Thursday, November 25, 2010

Formed in Formlessness


I have just begun a very interesting book called The Heresy of Formlessness by Martin Mosebach, translated from the German by Graham Harrison and published by Ignatius Press.

The style is delightful and the writer writes with a self-conscious continental attitude that says, “I’m an artist and I see things differently and therefore I am licensed to write about them from a poetic point of view.”

So far his argument seems to be that the value of the liturgy is our unthinking participation in it; that the more conscious we are of the liturgy itself or of the character of the celebrant, the more difficult it is for us to worship. Thus the “form” of the liturgy is something we should automatically pour ourselves into; that if we begin to mess with the “form” of the liturgy, we make the mistake of thinking that somehow it’s all about us and not a gift from God.

And along the way, there are some brilliant quotes, such as …

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"We sit in the pews and ask ourselves, was that Holy Mass, or wasn’t it? I go to church to see God and come away like a theater critic."

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"If I want to know what a man believes, it is no good to me to go through his 'club regulations' – if you will pardon the expression [meaning the Catechism]. I must observe the man, his gestures, the way he looks; I must see him in moments when he is off guard. … That shows what faith is: the things we do naturally and as a matter of course."

[Mosebach then talks about some ordinary church ladies who begin to become particularly careful about preparing for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, even though they have not been taught to do this. Thus he notes the sincerity of their faith. He then compares this with the careless melting down of communion patens by those who are suffused with the spirit of the Ordinary Form.]

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"I repeat that I am not a theologian: but to me – someone who’s task is to portray people and reconstruct human motivation – if someone allows all the communion patens to be melted down , he can not possibly believe in the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. We believe with our knees or we do not believe at all."

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"A man on his knees because he believes his Maker is present in a little white wafer: this is still a stumbling block in many places, and we must thank God for it."

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Indeed, it took a while after my conversion - many years - to come to the conclusion that these liberal suburban Catholics who surrounded me act the way they do, as a rule, because they don't really believe.

Now I will certainly be accused of judging their hearts, which I do not mean to do, but I must echo Mosebach here.

Why did the principal and teachers of our Catholic grade school set up a Thanksgiving Mass dedicated to the Great Earth Spirit? Because they don't really believe.

Why do those in the pews spend their time chatting and laughing and scheming against each other? Because they don't really believe.

Why does our so-called Director of Religious Education teach absolutely nothing about the Catholic Faith? Because she doesn't really believe.

Why do many people do all they can to twist the Church so that Christ endorses their lives of consumption, perversion, affluence, contraception and promiscuity? Because they don't really believe.

Of course, as I say, we can never read another's heart - but Mosebach is on to something. If we melt down communion patens - indeed if we stop kneeling, if we replace worship music with bad pop, if we turn the adoration of God into a narcissitic celebration of self, if we gay up the entire approach to God so that it's all emptiness and perverse affectation, then we "can not possibly believe in the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament" - or in the truth of Christ and His continued presence in the world.

And this I speak as a fully licensed poet, as, in Mosebach's words, "someone who’s task is to portray people and reconstruct human motivation."

On the one side we have the great patrimony of the Church, the teachings of the ascetic and mystics, the narrow way that Bl. John Henry Newman saw and explained so well; and on the other we have the sacrilege of the modern world and all that it gives us in our insipid homilies, our terrible music, our ugly architecture, and our utter devotion to self and sin.

I hate to sound like an old fuddy duddy here, but I am one, and a licensed one, at that.

Anyway, back to the book ...

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