Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Beauty of Holiness

I have found myself jumping for joy on many occasions over the past year or so, especially since I first read the book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, written by Pope Benedict XVI when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. The publication of his Motu proprio last July expanding the use of the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) was another reason to turn cartwheels across the floor. In general, the recent news from Rome has given me cause to revisit the following observation from my conversion story, which I posted last November:

… I have left a church [the Episcopal Church] with beautiful liturgy and inspiring architecture and a rich musical tradition, to which I have a lifelong attachment and to which my ancestors have belonged for hundreds of years…. I have gone to a church that – in the United States, at least – is only just beginning to emerge from several decades of experimentation with tacky, uninspiring modern architecture and even tackier modern liturgy and music.

Thanks to the Holy Father’s leadership, I now have even more reason to hope that the Catholic Church in America will indeed eventually recover a greater sense of the sacred in worship. In my own parish we are very much in the midst of implementing the “reform of the reform.” The Sunday noon mass is now a high mass, something that has never been seen in this particular church, as far as I know. (It was consecrated in 1967.) We have incense, and sung liturgy, and frequently, Latin. For me it is, to borrow a phrase from Proverbs, “like cold water to a thirsty soul.”

I must admit upfront to a certain bias on this subject. I grew up in the Episcopal Church when we still used a liturgy my 16th century ancestors would have recognized (the 1928 Book of Common Prayer). The music I was weaned on had that same flavor of continuity with the past, and when the sermon was dull I pored over the words of those traditional hymns (where the theology was usually better). It gave me a taste of what it means to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Anglican plainchant was second nature to me by the time I was a teenager; to this day I can chant from memory the Venite, the Te Deum, the Benedictus, etc. – in King James English, of course. And I miss it.

When I began attending evangelical churches as an adult (including evangelical Episcopal churches), I accepted that “happy-clappy” praise music was the price I had to pay to hear orthodox preaching from the pulpit. When I was contemplating entering the Catholic Church a couple of years ago, I thought I would have to continue making that trade-off. Instead, our choir director is teaching us Gregorian Chant, and we have a hymnal (The St. Michael Hymnal) that reminds me in many ways of the old Episcopal hymnal I learned to love as a child – with even better theology, of course. Again, like cold water to a thirsty soul….

I realize that my sense of jubilation is not shared by some of my fellow Catholics, including some of my fellow parishioners. I gather that our pastor is meeting a fair amount of resistance to the changes. My husband and I have heard some complaints directly. This doesn’t surprise me. Since I am in the choir, the subject occasionally comes up, and I imagine that some people feel more comfortable talking to a choir member than to Father directly. And it isn’t unusual for people to resist change.

What does surprise me is this, and I would appreciate hearing from others about whether their own experience mirrors or contradicts my own: The people most resistant to this return to traditional worship practices tend to be over the age of 70. That is, these are people who would have been in their 30’s and 40’s when the “Spirit of Vatican II” swept the American Church in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. So they grew up with the traditional rite, just as I grew up with the 1928 Prayer Book. I would expect the older generation to welcome the expanded use of the form of the Mass they grew up with. Instead, priests in the U.S. report that younger Catholics are generally more enthusiastic about the TLM. Maybe it is partly a matter of rebelling against the rebellion of their parents and grandparents.

Now, I do understand that there were elements of the pre-1962 Mass that needed reform. That was one of the reasons for the Second Vatican Council, after all. And no doubt some of the people I talk to got swept up in the spirit of the times and welcomed the more “participatory” atmosphere of the guitar masses and the priest turning around to face them. I also understand that poor catechesis is a major factor. To my amazement I often find myself, a recent convert, in the odd position of trying to explain Catholic worship to cradle Catholics (“It’s not entertainment;” “the priest is leading us in worship, not turning his back on the congregation;” etc.)

I understand all of that. Nevertheless, I am still left scratching my head, because in my own (admittedly, anecdotal) experience, the Episcopalians who most miss the old Prayer Book are people in my father’s generation (He is 82). Oh, and a number of “throwbacks” like me. In fact, my father has never quite forgiven the Episcopal Church for that 1979 Prayer Book, which is still in use and, some 30 years later, still referred to by people my age and older as the “new Prayer Book.”

I would love to hear whether you, dear readers, have had similar experiences, and if so, how you account for this seeming anomaly.


Ragamuffin said...

I would tend to go with the old cliche that familiarity breeds contempt. It at least breeds lack of appreciation.

And I really don't think the young people are rebelling against anything. I think they just long to experience God. I'm 37 and I know that my own journey in this regard isn't about rebelling. I've just come to a place where I've heard all the great sermons and I've seen the hippest, coolest pop/rock praise bands and while it was enjoyable for a time, I want more. And I just don't see it coming where I am.

At some point it struck me that for the vast majority of these 2000 years since Christ walked the earth, people have worshipped God to a large degree in the same way: through the Eucharist, the liturgy, through songs that stood the test of time. Only recently have we seemed to have an incessant need to reinvent ourselves every few years. It seems to me that something that sustained the Church for all these centuries probably needed to be reexamined. And what I found was a hidden treasure. And to think: I found it at a church that uses that silly old '79 BCP version. ;^)

The bottom line is that I think young people are more perceptive than you think. They recognize "new" things can become rote and trite just as easily as old things. Even constant change itself becomes a routine of sorts. But in a world where society is in a race to cast off every moral anchor that encumbers it, young people don't want to come to church and just experience more upheaval and change for change's sake. As C.S. Lewis put it, "the charge to Peter was to 'feed My sheep', not to try experiments on My rats."

They want the reverence and more of the mystery restored to worship. They want the sense that they've actually come on Sunday to worship not be entertained. They want to know a God who is above all and worthy of awe and wonder, not just a supernatural buddy. And they are finding that easier to experience walking in the steps of centuries of fellow believers.

Heide Seward said...

Thank you, Ragamuffin, for your comments. I think you are exactly right re. the younger generation, and it gives me further reason to hope that things will get better still. As I have noted in other posts, the younger generation of Catholics are generally more orthodox than their parents and grandparents. They do long for a connection with what Edmund Burke (I think it was Burke) called "The Permanent Things." For once in my life I am in tune with the younger generation. ;-)

Not that there are no members of the older generation who are pleased with the Reform of the Reform. It just strikes me as odd that most of the open grumbling is coming from older people.

truthfinder said...

My experience parallels yours, Heidi. I grew up in a Protestant environment, but the grand old hymns taught theology as no prose could. I loved "The Church's One Foundation", and in later years, it kept pointing my heart toward the Catholic Church. I became an Episcopalian, and the priest in our church taught me liturgy in a "Catholic" way. When my husband and I broke with the Episcopalians, I really missed some of the parts I rememberd, which were in reality "borrowed" from the Latin Rite. My husband, however, (a cradle Catholic) grumbled that if they went back to "muttering in Latin" he was not going to be happy. I think perhaps part of it is that he remembers the old attitude toward other Christians (Protestants) and the intimations that "they" were all going to hell. He doesn't want to go back to that, and I wouldn't want to either. So, I think some of the older Catholics are afraid that everything from Vatican II will be disposed of if the Latin Mass returns. The young people are looking for something ancient and mysterious, and for some solid spiritual grounding.

Heide Seward said...

Thank you for your helpful comments, Truthfinder. That makes sense. I suppose some Catholics who remember the pre-Vatican II Church associate the TLM with some of the bad things Vatican II (V2) was intended to remedy. (I wouldn't want to go back to the attitudes you described, either!) If only the Church (in the US, anyway) had paid closer attention to what the V2 documents REALLY said.)

Fortunately, we now have a Holy Father who was intimately involved in V2 and is devoting much time and energy to implementing the reforms CORRECTLY.

By the way, "The Church's One Foundation" is one of my favorites, too. And it takes on a whole new meaning in a Catholic context, doesn't it? ("By schisms rent assunder, by heresies distressed," etc.)