After publishing my last post “Humility, Liturgy and the Faith Experience” I began to have scruples about my choice of words to describe today’s common form of liturgical expression, especially in the English speaking world, which has grown up almost exclusively under the influence of priests celebrating across the altar table from the congregation. I called this form of liturgy “discursive”. Be it stated at the outset, that despite all of the abuse generated by the simple dynamics of this furniture arrangement (no disrespect intended), which is only one step removed from the classical evangelical or mega-church arrangement with no altar and where the pulpit or podium is front and center, it is within the norm and has been most folk’s experience for forty years. The common arrangement in and of itself is not an abuse but is conducive to a liturgical style which is at odds with what the Catholic world has always and everywhere known to be the proper worship decorum. The word I used to describe the most common form of liturgical expression today and for the last 40 years, the word which troubles me, is the word “discursive”.
My Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary gives as the first meaning for discursive: “moving or roving about from one topic to another; skimming over many apparently unconnected subjects; digressive; desultory.” What makes me hesitant about my choice of words is the implication that we’re dealing with something rambling, random or just plain loose. To say that a preacher is desultory would be to evaluate or criticize his style; to say that a liturgy is rambling or loose is to judge that same to be out of touch with the very nature of genuine worship in spirit and in truth.
At this point I have no doubt lost many, who are muttering: “Look out! Here comes the rant! He’s going to break another lance for ad Orientem worship.” That is not my specific focus today. The arguments and the discussions are out there to favor restoring continuity with our worship tradition (see Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s post “Turning to the Lord” from yesterday).
My issue here is slightly different and moves away from the profound issue of physical focus toward Liturgical East to that of recognizing a principal drawback to worship “over or around the altar table”. This innovation of 40 years ago becomes almost irresistibly discursive in its form. Arguments about gathering around the altar as a means of recognizing it as a symbol of Christ present in the midst of the community hold no water whatsoever as the architectural tendency over these past 40 years has told a very different story at the expense really of the altar as a symbol of Christ. The tendency has been to lower these altars, put them on the level (handicap accessibility?), take them off their pedestal of 1 or 3 steps, such that visibly more often than not these altars disappear (the Los Angeles Cathedral is a case in point, where massive as it is the altar disappears in that space: I think people usually refer to either the big organ or the tapestries as the focal points in that space).
“Over and around the altar” becomes not only talking and sharing space, but the whole thing becomes discursive both in tone and in content. Without highlighting egregious abuse, I would very simple like to ask why the Mass practicum in most seminaries since my own day and before has centered on urging us priests to eye contact with the congregation…
We take it for granted that eye contact is required of us, unless of course we have broken free by returning to the tradition of older and longer date of preparing the gifts and praying the Eucharistic prayer from the same side of the altar as the people, i.e. together with them and not over and against them. This came home to me last summer in the parish as I noted the parish priest concelebrating with me, as he came to take his part in the Eucharistic prayer and in conformity with the logic of over or around the altar sought to make eye contact with his people. I did too from June 1976 until my daily habit in my own chapel became ad Orientem worship (August 1, 2009!). I doubt very much if even what some call the Benedictine arrangement with the candles and prominent central Crucifix is sufficient to counteract the eye contact compulsion.
Allow me to be discursive and field a question at this point: “What about St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome?” Have you ever noticed that the YouTube videos of Papal Liturgy from back when, of Blessed Pope John XXIII (50 years ago), are either filmed from behind the Pope celebrating at the altar or from a side angle which catches more of the back of his head than his profile? Even in St. Peter’s with the bulk of the nave on the other side, the earliest film cameras did not look the Holy Father in the face as he celebrated at the altar, but respected the proper orientation for worship.
“Over and around the altar table”, our familiar form of parish celebration makes for digressions and interjections, catechetical moments if you wish, but nonetheless digressions from what should be a focused action before the Throne of God. Is that abuse? I think it is perhaps the principal component of what the Holy Father refers to as a rupture with our Catholic tradition of worship.
The proposal of renouncing discursive models of worship is bound to meet resistance from a lot of quarters. The most tragic, perhaps, reason people would want to cling to it, is that the weekend “hour of power” has become our only contact with most Catholics. Why do people abusively interject talks or lectures at the obligation Mass? Is it because the head of the parish council or that woman or that man really can explain something better than Father? I doubt it. The reason is that in a discursive worship (?) or prayer and praise format, you can add all sorts of things that have nothing to do with associating ourselves with the Heavenly Court as they do unceasingly what we are called to do in union with the Sacrifice which has redeemed us in Christ. If there are no other moments outside of church to impart knowledge the tendency is to take advantage of people and cram as much as possible into that hour, in hopes of imparting what we think the people need to or ought to know. Is it any wonder that Adoration Chapels have become so popular? Sunday worship should be restored to its proper focus, enriched by an appropriate liturgical homily.
Moving away from discursive worship models means going out to our world once again using all sorts of other means to give God’s People the intellectual and prayer-based nourishment they need to come to the “source and summit of Christian existence” in the proper frame of mind, formed and well-disposed, to join the angels and saints in their hymn of praise.
Sunday-go-to-meeting needs to become again what St. Justin Martyr tried to explain to his judges as that without which we cannot live, that for which the precept exists and the only manner in which it makes any sense: To assist at Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation.
PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI