Mosebach’s Heresy of Formlessness

A month ago, I wrote Does the Liturgy ever Exist in a Natural State? and this project brought me to buy Martin Mosebach’s book The Heresy of Formlessness. I have just finished reading it.

Though an accomplished novelist and writer, Mosebach is a layman, from which viewpoint he gives an extraordinarily candid and personal view to the liturgical shipwreck in the Roman Catholic Church. He wrote this work in German, and I read it in its exquisite English translation by Graham Harrison. Mosebach’s approach has clearly been influenced by the writings of Monsignor Klaus Gamber and Pope Benedict XVI rather than the more polemical hard-line traditionalists. His understanding of what went wrong with the liturgy long before Vatican II is subtle, profound and spiritual. This gives the book a considerable amount of credibility and respect. The theological vision that impregnates this work is that of an Orthodox incarnational approach, a healthy neo-Platonism and the spiritual aestheticism of Urs von Balthasar. In this second consideration, we find it in a nutshell:

Right at the beginning of Christianity, visible in the conflict between Peter and Paul, there were very different attitudes to paganism. On the one hand, there was a strict, puritanical rejection of any connection between the “pagan abominations” and the new faith; and, on the other hand, there was a universalist attitude that saw paganism as a second Old Testament, in which the Holy Spirit had prepared the way, through art and philosophy, for the coming of the Redeemer. For this latter tradition, the fact that the Catholic priesthood preserved elements of priesthood of all times was entirely natural; for the former tradition, it was suspect and odious.

This fundamental notion exactly underpins the whole paradigm of the use of symbols, images and art in the liturgy rather than have people read the Bible and reduce the anamnesis of Christ to a mere memory of something that happened two thousand years ago and remains only in the mind and emotions. Here is our difference as Catholics from the Protestantism of either the sixteenth or the twentieth centuries. Another thing Mosebach brings up. The reforms of Calvin, Luther, Cranmer and others were passionate and came from men of utter conviction and willingness to die for their beliefs. Not so with modern “reformed” novus ordo Catholicism which came from weakness and compromise. This observation writes volumes!

Does the Church need a liturgy. This passage has haunted me over the past month, and it is that much more impressive in its context:

We must not think of the future. The prospects for a liturgical Christianity are poor. From today’s perspective, the future model of the Christian religion seems to be that of a North American sect–the most frightful form religion has ever adopted in the world. But the future is of no concern to the Christian.

North American sect? From a European point of view, this would mean the so-called mega-church where services are based on mass entertainment. Possibly he thinks of the small provincial town Baptist church with the enthusiastic preaching and Gospel music. Or yet, he might be thinking of the big Billy Graham rallies in football stadiums. Perhaps, but the imagination is fired up.

Another point, which I find fascinating, is the notion of innocence and the fact that various issues, including the liturgy, are torn out of the context of the whole and given importance as “specialist” subjects. Mosebach discusses this notion in his second chapter Liturgy – Lived Religion, which colludes with my article on the liturgy in a “natural state”.

Perhaps the greatest damage done by Pope Paul VI’s reform of the Mass (and by the ongoing process that has outstripped it), the greatest spiritual deficit, is this: we are now positively obliged to talk about the liturgy.

Even those of us who love the old liturgy are obliged to be experts in it to counter the arguments of those who would take it away from us “for our own good”. We lose our innocence and the sense of a wholeness rather than a spiritual experience of a discrete series of single issues. This seems to be an important point. We could not even convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, because we would never belong like those who are born into that tradition belong. One thing that has been taken away from us is the sense of belonging and stability. Lay people are brought to evaluate the liturgy as if they were choosing consumer goods and getting the best value for money.

Many Catholics try to keep this innocence by going along with the reforms and not thinking about it – having the foi du charbonnier, or the faith of the ploughman as Eamon Duffy portrays the English lay Catholic. The problem is that it doesn’t work. The result is complete alienation from the wholeness of the liturgical experience – the indifferent “cultural” Catholic. I know plenty of them here in France.

This is why our attempts to restore the liturgy have remained exactly that – restorations, reconstructions, what some call British Museum religion. Can the genie be put back into the bottle? Can innocence be restored after we have the knowledge of liturgical good and evil? I think you can see where this might be leading. Perhaps the soufflé is ruined and all we can do is start over again. Nearly everybody has given up and lapsed into agnosticism or a vague “spirituality”, yet something tells us to carry on and keep working at it.

As I have mentioned before, perhaps innocence can be found by our soldiering on with our liturgical life but with other things to think about in life. We certainly need to learn to relax and do things the southern European way – I say so as a “northern” Catholic. Take up sailing! I am thankful to have read these reflections so clearly articulated.

We might smile a little at Mosebach’s desire to revive the allegorical way of living the liturgy à la Durand of Mende in the thirteenth century, expressed in the Rationale Divinorum Officiorum. It goes against the grain of our university liturgical studies – but perhaps this is what is needed.

I would definitely recommend this book.

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7 Responses to Mosebach’s Heresy of Formlessness

  1. Patricius says:

    I have been recommending a book to-day as well, father, though rather different from Mosebach’s study. I read Mosebach’s book in 2005/06 and thought it among the best books on the liturgy I had read thus far. I haven’t read it since. I gave my copy to a friend of mine but I wonder if I’d personally recommend the book to-day? He does tell some interesting stories, like his childhood experiences of going to church (with his father, content in his own magisterial authority, reading the Bible by himself), and the island where the “old Mass” is celebrated once a year. I think Mosebach is a 62ist, if only out of ignorance, but I’d like to meet him nonetheless. His writing style is very compelling.

    • I would agree that Mosebach is certainly marked by the Ecclesia Dei / Summorum Pontificium “orthodoxy and the 1962 liturgy. He mentions nothing of local uses and refers only to the Roman liturgy. I was just the same when I was at Gricigliano, only I had my preference for the old Holy Week, having known John Tyson, Rubricarius and the late Fr Quoëx. I also had a predilection for Sarum from the early 80’s. Mosebach could only be based by what he knew. Perhaps he has more of that precious innocence than we do.

      Born in 1951, that makes him 62-63. I’m sure he can be found. Most literate Germans speak good English. Please let me know if you find him and strike up correspondence.

    • Michael Frost says:

      Yet another book to put on a future to-read list! So many books, so little time…

      Though I do wonder if he might not be a bit too hard on the original magisterial Reformers and their re-actualization of liturgy for the masses in the 1520-1560 era? In a post-Vatican II era, in the developed world, where illiteracy is hardly known and the vernacular is the norm, what was it really like for the average illiterate German peasant to go to a Latin Mass on a Sunday in Wittenburg or Strasbourg in say 1510? Then for that same peasant to do so in say 1530? Historians, sociologists, theologians, and liturgists each have their own diverse perspectives…

      • Eamon Duffy is probably biased, but I like his description of the old popular piety. It would be interesting if anyone has done a historical study of ordinary parish folk who welcomed the Reformation rather than going along with it for fear of punishment.

      • Michael Frost says:

        Yes, Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars. A most interesting work.

        I’d also recommend Miriam Usher Chrisman’s focused work: Strasbourg and the Reform, A Study in the Process of Change (Yale University Press, 1967). She covers the period from 1480-1548. As Jaroslav Pelikan says on the dust jacket, “… she has concentrated on one crucial and fascinating place, Strasbourg, and has probed the nature of the Reformation as it worked itself out there. The result is a surprising amount of new insight. … The book is a joy to read.” Sadly, I suspect it is neglected today. I got an inexpensive copy off Amazon, from a former community college library.

  2. Stephen K says:

    I think I’ll have to rely on your précis, Father, on this one; I don’t have the time to read this book in preference to many others. I have, though, read Duffy’s “The Stripping of the Altars” and Geoffrey Hull’s “The Banished Heart”, and Scarisbrick’s “The Reformation and the English People” just to name a few.

    More pertinently for me was your question whether we could ever regain “our innocence”? We have indeed now eaten of the apple from the tree of knowledge of liturgical good and evil (whatever it is we think good or evil). We have become “conscious” of liturgy – which is to say, a kind of religious nakedness. I think you are quite correct that all the restoration that has been going on is one done in non-innocence, reconstruction, a kind of religious fig-leafing. And, in a sense, one might say that even the restoration of old liturgy is part of a vast cycle of innovation and tampering that was unleashed sometime ago.

    Snakes can never slither back into their old skins, nor can we. Especially we who have lived out our religious lives in generations of analysis and experiment. Like one of those curious pictures which at first glance are an incomprehensible pattern but which show, when pointed out, a hidden picture, like the face of Jesus in the snow, once we see, we can never “not-see”. No, I fear there is no regaining of “liturgical innocence” for you or me or my co-readers.

    Innocence has nothing, by the way to do with the particular form of liturgy; it seems to me to be entirely a product of stability, ignorance, and focus on other things. The stability of the religious environment in homogeneity, the ignorance of childhood in blithe acceptance of whatever is dished up, and the focus on the end goal of religion, being good and staying out of trouble. When there is great diversity, constant change, constant debate and discussion and analysis (such as we are all doing here) and focusing, not on being good ourselves, but railing others for not being better than we think they are, innocence has no oxygen for breathing.

    The religious, or liturgical problem, that you and Mosebach and others talk about, is not something that can be resolved in purely religious terms. Religion does not occur in a vacuum: our global, interconnected, constantly communicating world, fractured as it is by pressures that frustrate and promote individualism, just to identify a few features, mean that it seems impossible to try to re-create the conditions for innocence since any endeavour to form a community cannot escape these new rules for very long. The children of sect communities, evangelical or traditionalist, are only going to be innocent……up to about the age of 3 or 4 when they might just start getting the first inklings of the fact that what their parents and elders are hammering into them is ideology.

    I don’t criticise Mosebach for lamenting the loss of innocence, but it is not the exclusive fault of those ‘horrible’ reformers: reforming zeal usually grows in the soil of smug complacency, corruption and conscious conservative classism, and society has been constantly changing and will continue to do so. We are all in it, in one way or another, lined up outside the headmaster’s office for a caning.

    What does a religious person do, then? Well, since second order thinking lies at the heart of this self-consciousness that is the antithesis of innocence, I am strongly inclined to the view that we really have to drop our concern about the condition of our “church” and focus on loving God and neighbour. The way I see it, the love of which Jesus spoke does not require any particular doctrine or rite. Instead of arguing that one is better than another – the clear sign of liturgical navel-gazing – we should, as far as is practicable, incorporate or attend the ritual we prefer into our lives, on the basis that we prefer it, and that it makes us happier and better. Don’t go to any liturgy or religious service that irritates you, but don’t complain if others don’t agree with you!

    To some degree, the kind of religious calm that I think is both the means and sign of the integrated and healthy spiritual life may be best or only attained through a kind of contemplative setting, which is why I think monastic life remains a quiet force for the kind of deep Catholicity readers of this blog are attracted to. But we are not, mostly, called to be full-time monks or in a situation where that is possible: we are in the world, earning a crust if we can, in relationships and under time pressures. But retreats, and routines that allow prayer and meditation can often be used. I find the psalms, St Augustine and Buddhist writings all help me. Watching cows munch the grass by the side of the road is also good for the soul.

    I’m not an exemplar of this, and am significantly flawed but I know part of me yearns for the contemplative life, or for that life that puts/keeps things in balance. We should perhaps not regret a loss of innocence, but instead aim for wisdom.

    • Thank you for this. It rings true with me. I mentioned trying to put the genie back into the bottle. It can’t be done. We can’t go back into our mothers’ wombs. This very idea was expressed by Nicodemus when Christ told him that he had to be born again. Indeed we need to devise a monastic quality for our lives allowing for our family and professional commitments.

      The key is certainly finding peace, finding a niche with which we can identify and not worrying about the rest. Mosebach has some very original and personal angles on this issue, but we sometimes discern the influence of conservatives. That is inevitable when you look for traditional liturgical forms and rites. That has also been my thorn in the side.

      Mosebach represents one point of view among many.

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