When the Salt loses its Savour…

These are the words that came into my mind as I read A Brief (Very Brief) History of Practical Liturgics by JV. He published an unfinished, or rather in-concluded, posting. I would probably have felt the same had I written it, not because of anything “unworthy”, but because there seems to be no finality in sight.

I was not in communion with Rome at any part of the Benedictine pontificate (2005 to 2013), but I kept my eyes open. It became relevant to me as Archbishop Hepworth followed through with his plan, and as the Ordinariate scheme unravelled and twisted and turned as it was pulled out of its bag. I discovered some of the more inspiring Ratzinger texts in the early 1980’s and saw the man as he is, a German theology professor and supremely intellectual bishop. Many of my own professors and fellow students at Fribourg were Germans or German-speaking Swiss, and I learned a smattering of that extraordinarily difficult language. I feel as a Germanophile and at one with that country’s tradition of music and philosophy, the sturdy spirit of Romanticism that would produce both the highest sublimity up to 1914 and the basest evil in the Nazi era. My ancestors were Germanophiles, and my great-grandfather and grandfather were named after Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm. I thank God that I was not around in 1914 when my country had to go to war against Germany. My point? Josef Ratzinger was (is) not a conservative Catholic but a German Romantic, and beauty is a part of his life as it is for me. That is why he did all he could for the liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church.

I think JV refers to The New Liturgical Movement which I hardly ever read nowadays, ever since the end of the Benedictine papacy and the resignation of Shawn Tribe who was running that blog. I don’t say that it is no good, but it attracts me less.

And then things kind of stopped. A hard, sudden stop. And there doesn’t seem to be much sense of direction.

My answer is cuius rex eius religio. Benedict XVI the German Romantic was replaced by the Peronist Jesuit who was nearly elected in 2005. I have always found Jesuits incredibly boring in conversation. Perhaps they are Classicists, or perhaps have an agenda that non-Jesuits cannot understand. Every time I have been tempted to say something horrible about Francis, he comes up with something that we cannot ignore. One thing is sure with this event of just after my mother’s death. It shut down the euphoria of the ordinariates and liturgical conservatives. When Pope Francis goes the way of all of us, who knows? Cardinal Burke for Pope! I don’t think so. What the Church needs is not conservatism but vision. Benedict XVI had it, but he was unable to translate it into terms that would be understood by ordinary folk and priests brought up on slops since the 1970’s and earlier in some places. He was too much of an introvert. I understand that because I am one myself.

As the seeds of something luminous were rooted out and poisoned, we can only wait for the present situation to wear itself down, go the way of the Church of England and the general slush of western institutional Christianity. Like JV, I fail to see how things can go other than decomposition and decline. Then it’s goodnight to the light of the Gospel, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and all we have known. And then it will be darkness, brutality, torture and slavery as has happened in Irak, Syria and other middle-eastern countries. This isn’t about maniples or cuts of chasubles, but about a dying civilisation.

I am in no illusion. My own love of pre-Tridentine liturgics has not been very contagious. I hardly expected it. My own chapel will not survive the time I am in my house or my lifetime, whichever occurs first. The Church I belong to is real and legitimate, but it is fragile. I have been tired and burned-out for many years, but I seem to receive the grace of resilience and the ability to keep myself reasonably healthy emotionally. I am attached to my duty as a priest. It mostly takes willpower and determination, since that is the nature of work and duty. It is something we have to do whether or not we get pleasure out of it. That is the way I was brought up, like many of my generation and that of my parents. Sometimes we see glimmers of light that help us along and make it all worthwhile.

I have been aware that were I to change the way I celebrate Mass, for example put in an altar facing the people and use the Novus Ordo or some modern Anglican rite, it would make no difference in terms of attracting “clients” to the chapel. Such is not my objective. That brings me to think of the Church in general – trying to be relevant is burned out and finished. We can only be true to ourselves.

New liturgical movement? We are all too divided between our various ecclesial and ideological affiliations. I see nothing to compare with the work of French, German and Flemish monastics from the Romantic era to World War II – and a little later in places. My good friend Dom Alcuin Reid is a monastic in France, and his Prior seems to approve his work to which I have had the honour to contribute in a small way. In the end of the day, it all depends on our own work and our publishing it for others to read.

What of the future? The future of the French Church in the wake of the Revolution and Napoleon’s regime was bleak. It was re-born of bright little lights like Dom Guéranger and St Jean-Marie Vianney in his parish. It was a part of the Romantic movement in a strange kind of way since the silliness of the late eighteenth century was over. Minds were turned to something new and luminous. Perhaps that is our hope today.

* * *

Please see Salt of the Earth in response to my article. It resonates within me as does the comment below of Stephen K.

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4 Responses to When the Salt loses its Savour…

  1. Stephen K says:

    In my view, Father, religion that pivots on affiliation with and dependence on an institution and leaders is bound sooner or later to cause anyone problems as the institution or the leaders (usually but not identically equivalent) change character or direction or the nature of the demands they make of one. It wouldn’t matter whether the RC or the AC or the ACC or the WRO or the ROCOR churches …..or all or any of the rest…..to which one might “belong” changed back or stayed the same – in the journey of a person’s life so many things happen that alter the perceptions and understandings of spiritual matters that no-one can survive being dependent on another’s vision or interpretation. That is why Krishnamurti urged the spiritual seeker not to depend on organised religion or leaders. At some point one has to make up their own mind on this or that matter. It may or may not coincide with this or that leader’s or this or that institution’s latest official position. It is bound though to be different from some other leader or institution. The sooner one accepts the essential idiosyncrasy of the spiritual life, the sooner one can feel a little freer from the burden or oppression of disagreement and difference. There seems no doubt to me at least that a large part of the difficulty one has in dealing with or accepting one’s own divergence from others, one’s native institution, or authority figures, is the enduring character of our earliest formation: our primary brainwashing, or imprinting, is in many cases and in large part indelible, and traces of it remain, probably, embedded in our personality till death. Indeed our personality at any given time is the sum of everything, including the original formative ingredients, we have ever known or learnt or experienced.

    It is hard enough letting go or discarding old photographs or mementos of school-life, old drawings or exercises that seemed so wonderful or special or brilliant at the age of 12 but now seem simply jejune and naïve. Sentimentality is a powerful feeling, and not necessarily a bad one. There should be no compulsion to throw out anything, but there may come a time when an old thing seems less valid or worthy or may work to bind us, prevent us from adventuring, experiencing, trying, growing, and if that moment arrives, then sentimentality or nostalgia act like slave-masters and fear, and many commentators on the Gospel speak in terms of Jesus wanting us to be free from fear – the words from the Benedictus come to mind: The Lord swore to Abraham our Father to grant us, that free from fear………we might serve him in holiness and justice…….”

    The world and churches may seem to be going to hell in a handbasket, but it is to a large extent, I think, an illusion: the world and the churches which are a part of this world have always been what people in power make of them. We are right to fear the prospect of living in Orwell’s Airstrip One, but in fact, for so many people, or for people at different times in their lives, churches have in different aspects become no different from the Ministries of Truth and Love. In the end the call to truth and love by a Personal God is a personal one, and if we make our response completely dependent on the condition of the particular collective organism we happen to have been born into, we are destined for one kind of religious neurosis or another at some point.

    We need to support each other when one or other of us needs help and love and self-esteem. I remember the little meditation of John Henry Newman which my grandmother gave me when I was entering the seminary:

    “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.

    He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.

    Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”

    Peace be to you.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I don’t know that anyone knows what Cornish was like before it died out, yet it seems a good thing to have ‘revived’ it as well as possible. Living traditions change, too, and the attempt to ‘restore’ an earlier stage, and the attempt to ‘realise’ in a way both scholarly and imaginative something that has died out have much in common. A tradition cannot demonstrate its vitality as decisively as a hundreds-of-years old seed which grows when planted, but, ‘revived’, it can have a persuasively authentic life. So, I take it, Sarum now – and, so, potentially again, should it die out once more.

  3. ed pacht says:

    To my mind, about the worst thing one can say about a religion is that it is ‘contemporary’. The one thing one can say about the present, any present, is that by the time it is identified it is gone. What a religion (and especially Catholic Christianity) must do is to take a firm hold on the past while looking to the future and carry ancient values forward, through the present moment, to the time that has not yet come. The Church, then, needs to show very clearly that it is not bound to the present age but carries the message that can transform the age to come. Thus the Church will always be out of place in the world it inhabits, both old-fashioned and reaching ahead toward a dream. If it become too identified with its own age, it dies of boredom and obsolescence. If it focusses only in the past, it rots away. If it hankers for a future without tradition it quickly becomes something entirely different and loses its reason for existence.

    • I begin to see an analogy of the spirit / soul and the body. I see many talks given by scientists in which they tell us that they have been confronted with evidence against the physical brain being the cause of consciousness. The brain would then be what is called an interface in computing and technology. The brain becomes the means by which the spirit / soul relates to the world that we know (but not to other worlds). The Church is decreasingly incarnate in the world, and the world rejects what the Church represents. The more this is so, the less the Church relates to our existence. This is why conservative Christians would like to remake the world into a theocracy, a “social kingship” of Christ so that Christ can remain incarnate and continue to redeem. The downside of that approach is that a theocracy would betray the very principles of freedom Christ seemed to uphold in his teachings.

      It is not through politics that the world can become that “man-to-machine interface”, but through art, beauty and imagination. These things are above past, present and future. These are exactly the target of Muslim fanatics as they were of the Puritans in the 17th century. I conceive of the possibility that the Incarnation of Christ might cease and with it the Redemption. The world would return to the way things were under the Old Testament – certainly jihadist Islam would like it so. Terra Cremata.

      We can’t do much for the grand plan of things, but we can at least begin to understand and rediscover what makes us human and sensitive to beauty.

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