The Lost Symbolism of the Liturgy

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In his recent letter, Desiderio desideravi, Pope Francis, wishing to see the western Catholic world united in appreciation of the Novus Ordo, begs us to be once more a people capable of perceiving symbols. He seems to sense, though he does not say it outright, that the vehicle of a symbol is not merely and completely arbitrary. That is because the stuff we use for symbols comes from the creative hand of God, and it is imbued with its own power for significance that we can accept or reject, be taught by or remain ignorant of.

“The Liturgy,” he says, 

is done with things that are the exact opposite of spiritual abstractions: bread, wine, oil, water, fragrances, fire, ashes, rock, fabrics, colors, body, words, sounds, silences, gestures, space, movement, action, order, time, light. The whole of creation is a manifestation of the love of God, and from when that same love was manifested in its fullness in the cross of Jesus, all of creation was drawn toward it. It is the whole of creation that is assumed in order to be placed at the service of encounter with the Word: incarnate, crucified, dead, risen, ascended to the Father.

I agree with all of that, and because I do, I find the Novus Ordo, as it is commonly celebrated, to be rather pallid. It is not, as Chesterton said of Catholicism, “a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar.” It is more like tinned meat and bottled water.

We cannot easily separate the Mass from the spaces where it is celebrated, which suggest the functional, the informal, and the quotidian, like Monday with a few frills added; and this is true even when the church building is old but has been renovated, that is, denuded of much of its symbolic power. We cannot easily supply, in our experience of the Mass, the want of solemn preparation, occasioned by the loss of the old prayers, and the psalm “Judica me,” while everyone around us is abuzz with chatter. 

We cannot supply, by force of will, the loss of the Last Gospel, whose mighty words the faithful used to hear after the dismissal. We can make but a vague mental connection between Ordinary Time before Lent and Ordinary Time after Pentecost, having lost the obvious seasons, the Time after Epiphany, Septuagesima, and the Time of Pentecost, that used to help fill the year.

We can hardly separate the Mass from its music. I have said it a hundred times: almost all of the music written for the Mass in English, since 1965, has ranged, poetically, from the barely adequate to the wretched (“Gather Us In”); it is musically structured neither as hymns nor as folk songs but as show tunes for soloists; and its theology is often a kind of heretical sentimentalism, with Jesus as a boyfriend and all of us sinners going merrily on to Heaven, without repentance, suffering, or a salutary fear of judgment; as if the whole world were a good-humored, perky, much-petted, and rather daft teenage girl.

What the Holy Father wants to acknowledge on one hand, he appears to deny on the other. He decries, rightly, mere intellectualism, mere ideology, what he calls “spiritual abstractions,” which he associates with those who are attached to the old Latin rite, before Vatican II. The problem is that modernism is ineluctably ideological, and thus it is always threatening to supplant every form of religious devotion, or to assimilate them to its ravenous and empty self.

Take a man from the jungles of Borneo and place him before Caravaggio’s painting The Calling of Saint Matthew. He will not know what is going on, but he will gaze upon it with wonder, and he will feel that great and mysterious things are near. Take the same man and place him before one of Henry Moore’s big lumps of bronze. He will shrug and walk away. The fact is, he must be taught to pretend that he likes it and understands it. 

Bring him to Salisbury Cathedral, and he will think he has come into the presence of the divine, rising from the plains in power and glory, with all the warmth and wonder of natural creation in its organic structure, and all the variations of natural color and shape in its materials. Bring him to the modernist torture bracelet called Brasília Cathedral, and he will feel its cold, its alienation, its aggressive refusal to submit either to the needs of man or to the glory of God. If it is to produce in him the feeling intended by the architect, he must be compelled against his nature and the nature of the thing in front of him to give the correct ideological answer to the question, “What is this?”

Five things are in play in symbolic art or action: the intention of him who gives the sign, the understanding of him who receives the sign, the manner of the sign’s performance, the matter of the sign, and the object signified. All should be in harmony. The last two are the most important; they are inexhaustible. Water remains water after baptism, endlessly suggestive, and baptism, that ritual drowning that cleanses us, can only be suggested by water and remains an infinite wellspring of mystery and grace beyond our capacity to signify or to understand.

We cannot simply say, “A will signify B. Learn it.” That is to reduce symbol to code. When I kneel beside a stranger at the Communion rail, I do something with my body that I will never do otherwise, and it has powerful significance despite my attempts to ignore it. I do not have to learn what it is supposed to mean. It rather threatens to overcome me. When the priest raises his hands in the direction of the altar, facing it as I am facing it, even if I am from the spiritual wastelands of a modern city, I sense immediately—perhaps disturbingly—that there is a Being beyond both him and me, to whom he prays; not that he is joining me in an attempt to force religious feeling, or to be content with a religiously seasoned bonhomie.

The pope warns against aestheticism. Rightly so. Aestheticism is to a full experience of beauty as sentimentality is to profound and genuine feeling. But it is not aestheticism to long for beauty, as it is not sentimental to long for love.

If I say, “This is a lousy poem,” the rejoinder must not be that I am an aesthete. It must be, “No, this is a very fine poem, and here is why.” That is a hard case to make, even for well-intended stuff like “Will You Come and Follow Me.” If I say, “It is ineffectual for us to remain standing after Communion, as a sign of solidarity,” the response must not be that I am nostalgic for what I used to do when I was a boy. It must be, “No, this does impress the ordinary human soul with great force, and let me show you that it is so.” Another hard case to make.

True beauty, Holy Father, impresses us immediately, even when we do not know what stands before us. And in the things of God, there must always remain an infinity of beauty beyond what we can grasp. There is no substitute for it.

[Photo: Saint Marys Cathedral, Natchez, Mississippi (Unsplash)]

By

Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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