The Necessity of the Incoherent in Liturgy

There are other manifestations of this tendency of the feeling of the ‘mysterious’ to be attracted to objects and aspects of experience analogous to it in being ‘uncomprehended.’ It finds its most unqualified expression in the spell exercised by the only half intelligible or wholly unintelligible language of devotion, and in the unquestionably real enhancement of the awe of the worshipper which this produces. Instances of this are — the ancient traditional expressions, still retained despite their obscurity, in our Bible and hymnals; the special emotional virtue attaching to words like ‘Hallelujah’, Kyrie eleison, ‘Selah’, just because they are ‘wholly other’ and convey no clear meaning; the Latin in the service of the Mass, felt by the Catholic to be, not a necessary evil, but something especially holy; the Sanskrit in the Buddhist Mass of China and Japan;; the ‘language of the gods’ in the ritual of sacrifice in Homer; and many similar cases. Especially noticeable in this connexion are the half-revealed, half-concealed elements in the service of the Mass, in the Greek Church liturgy, and so many others; we can see here one factor that justifies and warrants them. And the same is true of the remaining portions of the old Mass which recur in the Lutheran ritual. Just because their design shows but little of regularity or conceptual arrangement, they preserve in themselves far more of the spirit of worship than the recent practical reformers. In these we find carefully arranged schemes worked out with the balance and coherence of an essay, but nothing unaccountable, and for that very reason suggestive; nothing accidental, and for that very reason pregnant in meaning; nothing that rises from the deeps below consciousness to break the rounded unity of the wonted disposition, and thereby pointed to a unity of a higher order — in a word, little that is really spiritual.

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, pp. 64-65

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