Tradition and Ideals

I recently wrote a rambling and somewhat poorly structured essay exploring some thoughts I have been having regarding “ideal” liturgy and the nature of liturgical tradition. I wanted to get the ideas out, since the ideas are more important than literary quality, but I won’t have time in the next few days to really give it a good once-over for editing and coherence. So, I’m not publishing it here, but rather posting it at my own blog.

The basic idea is this: There is no such thing as ideal liturgical praxis, only a lived tradition. This means that rather then theorizing about what is the essential aspect of the ideal (the Proper texts, the original melodies, the Latin language), we rather must live with and live into the received tradition (Gregorian Chant, the Graduale Propers, Sacred Polyphony, etc) before we can even begin to think about what new treasures should find a place in the storehouse.

To speak of an ideal form of the Mass suggests that either there is some original source for the Mass music which we need recover, or that there is some etherworldly quintessential Mass which we must strive (failingly) to emulate, or that the celebration of Liturgy developed to its intended apex at some time in the past and the job of all liturgists since that time should have been the preservation of that climactic style. None of these is acceptable, though that last one seems pretty common among various branches of tradderrie.

The first-source of the Mass, the “ideal” which all celebrations of the Divine Liturgy point to, is the sacrifice of Calvary- a decidedly unmusical event.

Read “Tradition and Ideals” at my (other) blog…
(And if you do read it, feel free to offer any suggestions on tightening up a bit.)

2 Replies to “Tradition and Ideals”

  1. I'm commenting here rather than on your personal blog, but your comments on food bring to mind an equal-but-opposite error regarding "tradition" that comes to mind around this season in particular.

    Paraphrasing what you said about the food, the error you spoke of is trying to pinpoint some ideal version of the distant past and making that a basis for when something becomes "authentically" traditional, even though at the time it may have been an innovation. The example you gave is of people considering, say, pasta with tomato sauce as "authentically" traditional Italian, even though pasta came through cultural diffusion from China, and tomatoes originated from the New World. So a food we see as quintessentially Italian would have been a complete novelty just a few centuries ago. I think your point was that we often arbitrarily identify what is basically an accident of history as something somehow integral and inseparable from our notions of "tradition", simply because it's "old".

    The equal-and-opposite error I was thinking of is that we will also arbitrarily identify something as "tradition" simply because it's part of what our own subjective experience of something was from our youth, and in our attempts to recreate that subjective experience for ourselves, we label it a "tradition" and pass on our attachments to younger generations. I suppose this is how all traditions get started, really, but it can have pernicious effects.

    The cultural (rather than liturgical) expression of this is what we see in our Christmas season so-called "traditions". Having been accosted with those for weeks already, I can't help but think how MUCH of what we consider "traditional" really only dates back to the early childhoods of our parents or grandparents, and they're often the result of marketing campaigns *designed* to make people develop an emotional attachment. Christmas tree pickle ornaments, for example, are said to be an old German tradition, but likely only date back to about 1900, the "tradition" having been invented to sell a style of tree decoration that no one wanted to buy. (A glass pickle, really?) Sitting on Santa's lap was Macy's way to guilt-tripping parents into over-indulging in gifts for their children. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was a Montgomery Ward ad campaign. Frosty the Snowman was written because Gene Autry had made a hit recording of Rudolph and he wanted another best-selling single the following year.

    I point these things out because, even though they are shallow, manipulative, and totally divorced from anything having to do with *actual* Christmas, they have been so successfully marketed as "traditions" to the generation who grew up with them, that now young people can't imagine that Christmas *ever* meant something other than excessive shopping, dated popular music, etc. I've often wondered how silly Australians feel to hang snowflakes and listen to "White Christmas" on their radios each year, but people don't even question these things, mostly.

    I feel like I'm just starting to ramble myself… I don't know if my thoughts really raise any relevant issues. But I think how this all ties into the liturgy is that rationalize various things as "traditional" or "not traditional" for often very inconsistent and immature reasons, which leads to all sorts of messes in the liturgy. "The sign of peace" was anachronistically added because it's mentioned in ancient manuscripts so it's "old" and therefore "traditional", while things that had a living tradition were discarded because they had just been "randomly" added after some arbitrary cut-off date in the middle ages, meanwhile guitars and tambourines and P&W songs have become part of the "tradition" of younger generations of Catholics so it would be "unpastoral" to argue against them… and so on and so forth.

    These attachments to things in the liturgy, whether you're an SSPXer or a Sister Moonglow Starpath, often take on lives on their own such that people feel crippled to upset the "way things are done" and they invent false ideals based on questionable premises.

    Wow, I feel like I just typed a lot without really saying anything, but these are the thoughts your essay raised for me, haha.

  2. It's a good post, Adam. However, one could argue that Gregorian chant in our era is not organic tradition, but imposed upon us. Without numerous official exhortations from church documents, chant would likely only be heard in some religious communities or an early music concert. It won't be until advocates of plainchant win the argument of how practical and useful it is in the liturgy that it becomes more universal. While I think it's really cool that some group of monks sang the same solemn tone of "Salve Regina" 800 years ago, that's not a big selling point for most Catholics. What is a selling point is that it is simple, beautiful, and tends to more easily allow us to participate in and focus upon a liturgical act. I'm not sure that chant will ever have principle place in the liturgy, ie, be our musical default (I hope so because I think it would have positive implications). Right now for most Christians still view chant as venerable at best; old, boring, and difficult at worst. Not a recipe for a sustainable, organic tradition. We have a lot of work to do in this area.

    Whether we like them or not, traditions are things that endure organically. It doesn't really matter where they came from, but whether they resonate with people. A tradition that endures generally contains morsel of truth. Christmas is a great example. Christians very wisely appropriated traditions from other seasonal celebrations to lead people to Christ. Rather than fighting Rudolph and Frosty because of where they came from, perhaps it would be wiser to use these things, which seem to resonate with the masses, to lead people to Christ. Rudolph seems like a great opportunity to catechize on the need to follow the light of Christ in the darkness. Frosty is ripe with themes of creation and incarnation. Risky strategy, no doubt, but I think this is what we're called to. Isaiah provides us confidence: "Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them."

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