Advent is here, one of my favorite seasons.
Continuing to find endless treasures in the prayer of the Traditional Mass, I treat here the liturgical motif of inconsolate desire and its answer in Christ.
Legends of Valor
As a boy, I had the good fortune of growing up in a home that kept a number of books accessible on shelves and side tables. By this daily example were the words of a good priest impressed upon me: “A house without books out and about is like a body without a soul.” (Indeed, what hidden goods have we lost in the age of the e-reader?)
Among the many texts to be found, one richly illustrated series on mythology published by Time Life Books attracted my attention; and although some volumes were wisely off-limits, no book at that time exerted the kind of magnetic pull as did its fifth installment: Legends of Valor.
Of all the epics retold and (more importantly) beautifully adorned across its pages, the Grail legend had a particular impact for me. Chapter Four, “The Noblest Quest of All,” recounted the curse and decay that had settled upon Camelot, with a promise of the Best Knight In The World, who alone might lift the curse by partaking of the deep and holy mystery of the Grail, in purity and complete self-sacrifice.
At long last, a band of valiant knights is gathered together and sets out in noble company, to undertake with ardor the most dire and desperate quest for the Grail.
It was at this point in my reading of the Legends retelling that a few details imprinted themselves in a lasting way upon my memory:
After countless perils and sufferings, only a few knights attain to a fleeting and veiled vision of the Grail, borne in heavenly procession. Awestruck in a moment fraught with anticipation, the worthy knight need only speak the correct form of words, entrusted to his heart in some secret manner, and the mystery of the Grail will be revealed and the curse lifted. Falling to his knees, Sir Gawain entreats the silent attendants in a whisper:
“In the Name of God… tell me the meaning of these things.”
A sigh as of some celestial sorrow is heard, and the vision departs. Some words are not the proper form, some men not worthily disposed. The heavens withdraw.
Ultimately, it is Sir Galahad who proves to be the Best Knight In The World, blessed with the vision of the Grail and the proper invocation. When he speaks the fitting words of faith and command, the ineffable Answer is revealed to him in glory.
Here is Austin Abbey’s art and Brendan Lehane’s description from Legends:
Alone among the knights who quested for the Grail, Galahad gazed upon the heart of the
mystery at last. The vision he found within the Grail transported him to the realms of gold,
far from the world of mortal men. …He died where he stood, and the King caught him as he fell.
This image, with its description, lodged forever in my heart.
(As a sidenote: On a chance trip to Boston as an adult some years later, I happened to wander into a room of the old Public Library, suddenly to find myself staring with surprise at the original mural by Austin Abbey. Jesus is so good to give us such unexpected little gifts sometimes, even one so simple as that.)
In the Grail legend, one can perceive many parallels to the life and mission of Jesus and the ministry of his Church: the inadequacy of human effort to a divine task, the need for redemption, atonement, priesthood, a proper sacramental system… the list goes on. But as a young reader, Abbey’s image in Legends communicated one keen insight, although I could not articulate it then: the inconsolate desire of the human heart, and divine worship as its only answer.
Certainly the objects, figures, and postures in Abbey’s mural evoke the action of priest and faithful at Mass – I recall my father at one point making a connection for me that “the Chalice at every Mass is a Holy Grail” – but even above the symbolism one might explore in the work, I was first captured by its deeper sense of adoration, of an impossible desire attained.
I say impossible now (and sensed it then) because of the truly infinite nature of this desire, this nameless want that resides in every human heart: we are ever plagued by some sense of privation. We long for something – we know not what.
Even the Suburbanite Have-Everything knows this profound longing; he may not lay awake at night to pose philosophical questions to the stars, but he will always flee that gnawing experience of boredom… a phenomenon that seems to occur more frequently among those with greater means to forestall it! How is it then, that among apparently endless material distractions, we can yet grow weary of even good things? Is it not because our desire is impossible?
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing…
I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun;
and see, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
(Eccl 1:8, 41)
Our longing is endless. What are we looking for?
The Christian dispensation has ever understood this endless longing as a signpost, one that has in fact been planted in man’s soul on purpose, orienting us toward and compelling us to seek out the one, transcendent Answer that suffices.
This Answer has been given, once and for all, in Christ Jesus; and during Advent perhaps more than any other time of the year, the Church gives voice to this timeless, impossible longing of the human heart, with a note of growing intensity up until Christmas. She alone sees, knows, and grants access to this Answer for all.
“I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” (Song 6:3)
“Amorous of Heavenly Things”
In the traditional liturgies of Advent one finds the plaintive cry of the Bride, smitten with longing for her Bridegroom (just count the occurrences of the Latin verb excita [“excite, stir up, arouse”] in these days) – and although perfectly united to Him in her essence and rejoicing fully with Him in her heavenly dimension, still the earthly Church traverses the ages laden with that burden of the “not-yet,” this vale of tears, this present battleground of the Church Militant until her Lord returns.
Saint John of the Cross, the great Carmelite priest-mystic and Doctor of the Church, rendered this sense profoundly in his Spiritual Canticle, a poetic masterpiece of contemplative prayer wherein the Christian soul sings to her Lord:
“Reveal Thy presence / and may the vision of Thy beauty be my death; / for the sickness of love / is not cured / except by Thy very presence and image.”
In this wounded state, the soul is driven still further to view earthly realities as distractions and detestable obstacles to that union desired so ardently:
“Ah, who has the power to heal me? / Now wholly surrender Thyself! / Do not send me / any more messengers; / they cannot tell me what I must hear.”
“Do not send me any more messengers!” Here, John echoes St. Paul’s great “longing to be dissolved and be with Christ… count[ing] all things as loss compared to the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and consider them but dung, that I may gain Christ” (Phil 1:23, 3:8).
Now, a given Catholic layman may not experience such transports of desire for the Lord in his workaday life – or perhaps not to the same degree as described by the Saints, “touched” as they were by such otherwordly splendor… but ought he? The Catholic spiritual tradition has long regarded desire for Christ to be a marker of the interior life and growth in prayer – we should bear about an awareness of our exile, matching it with a true longing for heaven: “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Mt 5:6), for nought but His kingdom, His justice (cf. Mt 6:33).
Pope Benedict XVI recalled this principle in his encyclical Spe Salvi (2007):
“Saint Augustine… defines prayer as an exercise of desire. Man was created for greatness – for God Himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched. ‘By delaying [His gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire He enlarges our soul and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving Him].'” (N. 33)
It is precisely these sentiments which the Catholic Mass (especially during Advent) is ordained to form in the innermost soul of every worshipper, that he might make his own such inward longing for Christ as a motive force that it extends to color his entire life – even (or especially) his suffering and failures. The prayer of the Mass is uniquely suited to forming the faithful after such a pattern, for it is the Church’s own sentiment, and she entreats God precisely that this transcendent longing be shaped in the hearts of His redeemed, that it become their preoccupation. If we mark no advance in this area of our own spiritual life, perhaps it is because our Lord and His righteousness have not yet become the center of our affections, above all in that privileged locus of divine encounter, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.*
Here, then, is the very work of Christ our Head, impressing His divine pattern upon the hearts and minds of the faithful who constitute His Body. A beautiful explanation of this divine patterning effected in right worship can be found in Pope Pius XII’s Mediator Dei (1947), meriting a lengthy quotation:
“All the elements of the liturgy, then, would have us reproduce in our hearts the likeness of the divine Redeemer through the mystery of the Cross… Let us all enter into closest union with Christ and strive to lose ourselves, as it were, in His most holy soul and so be united to Him that we may have a share in those acts with which He adores the Blessed Trinity with a homage that is most acceptable, and by which He offers to the eternal Father supreme praise and thanks…
“…Hence, the liturgical year, devotedly fostered and accompanied by the Church, is not a cold and lifeless representation of the events of the past, or a simple and bare record of a former age. It is rather Christ Himself who is ever living in His Church. Here He continues that journey of immense mercy which He lovingly began in His mortal life, going about doing good, with the design of bringing men to know His mysteries and in a way live by them. These mysteries are ever present and active, not in a vague and uncertain way as some modern writers hold, but in the way that Catholic doctrine teaches us. According to the Doctors of the Church, they are shining examples of Christian perfection, as well as sources of divine grace, due to the merit and prayers of Christ; they still influence us because each mystery brings its own special grace for our salvation. Moreover, our holy Mother the Church, while proposing for our contemplation the mysteries of our Redeemer, asks in her prayers for those gifts which would give her children the greatest possible share in the spirit of these mysteries through the merits of Christ. By means of His inspiration and help and through the cooperation of our wills we can receive from Him living vitality as branches do from the tree and members from the head; thus slowly and laboriously we can transform ourselves ‘unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ.'”
(Nos. 102, 127, 165, my emphasis added)
To close then, let us ponder a few orations from the Traditional Latin Mass, taken from the last Sunday of the old year and the first two Sundays of Advent:
SECRET: Be favourable, O Lord, to our supplications, and accepting the offerings and prayers of Thy people, convert the hearts of all to Thee: that being delivered from earthly loves, we may pass on to heavenly desires. Note the depth of need expressed here: like those knights unequal to the sanctity required for attaining the Grail, we beg that all be converted, that we be delivered (liberáti) from earthly loves (terrénis cupiditátibus), lest we be ensnared by them and fail in valor to pass on to heavenly desires (cæléstia desidéria). We will not make it, otherwise.
INTROIT: To Thee have I lifted up my soul: in Thee, O my God, I put my trust, let me not be ashamed: neither let my enemies laugh at me: for none of them that wait on Thee shall be confounded. Show me, O Lord, Thy ways: and teach me Thy paths. Note the expectant lifting of the soul described by the verb levávi, as in “levitate” – this lifting up is profoundly active, and serious as a trustful child holding his hands up to his parent, begging: “Up! Up!” In the midst of many enemies, we depend utterly upon our loving Father.
COLLECT: Stir up Thy power, we beseech Thee, O Lord, and come: that from the threatening dangers of our sins, by Thy protection we may deserve to be rescued, and be saved by Thy deliverance. Note the compelling entreaty that God stir up (excita) his power and deliver us by His very presence – and not from some general unhappiness, earthly trials, or even sin in general; but from the ever-present danger of our own personal sins, from which we need to be rescued (te liberante salvari), as from a truly deadly peril.
GRADUAL: Out of Sion the loveliness of His beauty: God shall come manifestly. V. Gather ye together His saints to Him, who have set His covenant before sacrifices. The faithful gathered in company will be rewarded with the glimpse of His glory (spécies decóris ejus) shining in the heart of His Church at prayer.
COMMUNION: Arise, O Jerusalem, and stand on high, and behold the joy that cometh to thee from thy God. The Latin surge is compelling: Arise! Likewise in the short, solid verb sta: Stand! Praying this prayer, I cannot help but recall times when I have climbed some height to plant my foot on a rock and look out over a beautiful vista; yet here at Mass, we are invited into the very heights of salvation, to that transfiguring mountaintop of Holy Communion, that we might behold the joy that comes from God, that blessed vision of adoration so longed for by the Magi: “Where is He who is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East, and are come to worship Him.” (Mt 2:2)
POSTCOMMUNION: Filled with the food of this spiritual nourishment, we suppliantly entreat Thee, O Lord, that through our participation in this Mystery Thou wouldst teach us to despise earthly things and to love the heavenly. The Latin employed here could not be stronger in betokening the very disposition described above by Saints Paul and John of the Cross (in fact, given the antiquity of this oration, John of the Cross would likely have spent every Second Sunday of Advent praying exactly these words after Communion, which is extremely cool). We here beg the Lord (súpplices te, Dómine, deprecámur) that He teach us to despise, to hate, to loathe (despicere) earthly things, the better to be caught up in amáre cæléstia, an earnest and ardent love for the things of heaven.
Amen! So be it!
*NOTE: It is not surprising if many contemporary Catholics experience little of this particular sentiment in their daily affective life, as a significant amount of the formative power for such was lost with the imposition of the Novus Ordo Mass: only 422 of the 1,182 traditional orations were retained, and roughly half of these were (sometimes dramatically) altered. When over 80% of those orations hallowed by centuries of devout use are completely lost or changed overnight, the result must needs be affected by contemporary attitudes and designs – it will not yield the same formative environment for the soul and its affections.
Take a subtle example from the Postcommunion of the Second Sunday of Advent: vanished are the despicere and amáre, and rather than pleading earnestly with Christ to make us despise earthly things and yearn for heaven, we are rescripted to a vague and complacent request that God “teach us to judge wisely the things of earth and hold firm to the things of heaven,” as though we had already attained them. Transcendence has leveled out, and it seems we need not pine for it.
Why were changes like this (and countless others) made to the orations in the creation of the Novus Ordo? Hear the explanation given by Fr. Carlo Bragga (a key figure in the work of the Consilium that created the New Mass), as recorded in 1970 in Ephemerides Liturgicae, with my emphasis:
“Revising the pre-existing text becomes more delicate when faced with the need to update content or language, and when all this affects not only form, but also doctrinal reality. This is called for in the light of new human values, considered in relation to and as a way to supernatural goods. …Ecumenical requirements dictated appropriate revisions in language. Expressions recalling positions or struggles of the past are no longer in harmony with the Church’s new positions. An entirely new foundation of eucharistic theology has superseded devotional points of view or a particular way of venerating and invoking the saints. Retouching the text, moreover, was deemed necessary to bring to light new values and new perspectives.” (p. 419)
Read that again. Doctrinal reality is affected by the 1969 “revision” of the prayers for the New Mass. Among those who undertook that work, we hear of “new human values,” “new positions,” “new perspectives,” and even an “entirely new foundation of eucharistic theology” being utilized as working principles. This should bother us.
It bothered Cardinals Bacci and Ottaviani (the former Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith!) enough to write urgently to Pope Paul VI, just prior to the promulgation of the New Mass:
“…The Novus Ordo represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session XXII of the Council of Trent. The ‘canons’ of the rite definitively fixed at that time provided an insurmountable barrier to any heresy directed against the integrity of the Mystery… [But] it is evident that the Novus Ordo has no intention of presenting the Faith as taught by the Council of Trent, to which, nonetheless, the Catholic conscience is bound forever… To abandon a liturgical tradition which for four centuries was both the sign and the pledge of unity of worship and to replace it with another which cannot but be a sign of division by virtue of the countless liberties implicitly authorized, and which teems with insinuations or manifest errors against the integrity of the Catholic religion is, we feel in conscience bound to proclaim, an incalculable error.”
(Taken from the “Ottaviani Intervention” accessible here)