The Mass in Literature, Part 5

Midnight Mass in the Austrian mountains:

At last we came to a wide road, where we could walk side by side, and now and again we heard sleigh-bells. The torch had already burned right down to the cowman’s hand, and he kindled another that he had with him. On the road were visible several other lights—great red torches that came flaring towards us as if they were swimming in the black air, behind which first one and then several more faces of the churchgoers gradually emerged, who now joined company with us. And we saw lights on other hills and heights, that were still so far off we could not be sure whether they were still or moving.

So we went on. The snow crunched under our feet, and wherever the wind had carried it away, there the black patch of bare ground was so hard that our shoes rang upon it. The people talked and laughed a great deal, but this seemed not a bit right to me in the holy night of Christmas. I could only think all the while about the church and what it must be like when there is music and High Mass in the dead of night.

When we had been going for a long time along the road and past isolated trees and houses, then again over fields and through a wood, I suddenly heard a faint ringing in the tree-tops. When I wanted to listen, I couldn’t hear it; but soon after I heard it again, and clearer than the first time. It was the sound of the little bell in the church steeple. The lights which we saw on the hills and in the valley became more and more frequent, and we could now see that they were all hastening churchwards.

The little calm stars of the lanterns floated towards us, and the road was growing livelier all the time. The small bell was relieved by a greater, and this one went on ringing until we had almost reached the church. So it was true, what grandmother had said: at midnight the bells begin to ring, and they ring until the very last dweller in the farthest valleys has come to church.

The church stands on a hill covered with birches and firs, and round it lies the little God’s-acre encircled by a low wall. The few houses of the village are down in the valley.

When the people came close to the church, they extinguished their torches by sticking them head downwards in the snow. Only one was fixed between two stones in the churchyard wall, and left burning.

And now from the steeple in slow, rhythmical swing, rang out the great bell. A clear light shone through the high, narrow windows. I longed to go into the church; but Sepp said there was still plenty of time, and stayed where he was, laughing and talking with other young fellows and filling himself a pipe.

At last all the bells pealed out together; the organ began to play inside the church, and then we all went in. There it looked quite different from what it did on Sundays. The candles burning on the altar were clear, white, beaming stars, and the gilded tabernacle reflected them most gloriously. The lamp of the sanctuary light was red. The upper part of the church was so dark that one could not see the beautiful painting of the nave. Mysterious shapes of men were seated in the chairs, or standing beside them; the women were much wrapped up in shawls and were coughing. Many had candles burning in front of them, and they sang out of their books when the Te Deum rang out from the chancel.

Sepp led me between two rows of chairs towards a side altar, where several people were standing. There he lifted me up on to a stool before a glass case, which, lighted by two candles, was placed between two branches of fir trees, and which I had never seen before when I went to church with my parents. When Sepp had set me on the stool, he said softly in my ear, “There, now you can have a look at the crib.” Then he left me standing, and I gazed in through the glass. Thereupon came a friendly little woman and whispered, “Look here, child, if you want to see that, somebody ought to explain it to you.” And she told me who the little figures were. I looked at them. Save for the Mother Mary, who had a blue wrapped garment round her head which fell down to her very feet, all the figures represented mere human beings: the men were dressed just like our farm-servants or the elder peasants. Even St. Joseph wore green stockings and short chamois-leather breeches.

When the Te Deum was over, Sepp came back, lifted me from the stool, and we sat down on a bench. Then the sacristan went round lighting all the candles that were in the church, and every man, including Sepp, pulled a little candle out of his pouch, lighted it, and fastened it on to the desk in front of him. Now it was so bright in the church that one could see the paintings on the roof clearly enough.

Up in the choir they were tuning fiddles and trumpets and drums, and, just as the little bell on the door of the sacristy rang, and the priest in his glittering vestments, accompanied by acolytes and tall lantern-bearers, passed over the crimson carpet to the altar, the organ burst forth in all its strength, joined by a blast of trumpets and roll of drums.

The incense smoke was rising, and shrouding the shining high altar in a veil. Thus the High Mass began, and thus it shone and sounded and rang in the middle of the night. Throughout the offertory all the instruments were silent, only two clear voices sang a lovely shepherd-song; and during the Benedictus a clarionet and two horns slow and softly crooned the cradle-song. During the Gospel and the Elevation we heard the cuckoo and nightingale in the choir, just as in the midst of the sunny spring-time.

Deep down in my soul I understood it, the wonder and splendour of Christmas. But I did not exclaim with delight; I remained grave and silent, I felt the solemn glory of it all. But while the music was playing I could not help thinking about father and mother and grandmother at home. They are kneeling by the table now in the light of the single candle, and praying; or they are even asleep, and the room is all dark—only the clock ticking—while a deep peace lies upon the forest-clad mountains, and the Eve of Christmas is spread abroad over all the earth.

The little candles in the seats were burning themselves out, one after another, as the service neared its close at last; and the sacristan went round again and extinguished the lights on the walls and altars and before the pictures with the little tin cap. Those on the high altar were still burning when a joyous march music sounded from the choir and the folk went crowding out of the incense-laden church.

When we came outside, in spite of the thick mist which had descended from the hills, it was no longer quite so dark as before midnight. The moon must have risen; no more torches were lighted. It struck one o’clock, but the schoolmaster was already ringing the prayer bell for Christmas morning.

I glanced once more at the church windows. All the festal shine was quenched, I saw only the dull red glimmer of the sanctuary lamp.

Peter Rosegger, The Forest Farm: Tales of the Austrian Tyrol (1912), pp. 50-54.

(See also Part 1 (last three quoted paragraphs), Part 2Part 3, Part 4.)

Spiritual Transport

A few years later, in January, my sister Aloise died, aged forty-nine, eldest of ten children, mother of ten. The family — her children and her siblings — were catapulted into a dumb grief. We took refuge in our conviction that our separation from her was impermanent. It was for us acutely the time not merely to recall the promises of Christ but to invoke their magical capacity to mitigate grief. We wanted to relive, in the funeral ceremony, the liturgical experience we had all grown up with — indeed, what had been the universal practice up until a few years before — the Mass in Latin. This request the priest we dealt with gladly granted.

And so on January 17, 1967, the weather in the little town in northwestern Connecticut, at subzero, in the homely brick church we had all known since childhood, the priest recited the Mass of the Dead and the organist accompanied the soloist, we sang the Gregorian dirge in words the mourners did not clearly discern, words which, had we discerned them, we could not exactly have translated; and yet we experienced — not only her family but her friends; not alone the Catholics among us but also the Protestants and the Jews — something akin to that spiritual transport which, in the late sixties, many restless folk were finding it necessary to search out in drugs or from a guru in Mysterious India.

William F. Buckley, Jr., Nearer My God: An Autobiography of Faith (New York:Doubleday, 1997).

Prayers you don’t hear anymore, Part 2

“Guard me around about with the loving and watchful care of Thy holy angels: and before their most sure defence may the enemies of all good, flee in confusion. For the sake of this dread mystery and by the ministering hand of the holy angel of the sacrifice, do Thou, O Lord, preserve me and all Thy servants from that obstinacy of spirit wherein lies pride and vain-glory, envy and blasphemy, uncleanness and wrong-doing, doubt and mistrust. Let them be confounded that persecute us. Let them perish that are bent upon our ruin.”

Devotions in Preparation for Mass and Communion, prayer for Sunday, in The New Roman Missal (Fr. Lasance), 1956.

(See Part 1 here.)

The Mass in literature, part 4

This isn’t the Mass per se, but …

“Stephen Maturin was in fact sitting on a bench in the abbey church of St. Simon’s, listening to the monks singing vespers. He too was dinnerless, but in this case it was voluntary and prudential, a penance for lusting after Laura Fielding and (he hoped) a means of reducing his concupiscence: to begin with his pagan stomach had cried out against this treatment, and indeed it had gone on grumbling until the end of the first antiphon. Yet for some time now Stephen had been in what might almost have been called a state of grace, stomach, break-back bench, carnal desires all forgotten, he being wafted along on the rise and fall of the ancient, intimately familiar plainchant. …

“Their abbot was a very aged man; he had known the last three Grand Masters, he had seen the coming of the French and then of the English, and now his frail but true old voice drifted through the half-ruined aisles pure, impersonal, quite detached from worldly things; and his monks followed him, their song rising and falling like the swell of a gentle sea.

“There were few people in the church and those few could hardly be seen except when they moved past the candles in the side-chapels, most of them being women, whose black, tent-like faldettas merged with the shadows; but when at the end of the service Stephen turned by the holy-water stoup near the door to pay his respects to the altar, he noticed a man sitting near one of the pillars, dabbing his eyes with his handkerchief….”

Patrick O’Brian, Treason’s Harbor (1983).

(See also Part 1 (last three quoted paragraphs), Part 2, Part 3.)

Holy Saturday

O God, who by invisible power accomplish a wondrous effect through sacramental signs and who in many ways have prepared water, your creation, to show forth the grace of Baptism;

O God, whose Spirit in the first moments of the world’s creation hovered over the waters, so that the very substance of water would even then take to itself the power to sanctify;

O God, who by the outpouring of the flood foreshadowed regeneration, so that from the mystery of one and the same element of water would come an end to vice and a beginning of virtue;

O God, who caused the children of Abraham to pass dry-shod through the Red Sea, so that the chosen people, set free from slavery to Pharaoh, would prefigure the people of the baptized;

O God, whose Son, baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan, was anointed with the Holy Spirit, and, as he hung upon the Cross, gave forth water from his side along with blood, and after his Resurrection, commanded his disciples: “Go forth, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” look now, we pray, upon the face of your Church and graciously unseal for her the fountain of Baptism.

May this water receive by the Holy Spirit the grace of your Only Begotten Son, so that human nature, created in your image and washed clean through the Sacrament of Baptism from all the squalor of the life of old, may be found worthy to rise to the life of newborn children through water and the Holy Spirit.

Blessing of Baptismal Water, Easter Vigil.

Mass roundup


Holy Thursday commemorates not only the beginning of Jesus’ Passion, but also the institution of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In recognition of Holy Thursday, then, here is a roundup of past posts concerning the Mass:

Nothing if not a sacrifice

The Mass saves

What is the point of Communion?

Manners and the Mass

Manners and the Mass, Part 2

How Jesus saves us

Bid these offerings be brought by thy holy angel

My prayer be an incense offering

Draw near in obedience

The Mass in literature, Part 1

The Mass in literature, Part 2

The Mass in literature, Part 3

Agnus Dei

Asperges me, Domine

And with regard to Jesus’ washing of the feet, which also is commemorated on Holy Thursday:

Serve as I have served you

A blessed Holy Triduum to all!

The Mass saves


Can we ever offer God perfect worship, completely wholeheartedly, disinterestedly, free of distractions, and with a totally clear conscience? Even if we could do all that, would our worship be worthy of God? Could our music ever be beautiful and magnificent enough, and our places of worship as well? Even if we made them as beautiful as human art can accomplish, would they be worthy of God, who created the whole earth, the sun and the moon and the stars?

If we can’t do these things, is there any point in worship? In modern days people are in the habit of saying, “Of course there is! God knows our hearts and will forgive our shortcomings and imperfections.” But this is due to the mere habit of thinking as Christians. The notion of divine mercy has been so drilled into our heads in Western civilization, even those of us who aren’t Christians, that it’s nearly an axiom, a first principle. But this assumes what we’re arguing for. We assume God will forgive our shortcomings, only because we know (on some level) that Christ has already appeased his justice, by offering perfect worship in our behalf, in his sacrifice on the Cross.

Before the Cross, do you suppose people thought that they could offer any old worship, in any old place, in whatever frame of mind they happened to be in, certain that it would be acceptable and pleasing to God, notwithstanding its being utterly unworthy of him, nay not even the best of which they were capable?

If Jesus’ death on the Cross was a sacrifice, then it was worship, as surely as the worship of the Old Covenant Temple. But even Old Covenant Temple worship was not assumed to be always worthy and pleasing to God. It was worthy only if done in complete accordance with the requirements that God himself had laid down. And even then, they knew that in fulfilling the worship requirements of the Law, they were not meriting God’s approval by the perfection of their worship, but only doing what was required of them.

Why then do we assume God approves of our worship, poor and lowly as it may be? Only because Jesus’ sacrifice, again, was worship — worship utterly pure and worthy, infinitely meritorious. And because his worship is our very own.

Without Jesus’ worship being our own, our worship would be as pathetic as we know it to be. We sit distracted, we’re tired, we can’t wait to be done. We snapped at our wife on the way to Mass. We’re carping to ourselves, or whispering to each other about the homily. We’re covertly glancing at our more attractive neighbors in the pews. Is this an acceptable sacrifice? Does this merit heaven?

It merits heaven because eating of his Body, we participate in his Sacrifice (1 Cor. 10:18). Participating in his Sacrifice, our worship is his worship.

It doesn’t require perfect participation in the Sacrifice, only participation. The Sacrifice is perfect forever, and we can’t sully it. If my attention were total and my singing perfectly on-key, my thoughts always chaste and my patience untiring, for an eternity, my worship would still be unworthy without the Cross; but by the same token, an eternity of my mind wandering, or my off-key singing, can’t make the slightest dent in the perfect obedience and infinite merit of the Cross. It is now and ever shall be the perfect, holy and living Sacrifice of our redemption.

Therefore I needn’t sing perfectly, I need only sing. I needn’t be utterly free of distraction, but make some effort to avoid distraction. Not perfect contrition, but as much contrition as I’m capable of.

This doesn’t excuse laxity at Mass. We should do our best if for no other reason than because God is so merciful as to allow us to offer meritorious worship in our own behalf. If we can’t appreciate that and act devoutly in consequence, why go there at all? But if we fail in giving full attention, and commit venial sins by our wandering eyes and minds, well, that’s just the kind of thing that Jesus came to save us from: The Physician is here for the sick, not the well.

“Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” (Catechism 1822.)

A single act done by virtue of divine charity is sufficient to merit heaven, since it is Christ who acts in us. And if charity is the virtue by which we love God above all things, then a single act of perfect worship by which we express our love for God — attending a single Mass with the right intention — does the same. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood” — not a certain minimum number of times, but he who eats and drinks it, period — “has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:54.)

easter - Copy

Merry Christmas


As we look forward, O Lord,
to the coming festivities,
may we serve you all the more eagerly
for knowing that in them
you make manifest the beginnings of our redemption.
Through Christ our Lord.

The Roman Missal, Offertory for the Vigil of Christmas.

Sing we now of Christmas,
Noel, sing we here!
Hear our grateful praises
to the babe so dear.
Sing we Noel, the King is born, Noel, Noel!
Sing we now of Christmas, sing we now Noel!

“Sing We Now of Christmas”, French Traditional.

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best,
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest.
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small,
To the devil go butler, bowl and all!

“Wassail! Wassail! All Over the Town”, English Traditional.

A Lent without penance

As a birthday gift my wife received a subscription to The Word Among Us, which is “a Catholic devotional magazine based on the daily Mass readings”.

As we rode to work together, she read the readings and meditation for today, Ash Wednesday. The meditation offered the analogy of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly: “If only we could enter a magical chrysalis and emerge six weeks later as a reflection of God’s beauty and grace!”

“Of course,” they caution, “we know it’s not magic. It’s a combination of God’s grace and our effort. … So here are some things we can try to do this season so that we can find our lives changed come Easter Sunday. ”

The suggestions include prayerfully considering “what you want to become”; finding a “chrysalis”, i.e. time set aside each day for prayer; and “living your new life”, which means to “[r]earrange your priorities as if you already were that butterfly”.

Notice anything about this?

How about no mention of penance or sin? That’s right, an Ash Wednesday meditation having nothing to do with repentance, fasting, or self-denial, whatsoever. Something similar happened the last time I attended Ash Wednesday Mass: The homily managed to ignore the topics of sin and repentance entirely.

At times like this I am tempted to despair; tempted to say, with Hilary White, “Welcome to NuChurch“. I try to believe that the Church hasn’t gone off the rails since Vatican II. I have reminded myself, and others, that the Church has not changed any doctrines to accommodate the demands of secular culture. But I sometimes wonder, what’s the use in having the infallible fullness of the Gospel if half of it is never preached?

In case anyone really doesn’t know what Lent is for, it is defined in the Catechism as “the primary penitential season in the Church’s liturgical year, reflecting the forty days Jesus spent in the desert in fasting and prayer.”  Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary.

Further, “The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year … are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1438.


Manners and the Mass, Part 2

If (as argued before) manners are an objective sign of respect, and if the rubrics of the Mass, especially the traditional Latin Mass, play the role of manners or courtesy towards God, then what is the meaning of the tendency to informalize the Mass?

I would argue that the tendency to informality is also a tendency to subjectivity. It’s a movement away from showing respect and reverence through outward actions, and instead showing it through inward feelings. Outward formalities (objective) are considered shallow and empty, whereas spontaneous words and gestures (subjective) are “real” and sincere.

I think of Catholicism as an objective religion. This is not to say that subjectivity plays no role, but that on the objective/subjective spectrum, it falls more on the objective side.

Protestants tend to see this as a bad thing. To them, outward actions which cause inward, spiritual realities are hocus-pocus, or in other words, works. For them the Mass, baptism of babies, and confession are acts that try to compel God to do things for us, and are therefore akin to works righteousness, trying to earn our way to heaven; whereas all that really matters is your subjective, inward experience of having “accepted” Jesus as your Lord and Savior.

I have argued before that the modern belief in subjective truth may be traced to the Reformation, by way of the Enlightenment. I can’t say for sure whether the former caused the latter, or they both had some other cause. But I submit that they both follow the same trajectory, leading up to the present day: The Reformation introducing the idea of the individual, as opposed to an authorized institution, interpreting the scriptures for himself; which, since the scriptures are held to be the sole standard of religious truth, leads ultimately to the individual determining truth for himself.

Whereas in Catholicism, truth is given to the individual from outside himself, and the individual, recognizing  it, is expected to submit himself to it. Here’s where the subjective element in Catholicism comes in: Each individual has to decide whether to accept the Chuch as the instrument or conduit of God’s revelation to humanity, whether through the scriptures, which were written by members of the Church and canonized by its authority, or through the Church’s own proclamations and definitions of the faith. But once that decision is made, from then on he possesses an objective standard of religious truth, which is the teaching authority of the Church.

I would argue that the subjectivization of courtesy, by which I refer to the informalizing tendency of modern manners, follows on this sea change in the manner of determining truth: From basing truth on submission to objective standards and authorities, to basing it on individual interpretation and subjective criteria. Rather than I submitting to reality, reality is made to submit to me.

Traditionalists have argued that the Church during and after Vatican II sought to Protestantize Catholic worship. I suspect that it wasn’t so much an effort to Protestantize, as to subjectivize it. In a sense, to subjectivize is to Protestantize, but I think subjectivization was the intended goal.

Now I would argue that to subjectivize worship is to turn it inward as opposed to outward. When you subjectivize worship, you make it conform to the desires of the worshippers: Rather than prescribing certain actions (and proscribing others), you let them do what pleases them. Thus worship becomes ad-libbed: The priest stops using the pulpit for his sermon and instead paces back and forth in the sanctuary, or wanders out among the pews. He alters the prescribed prayers, or prefixes them with an impromptu greeting. People in the congregation are invited to insert their own spontaneous prayers during the Prayer of the Faithful. The people dress in any way they please, rather than conforming to outward standards of appropriateness. The mantilla (chapel veil) is abandoned.

Further, certain practices and attitudes are introduced, which serve to stir up emotions in the people of the congregation. Loud, rhythmic music is used, and the people are encouraged to clap and dance; or very emotive music is sung in an informal, emotional style, mimicking popular love ballads. People sway back and forth, raise their hands in the air and break into tears.

Again, I contend that subjective worship is worship turned inward: It consists of actions designed to produce certain emotional reactions within the worshipper, rather than actions directed outwards towards God.

Christ gave us the Mass so that we would have an outward, corporate action to perform, which is pleasing to God. This doesn’t eliminate inward, subjective experiences of God in the privacy of prayer. But it is not designed to produce inward, subjective experiences, but to constitute worship of God which is acceptable to him and worthy of his great dignity and holiness, which on our own we could never do. Often it does result in inward, subjective experiences of God’s grace and friendship, arising from the appreciation of his great mercy in condescending to be present to us and consumed by us in the Blessed Sacrament. But such experiences do not, and should not be expected to happen all the time, since they are not its primary purpose, but a gratuitous by-product of God’s overflowing kindness to us.

It is in this light that I understand Pope Benedict’s description of the priest facing the people at Mass, as the congregation being turned in on itself, rather than outwards towards God. It is one of many signs of the subjectivization and inwardness of modern Catholic worship.

Those who prefer the TLM are often accused of having no objective reason for their preference, but of being merely nostalgic and wanting to turn back the clock, or alternatively, of wanting to play “dress-up”. I can’t speak for every TLM adherent, but personally I prefer it because I like its outward rather than inward orientation, and its formality, the way it enables me to make outward and repeated gestures of courtesy and reverence towards God the Father, Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and the priest acting in persona Christi.