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.