Persecution and the traditional Latin Mass

Gnosticism was a family of heresies in the very early Church characterized, among other things, by a belief in the evilness of the material world, a consequent radical asceticism that far exceeded the boundaries of reasonable piety, and a dualistic theological system that pit an evil creating Old Testament demiurge against the loving New Testament God. In these respects, it was at best demented and at worst outright evil.

Gnosticism also had some distinctively mystery-cultic tendencies, with grueling and elaborate initiation rituals and a set of esoteric doctrines that were transmitted only gradually to people passing through the stages of initiation. People like to imagine that the mystery-cultic tendencies of Gnosticism were somehow intrinsic to it, so that if you take away the mystery-cult behavior, you are no longer dealing with Gnosticism. Hence we tend to bind up Gnosticism’s esoteric practices with our evaluation of the evil and demented doctrines they were intended to conceal, and we judge the practices as evil and demented, too; from there it’s a short leap to judging all such practices evil and demented, which nearly everyone today does. But this is, to be blunt, nonsense: all new religions are mystery cults, and early orthodox Christianity was no exception. The expulsion of the unbaptized from the Mass of the Faithful was so religiously observed that pagan Romans suspected the Christians of secretly sacrificing and eating infants (an accusation that was, ironically, plausible precisely because the Christians often adopted the deformed or unwanted infants whom the pagans left to die of exposure). The Alexandrian Church required its catechumens to study for a period of three years or more before being admitted to Baptism. And so on.

It’s only when a religion begins to succeed that it can shed its mystery-cultic tendencies. Those tendencies are a camouflage intended to shield the sect from the outrage that would ensure if its doctrines became widely known, at a time when its doctrines are deeply repugnant to the conventional wisdom. Once a religion reaches a critical mass in society, so that its doctrines and convictions are firmly within the Overton window, the camouflage is no longer needed: it can be safely discarded. Gnosticism never “went mainstream,” so to speak, so it never shed those mystery-cultic tendencies, which died with it. (But it’s mainstream today, and where are the elaborate initiation rituals conducted in secret?) Judging religious esotericism as uniformly bad is a conceit afforded only by modern prosperity and security: when men with swords are waiting around the corner to ambush you and feed you to the lions, it’s a reasonable precaution to take.

There’s no denying that modern society is growing increasingly hostile toward traditional Christian beliefs, practices, and institutions. Increasingly, basic Christian values are seen as repugnant to common sense, conventional wisdom, and the common good, and especially to the hypertrophied modern values of “freedom” and “equality.” This is a dynamic we’re going to be stuck with for a while: although it’s true that traditional, orthodox Christians have a vastly greater fertility rate than secular moderns, and while it’s true that the heritability of religiosity means our children will prove increasingly impervious to the world’s attempts to steal them away, it will probably be two centuries or more before we catch up to them, all else being equal, and we can be certain that they will make sure that not all else is equal. As they lose ground, they will come after us, as they always have: first with legal warfare and social ostracism, later with ghettos and quarantines, finally with knives and nerve gas. It’s important, therefore, that we coordinate this transition effectively. The Catholic Church, barring a massive religious restoration (of which there is no reason to think we will be the major beneficiary), is going to go back into the catacombs: that means we are going to need religious practices that will be well-suited to a Church of the catacombs.

It means we are going to need religious practices that are increasingly mysterious, not immediately intelligible, which say what needs to be said less in words than in actions and which lend themselves easily to the gradual initiation of converts over a period of lengthy instruction, and ideally one which has weathered the trials of past persecutions. Gosh… if only the Church had such a scheme of religious practice close at hand!

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A brief walkthrough of the Mass: Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, Collect(s)

In the ordinary form of the Mass, the prayers which follow are typically intoned or read from the presider’s chair, if they are read at all. In the traditional Latin Mass, they are intoned or prayed from the altar: the Introit and Collect from the epistle (right-hand) side of the altar, the Kyrie and Gloria from the center. One cannot help but be impressed, then, by the fact that the action of the traditional Latin Mass is glued to the altar in a way that it often isn’t in the reformed Mass. Absolutely nothing in the traditional Latin Mass is done which is not, in some way, visibly ordered toward the offering of the sacrifice on Calvary. This is something that goes much deeper than the mere orientation of the priest: it has to do with the orientation of the liturgical action itself. Continue reading

A brief walkthrough of the Mass: The Prayers at the Foot of the Altar

Structurally speaking, the ordinary form of the Mass follows the traditional Latin Mass in most respects, with most of the differences being the elimination of features unique to the latter. One of those eliminated features are the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, which (in the Low Mass) immediately precede the reading of the Introit or (in a sung Mass) are altogether subdued and inaudible by the schola’s chanting of the Introit. The initial reform of 1965 saw the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar reduced, with the elimination of the Psalm Judica Me; the final reform of 1970 saw them completely eliminated, with only an amputated form of the Confiteor escaping the reformers’ red pens.

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In defense of Latin

How can I attend the traditional Latin Mass? I don’t even know Latin.

Well, that’s okay. Neither did virtually any of the Catholics (as a first language, anyway) who attended Mass for the last 1,200 years or so, by which time Latin had more or less completely fractured into the Romance languages. Neither did the Latin-speaking Romans or their successors in the post-imperial rump states speak the liturgical Latin used by the Church, which, as Christine Mohrmann convincingly demonstrated, was a more-or-less artificial language deliberately manufactured by the early Christians to give expression to theological concepts for which neither vulgar nor classical Latin were sufficient (i.e., liturgical Latin was certainly never the vernacular). Yet no shortage of these people for whom the liturgy was more or less unintelligible became saints, and drew great succor and strength from their participation in the Mass, notwithstanding their incomprehension. What’s different today?

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The ordinary form of the Mass primes people to imagine that participation in the liturgy requires listening to and understanding audibly-spoken words in an intellectual way, as they’re being spoken. There’s value to verbal comprehension, of course (for which the traditional Latin Mass provides by way of translated hand Missals), but to imagine that this is the only way worship occurs represents, to the traditional mind, a terrible impoverishment of participation and of language. It emphasizes the communicative aspect of language to the neglect and disregard of its expressive nature, which, in poetry, prose, and music, gives voice to the noblest human sentiments, even when the words are alien or obscure. Listen to the Agnus Dei from Palestrina’s Missa Brevis; is this nothing more than what Paul Blanshard dismissed as “a gobbledegook of Latin ritual”? Does it truly say nothing you?

Mass is not the theological equivalent of an undergraduate lecture, to be experienced only at the level of intellectual and verbal comprehension. It is the supreme act of worship, because it is the human participation in the worship which the Son renders to the Father. It’s fine to show up and feel lost at it, to be confronted with your own limitations, to feel humbled and emptied and mystified. That’s how it ought to be. Get out of your own head for an hour, and hold fast to Him in prayer.