Sunday, September 25, 2011

High Fashion in the Church?

If you want to make some people's blood pressure go through the roof, it seems all you have to do is show them a picture of Raymond Cardinal Burke in a cappa magna. For those of you who are not familiar with this rather large and cumbersome piece of ecclesiastical haberdashery, it is a very ample choir cape with a long train. The train part, which is usually carried by a cleric, was fifteen feet long, until Pius XII shortened it to a more manageable seven feet. Interestingly enough, Blessed John XXIII, the same Pope the soi-disant progressives invoke as the prophet who sang a new church into being, lengthened it back to fifteen meters. The 1969 Pauline reforms of the rather complex hierarchical dress code made it optional.

As with most things made optional, many bishops and cardinals dispensed with the use of the cappa magna entirely. So when it is seen now and again, there are howls of protests against the wearers, who are invariably accused of taking the Church back to a mythical dark age which was not as bright as the accusers convince themselves it could be if everyone just listened to them. Such an article of clothing is derided as extravagant, aristocratic, too far out of touch with modern democratic sensibilities, and a flagrant proof of narcissism on behalf of the wearer.

These same criticisms are made against a whole host of other things which have dropped out of use, such as the papal tiara or the sedia gestatoria, the throne upon which the Pope was carried into papal ceremonies. What is ironic is that the detractors do not seem to notice that Paul VI, who can hardly be accused of being one not intent on modernization, sold the tiara, not abolishing it, and used the sedia. John Paul I, during his brief reign as Pope, also used the sedia, and no one seems to want to dig him up and put him on trial for crimes against modern humanity. Benedict XVI has removed the papal tiara from his personal coat of arms, but now he is being accused of anti-ecumenical sentiments by British journalists for wearing a stole with a papal tiara on it, even though no one seemed to notice for the other six years he has worn the same stole.

The rage with which some very angry people fault the Church for not being simple and poor is uneven: it is a stick brandished at figures of the administration of Pope Benedict who do not heel to the Zeitgeist, conveniently glossing over the fact that some of the same people they virtually canonize as the heralds of the new, simple and poor church used the same things and did not ever proscribe them.

But the question does remain: what is the point of fifteen meters of red silk? Does it not send a message that the Church does not identify with the simplicity of the Gospel? And of so, is it not positively a scandal which should be excised from the Church’s actuality and memory?

There are several things which we might want to keep in consideration here.

1. The Sacred Liturgy is a public rite by which certain participants perform certain functions at certain times, functions which are signified visually and externally by actions, gestures, and vesture.

The rigid egalitarianism of our contemporary public life discerns, in the Orders part of her divinely constituted essence and liturgical roles as developed through her history, exclusivity and discrimination. At its root, the critique of certain vesture is an attack on the fact that the Church recognizes those who wear that vesture as different, set apart, and even, in the case of the ministerial priest, ontologically changed as a result of a sacrament. A view of the Church which refuses the distinction between lay and ordained will level out any physical manifestation of those distinctions. The greater the distinction is highlighted, the greater the critique.

2. The Sacred Liturgy is an action of the whole Church, but one in which the role of the hierarchal order is visible, and not merely present.

Many people reject certain forms of vesture because they feel it somehow denigrates those who are not so attired, as if it makes them second class in the Church. But the liturgy is an action of the whole Church. Nonetheless, there remain elements of that same liturgy which are not, and cannot, be celebrated by all members of the Church indistinctly. The hierarchical nature of the Church is made visible by certain actions, gestures and vesture, which indicate not only the rank of the wearer (dalmatics for deacons and mitres for bishops, for example) but also the sacred character of objects associated with divine worship (kissing hands, rings, and cruets) as well as the solemnity due to an event (the cappa magna or ferraiolo for particularly festive occasions).

Rejection of the visible signs of the hierarchy is often justified because of the lack of those signs in previous ages. But although the visible signs have changed, they have always been there. The need for the Church to assert its independence in the face of the State in some places in the Middle Ages led to the adoption of certain elements which were taken from secular court etiquette, precisely to demonstrate that the Church was its own sphere. In our own day, when the distinction between the ministerial and common priesthood has been denied, it is necessary that these distinctions continue to be visible. In an age which had other concerns, these distinctions were not as important, which explains their lack in earlier periods.

3. The Sacred Liturgy is governed by an ethos which is symbolic and not amenable to manipulation by political concerns.

The grammar of the liturgy, the structure by which ecclesiastical ceremonial is intelligible, is highly symbolic, allegorical and is part of a highly developed received tradition throughout the ages. The liturgy has a grammar which is not easily understood by many today, who seek an impoverishment of the liturgy by making it flat, univocal, immediately accessible, and literal. The liturgical pauperist does not understand or appreciate this grammar and does not conceive how the believer can live at one and the same time in a liturgical world with its own language and narrative, symbolic, allegorical and hierarchical, and the everyday world with another language, with no unifying narrative, literal, flat and egalitarian. The liturgical pauperist opts for the everyday world to the exclusion of any other world and demands that the ethos of the liturgy be conformed to that standard, and not the standard natural to it. Because the grammar of the everyday world is frequently political, the way in which the Church confronts the world, whether it be in the liturgy or in life, must be brought into conformity with is viewed as acceptable in the polis. What is acceptable in the naos is no longer a criterion to be considered.

The idea that the liturgy has its own internal grammar unrelated to the world is crucial. When it is denied, interesting things happen. Take, for example, the virtual disappearance of the amice (a symbol of the protection of the wearer from the Evil One), the maniple (of suffering, a sign of the ascetical walk of the Christian life) and the cincture (of chastity) and the frequent placement of the stole (sign of priestly authority) over or instead of the chasuble (sign of charity which covers all things). According to the grammar of the liturgy, the omission or the re-placement of these vestments has serious symbolic import. To a politicized grammar of the liturgy, they are all merely unrelated symbolic anachronisms which can be used or not according to the whim of the wearer. In contrast, the grammar of the liturgy, declined as it is according to the hierarchical nature of the Church, places all of these things in a proper order, established under the authority of the Church, and respected by everyone in communion with the Church for their role in the liturgy.

Interestingly enough, the politicization of the grammar of the liturgy has not led to an iconoclasm against symbolism in the Church. The realization that the means is the message leads many liturgical pauperists to craft a parallel language of symbolism or determine readings of symbols within the Church tradition in a key so as to invest them with political meaning and force. For example, in many places during Lent sand replaces holy water in the font to create a symbol which is alien to the Church’s rites. In other places, the traditional symbolical usages of the Church are derided, such as the adoption of the cassock by clerics, as anti-modern, anti-ecumenism, and anti-woman, when it is understand by a proper liturgical grammar, independent of political manipulations, as death to the world.

4. The Sacred Liturgy develops the visible livery of its rites in an organic development, never returning to the archaic for the sake of antiquarianism, nor proscribing the actual for the sake of relevance.

Pius XII warned against “antiquarianism” in those who sought to re-propose the externals of the liturgy in a way reminiscent of the ancient Church, with a view to, in so doing, renew the Church to a supposed purer internal form of the Church putatively existing at the time. Ironically, many use Pius XII’s argument against those who would now use vestments which they see as being uniquely post-Tridentine, charging them of antiquarianism. The adoption of Baroque chasubles, lace albs and cappas is rejected as antiquarian just as the adoption of conical chasubles, Gothic architecture, and appareled amices was rejected in the nineteenth century. The liturgy realizes that such externals grow up organically with the Church’s lived experience, and as such, are part of the common patrimony of the Church’s worship. They are always actual and never in danger of being archaic, because the liturgy is always ever ancient, ever new. It is for that reason that those externals which exist, even when they have transformed their external form and function throughout the ages (ombrellini for the Blessed Sacrament, candles on the altar to provide light, raincoat to ornately decorated cope) or cease to be common (the 15 branch candlestick for Tenebrae, the straw for reception of the Precious Blood) need not be proscribed. They certainly need not be proscribed, or prescribed, because of any presence or lack of relevance, which is not a category meaningful for the liturgy. When arguments are advanced for the prohibition of rites, vesture and music (as opposed to their legitimate reform), that indicates a politicization of the proper grammar of the liturgy.

5. The Sacred Liturgy is a place in which the arts can embellish everything in which the sacred touches the human, and such is not a transgression of evangelical simplicity but a translation of the inner wealth of Revelation to the Church which celebrates that Revelation.

There is a current which demands that, for the Church to be a credible witness to divine truth, she must model her externals as much as possible on the primitive Church gathered around Christ. Anything else is criticized as a damnable excrescence. Yet, the fount of reform is when Christians model their interior life on the virtues of Christ as experienced by the primitive Church, not on the externals. Yet because the Church exists in time, the development of her externals testifies to the way she unfolds the riches of Revelation in a visible way. She does so in many ways: principally through the witness of the saints, but secondarily through the artistic patrimony of the Church. Men and women have been inspired throughout the ages to create works of art for the service of the Church, from grand basilicas and precious chalices to simple lace handtowels and Offertory motets. In doing so, artists provide an invaluable treasure to humanity. They take the invisible content of Revelation, the encounter with Christ, and translate it through the analogy of art to something visible, beautiful, and human. The interior riches of Revelation become in some way vehicles for divine teaching. As such, the Church is the patron of the arts. And the common human patrimony which is the art used in the service of the Church is not something which can be liquidated on the demands of pressure groups who seek to bring into being a pure Church by condemning the visible manifestations of that faith.

In the beginning of this article, we asked the question: High fashion in the Church? It is very clear that the Church has inspired great art. That art is put to use in many ways, not least of which is in the adornment of her sacred ministers. For some, this is permissible because such art is a truly human work and the Church as such is the patron of such art. High fashion, then, is to be prized as part of the Church’s heritage.

But the concept of high fashion is a distinctly modern invention. To the extent that it had any genesis at all, Coco Chanel can be perhaps proposed as the woman who made possible an entire world of art through clothes. The art which accompanies sacred ministers, whether it be an Ecce Sacerdos magnus as the Ordinary is greeted at the door of a church or the graceful pleats of a monk’s cuculla may seem to some like high fashion in the Church. For some, this is permissible inasmuch as art is part of the Church’s life. For others, it is to be rejected as contrary to the purity of the Gospel.

When I was a younger man, I found what I thought was high fashion in the Church to be arrestingly beautiful. I became quite an expert on it, at least in my own mind. For me, it was a way in which tradition, art, beauty, the human and the sacred could all blend to make the Church in her dizzying complexity come across as an ordered whole. It still is. But now that I actually have to wear some of those clothes, now that I speak day in and day out conversant with the liturgy, on its own terms, my stance has changed.

All of these things make up part of the grammar of the liturgy. Not all of them have the same importance, and none of them are divinely revealed. When seen within the context of a liturgy which speaks its own language, they take their proper proportions. They do not risk the eclipse of the truth of the faith by mere externalism. In fact, I realize that no man in his right mind, not even the most effete fashionista in the hierarchy, is going to continue for long to be obsessed with the externals of the Christian religion, especially when confronted with the real needs of the people in his pastoral care. The externals are accepted, they are used as they are meant to be used, they are done well, and all in their place. When I am wearing the heaviest cloth of gold chasuble in Christendom, my thought is not, “Don’t I look good?” but “When can I get this thing off?” But I do not reject it. It has its place, and I use it as it is meant to be used, as a small part of a whole grammar of the liturgy.

But when the many-faceted language of the liturgy decays into a flat dialect of political extraction, no proportions can be seen. Even when the hierarchy employ the fullness of the externals of the faith in consonance with the tradition of the homeland, all the foreigner can understand is, “it’s all about you, isn’t it?”

I am in no position to divine Cardinal Burke’s thoughts on the cappa magna. But the fact of his wearing it points to the great humility it takes to enter into the totality of the liturgy, and to listen to its inner voice, a multi-layered harmony in which there are many parts, not all as important as the others, but which, together, tune the music of the spheres. When we reduce the grammar of the liturgy to mere high fashion or when we cut and paste from it according to our own criteria, the result is cacophony.

(H/T to New Liturgical Movement for the picture of His Eminence at Fontgambault)