Ite, Missa est (Incarnational Semiotics 6)

For the moment, however, the Chorus of the Women of Canterbury express their assent. While “a Te Deum is sung in Latin by a choir in the distance,” the Women sing the praises of God in the newly renewed significance of the symbols which populate the created order:

We praise Thee, O God, for Thy glory displayed in all the creatures of the earth,

In the snow, in the rain, in the wind, in the storm; in all of Thy creatures, both hunters and hunted.

For all things exist only as seen by Thee, only as known by Thee, all things exist

Only in Thy light, and Thy glory is declared even in that which denies Thee; the darkness declares the glory of light.[i]

God had brought the “light” by which all else is illuminated and understood, and it is seen, in turn, that all things point to God as symbols of his “glory.” “All things affirm Thee in living,” they continue, but it is man, as homo significans, who “must consciously praise Thee.”[ii] It is man, however, as the symbolling and worshipping animal, that creates the signification and praise of things in the natural world.[iii] And it is “the blood of Thy martyrs and saints” which “shall enrich the earth, shall create the holy places.”[iv] The blood of the martyrs, a sharing in and a renewal of the blood of Christ in the Eucharist, is a transubstantiation of the ennui of the waste land to “the life of significant soil.”[v] With the Women of Canterbury, writes Gardner, “we pass . . . through horror, out of boredom, into glory.”[vi]

The final fusion of signifier and signified into a single reality comes in the final words, of the play, a prayer spoken by the Women of Canterbury:

Lord, have mercy upon us.

Christ, have mercy upon us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

Blessed Thomas, pray for us.[vii]

In the end, Thomas’s name is prayed alongside that of Christ in a litany of supplicatory prayer. In his 1950 lectures on Poetry and Drama at Harvard University, Eliot said,

It is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no farther.[viii]

This is, of course, the point to which this prayer to Thomas as a saint now brings the audience/congregation. Words are once again unable to adequately express. Their lack of expressiveness, however, does not arise from the lack of “truth” or lack of a “transcendental signified.” Rather, it is because the symbols are, for a moment, no longer necessary and so are fused with the reality, as the Eucharist is simultaneously the symbol and real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ. But now those who have partaken must re-enter the world. In the words of the Mass, “Ite, Missa est,” or “Go, the Mass is ended.”

Eliot later expressed his belief that Murder in the Cathedral had failed because of its archaic setting.[ix] He seems, however, to have been an unduly harsh critic of his own work. In the same lectures, he expressed the goal of “bring[ing] poetry into the world in which the audience lives and to which it returns when it leaves the theatre; not to transport the audience into some imaginary world totally unlike its own, an unreal world in which poetry is tolerated.”[x] The archaic setting of Murder in the Cathedral, however, is not necessarily a barrier between it and the accomplishment of this goal of imbuing common language with beauty and meaning.[xi] Especially through the use of Eucharistic imagery, Eliot accomplished his goal of the redemption of language, and therefore of communication and significance in human existence, in Murder in the Cathedral. The Mass itself, upon which so much of the structure of the drama relies, is not itself insufficient because of its archaism. Rather, it, like the drama, conveys the character of timelessness in the maintenance of its traditional settings and forms. It is, in short, incarnational, an in-breaking of the eternal and the divine into the temporal and material order, thereby revealing the symbolic nature of the material order which, in turn, points to the very light by which it is revealed.

[i] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 220.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] James Olney, “Four Quartets: ‘Folded in a Single Party’,” in T. S. Eliot: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985), 38.

[iv] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 221.

[v] Ibid., V.50.

[vi] Gardner, 138.

[vii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 221.

[viii] T. S. Eliot, Poetry and Drama (London: Faber and Faber, 1950), 35.

[ix] Ibid., 23.

[x] Ibid., 27.

[xi] Nancy D. Hargrove, “T.S. Eliot and and the Parisian Theatre World, 1910–1911,” South Atlantic Review 66, no. 4 (Autumn 2001): 36.

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

Review: Introduction to Christian Worship by James F. White

James F. White draws upon the full range of liturgical and ritual practices of Christians for this combined academic introduction and pastoral and theological reflection upon Christian worship. Unlike many books on this topic, White does not dwell on or pay special attention only to his own tradition (in this case the Protestant tradition, and Methodism specifically) but instead draws on as wide of a swathe of Christian liturgical practice as possible. The result is a very full and quite insightful treatment of the worship practices of the entirety of Christendom.

In each chapter, White examines a different Christian worship practice or some related element. His chapters treat such topics as church architecture, church music, the regular Sunday service in both of its part (the Service of the Word and the Eucharistic Rite), the daily prayers of Christians, and each of the major sacraments of the Church. In his treatment of each, White provides an introductory history that draws on the history of both the Eastern and Western branches of the Church and which draws on both of the major branches of Western Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. He then proceeds to describe current practice and concludes by offering some theological and pastoral insights, drawing on both earlier writers and authorities as well as his own experience as a Methodist minister.

For an objective and fair treatment of the history and practice of Christians at worship, this is certainly the place to begin. Even where I disagree with his assessments in his reflections at the end of each chapter, I find great value in his well-reasoned arguments and the sharing of his personal experience and wisdom. I recommend this book for anyone interested in Christian worship, whether in its history, its theology, or its practice.

Review: Heart of the Christian Life: Thoughts on Holy Mass by Pope Benedict XVI

This small volume is a collection of homilies and other writings by Pope Benedict XVI on the Mass. The special focus, of course, is the Eucharist, which he describes, as the title puts it, as the “heart of the Christian life.” For Benedict, who draws on Scripture and on the tradition of the Church, the Eucharist is the transfiguring heart of the life of a Christian. Everything else a Christian does in life is transformed and informed by the central sacramental act of the Church.

There is little, if anything, here that is revolutionary. Rather, the strength of the various short pieces assembled for this book is that they stand in line with and summarize the traditional Christian teaching about the Eucharist.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in delving deeper into the Christian worldview, particularly in how the sacraments of Christianity, and the Sacrament of Sacraments (the Eucharist) above all, play a central role in Christian life and thought.

Book Review: The Early Liturgy: To the Time of Gregory the Great by Fr. Josef A. Jungmann

Early Liturgy (University of Notre Dame. Liturgical studies)

This is the best introduction to the early history of Christian worship I have yet read. Jungmann begins with the earliest sources for Christian liturgy and proceeds to track the progress of developments in Christian worship practices up to the papacy of St. Gregory the Great. Jungmann takes a wide view, exploring both the Eastern and Western liturgical traditions, and includes a number of meditations and observations on Christian worship throughout.

Most of the first half of the book, which is concerned with the earliest sources on and of Christian liturgy, consists of an extended meditation on the meaning of Christian worship. Among the topics explored are the sources, both practical and theological, of church architecture, the contrast between pagan and Jewish worship on the one hand and Christian worship on the other, and the effects of early Christian heresies like Gnosticism on the liturgical developments of the early Church.

The second half of the book traces liturgical development from Constantine to Gregory the Great, a period during which the Christian Church, both East and West, was developing those liturgical traditions which have continued into the present day. His exploration of the effect of Arianism on the tenor and content of Eastern liturgy is a particularly fascinating portion of this study. The study of liturgy during this important period leads Jungmann into an exploration and explanation of the origins of elements of the modern liturgy, with a focus on the Roman Rite.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in the history and meaning of Christian liturgical practices as well as anyone with an intense interest in Church history more generally.