Sunday, July 29, 2007

The World, the Flesh, the Devil...And the Good Tunes

Last Sunday, I drove through a strange liturgical neighborhood. I attended a Tridentine Low Mass, the Latin rite that took hold in the 16th century, was abandoned in the 1960s for Mass in the local language and is poised for a revival now that Pope Benedict XVI has swept away the last bureaucratic obstacles to its use...Pope Benedict insists he is not taking the church on a nostalgia trip. He wants to re-energize it, and hopes that the Latin Mass, like an immense celestial object, will exert gravitational pull on the faithful. Unless the church, which once had a problem with the law of gravity, can repeal inertia, too, then silent, submissive worship won’t go over well. Laypeople, women especially, have kept this battered institution going in a secular, distracted age. Reasserting the unchallenged authority of ordained men may fit the papal scheme for a purer church. But to hand its highest form of public worship entirely back to Father makes Latin illiterates like me irate. It’s easy enough to see where this is going: same God, same church, but separate camps, each with an affinity for vernacular or Latin, John XXIII or Benedict XVI. Smart, devout, ambitious Catholics — ecclesial young Republicans, home-schoolers, seminarians and other shock troops of the faith — will have their Mass. The rest of us — a lumpy assortment of cafeteria Catholics, guilty parents, peace-’n’-justice lefties, stubborn Vatican II die-hards — will have ours.

Now wait a minute: what is the connection between Latin and "the unchallenged authority of ordained men"? Why assume that the Latin Mass was the property of ecclesial young Republicans and home-schoolers" while cafeteria Catholics and peace-'n'-justice lefties would naturally prefer keyboard, guitars and Cumbayah? Why assume that anything formal, fancy, exotic or aesthetically interesting was inherently devilish--at least from the lefty point of view?

That's what we assumed during the dullest days of the 1970s--and not only, or primarily, when it came ecclesiastical matters. Disgusted, and exhausted with the War in Vietnam, all patriotic symbols and ceremonies were of course the work of the devil: people like us would never fly the flag, watch parades or participate in any of the ceremonies associated with the American liturgical year. But that wasn't the whole of it, or even most of it: all ceremony, formality and costume was suspect. There would be no dress-up occasions (I was happy about that), no formal events, no dances, no proms or white weddings. I graduated from college wearing a dress I got at the Rummage Shop in town: my class had voted to forgo caps and gowns in order to use the money we would have spent on renting regalia to create a scholarship fund for students from "the Chicago ghetto" as we put it--even though one faculty member pointed out that they money we saved wouldn't pay for more than 2 weeks at Lake Forest College. I was married in my graduation dress a year later. Marriage was generally frowned upon because it was an "empty ceremony"--and in every context, "ceremony" was always preceded by "empty"--which benefited selfish, castrating women. If you insisted on getting married, you had better get married in street clothes or ethnic costume, preferable in the middle of a field, assure friends that the "piece of paper" meant nothing to you and that you were only getting married to extract money from your parents and collect presents. Catholics stowed the silverware and bought up earthen vessels, Jimmy Carter preached from an unheated White House in his cardigan and all the country went into penitential earth tones.

Then the US turned sharp right because Reagan promised Morning in America--light, color and joy, parades and patriotic ceremonies, dances, proms, graduations in regalia and white weddings, money, cars and suburban homes, and an end to the penitence and self-castigation. As an undergraduate during the days of demonstrations and teach-ins I thought that I'd been born too late and would never get this--never get the academic job I wanted because universities would fold, never own a house or car, never be married or have children. Now it seemed like there was a possibility of living the life I wanted to live--but it meant supporting the conservative agenda. There was a choice. The Right offered what I'd always wanted and thought I'd missed: a real career and interesting work, the possibility of owning a house, a car and a family. The Left offered, at best, the society in which I lived in our gritty 4th floor walk-up in a New York City slum--people like me working in crappy little jobs in publishing, journalism or the arts, in a world where no one was married or given in marriage and the very idea of having children was completely off the map--but at worst the world of the friends I'd left behind, living in even crappier apartments or sharing houses, waitressing to support boyfriends engaged in the serious business of reading Marcuse, singing old union songs and planning the Revolution, soaking and cooking dried beans and being a good sport when their men moved on to other chickies--not being clingy, castrating bitches when it was time, we were told, to let go.

I didn't believe it, at least not after I graduated from college in my rummage shop regalia. I realized that I didn't have to buy into the conservative agenda to have a career, a house, a car and a family, and I fought for all I was worth to get those things. Still there was that idea that anything that was even a mite tasty was bad and in particular that any ceremony, formality or costume was inherently right-wing. You could, perhaps, go to Fourth of July ceremonies and enjoy the festivities, but it had to be done in the spirit of irony. Any ceremony was tainted, a symbol for the Right marking territory.

So it was with religious ceremonies, like the mass in Latin. Like the Pope, the author of this op-ed piece views it as a marker of territory, a symbol of the ecclesial young Republicans and home-schoolers capturing turf. He does not get the idea that people might like it for what it is, simply because they like fancy clothes and Latin. His view seems to be that every practice is a symbol of some political or theological agenda, with little or no intrinsic value, and that right-thinking people, that lumpy assortment of cafeteria Catholics and peaceniks, will of course prefer guitars and keyboards and the Peace. The assumption is that no one can possibly be interested in religion as such, that religion can only be a symbol of some ulterior social and political agenda, that anyone who dislikes the 1970s earthtone mass and the utterly detestable Peace must really have some conservative ecclesial young Republican homeschooling agenda going. They just do not get the idea that religion as such might be important to people, not as a symbol of some conservative program, but in and of itelf.

I'm not Catholic, but sometimes I think that after 25 years at a Catholic college I might as well be. I've never experienced the Latin mass in a liturgical setting but I have sure as hell sung it, early in my life and often. I love church Latin: it has pure vowels and sings well. I loved above all things singing the mass, the Te Deum, the Magnificat, the Regina Coeli and all the good church music in Latin. I love Aquinas' hymns, O Saluturis Hostia, Tantem Ergo, Adoro Te Devote--though I think I love singing Anglican chant even better. I joined the Church because when I was 14 I sang the Schubert Mass in G, that sweet thing that every amateur choir sings. Why doesn't this guy get that this is what people want--that wonderful Latin, and the thrill of transcendence, the mysticism and aesthetic pleasure? Why doesn't he understand that it isn't the good liberal values people dislike but guitars and keyboards, priests dressed in gunny sacks, chickies singing into mikes, carpeted churches with theater seats, and the utterly hateful Peace because it's boring, emotionally flat, dull, pious, puritanical, embarrassing, puerile, sentimental and sickening--Jimmy Carter in his earthtone sweater nagging us to be nice and not to have too much fun.

No comments: