On the Recovery of Liturgical Symbolism and Avoiding the Pitfalls of Legalism and Dilettantism

One of the great virtues of many of the younger clergy is that they do seriously want to recover much of the symbolism of the sacred liturgy that has been lost.  After a long winter of iconoclasm, we are seeing once again vestments, vesture, music and art which had fallen into disuse.  Of course, it is one thing to hand on a tradition; quite another to have that tradition interrupted and then try to recover it again.  It is in the latter case that we find ourselves with some difficulty.  Often we learn how to do things by some version of oral tradition: someone we respect tells us that things should be done in a certain manner, and we try to imitate it as such.  But there is a lot of truth in the aphorism: trust but verify.  It was this deference to unverified oral tradition that allegedly led Alfred Hope Patton to insist on the use of absurdly tall birettas at Walsingham, when he was unaware that what he thought was an accurate depiction in art of them was actually a parody. 
The great Roman liturgist Leon Gromier lamented that in his time prelates were discarding things willy-nilly because they did not know why they were instituted in the first place.  In our own time, we should be careful to restore things until we know how they were used in the first place.  I became sensitive to this reality as a young seminarian when I listened to the curmudgeony old canons of the major basilicas in Rome.  They knew all of the minutiae of pre-Vatican II ceremonial and had rejected it as they adopted the reforms.  So when they saw younger clergy doing things in the name of tradition that were not actually done at all, they arguably rightly dismissed them as ignorant and more concerned with externals than the true spirit of the liturgy.
On the one hand, it is true that, where there are no rubrics, but merely ceremonial indications, concern for liturgical decorum can disintegrate into pedantic willfulness.  How many faithful people have been disedified by the nasty ritualistic Syllabus of Errors imparted by haughty young men with more nerve than sense on terrified altar servers and pewsitters!  One can see why Pope Francis very sensibly calls out pharisaical behavior that masks the real point of the liturgy.
On the other hand, though, if we are to recover liturgical symbolism in all its fullness, we should be careful to investigate as much as we can before we attempt to do so.  Otherwise, we can risk devolving into a liturgical dilettantism which invents idiosyncracies as “local custom.”  While local variations across the Catholic orb have always and will continue to exist, I think it important that serious people insist that observing forms which can be appealed to some authority is closer to the communal spirit of the liturgy than just assuming that my own personal oral tradition is how things ought to be done.  It is also important to achieve a welcoming and hospitable environment in churches and sacristies as clergy have more possibilities for travel.  The last thing a visiting cleric wants to do is to go to a church for Mass and get involved in acrimonious debate over minutiae.  But respect for the authorities, and knowledge of them, could be helpful in this regard.
Let me give a few examples: I see constantly in pictures and in person the phenomenon of clerics who love the biretta, (dignum et justum est) but who wear it indoors in procession while in choir.  I have seen this in Anglican churches, churches of the Anglican Ordinariate Use, the Extraordinary Form and Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.  Fortescue and Baldeschi call for the biretta to be carried, not worn, in processions indoors by clergy in choir and worn, not carried, by the ministri parati.  Ritual Notesand Anglican Services, the comparable Anglican authorities, carry the same instruction.  Pearcy Deamer’s Parson’s Handbook laments that anyone would employ “foreign headgear” during the divine service at all.  When I have discreetly tried to point this out when being asked about the proper thing to do, I have been assured that I was wrong, that the in house style of name the person or the parish or the seminary or whatever is the only right thing to do.  While none of the books have any authority as such, they do have the weight of tradition.  Should they not be prized over local custom that is in the mind of the beholder? 
Once I was very excited to hear that a group of young levites in Italy prevailed for the veil to be restored to the tabernacle of their church.  And then I saw that they had lovingly made a black tabernacle veil.  Would Jesus be offended by being swathed in mourning by men who were anxious to please Him?  Surely not.  But again, should we not also bow to the weight of the accepted authorities in this matter?
Not everyone is familiar with the ins and outs of Nainfa’s Costume of Prelates.  Whether some like it or not, lace is certainly prized by many. But I wonder about the use of the rochet by clergy who have no right to it.  You see priests administering sacraments in a rochet, when before they would have donned a surplice over the rochet to do so, if they had the right to use it at all.  There is a disturbing tendency to say, “Well, the Church is so ugly, let me use anything that is pretty to solemnize the divine services.”  Certainly a noble sentiment, but is obedience to the respected authorities for whom these things were living tradition not better, and more spiritually fruitful, than the sacrifice of praise even in beauty?
Deference to these things marks out the difference between the amateur and the professional.  It also hopefully keeps a sense of order, perspective and charity.  I was once asked my opinion about a particular liturgy which was very lovingly executed by some very well-meaning people.  When I pointed out that I did not understand why certain things were done the way they were (namely, differently than any of the Roman or Anglican authorities who were invoked by those executing the liturgy), I was accused of being mean-spirited and disrespectful, and a promising friendship was compromised on liturgical niceties.  We have carried a very modern spirit of individualism, so easily offended, into the worship space in such a way as to not want to be corrected by anyone.  Is this not even more inimical to the spirit of true common worship than bad taste?
Music is not exempt from these pitfalls either.  The liturgically sound priest and musician combination is rare to find.  So often what happens is a pastiche of “I want it done this way” that has to constantly reinvent itself with every new celebrant or organist.  How often rows have ensued about how the Gradual is to be performed, or the placement of the choir, or the vesture of the cantor!
The struggle to recover as much as we can of our Catholic liturgical tradition is certainly worth the growing pains.  We must avoid the extremes of legalism and dilettantism.  We must always carry forward our work in communion with others, with charity reigning before all else.  But we should also develop a proper deference for, and assiduous study, not only of the texts of liturgical prayers, rubrics and music, but also the ceremonial books which suggest how they might all come together in a beautiful way.  Humility is the most attractive virtue in the celebration of the sacrifice of redemption, and gives a deeper luster to the beauty with which we execute it.         


7 Replies to “On the Recovery of Liturgical Symbolism and Avoiding the Pitfalls of Legalism and Dilettantism”

  1. Recovery of anything is always challenging and a struggle. It is interesting that you refer to three Anglican sources which are absolutely fabulous resources of Anglo-Catholic tradition, liturgy and ritual based on the Oxford and Cambridge movements in England. The Cambridge Movement, in some respects more liberal than the Oxford Movement, was concerned more with esthetics and liturgy and was perhaps responsible, or was at least a significant influence, for the ecclesiastical Gothic revival architecture.

    Thank you, Fr. Smith for your encouraging essay.

  2. For some years now I have been in a struggle with my family over family traditions. The comments and insight contained in this essay apply to the everyday life situations as well as Liturgical symbolism. The first paragraph grabbed me with the comment:
    "Of course, it is one thing to hand on a tradition; quite another to have that tradition interrupted and then try to recover it again. "
    It left me wondering if a tradition in any setting is even possible to recover after it has been altered or put aside for a period of years.

  3. One great example of legalism is what was pointed out by Laszlo Dobszay – the late Hungarian scholar of sacred music and liturgy – who wrote "The Bugnini Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform" – where he pointed out that the Novus Ordo in itself is an artifact of legalism – that it is not a Roman Catholic Rite as to content or culture – it is only Roman Catholic in the legal sense – that it was mandated by the Roman Pontiff.

  4. I wonder the same thing, mtq. If a tradition was abandoned– to be replaced by something else called for at the time–doesn't it seem artificial and far from organic to reach back into history and yank the practice from its spot of repose? In order for the practice to be reintroduced successfully, everyone needs to be on board. The newly revived tradition receives new meaning due to the communal effort that brought it back. New life has been breathed into it, and yes, it recreates a link wit the past, but more importantly, represents the current, living will of the people. But what if there isn't consensus? If only a handful of hopefuls want to reintroduce a particular element and no one else is on board? What if it is not a common effort? Will the ritual be devoid of meaning? Is a ritual meaningful in itself, or does it only convey meaning when in the senses of mind of the receiver?

  5. I recall once a conversation with a nun who was befuddled why the younger nuns of her order were donning habits when the order had never used them before. I think the young who are trying to rediscover the traditions are often so desperate–they would say zealous, perhaps fairly–for the legitimacy and beauty they see in the past that they get overwhelmed in various ways. They're also insecure and self-righteous, like most young people. I certainly was. They also often have a big chip on their shoulder about having had to rediscover these things for themselves, which is so amusingly opposite of what kids want!

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