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The book that had to be written, and has to be read. - America A book certain to elicit both furious denunciation and standing ovations. The Christian Century


Polishing the Chalice

"Father O'Fogarty is such a fine man, and he says such a beautiful Mass."

Before the vernacular Mass, Catholics would come across that phrase "beautiful Mass" now and then (I remember overhearing it on the steps of the church, as the women were putting on their gloves after Mass). It was a tribute to that special priest, with the odor of sanctity all over him, who would go through the Latin Mass reverently and, yes, beautifully. But there was also another side of the coin, an unspoken continuation of that observation about beauty: "Father So-and-so, on the other hand, says an absolutely ugly Mass."

Younger readers might have to be informed that in the days of the Latin Mass there were many Father So-and-sos who did their best to make sure that nobody would ever accuse them of saying a "beautiful Mass." I can still see Father M dashing through the Latin Mass with all the solemnity of a tobacco auctioneer in a hurry; he was part of that breed of priest who included liturgical speed and a clickety-clack recitation of Latin among the cardinal virtues. Father K seemed to be operated by springs and gears when he celebrated Mass; all of his abrupt gestures reminded me of a wind-up toy. The late Cardinal Cushing of Boston confounded many non-Catholics when they watched him honk his way through a ceremony; this fine, saintly man always sounded like someone selling peanuts and popcorn at a baseball game.

When I was a young boy, I used to think that there was an important part of the Latin Mass — right before the consecration — where the celebrant polished the chalice. Father A used to swing his right arm vigorously. Father B used to push back his sleeves just before he attacked the job with swift fury. When I began to use a missal, I discovered that the priest was not putting a shine on anything; those rapid gestures were supposed to be ritual signs of the cross made over the bread and wine. A beautiful act of reverence — something resembling a gesture from a ballet — had been de-ritualized, transformed into movements more appropriate for a garage mechanic at work.

Complaints about de-ritualization were probably discussed at the staff meetings of the apostles; certainly at the time of the Reformation the situation was catastrophic. (Priests had to be reminded not to spit on the floor when they were saying Mass.) Nevertheless, de-ritualization, in the form of a sincere and calculated disrespect for the beauty of the liturgical forms, somehow became an accepted part of Catholic liturgy: not the exception, but the rule. Indeed, some Catholics looked for it; they expected it in their parishes.


Wasted Motions

Ritual has been around since the first days of homo sapiens and is a universal phenomenon found in the activities of African witch doctors, Freemasons, Benedictine monks, Southern Baptists, and college fraternities. Ritual is everywhere and in every culture. All of it is perfectly "useless" and yet an essential part of our humanity. When Jesus cured a blind man (John 9: 1-7), he rubbed mud on the man's eyes and told him to wash in the pool at Siloe. These wasted motions — the mud, the staggering walk to the pool, the washing — were all part of a ritual which turned this occasion into something colossal, something which allowed the onlookers to become "participants," just by watching.

But what is ritual, this thing which is "useless" and yet so important? Language? Communication? A way of acting out subconscious anxieties and society's need for ritual murder? A meaningless custom which gives life a bit of color? No one has the answer. We must content ourselves with mere insights, and some of the most profound ones come from the great historian and scholar Jan Huizinga. Ritual, he tells us, is a game — a sublime game, to be sure, but a game nevertheless. This somewhat disturbing idea (ritual put in the same category with tennis and Scrabble) is at the center of his book Homo Ludens (English edition, 1950).1

Ritual "is seriousness at its highest and holiest," and yet a form of play; play is fun; true ritual is supremely serious, solemn, earnest fun.

Huizinga begins his classic study by analyzing the idea of play — the seemingly meaningless play of young children and animals; the love of "fun" in society; play that is serious; and civilization itself, which is a highly elaborate game. Play, he observes, shows up in the nursery, in clubs, in courtship rituals, in the theater, and in everyday social contacts. The normal development of a child, in fact, is helped along by this playing of games; the child deprived of play (in the broadest sense of that word) will not be able to function in society, which is built on a whole series of interlocking games. Huizinga sums up the formal characteristics of play by describing it as a "free activity" which "promotes the formation of social groupings" and yet stands "quite consciously out-side 'ordinary' life as being 'not serious,' but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly." He constantly stresses his respect for this cultural activity called play and he points out that the tendency to organize elaborate social "games" is one of the things that makes man-the-animal man-the-human-being.

The author's awe of the human ability to "play games" can be seen in his treatment of ritual in advanced cultures or civilizations. In these societies, play goes beyond the wordless play of children or sports; it begins to represent something and assumes a poetic form; it becomes the supreme teacher of inexpressible truths. "In the form and function of play, itself an independent entity which is senseless and irrational, man's consciousness that he is embedded in a sacred order of things finds its first, highest, and holiest expression. When, in the case of higher civilizations, play begins to represent something, gradually "the significance of a sacred act permeates the playing. Ritual grafts itself upon it; but the primary thing is and remains play." Ritual "is seriousness at its highest and holiest," and yet a form of play; play is fun; true ritual is supremely serious, solemn, earnest fun. In religious ritual the beautiful and the sacred can come together. Ritual (the medium) can become the divine game and from it people can become conscious of their role in the divine order of things (the message).

Huizinga candidly admits that his analysis of ritual does not yield some absolute truth or scientific fact. This whole idea of ritual as a form of serious play, he concedes, hovers "over spheres of thought barely accessible either to psychology or to philosophy." When we study this enigma of ritual, "we plumb the depths of our consciousness."

An archbishop going through the elaborate motions of a Solemn High Mass during the Middle Ages knew instinctively all about ritual as a "game" or "fun." So did the poorest peasant standing in the nave of the cathedral during that same ceremony. You will find the same "game" in a simple Baptist church or a mosque. But by the 1940s and perhaps even earlier, most American Catholic churches were beginning to lose any sense of their ritual as something which was "fun." Ritual was becoming a chore, a requirement, a respected cultural habit, a decorated iron box which merely encased something more important. The sense of ritual as the sublime game which involved the efforts of the whole community survived only in relatively few places where the High Mass and its music were taken seriously: monasteries, nunneries, and those rare parishes that had discovered this new phenomenon called Liturgical Renewal.


Farewell, High Church

To see just how far American Catholicism has moved away from its heritage of liturgy as "fun" (or how far it has gone with de-ritualization), all we have to do is perform a little experiment. Ask someone to lie down on a couch, relax, and describe the things that come into his or her head when you mention a certain expression. Perhaps start with "trees" and "yellow." Then, after a few minutes of this free association, try this expression: "High Church."

A few people will probably get it right, historically speaking. They will think aloud and describe how "high" refers to a "high voice," that is, a singing voice; in the days before microphones, the "high" service made it possible for the congregation to be aware of the sacred words; the chanting in the "high" voice also represented Christian "enthusiasm," this Pentecostal zeal barely under control. ("Low" referred to the spoken voice.) Most people, however, regardless of their religious background, will hear the term " High Church" and start talking about those Anglican and Episcopalian establishments that are "higher than the Himalayas." Only a few, very few, will associate the expression "High Church" with the American branch of Roman Catholicism, which (at least since the 1940s and in the parishes) sometimes has given the impression of being militantly anti-High Church.

The odd thing about "High Church Christianity" is its historic association with the needs of workers and peasants. Protestant observers, atheists, and implacable enemies of the church have sometimes conceded that Roman Catholicism's historic rituals, "when really done up right," have a way of bringing a sense of relief and assurance to a troubled humanity, especially the "lower classes." In the nineteenth century, when the leaders of the Oxford Movement tried to restore pre-Reformation practices in the Church of England, one justification for the chanting, the incense, and the gorgeous choral music was that such things would convey a feeling of hope to the workers oppressed in dark satanic mills and mines. The popish ceremonies and music were supposed to help the common people feel like important participants in an important act.

"High Church Christianity" can easily serve the purpose of bolstering monarchical pretensions. It can degenerate into entertainment for the rich and eccentric. And, let us be frank, it can, at times, become a tad too precious for words. But in its origins, the High Mass — Latin or the vernacular, with cherubic choral music or austere chanting, with imperial ceremonial or humble simplicity — was supposed to be liberation theology in action and slightly subversive. Far from being one form of "opium for the people," the old High Mass was meant to be a kind of medicine that invigorated people, reminded them of their uniqueness, and sent them refreshed but determined into a hostile world.

Modern Catholics have sometimes forgotten that, as late as 1964, the "fun" High Mass with good choral music and maybe some congregational singing was considered "liberal" and "progressive." "Liberal Catholics" loved chant and lamented that they never heard it done properly or done at all in their parishes. "Liberal Catholics" were somewhat High Church in their preferences. A great example of this "High Church liberalism" was Father George Barry Ford, the controversial pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan.2 (This was the church which, the reader will remember, had so offended my acquaintance Conrad.) Father Ford constantly infuriated his superiors down in the "powerhouse" behind St. Patrick's (then the location of the diocesan chancery) because of his liberal notions on ecumenism and his open exchange of ideas with the atheists at nearby Columbia University. It was considered only natural that someone with his dangerously liberal leanings would be in charge of the only parish for miles around which treated the church's liturgical heritage as if it were "serious fun." The bedrock, faith-of-our-fathers conservatives in the archdiocese did not know what was worse about this radical Father Ford: his too-friendly relations with Protestant ministers, university professors, and other dangerous types or his church, where the choir energetically sang Masses by Mozart and where the congregation sang. . . Gregorian chant!

The future, they predicted, belonged to the High Mass — not necessarily the Baroque spectacle but a liturgy so intense that emotions could only "come out" in song.

For decades before Vatican II, most of the promoters of renewal through liturgy had always looked to the sung Mass (the old-fashioned High Church ceremony) as the most thorough liturgical expression of faith in action. The future, they predicted, belonged to the High Mass — not necessarily the Baroque spectacle but a liturgy so intense that emotions could only "come out" in song. For me, the predicted future arrived in 1961. In June of that year I attended a Baccalaureate Mass at a Jesuit preparatory school. For this event, the graduating seniors did something new and a little shocking: they, not the choir, sang the various choral parts of the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei), as well as all the responses. The chandeliers rattled from the glorious noise of their singing. The language was ancient Latin and the music Gregorian chant, but for everyone there this High Mass with the singing congregation was the liturgical equivalent of the latest nuclear technology. "This is the future," I said to myself, "and it works." Latin and English will share space in this future, but more liturgies will be High Masses, sung by congregation and choir from beginning to end, just like this one.

The future, as often happens, decided to take some unexpected turns before arriving. A few years later, the music for the Baccalaureate Mass at this same school was something in the folk manner and striking only for its juvenile banality. Most of the graduates did not sing. The future now belonged to the Johnnys-come-lately who had hitherto shown no interest at all in Liturgical Renewal; they demanded that the High Mass, even in English, would have to go.

In the early 1960s only a handful of Catholic parishes in any diocese had weekly High Masses which seemed to sum up and reaffirm the spiritual aspirations of the parish. Today, only a few parishes — a tiny minority — attempt anything that even vaguely resembles a sung liturgy. The typical parish liturgy is the old spoken Mass (the Low Mass, but in English) with a few songs pasted on, in order to keep the congregation occupied. Things have reached the point where that typical parish no longer fits into that category of "Catholic" when it comes to worship. To put it another way, the majority of Roman Catholic parishes in the United States do not share with the Eastern Rites, the Orthodox churches, and Anglicanism a common understanding of the sung ritual as a symbol of a burning faith. Most Roman Catholic parishes are no longer part of the "Catholic" liturgical family; maybe they left this family long before the Second Vatican Council.


The Trauma

All I did was just casually mention to a very clearheaded priest that, since the introduction of the vernacular Mass, I have never heard a priest begin Sunday Mass in a parish by singing "In the name of the Father . . . " and never heard the congregation respond to him, in song, "Amen." The sung liturgy, the goal of Liturgical Renewal for so long, seems to be a nearly extinct species, I said. The priest interrupted me angrily. "But we can't turn back the clock!" he snapped.

This same man celebrates Mass in vestments designed in ancient Roman times and he puts candles on the altar, more than a century after the invention of the light bulb. He has no difficulty about using the "new" Mass, the Rite of Paul VI, which is based on archeological research, antiquarian restoration, and nostalgia for a long-lost, utopian Christian worship of the fourth century, A.D. When he shudders about "turning back the clock," perhaps he really does not mean the Middle Ages or Renaissance but a more recent time that is still very fresh and very unpleasant in his memory. Two anecdotes illustrate what I mean:

Sometime back in the 1940s, when I was a little boy, I can remember sitting in church one Sunday and waiting for Mass to begin. I noticed that, up in the front of this stone basilica, there was a slight commotion when the pastor, dressed in a suit, appeared at the altar railing and looked as if he had something important to say. "I have an announcement," he shouted. (This was the era before the multiple microphones in the sanctuary.) "The next Mass will not be a Low Mass. Because of a schedule change, it will be a High Mass. The next Low Mass will be at 12:15."

All the members of my family looked at one another in terror. You would have thought the pastor had just announced that there was a bomb hidden somewhere in the church. My family did not need any discussion. We all got up at once and headed for the exits, as did three-fourths of the congregation.

All the members of my family looked at one another in terror. You would have thought the pastor had just announced that there was a bomb hidden somewhere in the church. My family did not need any discussion. We all got up at once and headed for the exits, as did three-fourths of the congregation. I was young at the time but I can remember the relief we all felt when we stepped into the sunshine. It was like escaping from a dangerous coal mine, just before the roof collapsed. Even at that tender age I knew that in our relatively prosperous parish (which claimed to have "one of the finest adult choirs in the archdiocese") only the deaf willingly attended High Mass.

My second anecdote takes us to London in the 1970s. A middle-aged couple I know was visiting this city and on the recommendation of a hotel clerk they decided to attend Mass in the Roman Catholic cathedral. After waiting quietly for a few minutes in that great church, the couple sensed that things were about to begin. Lights went on. Majestic music from the organ thundered through the cathedral. Then, all of a sudden, they realized what was happening. "Let's get out of here!" the gentleman whispered loudly. "It's the High Mass!" In panic, they tried to escape by the center aisle, but that exit was blocked by the procession earnestly marching up the middle of the church. They could not escape via the side aisle either, because that route was blocked, too. (I forget what the obstruction was.) They were doomed, these two devout Catholics thought. They would have to endure the torture of the High Mass, Purgatory on earth.

A few minutes after they had resigned themselves to their fate, it gradually began to dawn on them that this event would not be so horrible, after all. Indeed, for the first time in their lives these pious Catholics encountered a sung Mass which was "fun" and which seemed to draw them into the ritual. They loved every minute of it.

As these two anecdotes nicely illustrate, many older Catholics, those who can remember the days of the Latin High Mass, were burned and embittered by painful experiences. Some of them recall abominations perpetrated by yodeling sadists up in the choir loft. Some recall the lovely voices of the girls in the sixth grade who sweetly chirped their way through the Missa de Angelis every Sunday — but how much sweet chirping can one take? Besides, the majority of American Catholics never had the experience of playing the game (i.e., singing part of the service or just feeling they were immersing themselves in the beautiful ceremony); for them, the High Mass remained a remote and fragile object d'art. This is why any mention of "sung liturgy" still makes many Catholics in this country break out into a cold sweat. If you describe the virtues of the sung or Solemn Mass to them, they get that what-planet-does-he-come-from expression on their faces. If you point out that the "new" Mass actually moves Roman Catholicism closer to the ideal of the "continuously sung" liturgies used in the Eastern churches, the reaction will be, "But we can't turn back the clock."

The "High" liturgy in any language was once the symbol of a faith so intense and filled with joy that it had to burst forth in almost continuous song. Today, among many Roman Catholics, it has become a symbol of a distorted eucharistic theology which focused too much on adoration and mystification. Therefore (so the conclusion goes), the genuine sung liturgy, as well as any "artistic" music which could go with it, is discredited.

While working as a substitute organist for various denominations, I began to realize that the little, unpretentious Lutheran parish and the lowest of the Low Church Episcopalian establishments are often much more liturgically High Church than the Roman Catholic parish down the block. I have even attended Methodist and Presbyterian services that came closer to the ideal of an old-fashioned High Mass than anything I lave ever encountered in most Roman Catholic parishes since the 1960s. My point is not a matter of incense density or beautiful choral singing. I am only saying that at perhaps a dour Calvinist service you sense that the singing (congregational and choral) is "fun" and an integral part of the whole "game." In the American Catholic tradition, the people in the sanctuary play the "game" called ritual; the singing congregation and the choir play a completely separate "game" called musical participation.

One fact will make this clear. According to the ancient traditions of Christian worship, the Eucharist should include a Penitential Rite near the beginning of the ceremony. In the Orthodox churches the walls vibrate from the resounding "Lord, have mercy," over and over again. In a Rococo church somewhere in rural Austria, a Mozart Kyrie makes perfect sense. In a Lutheran or Episcopalian church the congregation might sing a setting of the "Lord, have mercy" from the hymnbook. In the American Catholic parish, however, the sung Penitential Rite, in any form, is a rarity today. Surely, one would think that it would be sung at least once on Sunday, but this is not the norm. In the typical parish there might be end-to-end music provided by cantors, singers, guitarists, and congregation, but this declaration of sinfulness remains spoken and rarely lasts more than twenty seconds.

The defect here is not the absence of pretty music or singing to keep the congregation active. What is missing is ritual. Someone makes the decision that the Penitential Rite, like all ritual, embarrasses us or wastes time. And yet, at the same time, a great deal of attention might be given over to the sung Communion Meditation, something added on to the ritual. The game called ritual becomes smaller and smaller; the game called music takes on an independent life of its own and compensates for the vacant spaces left by a retreating ritual.


Objectivity and "Me"

"Roman Catholic ritual just isn't what it used to be. . . . The Mass has lost its sense of mystery and transcendence. . . . We have taken too much of the sacred out of liturgy. . . . Our sense of reverence is gone."

These grumblings confuse matters. If "something" went down the drain when Roman Catholicism switched from Latin to the vernacular, it was not necessarily a feeling of mystery or transcendence or the sacred but the sense of ritual as communal action. In real ritual — ritual in the universal sense, ritual recognized as such throughout history — individuals cease to act as individuals and, instead, surrender themselves to a collective consciousness, an idea, something bigger than one person. The "I" ceases and becomes "we." The participants give up at least a part of their individuality and become anonymous performers of the rite.

What we call "mystery" and the "sense of the sacred" may really be what we experience when we "hide" our individual personalities and try to become part of something that is larger than any individual. What we call de-ritualization is simply a matter of individuals refusing to "hide" in the collective action.

Think for a moment of this worldwide practice of making the leaders at the center of a ritual put on unusual costumes and perhaps use a special, noncolloquial form of speech. This sort of thing is done in an effort to "hide" these ritual leaders (and their "I"). Once they have become safely "hidden," they can act as the representatives of everybody ("we"). What we call an act of reverence is, more often than we realize, an act of conformity — someone denying his or her independence for a moment and surrendering to tribal custom. What we call "mystery" and the "sense of the sacred" may really be what we experience when we "hide" our individual personalities and try to become part of something that is larger than any individual. What we call de-ritualization is simply a matter of individuals refusing to "hide" in the collective action.

Liturgists used to give a name to this "hiding," this denial of the self: objectivity. The Mass, they reminded us, was a "common prayer" for everyone who walked in the door, not a special meeting of the club or a show. Objective was the natural character of a liturgy that tried to be a public undertaking.

Objectivity is a term that wins few friends today. It suggests the image of a bloodless, fastidious Anglican prelate intoning prayers at evensong. It might even suggest something sinister, such as prisoners lugging stone from a quarry. Modern Catholics, we are told, want liturgy that is alive and presided over by clergymen who do everything with conviction, warmth, sincerity, and vigor. Objectivity, confused with aloofness, is dismissed as a leftover style of behavior from the days of monarchy and etiquette books — something fine for coronations and diplomatic protocol, but not for Mr. and Mrs. U.S.A.

A good example of objectivity in place or removed for purposes of de-ritualization can be found in the manner of proclaiming scripture aloud at a liturgy. According to the traditional method, someone chants the words from the Bible or reads them in a neutral tone of voice; that is, objectively. The words themselves might tell of something joyful or horrible or ecstatic, but the voice of the reader remains steady and objective. According to the latest de-ritualizing technique, the reader dispenses with all efforts to remain objective and, instead, colors the story with little, personal touches: dramatic pauses, emphasis on certain words, quotations spoken "in character," and so on. The reading takes on the style of one of those novels or children's stories on tape; everything is all very vivid, to be sure, but, without the objectivity, those words of scripture disappear behind the display of personality. We do not hear the words of Genesis or Matthew or Paul; we hear (and watch) Bob or Suzy or Joe give us a personal interpretation of scripture. Bob, Suzy, and Joe do not want to be participants in a collective action; they want us to remain aware that, above all, even above and beyond the words of scripture, they are Bob, Suzy, and Joe.

The backwoods, hillbilly folksinger knows all about objectivity. When he sings the tragic ballad Barbara Allen, he maintains the same tone of voice and stays detached from the story. He is, after all, acting as the voice of the whole tribe; he represents the collective memory. As soon as he begins to color the ballad with his personal feelings (i.e., as soon as he ceases to be objective), he becomes Jethro or Zeek or Clyde.

"Liturgy," we should keep in mind, comes from two Greek words: laos, meaning people or multitude, and ergon, meaning work. When Christianity emerged from persecution, the Eucharist and other ceremonies of the church became public projects, a work of the populace. The theology behind "liturgy" may have assigned different roles to different individuals, but the etymology of the word itself implies everybody, the public.

Part of the "sacred atmosphere" and the "mystery" once so strongly associated with liturgy used to come from the congregation knowing that clergy in the front were "cut down to size" and even made to look somewhat pitiful by the ritualistic burdens placed upon them; the laity sensed that, although bishops and priests were members of a special class, the ceremony and the confining language had the odd effect of harnessing the clergy in a public endeavor and making them public servants — servants who gave up their identity, their personality, and their personal preferences during a liturgy, in order to become "we" and serve the public good. With personalities minimized (and all the possible hostility or uneasiness that comes with trying to adjust to another personality), the laity could join the clergy in this objective, collective action, which took everyone to matters beyond the commonplace: perhaps to the mysterious, the transcendent, and the sacred.


A Poem Should . . .

All of this talk about the mysterious, the transcendent, and the sacred — the natural results of a communal action, rather than a personal show — can give the impression that this whole discussion of ritual leads only to the realms of serene philosophical speculation, somewhere above the ozone layer. Perhaps for this reason we should come down to earth, as it were, to a source of wisdom noted for his impatience with philosophical flights of fancy; I refer, of course, to H. L. Mencken, journalist, curmudgeon, iconoclast, and shrewd observer of the human condition.

Mencken's contribution to this issue is the brief essay "Holy Writ," from the journal Smart Set (October, 1923). It remains one of the most perceptive studies of liturgy ever written.3

Mencken begins by declaring that the person who translated the Bible into clear, excellent French prose "is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France." But the translators who put the Bible "into archaic, sonorous and often unintelligible English" (i.e., the King James Version) "gave Christianity a new lease of [sic] life wherever English is spoken." This translation "was so beautiful that the great majority of men, in the face of it, could not fix their minds upon the ideas in it. To this day it has enchanted the English-speaking peoples so effectively that, in the main, they remain Christians, at least sentimentally."

Perhaps as a way of infuriating his fundamentalist adversaries, Mencken proceeded from this discussion of the Bible to Roman Catholicism, which he found himself admiring, "despite its frequent astounding imbecilities." Unlike the Protestant sects which were forever trying to explain scripture, "the Latin Church," Mencken observed, "has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism but a poem" and leaves theological argumentation to a few harmless theologians who stay far away from the faithful.

Rome, indeed, has not only preserved the original poetry in Christianity; it has also made capital additions to that poetry — for example, the poetry of the saints, of Mary, and of the liturgy itself. A solemn high mass must be a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big-top. . . . In the face of such overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone.

Mencken saw clearly that the poetry of religion — the special language of scripture, liturgy, and all the rest — provided a mask which hid the weaknesses of individual clergymen. "A bishop in his robes, playing his part in the solemn ceremonial of the mass, is a dignified spectacle, even though he may sweat freely." Without the masks, Mencken observes, we find ourselves confronted not by poetry but by personality: "the same bishop, bawling against Darwin half an hour later, is seen to be simply an elderly Irishman with a bald head, the son of a respectable saloon-keeper in South Bend, Ind."

Please note that behind the know-it-all cynicism, behind the you-can't-fool-me posturing, there is respect for the idea of the exalted Roman liturgy, which in Mencken's day was done in Latin. Mencken recognized that the Latin Mass and the King James Bible derived their strength from their unashamed, frank use of "poetry." This almost offhand observation is the insight of insights: the "human side" of liturgy is indeed poetry, maybe epic poetry.

Poetry is not simply a matter of rhyme, meter, and form, although these can be important in a poem. Rather, poetry begins with the poet transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, something which goes beyond the practical and the necessary. In some way those who write poetry and those who read it "leave the everyday world" and enter another form of thinking. The odd language of poetry — perhaps heightened by rhyme and meter — helps to carry the listener to this different mental state.

There is poetry of the poems but there are also social gestures which can only be described as poetic. In courtship rituals, a gentleman might give flowers to his beloved as a token of his love; in church, Catholics genuflect before the tabernacle as a sign of their faith. Both gestures are completely unnecessary (perhaps some would call them artificial) but, like poetry, they are attempts to transcend the ordinary. The male suitor could have sent his beloved a note to the effect that certain biological and socially conditioned responses had produced in him a feeling that might be classified as affection; the Catholic could have quite simply stated that he believed in a divine presence and walked past the tabernacle. But in both cases the emotions spill over; ordinary language and actions cannot contain the feelings; there is a need to break the restraints of the practical, to lose control, and the result is an irrational, out-of-the-ordinary poetic gesture.

Mencken was right. Liturgy is a theological and sacramental matter expressed not as a syllogism but as a poem. What "carries us away" when hearing a poem is not so much the meaning (and that might not occur to us on the first hearing) but the mysterious power of the poetic tone of voice. What draws us into the collective spirit of liturgy is not a logical and scientific presentation of its meaning but the "poetry" — which is the way of saying that the meaning of it all will constantly elude our mere human understanding. This does not imply that theological matters must remain untouchable and forever shrouded in mystery. The only point being made here is that human elaborations of sacramental acts are poetry, and poetry must be treated as poetry, not everyday prose. Perhaps it might help to read Archibald MacLeish's poem Ars Poetica and substitute the word "liturgy" where he uses "poem." The last lines of the poem provide an especially valuable insight:

A poem should not mean
But be.

You can explain what a genuflection tries to convey, you can explain its history, but you cannot explain a genuflection, a poetic gesture. Just let it be.

The left brain, scientists tell us, controls the right side of the body and specializes in the logical aspects of life: mathematics, language, analysis, and so on. A few inches away, the right brain controls the left side of the body; an incurable romantic, it deals with the poetry in life: art, music, love, nonverbal insights, and so on. Ritual makes a very direct appeal to the right brain, that territory of our mind that deals with the irrational, the emotional, and the poetic. During the more austere moments of the old Latin Mass, the right brain sometimes had to work overtime. During the more de-ritualized examples of the vernacular Mass, the right brain — that miniature Homer or Shakespeare in all of us — is smothered to death.

I cannot say when it happened, but sometime in the recent past (perhaps the 1940s) many Roman Catholic clergymen became uncomfortable about the poetic aspects of ritual. In a very real sense, they initiated a quiet revolution at the parish level. Liturgical "poetry" (like the High Mass), if not eliminated, was gradually translated into "prose." The Second Vatican Council and the changes that followed it only brought out into the open this revolt of the left brain against the embarrassing poet in the right brain.4

De-ritualization means taking a poem and forcing it into a syllogism. A poem will flow easily to song. A syllogism, on the other hand, repels song. Nobody wants to sing a syllogism.



  1. Jan (Johann, Johan) Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964); quotations from pp. 17, 18, 19.
  2. For more information about this colorful character, see his autobiography, A Degree of Difference (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969). Well before Vatican II even met, the congregation at Corpus Christi was energetically singing at the High Mass every Sunday — supposedly the only parish in the archdiocese where such things happened.
  3. This essay is reprinted in H.L. Mencken's Smart Set Criticism, ed. William H. Nolte (Washington: Regnery/Gateway, 1987), pp. 88-94. Part of this essay is reprinted in The Vintage Mencken, ed. Alistair Cooke (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1955), pp. 137-40.
  4. During televised Masses it is now de rigueur to have a commentator whispering explanations from beginning to end, even when the Mass is in the vernacular. Discreet explanations are, to be sure, always welcome, especially for something like a Latin Mass from the Vatican (with subtitles for translations), but most of these commentaries tend to be nervous left-brain apologies for the right-brain poetry of the Mass.




Thomas Day. "De-ritualization." excerpt from Chapter 4 of Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1990): 36-49.

Reprinted with permission of Thomas Day and The Crossroad Publishing Company.


The Author

Thomas Day is chairman of the music department at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI. He is a Catholic Press Award winner who considers himself neither liberal nor conservative but has a habit of pleasing and offending both factions at once. Thomas Day is the author of Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste and Where Have You Gone, Michaelangelo: The Loss of Soul in Catholic Culture.

Copyright © 1990 Thomas Day
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