In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last year I began a series of sermons on the mass – its component parts, the history of their evolution, and their meaning. I broke off that series at the beginning of Advent, when we turned our attention to preparing to greet the newborn King at Christmas. I have been intending to take it up again this year, when we got into the “green season”; and now, with Corpus Christi, the St. Michael’s Conference, Trinity Sunday, and the feast of Saints Peter and Paul behind us, I intend next week to pick up where I left off – which was with the Alleluia, just before the singing of the Gospel.
This is a propitious time to be returning to a consideration of the mass, because, as I mentioned in this week’s “News and Notes” (which I hope you all receive), beginning on the first Sunday of August, our mass ritual will be undergoing some changes. These changes will be superficially fairly radical – I say “superficially” because the underlying “shape of the liturgy” will actually change very little; we will simply be using some different words and music, and reordering a few elements, all with a view towards harmonizing our ritual use more closely with what has been used by Christians through the centuries, and what is generally used by other Christians in our tradition in our own time.
There are advantages and disadvantages that come with virtually any change. I expect the advantages significantly to outweigh the disadvantages in this case, but we all (myself included) will doubtless experience a bit of a sense of vertigo at first. But one of the advantages that accrues to us from the mere fact of shaking things up (regardless of the particulars of the shake-up) is that we will have to pay closer attention to what we are saying and singing, so that the mass doesn’t devolve into an unedifying cacophony.
One of the things that I appreciate most about liturgical forms of worship in general is that, once we familiarize ourselves with the prayers and the music and the gestures, once we internalize them, our minds are liberated from the need for close attention and we can, as it were, float along the river of the ritual, with our attention having been made available for other kinds of prayerful engagement.
But, of course, the other side of that coin is that we can also forget what we are saying, and the meanings of the words that we recite by rote can be lost to us through inattention, and as a result we can become unmoored, detached, from the activity that we purport to be engaged in. Borrowing an idea from Platonic philosophy, Saint Augustine spoke about being pulled into the “region of dissimilitude” or a “sea of diversity” – by which he meant the external world of motion, change, and distraction – and in contrast with the recumbent peace that comes from a nearness to God’s changeless simplicity. Bernard of Clairvaux took up Augustine’s idea and said that the carelessness of monks with respect to the liturgy is in fact a symptom of a deeper spiritual problem, and that the cacophonous results of monks failing to give voice to the grammar of our sacred texts and to the melodies of our chants reflects an inner, spiritual dissolution – an alienation from the divine simplicity and harmony, and indeed an alienation from ourselves, from our own humanness.
In contrast to ideas about art in our contemporary world – ideas about it being primarily about self-expression, or essentially political – the truth is that the symmetry and beauty of art, and in particular of liturgy and music, are reflections of their archetypes, which are the governing principles, built by the divine Logos himself into the structure of the cosmos and of human nature. As the Psalmist said: “I will give thanks unto thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made * marvellous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well.” That passage might as well be translated: “I will offer thee EUCHARIST, O Lord, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made * marvelous are they works, and that my soul knoweth right well.”
Thus a potential advantage to engaging with liturgical forms that are less familiar, and in particular of undertaking to “do this” in a somewhat less familiar idiom, is that it invites a closer attention. Its familiar enough for us to follow, yet unfamiliar enough to make us aware of, and invite us into, deeper regions of significance. And the need for closer attention likewise alerts us to the concomitant danger of being thrown entirely off balance through inattention. I have in mind even simple and oft-repeated phrases from the old liturgy – phrases like “and with thy spirit,” or “our bounden duty and service.” Such tropes proclaim loudly that there is more to their meaning than is superficially obvious, and they awaken us to the necessity of forever delving more deeply into the unfamiliar regions of increasing simplicity and rest, and ever nearer to the God we claim to worship, who dwells, as Dionysius the Areopagite said, in “superluminous darkness.”
Our awareness of the very unfamiliarity of what we are purporting to do, and our struggle to do it, trains the ears of our spirit to recognize the faint harmonies of the noble spirits with whom, in fact, we are singing, and who were thought by our spiritual forebears to be “the originators of the harmony of the cosmos, [and] the music of the spheres,” (Benedict XVI, from a 2008 address to representatives from the World of Culture).
And beyond the harmony of the spheres, our ears become attuned to the strange and lovely and silent voice of God himself. Again, as Dionysius the Areopagite put it:
“The simple, absolute and immutable mysteries of divine Truth are hidden in the super-luminous darkness of that silence which reveals itself in secret. For this darkness, though of the deepest obscurity, is yet radiantly clear; and, though beyond touch and sight, it more than fills our unseeing minds with splendours of transcendent beauty.”
Thus we can begin to see in what sense the liturgy is the school of all Christian prayer, and indeed its wellspring, and its source. The liturgy is a training ground for what is the most fundamental aspect of all prayer worthy of the name, and that is: the memory of Jesus, an intimate recognition of his closeness, of his habitation in our hearts.
A very wise 6th century saint called John Climacus (or John of the Ladder) gave some advice on-point, with respect to prayer generally, but it is to my mind especially relevant to the prayer of the mass, and especially as we undertake these liturgical changes in our own mass in just a few weeks. John Climacus reminds us of the sense in which the very act of engaging with these changes can redound to great spiritual benefit. He says:
“Make the effort… to enclose your mind within the words of your prayer; and if, like a child, [your mind] gets tired and falters, raise it up again. The mind, after all, is naturally unstable, but the God Who can do everything can also give it firm endurance. Persevere in this, therefore, and do not grow weary… If you are careful to train your mind never to wander, it will stay by you [always]. But if you allow it to stray freely, then you will never have it beside you.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.