Saturday, 5 September 2009

The otherness of God

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.


Mac said...

Now I know why some people are Bloggers and writers and others are just "readers"
You have expressed my feelings and experiences as well as I could only dream of doing!
The problem is not the Novus Ordo per se but the infernal hymns. I go to weekly Mass whenever it's available and the spiritual experience leaves "Sunday Mass" for dead.
Recovering the sense of the Sacred will require a change in the celebration of the Mass and will probably require a re-think of the four hymn sandwich bit. Is that possible?
I read the following recently, and noted it, as it seems to me to be where our approach to Mass is wrong;
"It's not just community centered,
It's God centered
not just community centered,
It's an act of worship". (From a Roman Cardinal I think).

Thanks again Terra.

Andrea said...

Terra, this is very insightful thankyou.

I was recently at a NO Mass in Queensland, and this emphasis on relying on each other was presented in a different way, in relation to baptism. There were two families preparing to get their babies baptised. I have seen plenty of baptisms within Mass, so initially thought that is what was going to happen. However, it turned out that this was some kind of presentation of the babies before baptism (which was to take place a few weeks later, from what I could gather - these babies appeared to be at least a couple of months old already), and the priest formally asked all the congregation to promise to help the families to bring up their children as community.

Why is it that these same people who complain about an excess of ritual in the EF, feel the need to continually create their own NEW rituals?

On a tangent, with all these extra steps parents are forced to take to get their babies baptised, is it any wonder some of them can practically walk down the aisle.

Peter said...

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully expressed, Terra. The TLM indeed bridges the gap between heaven and earth, for, in our knowledge of the Holy Trinity, there is both the awesome and majestic otherness of our Creator but also the humanity and suffering of the Son and with/through them, the Holy Spirit, who comforts us and gives us courage and hope - God so lovingly bridged the gap for us. So thankful the TLM recreates that bridge each time it is celebrated.

Thank you.