Longing for Eternal Presence

It is this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is the uncanny element in everything.  ∼ G.K. Chesterton

In the digital age of LED lighting, we risk losing all sense of the uncanny. Of course, in the age of science in general, we tend to grow numb to the mystery that calls us to eternal presence. Unlike our medieval ancestors, we now see through a microscope darkly, and our myopia blinds us to the natural in the supernatural, the everyday paradoxes of time and the timeless, and of the sacred mysteries at the heart of Christianity. G.K. Chesterton understood and articulated well those paradoxes, but we are faced with a more striking drought in 2018 and a desperate need for restoration of the sacred.

If Chesterton were to read the Catholic news today, he might be struck by the overwhelming sense of compromise among clergy and within the liturgy, noting a tendency of the ancient traditions of the Church to be bent obediently to the positivists and politics of the twenty-first century. If, instead of reading the news he were to attend a typical suburban parish, for instance, he would experience the radical result of that compromise firsthand: disconnected altars, decentered tabernacles, stadium churches, bubbling fountains and forests, cacophonous hymns and clunky scriptural translations, lay persons handing out wafers like candy, new rituals of hand-sanitization, and a pervasive acedia among parishioners who look like they are attending a bad high school football game with the home team losing 49–0.

The secularization of liturgy and of the Mass is not limited to the suburbs though, nor even to the United States. I never imagined, for instance, observing some of the same tendencies enumerated above in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres. Kneeling in the cathedral on a sunny Sunday this past July, before High Mass, in the front row equidistant between Notre-Dame du Pilier and Notre-Dame-de-la-Belle-Verrière, with a shadowed glance to where Our Lady’s Veil hangs in the cornered half-light off in the distance, I was initially as moved as always in Chartres. Even the so-called restoration of the interior of Chartres did not dampen my spirits too much, though I was shocked. The cleaning, for instance, has rendered the famous Black Madonna white for the first time in centuries. Yet, the very existence of Chartres is testimony to the power of veneration, as noted aptly in Henry Adams’s famous comparison between Venus and the Virgin, and the order of stones and windows, light and darkness, arches and sculptures. The very space and place of it all is as alive now as it has been for centuries. But then, when Mass started, something was missing: a particular reverence to match the grandeur of the place, perhaps Mass in the Extraordinary Form, or even a stricter Novus Ordo Mass—without the Eucharist in hand or hand-holding prayers, the irreverent chatting, over-use of extra-ordinary ministers, and contemporary musical cues.

 

It was then I realized the restoration of the interior of Chartres with its bright lights denied in some symbolic way the mystery that had always been defined by Chartres itself, a mystery that we used to meet in the half-light and gloom where the uncanny still walked as present as ourselves. Likewise, the general tendency we experience in the Church toward compromise with the secular world functions in the same manner, thereby obscuring our experiences with the holy and eternal.

Chartres remains magnificent, and it still contains the numinous mysteries that have made it an inspiration to so many millions of pilgrims—even unlikely pilgrims, like Ernest Hemingway, for instance. Hemingway strikingly changed the title of his novel from the dismal The Lost Generation to the ecclesiastical and abiding title The Sun Also Rises after his own pilgrimage to Chartres in September of 1925. Chartres changed me as well. Years ago, after having made it to Santiago de Compostela, I returned to live in France, and found it was Chartres that embodied everything I had felt in Santiago but more intensely, as if the spirit of place was more concentrated in Chartres than anywhere I had ever been.

This is exactly why the relaxation of rites and liturgy in Chartres was so striking. It made what would have been tolerable elsewhere intolerable everywhere, and it highlights how our current crisis has revealed a disconnect festering in the culture of the Church, a systemic disease that will continue to turn otherwise orthodox people away. It can happen in any parish, even the traditional ones, if we relax our vigilance and accept anything—even for a brief moment—other than holiness. For that, we need a restoration in the Church.

There is evidence that a restoration is well underway, and just as we feel the whole façade of the Church is ready to come crumbling down, we learn there is real work being done from the ground up. Like St. Benedict among the ruins of his own time, there are many now working to restore a sense of sacred order and liturgical discipline to our daily and unending search for God: The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter has experienced significant growth in the last ten years, nearly doubling its priests and opening new parishes everywhere. The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter likewise has seen exponential growth as many have found refuge within the liturgy and patrimonies of the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions. The Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship provides support for the restoration of sacred art and music. Hybrid homeschool and classically focused schools are gaining significant traction and show promise for increasing priestly vocations. These are just a few examples.

In Charles Péguy’s famous poem “Les Cinq Prières dans la cathédrale de Chartres,” written a little more than a year before he would perish at the start of the Battle of the Marne, Péguy captures the essence and timelessness of the sacred within Chartres.

Behold the weight of pillars and rising arches
And abandon of the past, the oblivion of tomorrow
The futility of mere human reckoning…
Here is the one place on earth where all returns to silence
The silence and shadow and absence of flesh,
The beginning of eternal presence
The only stronghold where the soul is wholly itself

When I read this poem now, I am reminded of the essence and timelessness—the eternal presence—in the liturgy and of the holiness that we are meant to experience in every church during every Mass. I am still moved by Chartres, and I believe the place will encourage devotion and continue to perpetuate lifelong veneration, as it has for centuries. But not everyone can get there, and for the many who are stuck in what might be the soul-numbing routine of a parish that has compromised on reverence and sanctity, and that has secularized away all mystery, do not lose hope. There is a restoration afoot. We are called therefore to be a part of that restoration: to join with others in support and prayer; to start more classical schools in our parishes and raise up our children with the knowledge to defend the faith; to request traditional forms of liturgy from our clergy; to start prayer groups and bring back sacred music; and to support orthodox priests and demand the eternal presence in every Mass. We must resist at the local level, with humility and joy, the compromises that have gotten us into this mess in the first place.

Matthew Nickel

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Matthew Nickel is an Assistant Professor of English at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania with interests in Literary Modernism and Catholicism (Hemingway, Eliot, Greene, etc.). His is also a published poet.

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