I came away from last week’s Sacra Liturgia conference in New York on something of a high. It was exhilarating to see a large audience drawn to Mass in the Extraordinary Form. I had half expected the majority to be older, primarily the generation born into the traditional Latin Mass. But no. Here was an auditorium filled with seminarians and younger priests, joined by musicians, scholars, and lay catechists, united in belief that the beauty of the ancient liturgy—the splendid otherness of it—plays its own role in evangelization.
Raymond Cardinal Burke spoke in support of that conviction. In the Q and A after his formal address, he told an engaging story about his experience in Barcelona with members of the youth movement Juventutem. Finding the source of their own sanctification in the ancient liturgy, this quixotic little group arranged a Solemn Pontifical Mass for the street people—addicts, homeless, runaways—that they served.
What could possibly come of such an impractical, romantic gesture? Surely it would be wasted on its intended beneficiaries. To the cardinal’s surprise and delight, the improbable congregants were exalted by the experience. All who attended were deeply moved and grateful. Much kissing and embracing followed.
Was there any lasting influence to the surge of emotion the Mass generated? Were even one or two converted from the downward spiral that brought them to this pass? The cardinal did not say. A skeptic could argue that a neglected, needy congregation such as this would likely have responded the same way to a performance of Tosca or any musical event staged in their behalf.
Here on my desk is something for our skeptic.
Not long ago I plucked John Cowper Powys’ The Meaning of Culture (1929) from the town dump for no better reason than curiosity about a writer who once drew praise from Emma Goldman. Powy (1872-1963) was a little known British novelist and itinerant lecturer whose name survives by reflection from other names— e.g. Bertrand Russell, Will Durant—he met along the way.
It turned out to be a happy find. Powy, too sophisticated to remain a believer, was no stranger to Catholicism. His wife, a Catholic, refused him a divorce when he fell in love with another woman. In the main, this clergyman’s son held himself superior to dogmas of any stripe—religious, political or marital, the same.
Powy’s commentary on the “complicated poetic casuistry of Catholicism” is tinged with nostalgia, almost regret. He writes as an outsider to Rome’s precepts, but—not unlike Claudel at Christmas Vespers—is susceptible to the solemn beauty of the liturgy:
The Church of Roma in her proud, complicated, organic growth—like a great rooted tree whose branches indiscriminately shelter apes, squirrels, crows, owls and doves—has offered to the wayfarer of life-awareness a no less rich, dark depository of occult experience.
Do not let that word occult nettle you. Magic works. Besides, the word is quite serviceable for a skeptic’s recognition that in some ineffable way the Latin liturgy and its “thrilling music”—Gregorian chant and classical polyphony, not today’s sacro-pop—yield something “far more spiritual than any aesthetic opium.” Powy describes that something as “a certain intellectual temper, or habitual artistry of the mind, an antiquum organum, polished smooth by long handling.”
Unconsenting to the Church’s “ancient poetic dogmas,” he acknowledges the “power of a sorcery” carried by its liturgy. He continues:
Like some magic table, upon which our bread and wine is served and our candles lit, the Church bears up the weight of man’s quotidian destiny; bears it, and has borne it so long that it seems a kind of violence to the good breeding of the soul to ask the uncomfortable question, how can so human a piece of furniture carry the burden of the universe?
Nine decades ago Powy asked the same question latent in the substrate of this year’s Sacra Liturgia conference:
Here indeed, in this difficult question of the relation between religion and culture, we find ourselves compelled to face what really is the most crucial point of our present-day human situation: the problem, namely, as to how far it is possible to retain for individual lives, in the midst of the breaking up of the old traditions, those over-tones and under-tones of character which the long discipline of the centuries, under the scaffolding of a unified faith, has so laboriously nourished.
The liturgy that drew deep imaginative sympathy from an unbeliever was the very one discarded and disdained in the decades following Vatican II. It is not unfair to say that Powy, in his own way and despite vaunted skepticism, participated more fully in the liturgy than glad-handing congregants at the dispirited, self-conscious “new” Mass that has already grown gray.
The dignity of the liturgy has suffered a great wound. It will take more than a generation to close it.