Monday, 30 April 2018

The Homogeneity and Heterogeneity of the Sacred and Profane

The sacred may be understood in two ways which I think are necessary and complementary - and these two ways are sometimes also symbolized in sacred ritual, art, and especially architecture. In the first sense, the sacred is something set apart from the world, the profane or mundane, for the express purposes of an otherworldly action: worship. In this understanding, the sacred and the profane are heterogenous, because they are in some way separated from each other. In the use of space for the ritual of divine worship, one does not worship just anywhere; one worships in a place set apart and consecrated for that purpose, apart from any other purpose. One worships in a church, in the sanctuary, at or around an altar. This space is distinct from all other space; it is set apart, it is another world - quite literally, indeed, if we take a realist interpretation of liturgical symbolism. In the church, we enter into the New Jerusalem; we take part in the citizenship of heaven, not of the world.

In the second sense, however, the sacred is more like the extreme limit of the profane. This strikes me also as a profound understanding. In this sense, the consecration of a particular space is not simply the cutting off, setting apart, of that space; but also the concentration of all space at a particular point; it is a certain intensity of spatial meaning. The sacred becomes like the center of a circle which, still contained within the area of a circle, is yet an inner limit or boundary of the whole; or like the circumference, which is the outer limit, where the circle ends and a new sphere continues. In this understanding, the church is not only heaven - set over and against the world or the cosmos - but it is itself the very limit of the cosmos, a microcosmos. But it is indeed also heaven, for as a boundary, it is where different realities meet, as two cones converge and open into each other at their common vertex.

This is one characterization of the difference in emphasis between the Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles. With few windows and somewhat minimal natural light, the earlier Romanesque church was a place set apart for the purpose of divine worship, over and against all mundane purposes that were pursued outside the church space. Here is a distinct world, a sacred and indeed a secret place, protected from the outside world by fortress-like walls of stone. By contrast, the Gothic, though it loses nothing of the sense of being set apart, was also constructed to let the cosmos outside enter into itself - it was not just a setting apart from, but a sanctification of, the entire cosmos. Enormous stained glass windows let the natural light of the sun flood the space with the entire cosmic range of color. The copious use of fractal patterned ornamentation suggests continuity with the fractal geometry of nature. Here was not a confusion of the sacred and the profane, as occurs in much modern church architecture, but an integration of worlds by the consecrating of all profane space into a sacred sacred space: an intensified concentration of the cosmos, a microcosm.

The Romanesque

The Gothic

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Traditionalism, the Past, and Permanent Things

The affirmation of tradition against modernity cannot be simply a matter of wishing to turn back the clock to a former period of history. Perhaps many traditionalists or conservatives give this impression, but traditionalism as such does not simply entail the desire to turn back the clock. I say it does not entail this simply. It certainly does often entail the recovery of things from a past age, now lost in the rubble of modernity; but it is not merely because they are past that traditionalism seeks their recovery, but because they signify something timeless, something inherently permanent and trans-historical, and thus something that continues to be relevant and applicable in the present. And it may be that a past era upheld such permanent values with more rigor and reverence than does our modern age.

In Catholic traditionalism, the high Middle Ages are often taken to be the pinnacle of Catholic history. Even if there is any truth to this claim, such a claim must be tempered by the recognition that, in a sense, all times are bad times. Paradoxically, the errors of modernity are not, in the last analysis, modern errors; they are perennial deviations from perennial truths. There have always been modernists, just as there have always been sinners and heretics. There has always been struggle and conflict within the Church and the whole civilized world; there has never been a utopia. The nostalgia of the true traditionalist is directed at particular ages of the past only in subordination to the age of eternity, of which each historical era is but an imperfect instantiation. True nostalgia is for this eternal age, which is symbolized in different ways by past, present, and future. Historical beings and situations are, in a Platonic sense, mere participations; the nostalgic yearning for a past age must consequently be tempered by a sense of the merely partial goodness of any age.

Yet that goodness is a real goodness; and insofar as it is good, it really does bear in it something that pertains to all times. Every instantiation of the good is also, to that extent, a model of goodness. Thus, the past is always, in some sense, a model for the present. In a certain sense, indeed, of the three elements of time, the past is the most privileged model for the present. Memory is our storehouse, our reservoir of inspiration; the past holds the potency for the continual actualization of good things in the present, and into the future. We can only act now, in the present, on the basis of what we have already received; and we receive from eternity not only in the present, but also through the past. We are receivers before we are doers; what we receive is the model of our doing. The passio essendi is the ground of our conatus essendi. 

One might say that, in moral terms, the virtue of the present is the virtue of prudence. Prudence is the facility to judge concerning the present moment, in which it is imperative to act. Prudence determines right action insofar as the rightness of action is conditioned by the present as such, i.e. the circumstances and situation of the actor. Prudential judgments are made on a case-by-case basis. However, there is a tendency in modern approaches to ethics to reduce morality to prudence - that is, to make circumstantial judgment the sole factor of moral deliberation. According to such an ethics, the only principles of action in the circumstances of the present are...the circumstances of the present. From this attitude, there arises a destructive disdain for history as the reservoir of moral example: one cannot learn anything morally substantive from the past, after all, if the only principle of action in the present is itself the present. If prudence were the only virtue, there could be no virtue in looking to the past for wisdom or guidance, nor in looking to the example and advice of one's elders, nor those more experienced than oneself - nor in unchanging moral principles. History is reduced to curiosity; tradition is rendered meaningless; and there are no eternal principles, but only "prudence."

This is a catastrophically destructive moral reductionism. It is necessary to affirm, against such a reductionism, the abiding relevance and repeatability of permanent principles. Traditionalism is this affirmation, with a stress on the historicity of such principles in their instantiation. In this sense, traditionalism is simply a companion of realism. In ethics, traditionalism claims that moral principles do not change with the fluctuation of human and cultural situations, even as prudence must be exercised in accordance with such situations. Prudence is not, for the traditionalist, merely an account of circumstances, but an evaluation of them against eternal principles of action. But such an evaluation does not take place totally apart from any consideration of prior instances of the principles; principle are only known, after all, through such instances - universals through particulars.

A sense of history and tradition is thus fundamentally necessary for a sense of permanence. A sense of the past is necessary for tradition. This sense must, of course, be properly informed by reliable insight into the lessons of history, and the relationship of historical circumstances to the eternal principles which are their measure. Such insight may indeed reveal some historical eras to display a sense of reverence for permanent things more perfectly than other eras. A true sense of history should be open to the discovery of this inequality of historical eras: some times truly are better than others. A true sense of the givenness of history resigns to, even embraces this fact as something contingent but providential. This is not merely to yearn for a different era; such a longing is ultimately something naive, from a pragmatic and prudential point of view. Nonetheless, the differences of historical circumstances is no excuse to neglect earlier periods as somehow paradigmatic or exemplary for the present age. On the other hand, it is also true that a sense of the givenness of history must also resign to the fact that both past and present ages come with many imperfections - for indeed, every age does. But this resignation is not complacency: one does not, in resigning to imperfection, give up the struggle to act now for the better. These are consequently two sides of the same coin of a balanced traditionalism, properly informed by the contingency of history against the background of permanent principles.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Me Elsewhere

I have a short article up at Peregrine Magazine on Liturgy and the Common Good. This article was partially inspired by reading Pope Benedict in The Spirit of the Liturgy, and also by reading Charles DeKoninck on The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists. In order to recover a true sense of politics, there needs to be recovered a sense of the eminently political activity: a work that is ordered to contemplation, directly involving the community in the common good. The liturgy is precisely such an activity. An excerpt:
Liturgical worship is accordingly an eminently political activity, perhaps the very highest political activity, since it is the principal communal act of the perfect polis which is the Church. In liturgical worship, the community, precisely as a community of persons, engages in the activity of contemplation of the common good. Conversely, in the liturgy, this highest good diffuses itself into the multitude of believers, as the good is wont to do. This is the very essence of Eucharistic communion, in which the goodness of God is poured out among all the worshipers, without thereby being diminished in any way, but binding the community together in the mystical body of Christ. It is in the liturgy that the desire of all things for participation in the divine good, the return to their first principle, is fulfilled. It is here that all aspects of life receive their final ordination to God the universal final cause. In practically every conceivable way, the liturgical act is the most perfect of all human acts, because it is the most divine – it is the work of God, opus Dei, in which we participate as priests and worshipers. 
Read the rest here

Friday, 6 April 2018

A Note on Reductionism

Reductionism is a perverted tendency linked to the discovery of something that is, often genuinely, good or important. The problem with the reductionist is that, in discovering something good, he wishes to insist upon the exclusivity of that which he has discovered: there are no goods besides the good which he can now claim as his own, since he has discovered or acknowledged it. Reductionism is a kind of pride, a perverse pleasure taken in the goodness of something which is "most important," to the exclusion of all other goods. 

Oftentimes, the reductionist correctly identifies something as important, incorrectly identifies it as the most important element of some system or organization. Materialists reduce the real world to matter, because they have discovered at least something good and true about the effect that matter has on the construction of the world. Rationalists, on the contrary, reduce everything to reason and logic, because they have perceived something good and true about the effect of rationality upon thought - sometimes even upon reality. I have also heard one description of existential Thomism which characterizes it as the tendency to reduce all knowledge to metaphysics - because adherents of this school have recognized something true and good about the importance of metaphysics. These are very broad descriptions; there are many kinds of materialists and rationalists and existential Thomists, but among them all, reductionism describes the tendency to identify the good thing which they have discovered as the only one; all else is either unimportant or non-existent.

Sometimes, indeed, the reductionist is even correct in identifying something as being somehow the "most important." One may indeed correctly maintain that metaphysics is the "most important" of all the sciences; but the reductionist consequently tends to reduce all knowledge to metaphysics, so much so that the natural sciences, the mathematics, the arts, etc., begin to find less and less of a place in human knowledge. 

Another common example of this latter form of reductionism, which correctly identifies something as most important yet incorrectly reduces all of reality or knowledge to that one thing, is the the form of liturgical reductionism which correctly identifies the Eucharist as the most important and central element of the liturgy, and yet consequently tends to disregard or even discard all other elements, as if they were merely accidental. 

Contrary to this reductionist tendency, simply because metaphysics is the most important science does not mean the others may be neglected; on the contrary, it may indeed be necessary to grasp the natural sciences, natural philosophy, even mathematics, in order to grasp metaphysics; that is, precisely because metaphysics is the most important science, it is necessary to have meticulous care for the subordinate sciences. Likewise, precisely because the Eucharist is the most important and central element of the liturgy, all other parts of the liturgy must be assiduously cared for. That which is most sacred or most noble in any hierarchical system - the hierarchy of sciences or of the liturgy, for example - is protected and preserved in its very sacredness precisely by the "trappings" and surroundings in which it is enshrined. A final cause is best attained by the most loving and careful attention to those which are ordered to it, for its sake.

The reductionist might truly discover the Good; but he forgets the Good tends to diffuse and share itself with other goods, expand and extend itself indefinitely - not close in upon itself and make itself smaller.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Traditional Vigil of Easter – Part 2: From the Blessing of the Font to the Vigil Mass; General Conclusion

The Harrowing of Hell

(Continued from Part 1.)

Following the twelve prophecies, in the traditional rite, the baptismal water is blessed in the font. There is much significance to the baptismal character of Easter, as indicated already in the twelve lessons. Baptism is a spiritual regeneration, a resurrection, a rising from the dead. Christ's resurrection is the source of the baptismal efficacy. With Christ we too rise from a spiritual death. After He died, He descended into hell to draw into eternal life the fathers of the old covenant who waited there. The catechumens who are traditionally baptized today symbolize these fathers, and the conferring baptism parallels the resurrection of their souls from the death of hell. 

The blessing of the font is one liturgical event in which the architecture of the church building bears much symbolic importance. Traditionally, the baptismal font is placed in a room, called the baptistery, near the entrance of the church, to symbolize that baptism is the sacred initiation or entrance into the Church itself, the beginning of membership among the sacred people who constitute the mystical Body of Christ. The baptistery itself was in the shape of an octagon, to signify baptism as the representation of the eighth day of creation, a day which signifies the renewal of creation, and hence the renewal of life itself – resurrection. In the Old Testament, circumcision occurred on the eighth day after the child’s birth. Jewish liturgical celebrations were often extended over a period of eight days. God Himself rested on the seventh, a fact which implicitly contains the truth that the eighth is when the cycle of creation begins anew, but in a higher and more perfect way. Christ Himself rested in the sepulcher on the seventh day of the week, and rose on the next day. This symbolism of the number eight deeply penetrates the entire structure of the traditional liturgy, and has been lost in other areas besides Holy Week; hence it is a subject of its own. But it is especially relevant tonight, on the vigil of Easter, which is the first and foremost celebration of the Eighth Day: new life, new creation, regeneration, and resurrection, all of which take a certain form in baptism. 

Since the blessing of the font occurs in the baptistery, the clergy must process from the sanctuary to the back of the church, and the faithful follow them. This procession is accompanied by the chanting of Psalm 41, the Sicut Cervus, famously set to polyphony by Giovanni Palestrina. This chant has a ritual and symbolic function: those who process towards the font of baptism, particularly if they be catechumens, are like the deer who longs for the fountain of living water; and they express this longing in the sacred chant itself, as they process towards the living water which they seek. The blessing of the font then occurs, followed by the administration of the sacrament of baptism. Then all return to the main part of the church, whilst singing the Litany of the Saints, who make up the body of Christ’s Church, to signify the welcoming of the newly christened by the holy people of God.

This sequence of the ritual has been heavily changed in the reform of 1955, in a manner that is often symbolically and ritually unintelligible. First, I would argue that it is itself an element of the current liturgical crisis that the symbolism of architecture is so lacking in most churches built from the 60s and 70s onward. Traditionally, the church space is just as much a part of the liturgy as any other element; it is not a merely functional space, but an element of the ritual. Few churches now retain the octagonal baptistery at the entrance of the church, which is but one example of the lack of appreciation for liturgical symbolism. Secondly, in the reform of the specific ritual for the Easter vigil, this symbolism has been distorted even more inexcusably by several changes: the blessing of the baptismal water occurs, not in a font, but in a bucket that is placed, not in the back of the church, but in the sanctuary. This has the result that even the unbaptized may enter the Holy of Holies itself, a privilege not traditionally granted even to the baptized laity. Thus, the symbolism of baptism as the entrance into the Church is gone, and there is a complete loss of the hierarchical distinction between the sanctuary and the nave - the space of the priests, and the space of the laity. After any baptisms have been conferred, there is a rite, wholly novel, of the renewal of baptismal promises, preceded by an exhortation that is stylistically incongruent with the traditional Roman rite. The idea of a renewal of baptismal promises is itself theologically dubious, to say the least, and introduces a man-centeredness that distracts from the authentic focus of worship. This is followed by a communal praying of the Lord’s prayer, which is traditionally prayed by the celebrant alone until the final phrase, sed libera nos a malo. This prayer too is preceded by an exhortation that is stylistically inappropriate, and bears the marks of modern sentimentality rather than traditional liturgical piety. A focus on the community acting together has been introduced where previously the focus was entirely on the liturgical action itself (the real point of the Christian community). Further, the Litany of the Saints has been split into two parts, the first sung before the blessing of the baptismal bucket, and the second afterwards – an interruption that is unjustified in itself, and is moreover unintelligible from a symbolic point of view. Further still, the Sicut Cervus is sung after the blessing of the font and the baptisms, whilst the newly blessed baptismal water is carried to the actual font, wherever that is located. The ritual and symbolism of this sacred text has thus been completely lost: the text speaks of one who thirsts for the water of baptism which he has not yet received; and yet, while it is sung, the baptisms have already been conferred, and this text is no longer relevant to the actual ritual. It is now merely decorative, much like the Exsultet earlier.

Following these rituals, in both the old and the new rites, the mass of the vigil is celebrated. As mentioned earlier, the time of the mass in the new rite differs from the traditional time of its celebration and its character as anticipation – i.e. not a "first mass of Easter Sunday." Traditionally, the mass was not even the most important part of the vigil, symbolically. The traditional vigil mass was only a partial celebration of Easter, since it reintroduces some of the liturgical signs of joy, but in a restrained fashion. This was in accord with its time of celebration, which was just before Vespers, on the evening of Holy Saturday, near sunset. Thus, in place of a Communion antiphon there was sung an abbreviated form of Vespers. This means that later in the night, in the traditional office, the sacred hour of Matins of Easter would be sung, followed by Lauds. As Matins is the most important hour of the divine office, and tonight is the most important night of the year, it was crucial that these be sung as the formal beginning of the celebration of Easter itself. But in the reform of 1955, tonight's Matins has been entirely lost, due perhaps to a dubious historical opinion that the twelve prophecies constituted a kind of Matins and that tonight's mass belonged properly to Easter Sunday itself. This opinion is long outdated, and clashes with the very character of the vigil liturgy. Hence, at the end of the mass, instead of Vespers there is sung an abbreviated Lauds, which itself falls far short of the traditional Lauds. This had at least two notable effects: first, the ritual character of the Easter vigil mass, which is still that of an incomplete celebration of the resurrection, is now simply incongruent with its celebration as a first mass of Easter Sunday itself. Secondly, the most important hour of the office, namely Matins, is now in fact nonexistent for the most important night of the entire year. This is perhaps one of the worst aspects of the new Holy Week, especially if one takes the very plausible interpretation that it was precisely at the hours of Matins and Lauds that the Church traditionally understood the Resurrection itself to take place. This is symbolically the most sacred moment of the liturgical year. In short, the upgrade of the vigil mass to a first mass of Easter Sunday has yielded nothing but liturgical incongruity, and has rid us moreover of the most important moment of the entire liturgical cycle.

Some concluding remarks: The foregoing account which I have given, as lengthy as it is, is by no means a complete or adequate treatment. Much more could be said in depth concerning the loss of symbolism and theological significance in the new rite. I will simply state some of the most important things here, in a general way. The mystery of Easter is in many ways the most complete and all-encompassing mystery of the Christian faith and its liturgical expression. The Resurrection of Christ is the defining moment in the history of salvation and man’s relation to God. On Palm Sunday, we saw a figure of Christ throwing open the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem by the power of the cross, hailed by palm and olive branches; and we beheld a figure of ourselves following Him into Jerusalem by participation in the triumph of His death. On Good Friday, the mystery of Christ’s death actually takes place. The flipside of that mystery is the Resurrection, which completes Christ’s triumph by the cross. He has conquered death and come to life again, never again to be subject to death. In order to follow Him into the New Jerusalem, we must share in His winning eternal life, eternal victory over death. We must therefore share not only in His death by the cross, but also His resurrection from the tomb. This we do first by the sacrament of baptism, by which we are immersed, “buried,” with Christ, and rise again with new life, the life of God – a new creation, the realization of the eighth day. But this first resurrection is continued as we take advantage of its fruits by living out the Christian mystery into which it has initiated us; and this we do especially by the liturgy itself, which seems to offer us this day the very means of participation in the mystery through the sacred symbols, which are an extension of the sacraments. The symbolism of light in the New Fire and the Paschal Candle, the many layers of symbolism contained in the sacred texts of the Prophecies, and the symbolism of water and baptism in the blessing of the font, the placing of the font in the architectural setting, etc. - all of these point, in all their details, to the mystery of Resurrection in the myriad ways through which it manifests itself in God’s revelation. The liturgy itself seems to proclaim to us: “See! Here is the Resurrection of Christ, which is also your resurrection, presented before you so that you may take hold of it for yourself, and participate in it, so that you might become gods through Christ, the God-Man!” The drastic reduction and distortion of this symbolism has the effect of diminishing that very participation to which the traditional rite exhorted us, since we can no longer see in the sacred rituals the meaning of those symbols; and our contemplation of the sacred mysteries is thereby impaired.

The liturgical heritage of the Church is not merely a thing of sentimental nostalgic value, but is the most precious element of our religion, the sacred means of God’s worship and of our deification, which God Himself has bequeathed to us through tradition. Therefore the liturgy is something which we must preserve according to its tradition, and not reinvent according to our own fancies, lest we hinder our own sanctification by a kind of liturgical Pelagianism. Liturgical symbolism is not merely a poetic pleasantry to accompany our acts of piety; rather, it is itself the means whereby we encounter God in His mysteries - an encounter which is indispensable for the transformation of our souls, and for the true worship of God, who reveals Himself to us only in His mysteries.