I guess I've always kind of known this, but in the last few days I've really been confronted with the effects of a liturgy that focuses on solidarity with each other rather than bridging the divide between heaven and earth.
I've had a few interesting conversations with a lapsed Catholic, who baulked at attending a Latin Mass because they would be "unable to participate".
Yet somewhat perversely, that person's concept of God is as something utterly other and alien, a being who has nothing in common with us in the way he thinks or acts.
And I'm forced to conclude this denuded concept of God may well be the direct result of the novus ordo liturgy as typically experienced (I put in this qualification because it is possible for the novus ordo, when celebrated with all due ceremony, to achieve similar effects to the TLM; but it almost never is performed this way).
God as utterly other
For the Catholic, God is surely Other and yet not. We are created in his image after all, sharing in common free will and the capacity for understanding. His Spirit resides in each of us and sustains us; without his continuing care we would cease to exist.
St Teresa of Avila talked about prayer as a conversation with a friend. Though he is infinitely above us, we can thank him for his gifts, ask him for the things we need, and seek to get to know him better. The purpose of our lives, after all, is to know, love and serve him, using this life to ensure we will be with him forever.
Like a friend, sometimes he is able to accomodate the things we ask for - and sometimes his own plans make granting that request impossible. Yet still we know that we can ask.
Piercing the veil
Many catholics (and others) however have been infected by Eastern ideas of God as utterly other. For them, prayer may assist us in "coping" with what life flings at us, and finding peace with it, but it doesn't have the capacity to fundamentally change either ourselves or the world. And for them, heaven is not a place where real physical bodies (Our Lord and Our Lady) exist, but some kind of mysterious state.
The traditional liturgy, by contrast, focuses on piercing the veil between heaven and earth: it emphasises the vertical, the worship of God, with angels climbing Jacob's ladder between heaven and earth, and the priest acting 'in persona Christi'. It builds on the Jewish idea of our liturgy being an earthly reflection of the heavenly, most clearly reflected in the descriptions of the Book of Revelations.
The use of Latin, the haunting chant, the elaborate rituals all remind us that God is infinitely more than us; to some degree an alien other. But the constant pleadings of the texts of the Mass, the careful and repeated attempts to approach him humbly remind us that he is someone we can know, albeit in a limited way, and approach if we do it properly.
By contrast the novus ordo liturgy, with its rather more prosaic approach and language, its signs and symbols such as the communal love fest at the sign of peace, seems to sub-consciously emphasize that we are on our own as far as God is concerned, and need to rely on each other rather than him. The liturgy shorn of all of its fear and trembling, its repetitions and halting restarts, says not (as its originators perhaps hoped) that we can approach God confidently, but rather that there is nothing to approach.
So how do we recover the sense of the sacred? How do we recover the notion that God is a real person, not some vague, utterly alien presence? That heaven is a real place, worthy of being strived for?
The resacralizing the liturgy, combined with some solid catechesis, is essential.
And we need to pray hard for the conversion of a lost generation.