“Formal traditional forms of rite cannot be dismissed as being inherently culturally incredible. These rites only become incredible when they are deemed to be so…”
That is also very much the Gospel according to the English Catholic social anthropologists who have devoted thought to our issue: Professor Mary Douglas of London University and the late Professor Victor Turner, who at the end of his professional career crossed the Atlantic to a chair at the University of Chicago.
Mary Douglas opened her study Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology with an essay entitled Away from Ritual, which had appeared in somewhat different form in the house journal of the English Dominicans as The Contempt of Ritual in the summer of 1968. [M. Douglas, The Contempt of Ritual, New Blackfriars 49, nos. 577-78 (1968)] She warns that contempt for ritual forms eventually leads people to take a purely private view of religious experience, from where it is only a short step to the frank avowal of humanism.
One feature distinguishing social anthropologists from sociologists is that the former have a much more formidable, not to say sometimes impenetrable, conceptual apparatus at their disposal. The most easily grasped aspect of Douglas’ essay is her critique of the abolition by the bishops of England and Wales of compulsory abstinence from fleshfoods on Fridays, and this contains at any rate some major clues helpful in unraveling her approach.
The Friday abstinence is the only ritual that brings Christian symbols into kitchen and larder. Taking away one symbol that means something in that domain is, she pointed out, no guarantee that the spirit of a generalized charity will reign (as the bishops piously hoped) in its stead. It would have been preferable to have built upon this weekly ritual rather than to have sought platitudinous substitutes for it. Her explanation, as an anthropologist, for the bishops’ decision to abandon Friday abstinence is not especially flattering.
Owing to the manner of their education — she refers to the embourgeoisement of those whose families were once working class — the bishops were predictably peculiarly insensitive to nonverbal signals. The decision symptomizes this age of the Church: “It is as if the liturgical signal boxes were manned by color blind signalmen.” [M. Douglas, Natural Symbols].
The issue of Friday abstinence raises for her the whole question of the contemporary Church’s approach to ritual — to symbolically intense bodily activity as used in the worship of God. Her deeper argument is that the cosmos — the fundamental order of reality, including social reality — is always seen through the medium of the body, and notably through the kinds and range of actions in which the body intersects with nature and other people. Appealing to the exploration of family structure made in the 196os by her secular colleague Basil Bernstein, [B. Bernstein, Social Class and Psychotherapy, British Journal of Sociology 15 (1964)]
Douglas proposes that children whose families are “personal” rather than “positional” — children, that is, who come from families where common life and hierarchy are minimized in favor of, at least ideally, a unique communication between parent, on the one hand, and, on the other, each individual child — are likely to grow up with ears unattuned to the unspoken messages of ritual codes. And yet, as there is in fact no human being whose life does not need to “unfold in a coherent symbolic system”, those who resist ritual are missing out on something essential to humanity as such.
Such non-verbal symbols are capable of creating a structure of meaning, in which individuals can relate to one another and realise their own ultimate purposes…. Alas for the child from the personal home who longs for non-verbal forms of relationship but has only been equipped with words and a contempt for ritual forms. By rejecting ritualized speech he rejects his own faculty for pushing back the boundaries between inside and outside so as to incorporate in himself a patterned social world. At the same time, he thwarts his faculty for receiving immediate, condensed messages given obliquely along non-verbal channels.
M. Douglas, Natural Symbols
This statement, incidentally, tells us much about the new phenomenon of Catholic individualism understood as the systematic disparagement of common structure, hierarchical authority, and traditional liturgy alike.
Among the causes of anti-ritualism, then, Mary Douglas places first and foremost social change. But if social change naturally tends to prompt a new cosmology, a new set of spectacles for looking at the world, then those concerned for the health of Catholic Christianity, which has its own cosmology based on traditional ritual, on the sacraments, and ultimately on the Incarnation, must try to break this causal chain.
The slackening of group and grid whereby change in social patterns, especially in the family, brings about contempt for rite, the lack of strong social articulation in an increasingly amorphous, excessively personalized, individualized, and de-hierarchicalized world: these processes, left to themselves, will tend to produce a “religion of effervescence”, incompatible with a sacramental faith. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the appearance of a euphoric Western European and North American radicalism in the late 1960s, she comments:
This is the sector of society which we expect to be weak in its perception of condensed symbols, preferring diffuse, emotive symbols of mass effect. The religious style is spontaneity, enthusiasm and effervescence. Bodily disassociation in trance, induced by dance or drugs, is valued along with other symbols of non-differentiation. Distinguishing social categories are devalued, but the individual is exalted. The self is presented without inhibition or shyness. There is little or no self-consciousness about sexual or other bodily orifices and functions. As to intellectual style, there is little concern with differentiated units of time, respect for past or program for the future. The dead are forgotten. Intellectual discriminations are not useful or valued.
M. Douglas, Natural Symbols
And she concludes:
The general tone of this cosmological style is to express the current social experience. In the latter there is minimum differentiation and organization: symbolic behavior reflects this lack. In the field of intellect it is disastrous.
M. Douglas, Natural Symbols
Relating all this to the Church, Douglas maintains that anti-ritualism is of a piece with the “generous warmth” of the “doctrinal latitude” of “reforming bishops and radical theologians”, their “critical dissolving of categories and attack on intellectual and administrative distinctions”. [M. Douglas, Natural Symbols] In her view, all these developments are generated by a particular social experience, that of unrestricted personalism, but the cosmology they promote is manifestly deficient from the standpoint both of the life of the mind at large and more especially that of the Christian intelligence.
In her own idiom, “The value of particular social forms can only be judged objectively by the analytic power of the elaborated code”: in other words, to decode that remark (!), the mediocrity of the spiritual and theological life typically produced by an anti-ritualist Church is the best possible proof of the inadequacy of the form of life in civil society that such a Church presupposes and represents.
The implication of Douglas’ work would seem to be, then, that we shall not get back an authentic liturgical life until we recover a rightly ordered society on the level both of the family, the micro-society, and of macro-society, society at large. A “rightly ordered society” in this context is one that gives due place to common life, hierarchy, and shared authoritative public doctrine as well as to personal freedom and creativity.
Here we can recall how for David Martin it is the error of the ideology of spontaneity not to realize that the second set of these terms positively requires the first. If this thought, that liturgical malaise will not be fully rectified until a Christian society is reinstituted, seems somewhat daunting, we can turn for counterbalance to a last British anthropologist, Victor Turner, who appears to allow a greater autonomy or shaping power to what he calls in the title of a major book “the ritual process”. [V. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca, 1969)]
In Turner’s view, traditional liturgy, precisely because of its archaic quality, has a power to modify and even reverse the assumptions made in secular living.
If ritual is not to be merely a reflection of secular social life, if its function is partly to protect and partly to express truths which make men free from the exigencies of their status-incumbencies, free to contemplate and pray as well as to speculate and invent, then its repertoire of liturgical actions should not be limited to a direct reflection of the contemporary scene.
[V. Turner, Passages, Margins and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas, Worship 46(1972)]
Insisting that the archaic is not the obsolete, Turner maintains that, on the contrary, archaic patterns of action are necessary to protect what he calls “future free spaces”.
In this perspective he finds the de facto liturgical reform of the 1960s and 1970s somewhat incongruous. The reformers failed to appreciate the need of believers for repetition and archaism. He would not have appreciated the emphasis of Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, in his chronicle of the reform, on the “effort to make the rites speak the language of our own time”, [A. Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948-1995 (Collegeville, Minn., 1990)] even though Bugnini wrote his exhaustive account from a commanding height as Secretary Of The Commission For Liturgical Reform established by Pius XII in 1948; Secretary Of The Preparatory Commission On The Liturgy At The Second Vatican Council (1960-1962); Peritus of that Council and its Commission On The Liturgy; Secretary Of The Concilium For The Implementation Of The Constitution On The Liturgy (1964-1966); and Secretary Of The Congregation for Divine Worship (1969-1975).
Like Flanagan later, Turner held that pastoral liturgists were intimidated by the reigning “structural functionalism” in sociology. For that school, just as ritual structure reflects social structure, so ritual should change as society changes. Turner’s own anthropological scheme, by contrast, privileges significant intervals where we cross what he calls limina (thresholds) in our passage between social experiences. In so doing, we periodically find ourselves separated from our statistically normal experience of identification with some limited group and enter at least for a while a state of what he terms communitas, a form of sociability where our capacity for identification with others is unrestricted by space, time, and even their biological dying, and we enter the experiential continuum he names “flow”.
Typically, ritual stands out from mundane culture in its use of a high language that abounds in lexical and grammatical forms no longer current in everyday speech. Optimally, ritual is a symphony of expressive genres, rather as opera works simultaneously through a multiplicity of art forms in prose and poetry, music and acting. Unlike opera, however, ritual escapes theatricality by the seriousness of its ultimate concerns.
In principle, what Turner says could be applied to the ritual activity of any society, Christian or not, in its religious dimension, and indeed his ideas were in part formulated through fieldwork among the Ndembu in Zambia. But in his essay “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic”, Turner applies these notions more especially to the Western Mass.
The traditional liturgy displayed an essential concern for proper form in the representation of sacred mysteries and the performance of symbolic acts. This was the fruit of popular wisdom fertilized by developing doctrine, and shaped by esthetic as well as legalistic principle. Ritual traditions of any depth or complexity represent the consolidated understanding of many generations. They embody a deep knowledge of the nature of flow, and how and where to break it in order to instill truths about the nature of time, the human condition, and evil. They reveal an understanding of the religious benefit of flow as much for individuals in their interior meditations as for eliciting the spirit of communitas, or shared flow, in congregations at worship.
V. Turner, “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic”, Worship 50 (1976)
And he continues:
A complete liturgical system represents an organized system of spiritual and rational achievements. It is a work of ages, not a hackwork of contemporaneous improvisation. In its multiplicity and variety (controlled, nevertheless, by hard-won rules), it exemplifies the many-faceted yet single spirit of mankind at prayer, of homo religiosus. Although each nacreous [vocab: 1: consisting of or resembling mother-of-pearl;2: having a play of lustrous rainbow-like colors.] increment which composes this pearl has been laid down at a particular time, the total liturgy is liberated from historical determinations. When men and women enter the “liminality”, the tract of sacred space-time, which is made available to them by such a traditional liturgy, they cease to be bound by the secular structures of their own age, and confront eternity which is equidistant from all ages.
V. Turner, “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic”, Worship 50 (1976)
Whereas, so Turner pessimistically proposes, the “flow” elicited by the reformed Liturgy too often “bubbles on the surface” as a “transient communication”.
A motif running through all these authors is the claim that the theological strategy of cultural modernism is misconceived. Modernism — I use the word in the sense of an intellectual style, not that of a heresy in the doctrine of revelation — is too indebted to those features of the Enlightenment and Romanticism that set those movements at odds with the Catholic Church or at any rate presented obstacles (as well as, to some extent, opportunities) for an authentic ecclesial reform and renewal.
In the realm of liturgiology, if the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century discussion of liturgical revision had been better known and its lessons more fully pondered, if the foundational principles suggested by Trapp and shared by such leaders of the interwar liturgical movement as Casel and Guardini had been consistently applied to contemporary sensibility in the 1960s and 1970s, much harm might have been avoided. As it was, and despite the wonderful erudition liturgical scholars brought to the remaking of the rites, liturgists, in Flanagan’s words, “managed to back modernity as a winning ticket, just at the point when it became converted into postmodernism”. [Flanagan, Sociology and Liturgy]
This statement at least makes the point that there is now nothing particularly modern about cultural modernism. It may also be interpreted as hinting that the postmodernist phase into which, in literary theory, philosophy, and a wider sensibility, a significant portion of the Western intelligentsia has now passed could have formed a happier context in which both to transmit and in various discreet and prudent ways to enhance a traditional rite.
Statements of what postmodernism is are generally both elliptic and obscure, so much so that questions of how precisely it differs from modernism, what intellectual virtues it recommends, and whether it contains, at least implicitly, any broad truth-claims about the nature of reality are, at least for the present writer, unanswered. But let me mention on the basis of recent research at Cambridge some ways in which one liturgist writing in a confessedly postmodernist manner would find neglected resources in a traditional rite. Catherine Pickstock, of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in her analysis of the old Roman Eucharistic rite, stresses the mobile character of the liturgical “I”, the self that worships. In liturgical action, I am not simply and in straightforward fashion myself: hence the inappropriateness of attempting to fit the Liturgy to the needs of the extra-liturgical personality, to make liturgy “relevant” to the ordinary persona of the self. Commenting on the Fore-Mass of the 1962 Missal, from the prayers of preparation to the Gloria, Pickstock writes:
By means of its dispossessed and impersonating character, its taking on of the roles of other characters thereby unsettling the claim to a secure poetic voice, the worshipping I is designated by the act of forgetting itself, by the forgetting of ordinary identity.
[C. Pickstock, The Sacred Polis: Language, Death and Liturgy (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge, 1996)]
This complex assuming of different voices leads to an interlacing of voices or polyphony at whose centre [here she refers to the opening of the Gloria] are the seraphic voices which are heard, alluded to, and intermingled with the human voices.
[C. Pickstock, The Sacred Polis]
Impersonation, she stresses, “precedes an authentic voice”: that is, our Christian persona is formed by the way an extra-liturgical sense of the “I” is modified and extended by the Liturgy itself. “This is a de-centered `I’ which constantly moves from one identity to another, from immanent to transcendent locations, breaking the quarantining of the two worlds, but without ever compromising their difference” [C. Pickstock, The Sacred Polis] In a pithy axiom: “In giving (doxologically) we become (ontologically).” In other words, by worship our Christian selves are forged; so worship is not to be judged by what our secular or non liturgical identity may desire or demand.
In her critique of the reform of the Roman rite, Pickstock argues that criticisms of the mediaeval Liturgy by conventional historians of the rite such as Theodor Klauser are misplaced. [T. Klauser, A Short History Of The Western Liturgy, 2d ed. (Oxford, 1979). One may add to Klauser's name that of the Italian liturgiologist influential in the drafting of the new anaphoras, Dom Cyprian Vagaggini, for whom the historic Roman Canon is disunified and illogical: "hardly a model of simplicity and clarity", The Canon of the Mass and Liturgical Reform (London, 1967), 96. But note the criticism of these criticisms by the Anglican liturgiologist Geoffrey Willis, who wrote that they may arise from a "failure to understand the processes by which the Roman Canon Missae reached its present form and even a failure to apprehend the basic principles of its structure": The New Eucharistic Prayers: Some Comments, in A Voice for All Time: Essays on the Liturgy of the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council, ed. C. Francis and M. Lynch (Bristol, 1994), 91]
For Klauser the repetitious and sometimes seemingly random structure of the pre-conciliar rite (one thinks especially of the often attacked Offertory prayers) bears witness to a debasement of pure Liturgy, as does the concomitant emphasis on purification and requests for mercy. Pickstock, on the other hand, treats a certain randomness and repetitiveness as reassuring signs of the oral provenance of the Roman Liturgy, intrinsic aspects of a flow typical of speech rather than a written structure whose meanings are “spatially” compartmentalized in discrete sections. In similar fashion, she takes the repeated requests for purification as signs of an underlying apophaticism [vocab: the belief that God can be known to humans only in terms of what He is not] that stresses our distance from God, not just our sinfulness, and emphasizes what she calls “the need for a constant re-beginning of liturgy because the true eschatological liturgy is in time endlessly postponed”. [Pickstock, The Sacred Polis]
That early fourth-century text so important for the makers of the reformed Roman rite, the Paradosis apostolike, or Apostolic Tradition, ascribed to Hippolytus, being as it is more of a treatise on Liturgy than a Liturgy itself, proved misleading, she thinks, for the program of liturgical recovery, not least in these respects.
Rather like Douglas, Pickstock holds that to reform an ancient Liturgy successfully in radical guise would ultimately entail remaking the entire social order, for earlier Liturgies formed part of a culture itself ritual in character. What the Church could have done, however, was to refrain from assimilating “linguistic and structural forms” from modernity, for these are precisely the elements most inimical to liturgical goals. The “clear and linear purpose” of modern Liturgy is, in her view, sadly of this age of the world and hence in its connotations immanent when compared with traditional rites she characterizes as “a liturgical stammer in the face of the sublime excess of God”.
For a Catholic Christian, in matters of the mind illumined by grace it is theology — sound and solid theology, drawn from Scripture and tradition under the guidance of the Magisterium — that is the queen of the sciences and not the cultural sciences that the writers whose ideas I have been rehearsing represent. That is not to say, however, that these benevolent warning voices can safely be disregarded.
On the basis of her bi-millennial experience, the Church has in the past been credited by sympathetic observers with a definite store of human wisdom. Like her divine Founder, she has known what is in man. The largely independent and convergent testimony of the men and women whose work I have described in this chapter suggests that of late the Church, which must mean here her members, has shown an uncharacteristic deficiency of such wisdom, in part in the conception of the liturgical reform, but even more in its execution. This is something the clergy and laity of the next century will eventually need to address.