Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Donkey

As we begin Holy Week, I hope readers won’t take it amiss if I share something not exactly solemn. Here is one of my favorite poems by G.K. Chesterton ­– the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem from the point of view of Jesus' mode of transport:

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

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.