Monday, July 9, 2018

Is High Mass humanity’s “greatest artistic achievement”?



High Mass at Pusey House, Oxford
(From the Pusey House website)

I love this part of Douglass Shand Tucci's article THE HIGH MASS AS SACRED DANCE in which he quotes at length Anglican spiritual guide, Evelyn Underhill. Her words pretty well sum up the impact on me of the first High Mass I wandered into as an impressionable teenager. I was overwhelmed by the power of the worship to merge the earthly and the heavenly, to reveal the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. I am fortunate in my ministry as a priest to have served parishes in which this form of worship was kept going. In one of them, the motto we used on the pew bulletin was: "Gospel Preaching & Traditional Catholic Worship."  

High Mass was mostly swept away in our time by well-meaning people who thought they were making the Church more "relevant" to our culture. But, while it would be foolish to imagine that everyone has the cultural predisposition to be drawn to the Lord by the kind of worship described here, I can assure readers that many, including "unchurched" young people ARE drawn when this supernatural worship is offered as part of the new evangelisation!

Indeed, the yearning for the dimensions of worship spoken of in the following article lies behind the current movement to restore the transcendent and numinous which much of the Western Church has lost over the last sixty years.

Tucci's entire article, of which this is an extract, can be found HERE(To assist the reader of this extract, I have renumbered the endnotes.)


The distinguished Anglican scholar, Evelyn Underhill traced what could be called the graph of the Mass: from the liturgy of lessons and Gospel, “God’s uttered word in History,” and the Great Intercession, “the unstinting, self-spending with and for the purposes of God, by intercessory prayer,” of the Offertory, where Christ, she wrote, “enters the Holy Place as the representative of man, offering the humble material of man’s sacrifice, that he may come forth from it as the representative of God, bringing to man the Heavenly Food.” And, finally, to the Great Thanksgiving - when the gifts of bread and wine, set apart from the natural world for the Mystery, yield - “the invisible Holy Presence; Who comes under these lowly signs into the Sanctuary with an escort of incense and lights, and is welcomed by the enraptured Alleluias of the Cherubic Hymn, announcing the Presence of God.”

What better has been written of this tremendous moment of the Sanctus when “all that truly happens,” she wrote, “happens beyond the rampart of the world”? Sursum corda - Lift up your hearts, sings the celebrant. “The early liturgies leave us in no doubt,” she continued, “as to what this movement implied: ‘To the heavenly height, the awful place of glory. . . .’ This cry, and the people’s response, come down to us from the earliest days of the Church.” It marks, she declared, “the crossing of the boundary between natural and supernatural worship”; the knowing search for what she called “that ineffable majesty on which Isaiah looked, which is the theme of the earliest Eucharistic prayers, and which inspires the great Sanctus of the B Minor Mass, with its impersonal cry of pure adoration.” This is the world communicants enter as they approach the altar rail, wrote Underhill, where “the ‘Table of Holy Desires’ with its cross and ritual lights stands on the very frontier of the invisible.” (1)

Has anyone in our time set before architect or musician, so uncompromisingly, the task the liturgy forces upon them? As Underhill put it in another place, “movement and words combine to produce an art form which is the vehicle of [the Church’s] self-offering to God and communion with God.” The liturgy, she knew, is “an action and an experience that transcend the logical levels of the mind and demand an artistic rather than an intellectual form of expression.” (2) The honours of the church on earth significantly describe in her text what they describe, audibly and visually, in the mass. Bach is there as well as the cherubim, on the frontier of the invisible.

She knew well the risks of the medium; she knew the dangers of depending on an imperfect art to make a perfect art-form. But she knew too that to eschew art, worship must be “thin, abstract, notional: a tendency, an attitude, a general aspiration, moving alongside human life, rather than in it.” Worship thus embodied by the arts, she declared, “loses-or seems to lose-something of its purity; but only then can it take up and use man’s various powers and capacities ... thus entering the texture of his natural as well as supernatural life. Certainly, it is here that we encounter the greatest danger, that form will smother spirit.... But the risk is one which man is bound to take. He is not ‘pure’ spirit, and is not capable of ‘pure’ spiritual acts .... (3)

. . . most Anglicans continue to trivialize ceremonial and even to overlook its significance. They typically bury themselves throughout the liturgy in hymnal, prayer book, or service leaflet - on the dubious premise that to read what is being said is to understand it better. This, in turn, has had disastrous effects on church lighting, which frequently overthrows every attempt of the architect to create an evocative liturgical environment . . . Modern art has also sometimes strained the principles of liturgical art severely. That these principles can survive in modern work of great originality is clear. For example, consider Jean Langlais’ Messe Solennelle. Relentlessly liturgical, suggestive often of plainchant, its solemn, quiet and sometimes even lyrical texture is nonetheless so taut that when the tension erupts into Langlais’ massive, fiercely impassioned dissonances, the effect is a stunning and almost numbing grandeur of sound that evokes the mysterium tremendum with an uncanny distinction.

Is the High Mass, as Cram and others have thought, humanity’s “greatest artistic achievement”? Infrequently. Most church people have the erroneous impression that the very simple Low Mass is the most primitive form of Christian worship and that the solemn liturgy is a medieval elaboration. Actually, Low Mass is the medieval innovation . . .

Anglicans as well as Roman Catholics cannot be blamed for forgetting that the ancient High Mass, resplendent with lights, music, incense and full ceremonial, has always remained the theoretical norm of the western church as it is still the actual norm of Eastern Christendom. (4) Forgetful of this fact, we forget another: that “art in worship is not a mere imitation of the creative work of God; nor is it only a homage rendered to Christ; by giving embodiment to invisible realities it continues the Incarnation of the Word.” (5) Indeed, the Church has held that it “brings about objectively and in our very midst, the highest form of reality, the Summum Pulchrum, God Himself.’ “(6) Confronted with this astonishing purpose, and the distinguished art it has yielded, the art historian can only declare that in thus reaching “beyond the rampart of the world” for what Underhill called “that ineffable majesty upon which Isaiah looked,” the art of the High Mass is not only august but unparallelled.

* * * * * * * * * *

(1) The material quoted in this and the preceding paragraph is drawn from Evelyn Underhill's The Mystery of Sacrifice: A Meditation on the Liturgy (New York, 1954), unpaged introduction and pp. 18-40. The Mystery of Sacrifice was first published in 1938.

(2) Evelyn Underhill, Worship (New York, 1936), p. 33. See also p. 29.

(3) Ibid., p. 14.

(4) Ibid., p. 245.

(5) Ibid., P. 71.


(6) Hammenstede, "The Liturgy as Art," pp. 41-42.


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