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The Spirituality of the Ancient Liturgy, Part II

(From Latin Mass Magazine, Summer 2001)

By Fr. Chad Ripperger, F.S.S.P.

II. Self Denial, Detachment and Mortification

The second spiritual aspect of the ancient ritual that is manifest in a number of ways in the old rite is the sense of self-denial and mortification. One of the clearest manifestations of this self-denial is the old rite’s silence. When we meet someone who has the vice of loquacity, of talking too much, it is usually because the person is full of himself. It is a fact of human nature that any time we do something that is in accord with our physical dispositions, we get a certain pleasure from it. People often speak of being in the “mood” for certain things and not others, and when they get the thing that corresponds to their mood, they experience a certain pleasure in it. Talking is much the same way: the appetites can become attached to talking, and this is precisely what the old rite militates against. By requiring the silence of the people, it provides an opportunity for the appetitive desire to talk to be stripped from those in attendance.

I have had many discussions with laity who come to the old rite for the first time and they often find an appetitive revulsion to the ritual because of the silence. They do not express it exactly that way, of course, but as they talk it becomes clear that they do not like the fact that they are not being talked at and not doing some of the talking themselves. St. John of the Cross used to say that before he would enter into mystical contemplation his “house,” as he called himself, became all quiet; and by this he meant that all of his appetites and faculties had quieted down. This is a sign to us that we must be quiet, we must be stripped of self in order to ascend the heights of perfection, and the old Mass aids that understanding. Moreover, it teaches us that we do not have to be the center of attention by talking in order for the ritual to have a deeper meaning and significance.

The old ritual also fosters a sense of detachment on the side of the priest and the people because the ritual is completely determined by Holy Mother the Church. We see in the Old Testament that God gave very detailed instructions on how He was to be worshiped. This is key in understanding the liturgy in two ways. The first is that the liturgy is not our action, it is the action of God by means of the priest; it is not something we do, it is essentially something God does, for the consecration cannot take place without God Who is the first cause of the Sacrifice. The second way is that it is God, and not ourselves, Who determines how we will worship Him. This has been one of the most notable failings in modern times: a desire to determine for ourselves how we will worship God. It is erroneous because it is up to God to tell us the type of worship that pleases or displeases Him and, therefore, only He should be the one to determine the ritual. It was mentioned earlier that God had fashioned the liturgy over the course of time through the saints, who were filled with love of God – everything they did came from Him and led back to Him. The old rite teaches us the important spiritual lesson that if we are going to be holy and pleasing to God, then our task is to conform to the liturgy and not make the liturgy something of our own doing or make it conform to us.

Furthermore, since it is God who must determine the ritual, we learn that the Mass is not about us but about God. We are only a secondary aspect of the rite. This is made clear in the ancient ritual in that control over the liturgy is taken away from us, and we thereby recognize that it is not about us. While our desire is to benefit from the Mass, our benefit ultimately must be referred back to God; that is to say, we become holy because it gives God greater glory. So even the aspects that affect us are ultimately about God.

The traditional rite, by determining how the ritual is to be done, provides two important spiritual benefits for the priest. The first is peace, for he can go and conform himself to the will of God by following the rubrics of the Mass since they are predetermined; as a priest I cannot say what a great sense of freedom this gives. He does not have to fret over what he will choose and say because he is worried about what the congregation may think. He does not have to listen to a liturgical committee trying to tell him what to do. The second is that it teaches the priest self-denial and sometimes mortification when the ritual is out of his hands. The Mass is not about the priest; it does not have to be sustained by his personality. Obviously only a priest can offer the Mass, but he can lose and forget himself when the whole ritual is determined by the Church, which is the Vox Dei, the Voice of God. It makes it possible for him to forget himself and everything else so that he can perfectly enter into the mystery and the sacred realities present, and thereby derive the greatest benefit from them. In a most perfect fashion, he acts in persona Christi – in the person of Christ – because his own personality is minimized and he can become more like Christ. Since he says Mass facing God and not the people, his own personality, or lack thereof, is not what sustains the ritual. He is able to let his own personality fade into the background so that he can concentrate fully on attending to God. Here when we talk of service, the priest serves God first and foremost. Too often when the term “service” is used in conjunction with the priesthood, it usually means some type of social service, rather than its real meaning of service to God.

The old Mass has only two kinds of options, both of which are heavily regulated. The first is that on certain days, according to certain conditions, votive Masses can be said; but that is something exterior to the ritual. The second is that under certain circumstances and on certain days, predetermined optional prayers may be added to the propers, e.g., to pray for rain, for peace, or something of this sort. But these are heavily regulated so that the priest understands that while he may choose to do them, when and how are not entirely up to him. The point is that options within the ritual should be minimized in order to foster obedience to superiors, self-denial and the reduction of self-will, all of which are necessary to the spiritual life. If many options are allowed, it actually militates against the priest’s self-denial and it fosters self-will, since the ritual becomes subject to his choice. It also leaves him with the impression that the liturgy is really his doing rather than an action performed by God through him.

Lack of options teaches the priest detachment and it also teaches the laity self-denial because they know they cannot try to manipulate the priest to do in the liturgy what they want, since it is out of his hands. Detachment is key to any discussion of the liturgy and any sound spiritual life. Modern man has lost all detachment regarding the liturgy and he is constantly subjecting it to his appetites. But we need detachment, and any discussion of liturgical restoration requires that people first detach themselves from what they want so that they can know what God wants. Furthermore, the multitude of options and lack of detachment in the liturgy has led to a type of Immanentism. Immanentism is a philosophy or notion which holds that everything of importance is about us and comes from us. If it is not from us, then it has no meaning or significance. Immanentism comes from the two Latin words in and manere which mean to remain in. Since man is incapable of reaching the heavens on his own (Babel and the Pelagian heresies have clearly demonstrated that), the liturgy must be from God and about God in order to draw us out of ourselves and to foster any sense of the transcendent, the striving for which is deeply rooted in the heart of man.

The ancient liturgy also provides a depth to one’s spiritual life for three reasons. The first is that it takes us out of ourselves and brings us to God; if we remain in ourselves and if we fashion a liturgy that is at our whim and ultimately about us, then we are doomed to shallowness and superficiality. Rather, insofar as the liturgy is out of our hands, we recognize that it is beyond us, it is mysterious, and insofar as it is about God, it can forever be contemplated. The second is that it is founded on tradition. Tradition provides a mechanism in which man can abandon himself to God who fashions the tradition rather than taking control of it himself and jettisoning the tradition. In other words, tradition provides a mechanism by which the spiritual and liturgical patrimony of the saints can be given to each generation, who can use it to their spiritual benefit. Like someone who does not know his historical roots and therefore does not know himself, modern man has chosen to reject liturgical tradition and replace it with himself, only to be lost in self and never truly to understand himself. Tradition provides a way for the young to ground themselves in the wisdom of the past. This applies not only to cultural things but to the liturgy and the spiritual life as well.

The third thing that the ancient liturgy provides is repetition. Now modern man has rejected repetition because he has a fixation on novelty. Novelty, of course, gives our appetites delight but does not necessarily indicate depth. To enter into something in depth requires time and repeated considerations of a thing. Repetitio mater discendi, as we say in Latin: repetition is the mother of learning. This principle applies not only to learning but to our spiritual lives as well. By repeating a prayer, its meaning becomes more known to us and therefore is able to be entered into more perfectly and with greater depth. Since the ancient rite allows not for novelty but repetition, it provides a way in which people can focus on the mysteries present rather than the new things that are constantly popping up. With the silence quieting our faculties and the repetition that characterize each Mass, we are able to participate in and enter more perfectly into the mysteries of the Mass. Too often participation is equated with physical activity rather than the higher and more active form of participation which is spiritual participation.

(continued in a future post)

1 comment:

Dymphna said...

St. Rita's had the Tridentine tonight and it was breathtakingly beautiful.