Occasional Papers

Here is where we will publish papers by our friends in and around the Franciscan International Study Centre in Canterbury.

Why I walked out.

Having said that, this piece is by a Jesuit in South Africa, Russell Pollitt, but salutory reading for preachers and hearers. The link is to his article in Independent Catholic News. Do read it!

WT.

Why I walked out.

Of Syllables, Steps and Silence MMB

Recently my wife and I watched ‘Mr Turner’, Mike Leigh’s account of the artist who created Britain’s favourite painting, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. Fine acting and dialogue, beautiful photography, atmospheric music were complemented by effective use of silence. Not every moment without dialogue was taken up with music; silence moved the drama forward.

In Xavier Beauvois’ ‘Of Gods and Men’, the story of the martyred Cistercians of the Sahara, silence challenged the viewer to reflect, with or without thinking in words.

For our wedding anniversary once we burrowed under the Channel to Lille, where patronal loyalty drew us to Mass at the Church of Saint Maurice. Silence was an effective part of the liturgy, as was that essential component of the motion picture, the movement of people. Blessed with a big church in a depopulated city centre, priests and congregation opened the Word in the nave before processing towards the altar after the homily.

Before the homily – silence.

For some minutes the priests joined the rest of us in contemplation before the preacher opened his lips. All were ready to listen. Silence had allowed us a period of reflection and, dare I say awe; a deeper hearing of the Word that was enhanced by the homily.

All this is a roundabout invitation to a conversation on today’s Liturgy. I am firmly in the camp that holds that the language at Mass, spoken and unspoken, should be readily understood by those present. Although mostly the priest is addressing God, there is no need for long or rare words – the Lord knows what we want to say even before we do. What can I give him, poor as I am? I can raise my heart and mind to him, but I often find myself deliberately switching the mind off, as the translation we have now is a stumbling block, inelegant, inharmonious; puzzling rather than enlightening.

And yet.

There is a moment of truth in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ when the emotions of the rude mechanicals’ play touch their audience. At Mass, despite the crooked translation, it is for ministers, to the best of their ability, to speak the words, the Word, as though it were alive, as though they believe it, as though it were awesome; from ‘In the Name of the Father’ by way of ‘The Word of the Lord’, ‘Through your goodness’, ‘This is my Body’, ‘the Body of Christ’ (looking the communicant in the eye), to ‘Go in Peace’. A challenge, truly.

There are moments when silence can and should be observed:

Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another —

Let us hold hands and look.”

She, such a very ordinary little woman;

He, such a thumping crook;

But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels

In the teashop’s ingle-nook.

John Betjeman, ‘In a Bath Teashop’

Silence can bring focus and awe: I used to ask my ‘very ordinary’ child readers to count to ten in their heads to allow reflection between the bidding – let us ask God to …, and its prayer – Lord hear us. Silence between the consecration and the acclamation; silence before inviting everyone to join in the Lord’s Prayer, silence after communion: these can inspire a sense of awe. All should participate in these silences, unlike the silence of the old rite with the priest mumbling prayers and not really silent at all, and the congregation praying the Rosary.

There are moments for movement in the liturgy, often missed or mishandled: processions with cross and lights, perhaps an Asperges entrance rite; processions with the book, with the gifts; an orderly procession to Communion. So, for example, when African seminarians processed with the Book in our parish the reverence they showed to the Word certainly inspired awe in a Kentish congregation.

Most Catholics, thank God, will never experience the sub-ten-minute Latin Mass that had me stumbling over the well-known responses, followed by, ‘Don’t you ever dare come near me to serve my Mass again or I’ll kick you from here to Kingdom Come.’ Any awe from Fr G came from his fire-and-brimstone sermons at other priest’s Masses. Extreme cases like that apart, priests had it easy, speaking God’s own language; no need to work on phrasing and diction. The laity could pray or stray, every one in his own way; we worshipped together largely because we were in the same building at the same time. (Or some of us ‘hearing Mass’ from the porch or beyond.)

Some elements of the Tridentine Liturgy now seem difficult to credit and without meaning: carrying the Missal from one side of the altar to the other behind the priest’s back; the choreography by which the MC directed priest, deacon and subdeacon to doff their birettas as the choir chanted the Gloria; the subdeacon veiled on the bottom step, holding up the paten. Did these inspire awe? Not in this altar server.

Our celebrations are often far from perfect now: altar servers still fluff their cues, readers may be inaudible or over-dramatic, babies may cry, someone will sing flat, another will be three syllables behind in the congregation’s prayers, the person in front of you at Communion will genuflect unexpectedly and nearly send you flying. We can cope with all that if we believe that God is at work here and we are his instruments. But as his instruments, we should be fine-tuning ourselves against each other, from Vox Clara to Vince and Clare in the next pew.

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