With Serenity and Humility

A few people have asked me if my personal assessment of “the reform of the reform” means that, somehow, I have decided to shun the vast majority of Catholics who continue to worship using the rites and texts in the current reformed liturgical books. Nothing could be further from my mind and heart. I am well aware that in dioceses and parishes all over the globe an immediate reviviscence of the older liturgical forms is not realistic. It will, I think, happen slowly but inexorably, as new generations discover, here and there, thriving centres of traditional Catholic worship in which, as Joseph Ratzinger once said, “beauty is at home”, and in which the mysteries of the faith are transmitted with integrity, with serenity, and with profound humility.  Such centres will, I believe, over time, exercise an attractive, not a coercive, force over parishes and other religious communities, drawing them freely to re–engage with the Church’s traditional liturgical rites.

The Privilege of Liminality

I write, of course, as a monk and not as a parish priest. Monasteries take root, flower, and bear fruit in a liminal territory that begins where the secular city ends and that stretches into the uncharted vastness of the desert. The immerited privilege of this sacred liminality allows monks the space and the freedom to reclaim, preserve, and transmit elements of the liturgical tradition that may, for the time being, remain remote and inaccessible to ranks upon ranks of generous priests engaged in the care of souls.

A Weary Veteran Lately Come Home

After having devoted nearly forty years to a worthy “reform of the reform”; after having taught and defended the Novus Ordo Missae to the best of my ability; after having composed — to a certain acclaim, even from a dean of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Liturgy — an entire monastic antiphonal in modal plainchant for the French liturgical texts; after having composed hundreds of plainchant settings for the Proper of the Mass in the vernacular; after having fought mightily for the restoration of the Proper Chants of the Mass; after having argued to the point of exhaustion for an intelligent obedience to the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani; after having poured myself out in lectures and in preaching to priests, seminarians, and religious, I am obliged to conclude that I could have better spent my time and my energy humbly carrying out the traditional liturgy such as I discovered it — and such as I so loved it — in the joy of my youth. I say this not with bitterness but with the seasoned resignation of a weary veteran lately come home from an honourable defeat in the liturgical Thirty Years War.

Good Neighbours All the Same

I respect those priests and layfolk who continue to believe in “the reform of the reform”. I honour their devotion and perseverance but, from where I stand and at this point in my life, I think their energy misplaced. Life is short. I can no longer advise others to devote the most productive years of their life to patching up a building that was, manifestly, put up with haste during a boom in frenzied construction; it has shifting foundations, poor insulation, defective fixtures, and a leaky roof.  Right next door, there is another old house, comely, solidly built, and in good repair. It may need a minor adjustment here or there, but it is a house in which one feels at home and in which it is good to live, and it is there that I choose to live out my days. If others choose to live in the “fix–up” next door, I can only wish them well, confident that we can live as good neighbours all the same, with frequent chats over the fence in the back garden, exchanging insights, and perhaps even learning something from one another.

Thomas Merton

One the things I have learned over the past forty years, and this amidst the taedium of much dura et aspera, is that monks (and nuns) who profess the contemplative life gained nothing from changing the forms, content, and language of the sacred liturgy. Liturgical change swept through monasteries like a hurricane, leaving the most pitiful destruction in its wake. Did the so–called liturgical renewal in monasteries give rise to an increase in vocations? Did it generate a more generous commitment to the touchstones of sound monastic observance? Did it foster a greater zeal for the Opus Dei? Few monasteries have recovered from the ensuing decades of liturgical unrest. Even Thomas Merton, when first he caught wind of imminent liturgical changes, warned of the the danger menacing the enclosed contemplative life. In 1964 he wrote to Dom Ignace Gillet, then Abbot General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance:

This is what I think about the Latin and the chant: They are masterpieces, which offer us an irreplaceable monastic and Christian experience. They have a force, an energy, a depth without equal. All the proposed English offices are very much impoverished in comparison–besides, it is not at all impossible to make such things understood and appreciated. Generally I succeed quite well in this, in the novitiate, with some exceptions, naturally, who did not understand well. But I must add something more serious. As you know, I have many friends in the world who are artists, poets, authors, editors, etc. Now they are well able to appreciate our chant and even our Latin. But they are all, without exception, scandalized and grieved when I tell them that probably this Office, this Mass will no longer be here in ten years. And that is the worst. The monks cannot understand this treasure they possess, and they throw it out to look for something else, when seculars, who for the most part are not even Christians, are able to love this incomparable art.

Bare Ruin’d Choirs

The liturgical reforms of the 1960s and 70s wrenched the interior of life of more than one monk off its axis. The blessed monotony of the psalter, repeated week after week in familiar accents borne aloft on a plainsong at once sturdy and lightsome, gave way to distributions of a vernacular psalter over two, three, and even four weeks, in flagrant violation both of the Rule of Saint Benedict and even of the objective laws of anthropology. I shall never forget the anguish generated by trying to invent new psalm tones suited to the vernacular, all the while clinging desperately in my heart to the chants of the Antiphonale Monasticum that had taken root there. Memories of the traditional liturgy persisted, through the winter of my discontent, like the lovely blossoms of the crocus, in trying to pierce the frozen crust that had been laid over my hortus conclusus.  The “bare ruin’d choirs” of so many abbeys today attest, sadly, to the inward wreckage wrought by liturgical innovation, even when carried out, as it usually was, with the best intentions, and out of a skewed notion of uncritical obedience to what was misrepresented as “the mind of the Church”.

Paul VI

I say misrepresented because, although Pope Paul VI wavered on liturgical questions, sided, in some matters, with the most iconoclastic reformists, and even authorised the most dubious innovations, Sacrosanctum Concilium itself, (particularly when read through the lens of Mediator Dei, as it must be in order to be understood correctly) and certain of the same Pontiff’s more personal pronouncements called for something quite different from what became the order of the day.  For instance, Pope Paul VI, in writing Sacrificium Laudis to the superiors of clerical religious of men in August 1966, did not shrink from calling them to obedience in matter close to his own heart:

In present conditions, what words or melodies could replace the forms of Catholic devotion which you have used until now? You should reflect and carefully consider whether things would not be worse, should this fine inheritance be discarded. It is to be feared that the choral office would turn into a mere bland recitation, suffering from poverty and begetting weariness, as you yourselves would perhaps be the first to experience. One can also wonder whether men would come in such numbers to your churches in quest of the sacred prayer, if its ancient and native tongue, joined to a chant full of grave beauty, resounded no more within your walls. We therefore ask all those to whom it pertains, to ponder what they wish to give up, and not to let that spring run dry from which, until the present, they have themselves drunk deep.

Of course, the Latin language presents some difficulties, and perhaps not inconsiderable ones, for the new recruits to your holy ranks. But such difficulties, as you know, should not be reckoned insuperable. This is especially true for you, who can more easily give yourselves to study, being more set apart from the business and bother of the world. Moreover, those prayers, with their antiquity, their excellence, their noble majesty, will continue to draw to you young men and women, called to the inheritance of our Lord. On the other hand, that choir from which is removed this language of wondrous spiritual power, transcending the boundaries of the nations, and from which is removed this melody proceeding from the inmost sanctuary of the soul, where faith dwells and charity burns – We speak of Gregorian chant – such a choir will be like to a snuffed candle, which gives light no more, no more attracts the eyes and minds of men.

In any case, beloved Sons, the requests mentioned above concern such grave matters that We are unable to grant them, or to derogate now from the norms of the Council and of the Instructions noted above. Therefore we earnestly beseech you that you would consider this complex question under all its aspects. From the good will which we have toward you, and from the good opinion which we have of you, We are unwilling to allow that which could make your situation worse, and which could well bring you no slight loss, and which would certainly bring a sickness and sadness upon the whole Church of God. Allow Us to protect your interests, even against your own will. It is the same Church which has introduced the vernacular into the sacred liturgy for pastoral reasons, that is, for the sake of people who do not know Latin, which gives you the mandate of preserving the age-old solemnity, beauty and dignity of the choral office, in regard both to language, and to the chant.

Obey, then, these prescriptions sincerely and calmly. It is not an excessive love of old ways that prompts them. They derive, rather, from Our fatherly love for you, and from Our concern for divine worship.

The Old Passion for Things Once Loved

This compelling mandate met, not with filial obedience, but, in most quarters, with indifference and with a dismissive hubris. Even today, forty–eight years later, there are monasteries where the clear mandate of Sacrificium Laudis is utterly unknown. I no longer dream of making an active contribution, however humbly, to a restoration of the sacred liturgy. I am, for the most part, content to return quietly to my choir stall, day after day, and hour after hour, there to chant the changeless praises of the unchanging God. I am, it is true, bone–weary of bloody campaigns in the liturgical Thirty Years War; there are, nonetheless, moments when, to my own surprise, the old passion for things once loved, then lost, and now regained, blazes up and compels me to write.