Sunday, April 1, 2012

I Admit It-- I am an Aesthetic Protestant...

As we celebrate Palm Sunday and move into Holy Week, the liturgy becomes more elaborate. This, of course, is a wonderful thing. It would feel very anticlimactic for the high point of the Church's year to be celebrated with the usual liturgy.

Nothing seems more appropriate, or more satisfying, than the crimson vestments of the priest in today's Mass, or the dramatic re-enactment of Christ's trial and condemnation, or the blessing and distribution of palms to commemorate that long-ago and eternally-present entry into Jerusalem. (We now have an altar boy and an altar girl, for the first time since I returned to Mass-going.)

But before I set off to my parish church, I had a look at EWTN, the Catholic TV station, and watched some of the Palm Sunday Mass that was taking place in St. Peter's Square.

After the sung Confession of Faith came prayers of the faithful. They were read out in one language, then another, then the time I left the house, a young-ish man was reading out the prayer in German.

This reminds me of Housman's little piece of doggerel:

It is a fearful thing to be
The Pope.
That cross will not be laid on me,
I hope.
A righteous God would not permit
The Pope himself must often say,
After the labours of the day,
'It is a fearful thing to be

Imagine having the cameras and the eyes of the audience focused on you during all those endless High Masses!

Maybe I am a philistine, but sung Masses, soaring cathedrals, and the booming of organ music leaves me cold. It's all too much-- my sense of wonder is buried under all the baroque brilliance.

Don't get me wrong-- I think ceremony is wonderful, essential. Ornament is wonderful. A sense of occasion is wonderful. And the transformation of ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of Our Saviour should most emphatically not be approached in a casual or offhand spirit.

But is more always better? The words of the liturgy fill me with more awe when they are spoken rather than sung. Hymns always seem more haunting to me when they rely on the human voice alone, rather than the accompaniment of an organ. And a simple chapel with a few statues and hangings always seems more reverential to me than lofty spires, monuments dripping with marble, flying buttresses and enormous rose windows.

There is an enormous difference between the understated and the prosaic.

I will probably offend Traditionalists even more by admitting that I prefer the great English Protestant hymns-- He Who Would Valiant Be, Abide with Me, Jerusalem-- to the Latin hymns I've heard.

Of course, this is all a matter of aesthetics, and it is always dangerous to pay too much attention to aesthetics in sacred matters. But I do think it is woth pointing out that you can be an orthodox, traditionally-minded Catholic and still think less is sometimes more.

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