The first time I went to an Extraordinary Form Mass, often referred to as The Latin Mass, I loved it. But I also hated it.
By turn, it felt transcendently, heart-stoppingly beautiful and also exquisitely boring. I loved hearing plainchant for the first time in its natural setting, a music never meant for the concert hall but for worship, to be sung with aching devotion in a church during Mass. Hearing it in the wild was like being overshadowed by a winged Icarus. It floated down from the choir loft with sensual peace – restrained, pure as ivory, but straining against the hauntingly serene melody. Just underneath the surface pulsed a heartbeat of erotic desire, brimming with the blood and marrow of the saints.
Fascinated as I was, I struggled to maintain focus for the simple reason that the music was not what I was used to hearing. That music was wrapped in silence, a silence more still than I could endure. During the Canon, the holiness of the moment seemed to verge on crushing the priest beneath its weight, until the silence popped like static in my ear, I ran out of concentration, and my mind slovenly wandered to thoughts of breakfast. It was all very Edenic and sacerdotal, odd and foreign. I was very much out of place.
I knew there was some lingering mystery there, a thread to be gathered up towards the center of a maze. It was deeply appealing, but whispered its secrets just out of earshot. As we walked home after the Mass, I marveled to my friend that the parish was like a time-traveling machine to the medieval ages – which I liked – but, having come unstuck in time and returned to our own, felt non-organic and alien to modern sensibilities – which I didn’t like.
Nevertheless, I continued to be drawn to Extraordinary Form Masses. I continued to love them. And hate them.
Friends of mine have mentioned similar feelings of confusion, a simultaneous attraction and repulsion, a void formed by a mighty rush of wind, the feeling of standing at the threshold of home but unable to unlatch the door. For many, the Extraordinary Form is a curiosity, good for thee but not for me, and many retreat from encountering it and return to the more comforting, easily digestible aesthetic sensibilities of the Ordinary Form. There, one is more easily fed.
For me, the liturgy has always held the secret to the mystical communion of the saints. It is at the Mass that the Lamb of God is immolated and becomes the unifying principle of the universe, here that the angels and all God’s hallows gather, here where grace is dispensed from the open hand of our Blessed Mother. Without the Mass we are nothing. So, it stands to reason that it’s worth the time and energy to get the Mass right. The aesthetics of it are a harmonious whole with the meaning of it because the Mass communicates a great truth, and that truth is commensurate with beauty. Our prayer is our creed.
This is why, once I was ordained a priest, I continued to attend Extraordinary Form Masses. I slowly taught myself – with the help of a few very kind friends – how to offer them as the celebrant and refine my ars celebrandi. As I practiced, the Mass took root in my soul. It readjusted my entire priesthood. I struggle to put in words exactly what was happening in me, but it has to do with the fact that, when I initially encountered the ancient Mass of the Church in all its glory, my soul was wrongly ordered. Spiritually, I had no idea how to recollect myself and rest in the presence of God. My passions were reaching out for entertainment, something to consume, to grab on to, something to do. Gradually, as I internalized the outward form of the Mass, its inward meaning unfolded. That meaning went far beyond knowledge I had acquired or rubrics I had memorized. It was a metaphysical change effected by beauty.
Brian Prugh, in a recent essay in the print edition of Dappled Things Magazine, quotes St. Paulinus as the saint describes a series of sacred paintings he wants to commission for the spiritual benefit of pilgrims as they arrive in the church of St. Felix. As the pilgrims arrive, St. Paulinus hopes the paintings will awe them. He wants them to slow down, halt their weary bodies, and look, and look again. He wants them to continue looking all day long. The artwork, he says, will satiate them, “with a fast that is pleasing to the eyes.”
In the presence of sacred beauty, worldly cares recede and we are gathered into a timeless contemplation – hunger recedes, thirst remains unquenched, and time itself ceases to have meaning. God is speaking, at his words demand our full attention. Prugh writes, it is, “a moment in time and out of time, a moment when desire falls away, when, from the outside, you must look like you are doing nothing.”
This phenomenological description – from the outside, you appear to be doing nothing – recapitulates a common complaint about the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. There is little for the worshipers to accomplish, no way to fill the time. A friend of mine says of the Mass, “I cannot get over the fact that I am just sitting there, ‘forgotten’…It is hard for me to admit, and I know that sounds proud as a peacock, but it irks me.” I understand the feeling because there’s quite a bit of truth in it. The Mass flows from a deep source and beckons us to join not as its creators but, rather, to unite ourselves to a great act of sacrifice. It is a feast, to be sure, but it is first of all a fast, for the bridegroom is not yet fully present. There’s a tension of fasting and feeding, what Pope Benedict XVI refers to as a beauty that wounds, a reaction so strong towards beauty that it’s painful.
The Mass is the greatest of all art, so it stands to reason that any description of the one is a description of the other. Beauty can tear apart an unwary aspirant, so too can the Mass. Both will destroy and then recreate, both will leave us with unrequited nostalgia, a longing to remain forever in the grip of that beauty. There’s a sense of loss and unrequited sadness that the beauty of the Mass slips away. It is an unrepeatable moment in a lifetime condemned to picking up little shards of beauty that reflect the heavens, but only if we hold them very still and just so. Eventually, every hand trembles.
The greatest art requires the greatest sacrifice. How could a person help but to draw back? The ancient Mass of the Church is the greatest of all art, and it rearranges our lives most thoroughly. We approach with disordered affections and malformed sensibilities. We are confronted with an unyielding beauty, a beauty so chaste that, in order to approach it, it must first remake us. This is a beauty that must be wrestled. If, in the battle, we are touched upon the hip and emerge limping, so shall it be. Personally, I am honored to limp to the altar each and every single day for as long as the privilege is granted to me. As a priest and a humble servant, my heart trembles as I kneel before an ancient love so luminous that I can hardly stand it.
All photos by Katherine M. Blanner