Monday, June 2, 2014

Put Down that Missal

Sin and vice may be, well, sin and vice, but they can still be educative and bear an occasional sweet fruit. Take, for example, the sloth which led me to leave my missal at home when attending mass. In my meager defense I bus 45 minutes down to Holy Innocents in NYC and thus would carry the small but weighty tome with me throughout the mass and remainder of the day. Not exactly Spartan severity, I know, but enough to inspire such confidence in my memory and Latin that I'd consider ditching my cheat sheet.

That's what it is, isn't it? A crib, a crutch. The English is a crib of the Latin, in some cases of which the Latin is crib of the Greek, itself often a crib of the Hebrew. More significant, though, the book is a crib of the mass, it's a theft from your mind, a theft of the experience of knowing. It is good to know, thrilling to make the words intimates and enlightening to know them so well that you can bring them forth, and have them unexpectedly brought to mind, in the manifold twists and turns of life.

The alternative to remembering words, as far as the mass is concerned, is a contradiction. When we are forgetful of words we let their printed form work for us, referring back to us the meaning which we don't grasp. In the Phaedrus (275A) Plato called words ὑπομνήσεως φάρμακον, a drug or remedy of remembering, not of memory.We've discussed this turn of thought before, but memory takes on a special role in the mass. The spoken words of the liturgy, the words in time not the words in print, are the mass. The missal is not the mass. To know the mass, then, you need to know the mass and be able to share in its unfolding.

The alternative is what we see most often, and surely do as well, and that is simply keeping pace with the mass. We follow, yes, insofar as we move in the same direction, but because the words are not ours we are cogitating as we go and thus not focusing our feeling. Now there is nothing at all reprehensible about such slight following, but it is not wholly satisfying. The exhortation of Pius X to "follow all that happens at the Altar" is well known, but its context is important:
You have to associate your heart with the holy feelings which are contained in these words and in this manner you ought to follow all that happens at the Altar.
The essential word there is associate, to make an ally of, and as such, to bind up with. We must be so bound up with the words that during the mass they may flow freely through us. The more we must out of necessity read and think, the less we feel in the moment.

The situation is not so different from aesthetic experience. We learn a great deal from analyzing scores and reading plays and to understand difficult ones we often read as we listen to a performance, but how much more vital is the experience when we've internalized the words and may simply experience them unfolding. Contrary to expectations, the mystery of their effect does not disappear by familiarization, but deepens. So many degrees beyond goes our experience of the mass.

Some common sense will illuminate the matter as well. Consider how often we discuss the memorial of the mass and the commemoration of the sacrifice, and making a memory of Christ, all with our heads ducked down into crinkly pages. Perhaps to make a memory we should keep one. How often in the Extraordinary Form of the mass do we look into our books as the priest says Ecce qui tollit peccata mundi. Even at a Novus Ordo mass in English people look to the page out of habit, or perhaps just to avoid eye contact with awkward celebrants and lectors.

In any event we cheat ourselves of more intimately praying the mass from heart and mind when we rely on external aids. It's not hard to memorize, even Latin. The Ordinary remains the same week after week, and even without study the patterns of even the canon find their way into the mind. The propers of course vary, but should we not remember of all things these stories and lessons, if not verbatim then at least with some detail? Finally, so much beautiful music shapes the whole mass into the most memorable whole that we couldn't ask for something which more commends itself to the intimacy of memory.

The alternative seems to me a constrained experience, limited by busyness and thought. My missal remains an indispensable book for preparation, but during the mass one ought to carry as much as possible only oneself in fullness. This is surely an ideal toward which we can strive, and I'm not suggesting everyone drop their missals and try to wing a sudden and perfect active participation from memory. Rather we ought to read and prepare in private, follow at mass with a missal as much as we need, but prepare to put it down and remember.

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