Monday, 22 March 2010

Peculiarities in 'sign and symbol' perceptions

Last Friday, I attended what may be the most magnificent concert I have ever heard. It was a 400th anniversary celebration of Monteverdi, and his Vespers were performed splendidly. I was utterly 'transported' - it was the sort of concert that I think I may one day hear the heavenly choirs perform if they give it sufficient effort. Needless to say, I'm no stranger to the texts of Vespers, and I could utterly feel the emphases Monteverdi gave to particular passages, and the striking contrasts in his presentation of 'one text following another.' Certainly, one trained as a musicologist could write substantially on how he used this-or-that technique to achieve this effect, but, deep down, we know that art cannot be categorised the way that one might describe a mechanical pursuit or scientific experiment.

It suddenly struck me that, for all the energy I've expended in my writing (just as an example, on the Internet site and blog), amazingly I never write of music! Part of the reason is that to do so is too painful. Music was (and is) a great passion of mine, and an area where I was gifted, and having necessity mean that I never had a chance to use those talents cuts me to the quick. Yet I believe another element is that, where some musicologists are 'technicians' to a point an engineer might envy (they are utterly incapable of enjoying a concert, but will know if the acclaimed artist sang a 500-year-old piece in something other than its original key or with its bare bones arrangement - or will bemoan if it is a piece not composed locally and in the 21st century), I am very far from this. Frankly (just as with dissertations - and I have pursued those as well), I believe such approaches are contrived. I assuredly can see where a composer created a powerful statement, but I doubt that papers on 'Beethoven's use of the augmented sixth chord in the last movement of Suchandsuch' contain anything that ever entered Beethoven's mind at the time.

One professor of mine, years back, made me smile when he mentioned an acquaintance with song-writer Irving Berlin. (Many specialising in musicology would not only have had no humour in them but would have had a long spiel to present about 'moving from 6 to 1 to 4'.) He teased me that at least Irving Berlin wrote a total of four melodies, where Verdi only used two - his early stage being 'oom-pah-pah,' his later 'sol-la-ti-do, sol-la-ti-do,' as I well knew. Still, to mention the aria I most loved to perform, when Leonora in La Forza del Destino sings the sweeping, "non m'abbondar, pieta Signore," I doubt even someone whose musical pursuits had not advanced beyond London Bridge is Falling Down would not perceive the huge emotions, conflict, and passion in the presentation.

Liturgy is also a passion for me, of course, and an area I've studied in massive detail. I love reading the works of (most!) noted liturgical scholars - by which I do not mean someone who has swallowed a lot of balderdash at some 'workshop' where gregarious, persuasive types (who indeed have knowledge, but share it selectively and with deliberate vagueness) further some local agenda or another. My love for worship is very instrumental, of course, but I also love the strong emphases on history and on 'sign and symbol.' The problem (and this even noted scholars concede... eventually) is that very little is known of the related history (until the Middle Ages - and every liturgist worth his salt not only thinks medieval liturgy was disastrous but would like to restore the purity of the 3rd century, if one could only discover what it was... even if the 3rd century didn't mean having saints in the next pew, and mostly meant capturing whichever bishops last sacrificed to the pagan gods). 'Sign and symbol' can strike people very differently, with only the liturgists themselves usually seeing the 'sign' that they expect will be prominent.

Most of the earliest liturgical texts are snippets - and usually one can't know for certain whether they were used regularly in worship, or to what extent this was so. I have this vivid mental picture of a bishop scribbling a 'to do' list, and inadvertently leaving it in a cassock pocket, to be discovered in some 20th century excavation. He might have written the equivalent of "pick up milk - remind Adeodatus to take out the recycling - feed the cat - check to see if the dry cleaning is ready." Liturgists who are brilliant and creative enough could spend days on this text, possibly developing ideas of parts in early liturgies where milk was lifted in praise of the fruits of creation, non-human animals were fed to show no elitism on the part of humanity, glass was separated into green and clear to show that we, too, will be recycled by grace regardless if we are transparent or not (those of you not in the know may be unaware that the highest praise of the saintly today centres on their being 'transparent'), and that dry cleaning, however harmful to the environment, is an affirmation of the value of human labour - and note the development of concepts of worship and sacramental theology, where already there was a connection with preserving 'the cloth.'

Among the works on my 'further reading' list in liturgical studies was one by a Protestant theologian. (I didn't like it - so I can't quote his name from memory, and won't even waste the energy looking it up.) He naturally focussed on baptism, and in fact seemed to see Communion as something of an after-thought. He cannot be faulted for 'creativity' in interpretation. It seemed that he assumed that just about every epistle was quoting what could loosely be called liturgical texts. "We proclaim to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord" would be taken for an acclamation, undoubtedly highly emotional if not directly inspired by the Spirit in each individual case, of "Jesus is Lord" which people shouted after baptism.

I'm not one for rows, but I love academic arguments. My favourites are those where distinguished, dedicated theologians from different areas of specialisation quibble over points. I believe the new lectionary is a gem, but it's great fun to have liturgists explain the 'themes' and their connection, whilst the scripture scholars insist that the combination of texts has no exegetical connection.

I very much enjoyed the works of Annibale Bugnini, who was involved in the Vatican's efforts at liturgical reform from 1947 through the 1970s. He wrote with undisguised excitement at what was under-way - though I dare-say he (and his colleagues) pictured something along the lines of Maria Laach, not a perpetual nursery school or weddings as a popular musical entertainment to celebrate the unique trends of Bob and Sue. Having seen how their ideas often back-fired, while realising what they intended and the reasoning, was enlightening to me. Even in the areas where I most disagree (for example, the 'communion procession'), I can envision what delights they hoped to restore. (I hate standing for the Eucharistic Prayer, and do not see it as an increase in reverence, however much I know that it is an ancient custom or illustrates our being a royal priesthood... and I'm cranky because it makes my back hurt...)

I'm not pleading 'not guilty' here, of course. There are particular gestures, passages and the like which move me incredibly. (Remember, as I showed earlier, that I equally assume that everyone is transported by both Monteverdi and Verdi...) The trouble is that it took me thirty years to discover what they meant (for example, "the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours" gives me a thrill when I realise it was from the Didache - and I love the ancient, rich symbolism of "holy things for holy people," even as I admit that probably half the congregation thinks replacing 'behold the Lamb of God' with this passage is a denial of the Real Presence). Liturgists know both the history and speculations - probably no one else, including the bishops, has a clue. The symbol is very likely to be misread - but which of us would have the courage to admit this?

When Bugnini's noble 'communion procession' was first instituted at grass-roots level, there were people who loved and hated 'let's all walk up and join our voices in the latest trendy song, while trying to concurrently hold song sheets and grasp the hands of the children.' Some of those promoting this may be forgiven (since they heard it at a workshop, I'm sure) for such idiotic explanations as "kneeling meant God was above us and we were servile - standing is the way one meets a friend." (Much as I think I'd have enjoyed sharing some new wine with Jesus of Nazareth at Cana, the more because I believe those who crashed the party to be with him may have been the reason the host ran out of wine in the first place, may I be spared from ever thinking He or any Persons of the Trinity are my equals...) Those who enjoyed it thought it was 'something to do' on the way to communion (...people who have 'nothing to do' or become bored on so brief a journey are beyond my comprehension, but I wonder if this says something about their understanding of the Eucharist in the first place... and this without any speculation about those who had told them the Eucharist 'celebrated ourselves.') Those who hated it saw quietly approaching the altar rail and kneeling to receive communion as far more reverent (and so do I - there, I said it and I'm glad - and it also gives me more of a sense of being one with the entire Christian community.) Both camps hardly thought the 'sing Ray Repp's Sons of God while trying to juggle the kids and a song sheet, then receive standing' was a glorious procession which emphasised the Communion as the high point of the liturgy.

I particularly enjoyed John Macquarrie's writings, because he not only combines an impressive knowledge of sacramental theology with pastoral 'horse sense,' but had the courage to say what could make one look old-fashioned, dumb, or stunted. Recall that all of us liturgical fans (I can't resist adding 'or wind machines,' and ask my readers to forgive me that pun) were facing a dilemma. We had to insist on returning to the purity (pre-Charlemagne and Gregory VII if one was clever enough) of the early Church rituals, yet more or less had to ignore any progress between the 4th century and the 20th. (Oh, we had to applaud our sudden progress today - but bemoan that anything happened in the Middle Ages, renaissance, 19th century and so forth.) John Macquarrie was frank about how, for example, even if the separation of baptism and confirmation was indeed an historical accident, it was a providential one - affirmation of one's mature faith, and a rite of passage in modern culture when we have few, has great value. To my knowledge, he was the only specialist in sacramental theology who admitted that liturgists place a stress on baptism unequalled by anyone else, and that this excessive emphasis could have negative effects on others.

Just very recently (and this in the context of a presentation about the Easter Vigil), one lady in attendance (who probably 'skimmed' a text about the early Church) asked why baptism is administered to the young, because (so she thought) in Augustine's time everyone waited till death was near before being baptised. (Actually, it seems to me that quite a bit of time lapsed between Augustine's baptism and his death... but I think that, then or now, and despite Augustine's rather excessive presentation about the necessity for early baptism, Augustine's own struggle with what he wanted 'but not yet' would find ready understanding in many an ear.) There's ample enough evidence that those who delayed baptism, hoping to receive it specifically on their death beds, had reasons that weren't exactly liturgical norms for eternity. They wanted to get in plenty of sin and have it wiped out at the last minute. Or they had high positions, which might entail such niceties as sacrificing to the old gods rather than face difficult consequences, and hardly wanted to lose their heads or end up penanced for apostasy (which might involve being barred from one's profession, removed from military careers, or maintaining total continence in one's marriage.) I also think that, however much there are holes in what we know of early catechesis, an extended period of preparation makes sense amongst Greeks who knew a quite different approach than did Israel... or that one didn't want spies for the Empire bringing up the offertory procession.

Bear with me once again... I sometimes hang in crowds where people could argue for hours over the specific meaning of 'et cum spiritu tuo.' It's almost as nuts as when I saw two musicologists argue for a day over what chord progression (V-I or IV-I, the latter known to most of you as that used for 'amen') was more effective.

The Reform of the Liturgy (1948-1975)

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