Dr Sheridan Gilley explains his love for the old Latin Mass Dmuff Longenecker has written an account of his disappointment on his first encounter with the old Latin Mass (May 19). But his disappointment is instructive, as it may be felt by other intelligent Catholics encountering the ancient liturgy for the first time, and goes to the heart of the character of the old rite itself.
First, Dwight complains that the old rite lacks the "simple openness" of the Novus Ord°. Indeed one could go further, and say that it might seem largely incomprehensible at first to someone much worse informed than he is, even someone who can understand Latin and has a bilingual missal.
This, however, is arguably a point in favour of the old rite, that it is counter-cultural to our secular society. It lacks the instant accessibility of most modem culture, just as its permanence contradicts the instant disposability of most modem culture, and stands some distance from it, the alien language and gestures requiring an effort of comprehension by its hearers.
Even this, however, does not go far enough, for its very archaism points to a mystery beyond our understanding. A sacred • language was preserved by the Jews in their worship in ancient Hebrew at the time of Our Lord, as by many Jews today, by Anglicans until recently in an ancient Bible and Prayer Book, by Muslims in Arabic in the Koran, and by many other religions. Only modem Christianity sees fit to dispense with such a special sacred language altogether.
This special language renders worship unlike ordinary speech, as poetry and drama are unlike ordinary speech, in a dialogue with a God who is ineffable and incomprehensible. In worship we adore a transcendence beyond our reach. The Eucharist is both a heavenly meal and a heavenly sacrifice. And as the philosopher Catherine Pickstock has said, the old Mass constantly turns to God, the infinitely holy, only to withdraw from Him in fresh acts of confession and purification, in a self-offering and self-forgetting in which He is all.
As with anything difficult but worthwhile, the believer really needs to grow into the old liturgy, in a submersion of the self in the Body of Christ, and that process lies beyond our understanding. Our Lord sometimes disguised from the multitude the point of his preaching by means of parables. So, too, the ancient Church withheld a knowledge of the supreme Christian mysteries from its catechumens until they were spiritually enlightened enough to receive the "awful and terrible" rite of Baptism. It was by such paradoxical means of revelation by partial concealment that the Church converted the Roman world.
The catechumens were, however, present for the read
ing of the Scriptures, and the general custom in English Catholic churches before the Second Vatican Council was to read them aloud in English as well as Latin.
Dwight complains that the Epistle and Gospel were chanted sotto voce in Latin at his Mass. The oddity is that such a reading in an ancient language more nearly approached to the custom of Our Lord Himself. The Word of God still presents a meaning needing spiritual penetration, not one lying accessible on the surface of the text, and an ancient language preserves that double sense of meaning and mystery.
DWIGHT ALSO found difficult the "inaudibility" of much of the Mass which he attended, but if the Latin is so wonderful, he asks, why should so much of it be silent?
This makes silence a negative matter, when the Jews of the time of Our Lord regarded silence as the very highest form of worship that the angels offer to God. In the old days of the old rite, a mighty, holy hush would come over even a vast assembly during the silence of the canon, broken only by the tinkling of bells.
This was vastly impressive of itself, and actually made converts. If there is one thing that I personally dislike about the modern rite it is the constant clatter. We cannot do without words in worship, but as the mystics tell us, we are nearest to God when our worship transcends even words.
One of the loveliest introits of the old rite, at Christmastide, from the Book of Wisdom, is employed to describe the Incarnation itself as occurring in the sacred silence of the holy night: "While all things were in the middle silence and the night was in the midst of her course, Thy almighty word, 0 Lord, came down from heaven from thy royal throne."
Whether the Latin of the old rite is wonderful, others must judge. Sometimes, for me, so dear and so familiar, it springs to life like ancient wood in spring. Much of it, of course, is present in the Novas Ordo in Latin, alas too seldom available.
My two favourite parts of the old liturgy are both sequences, for Easter and Corpus Christi, and there as elsewhere, the old rite is tied up with a whole glory of music. from plainchant to Palestrina. The words cannot be judged on their own, whenever the splendour of the combination of words and music lies beyond words.
And yet more splendid can be silence, though the mystery of our faith transcends sight as well as sound. There are (if I may risk a pun) two ways of looking at the position of the priest at the altar in the old rite: that he is turning his back to the people or turning the same way as the people. Many scholars believe, like Klaus Gamber, that the latter position is the primitive mode of Christian worship, but this does mean, as Dwight says, that many of the priest's gestures are invisible.
Whilst some of these gestures by the priest were (and are) important to congregations, like the elevation of the host and chalice and the final blessing, what mattered, and matters, more to many of the laity is their own performance of such significant gestures as the bowing of the head at the Holy Name.
The loss of some of these gestures in the modern rite was deeply resented, with the reduction of the reverence that they manifested on the part of the worshipper.
Likc Dwight, I have my liturgical disappointments. I was recently present at a modem Mass where the celebrant concluded the service with a crude joke about the Holy Name. This kind of thing was unthinkable in the old rite. With the strictness of its rubrics and the eastward position of the priest, the Latin Mass insisted upon an adequately professional performance but gave no encouragement to the celebrant to act as an amateur entertainer. It is a pity that Dwight found the personality of the priest so unobtrusive in the old rite Mass that he attended.
Truly, the priest who effaces and humbles himself is exalted, in the service of Him who lies beyond our words and sight in unapproachable light.