Deo gratias! Our Br. Timothy made his Solemn Profession on Saturday, the Solemnity of Saint Benedict. Posting has been non-existent during the immediate preparation and aftermath. My thanks for your patience, especially to subscribers (do become a subscriber if you are not yet!). Now back to our liturgical history.
One of the biggest changes in our liturgical style over the years has been the adoption, within the Ordinary Form of the Mass, the ad orientem (“toward the East,” indicating especially the rising sun) stance of the principle celebrant. I will be offering many reflections on our experience and the theology of Mass ad orientem, but I thought I’d begin with a few scattered anecdotes to indicate how God brought this about.
As our Fr. Brendan tells it, the founder and long-time superior of the Jerusalem community, Fr. Pierre-Marie Delfieux, used to challenge the Paris community in the following way. “When a first-time visitor comes to our liturgy,” he would say, “I want them to ask not, ‘Who are these people?’ but ‘Who is the God they are worshipping?'” This itself reflected a deep sense, shared, interestingly enough, with a number of the emerging “high church” Anglicans of the nineteenth century, that the flattening effect of the modern industrial city called for greater attention to beauty, mystery, and transcendence in the liturgy. This helps to explain the apparent paradox that many high Church parishes are located in poorer neighborhoods in the large cities of England.
The presence of a majestic God Who invites everyone into His glorious house is a reminder of the dignity of all human persons and our shared transcendent goal, the joy and splendor of the Kingdom of Heaven, in which the last shall be first and the poor share inherit the earth. And many of us city dwellers are poorer than we think, precisely because our imaginations have been leveled, and we have forgotten the new creation beyond tears and sorrows that is everywhere coming into being around us.
But how to communicate this? Especially out of a very poor monastic community such as we had? Around the year 1998 or so, we began reading the liturgical writings of Cardinal Ratzinger, and two brothers in the community were intrigued by the possibility of signalling God’s transcendence by turning the priest back around, as he had been until a few decades ago, and as he is in every other rite of the Church (with the exception of some Maronite customs that, in any case, were borrowed from the reform of the Roman rite), including the Eastern Orthodox rites.
This was a tough sell. Many of us Catholics had learned that this posture involved the priest “turning his back” on the congregation. It was seen as a rejection of Vatican II. I was a novice in the community at the time and felt vaguely uncomfortable about the discussion, though I also recognized that I had virtually no training in liturgical theology and so I made a point to read and listen. I had been to Orthodox liturgy, and in spite of the fact that the priest is barely even visible during the words of institution (he’s largely hidden by the iconostasis), I didn’t recall feeling as if the celebrant were somehow coldly distant. This fact has stayed with me over the years. Is there something about Catholic liturgy that lends itself to the opposite impression, when Mass is celebrated ad orientem? I didn’t know.
What changed my mind on the whole question was an intervention of Providence. I was still conducting choirs at St. Thomas the Apostle parish and Calvert House in Hyde Park, and on days of rehearsals, I couldn’t be around for the community Mass, which in those days was in the evening. So twice each week, I went to St. Barbara’s parish here in Bridgeport. One morning, I arrived for the Mass being celebrated by a newly-assigned priest. I hadn’t yet become acquainted with his personal style. At the preparation of the gifts, he invited anyone who so wished to come and stand around the altar. I was used to this kind of thing. I grew up in the 70’s after all. But I’m a bit shy and so took the option to remain in the pews. As a group of about ten people stood around the altar, I noticed something quite astonishing. They all stood in a semicircle…behind the priest. I nearly laughed out loud as I mused that they were deliberately choosing to have “Father’s back to them.” Indeed, it seemed an obvious thing to do! If we only rotated the whole scene 180 degrees, we would have Mass facing the East.
There was clearly an intuition among these guests around the altar that the presider was “leading,” that he occupied a position “out front.” But the proximity also seemed to indicate that the priest was “one among” rather than a separate class of person within the Body of Christ. This resonated with my experience of Orthodox liturgy, where the churches were often quite a bit smaller than the average Catholic parish in Chicago, and the priest sat quite near the congregation for the readings. I came back more enthusiastic about attempting Mass ad orientem, but Providence would need to intervene a second time.
To be continued…