sometimes better to sacrifice immediate comprehensibility for a more important point[1]. And perhaps a poet’s approach is not so wide of the mark here, as I hope to make clear.

Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ (Photo: Victorianweb)

But for everyone to “get it”, instantly or otherwise, we would have to abolish not only “vouchsafe” but “consubstantial” and “trespasses”. This approach gave us “from the east to the west” as preferable to “from the rising of the Sun to its setting”, as all the words have one syllable. Never mind that it’s turned a statement whose main sense is chronological into a slightly weird (the farthest east and farthest west are not only arbitrary constructs based on distance from Greenwich; they’re the same place!) and above all prosaic geographical statement.

It’s a bit difficult to put into words the biggest problem I have with this approach, though. Paradoxically, it may be something to do with intellectual pride.

After all, there’s a fair bit going on: sacrifice; redemption; the connexion to the Last Supper and Calvary, original sin and; offering to the Father His own Son as a sacrificial Victim – to say nothing of the significances of objects, actions, prayers; their resonances with the practices and words of the Old Testament.

Are we smarter than St Augustine, who is said to have compared his attempt to understand the Trinity with a child’s attempt to fit the ocean into a hole he’d dug in the sand?

Maybe the problem is this idea that we can reduce what’s going on to a few simple sentences, and that we can make it all clear to everyone, instantly. Mystery of Faith? OK, a few short verses (we must have choice), each of which explains the whole mystery of the Eucharist – and in case anyone misses the point, we’ll say “The Mystery of Faith”! (“All together now, on three…”)

Again, that seems to me to be blurring the line between the mystery and the narrative – a bit like the priest who insists on contemporaneous narration during weddings and baptisms: “OK, I’m now applying the Oil of Chrism, which symbolises…” At best this might be a misguided attempt to put people at their ease by stepping out of character: “It’s OK, it’s only me – just unlocking Heaven, and expelling Satan; nothing out of the ordinary…”

However the priest who insists on detailed marshalling instructions immediately before we receive Christ’s body calls to mind a saying about familiarity.

Moreover, if we could get our heads around everything in the Mass in one go, then surely subsequent attendances would be a bit anticlimactic?

There’s another view. We can never fully comprehend what’s going on in the Eucharist –that’s why it’s called a mystery.

And if we could – if we could really get our heads around what it meant for God Himself to go down into the universe He holds in the palm of His hand, to become one of His own creatures, to make one of them the MOTHER OF GOD (just think about that phrase for a moment) and to accept, not only the life of one of us, but the death – and not just any death, but a violent cruel, mocking death; to accept it, embrace it, all for the sake of wiping away our sins – yours and mine – then perhaps we would die of shame.

The Catholic primary school some of our children attended simply didn’t bother: they prepared children for their first Communion by explaining that it was a Lovely Ceremony of Unity and Being a Family. Can you imagine the emotional response of a child on being told that they were about to eat the Body of Christ – and yet the school hadn’t seen fit to mention it?

There must be a great temptation for catechists, and indeed liturgists, to leave out what they think people won’t understand. But continuing to do so implies that anything not mentioned is unimportant or nonexistent.

Is there a “third way”?

Perhaps the best way to come anywhere close to comprehending what’s going on might not be to try to build into the liturgy a series of plain statements summarising the complexities of salvation and sacrifice in snappy dot-points.

It might be to try and get across the feeling, the awful emotional significance, of what’s happening – the weight of our sins counterbalanced by the infinite mercy of God. One of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit used be called “Fear of the Lord”, now I believe re-named as “Wonder and Awe”. Perhaps our liturgy ought to encourage more awe?

That might require the engagement of all of our senses. (At Candlemas this year, we had pure beeswax candles from the Carmel in Lismore: as they burnt, you could almost taste the honey.)

And at the level of language, it might be that we have to take a leaf out of the books of Father Hopkins, or St John of the Cross: maybe poetry might get us closest to the truth.

Come to think of it, we used to do that sort of thing:

“Godhead here in hiding, Whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more…”

“Sing, my tongue, the Saviour’s glory,
Of His Flesh, the mystery sing;
Of the Blood, all price exceeding,
Shed by our Immortal King,
Destined, for the world’s redemption,
From a noble Womb to spring.”

“And that a higher gift than Grace
Should flesh and blood refine:
God’s presence and his very Self
And essence all divine.”

What do we have now?

Eat his Bod-y, drink His Blood
And we’ll sing a song of love,
Allay loo, allay loo, allay loo, allay loo-oo-yaaah.


[1] ‘Granted that [“The Wreck of the Deutschland”] needs study and is obscure, for indeed I was not over-desirous that the meaning of all should be quite clear, at least unmistakable, you might, without the effort that to make it all out would seem to have required, have nevertheless read it so that lines and stanzas should be left in the memory and superficial impressions deepened, and have liked some without exhausting all.’ – letter to Robert Bridges, 2 April 1878.

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Sites That Link to this Post

  1. Bishop Schneider: 10 Elements of Renewal in the Liturgy : Oriens | 18 February, 2016
  1. Edward Palamar says:

    We have entered into the “age to come” foretold by Jesus in Mark 10:30.

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