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language of liturgyIn his conversations with the journalist Bill Moyers, the mythologist Joseph Campbell commented on the power of lived symbolism in communal life. When the judge comes out in a black robe, sits behind a high desk and calls the court to order with a gavel he is no longer an ordinary man. He is the law incarnate. He is justice. He is the authority.

A uniform and dress code are not merely utilitarian. The policeman, the soldier, the nurse, and even the waiter, the school child, or utility man wear the uniform for more than its function. The uniform temporarily suspends the personality. With it the individual conforms to the common good and the common goal. There is a practical symbolism involved.

When the monk or nun dons their habit they are doing the same, and the more extreme the habit the more extreme their submission to the rule. Likewise when the priest dons his vestments he is clothing himself in the vestiges of ancient religion. He is robing himself in romanitas, vesting himself in the persona of the priest and clothing himself as Christ the great high priest. We take this symbolism for granted; so much so that in our egalitarian age we misunderstand it and even dismiss it as an anachronism—a cultural curiosity akin to wearing lederhosen for the Oktoberfest.

These uniforms—these vestments are the remnants of an older, more ritualistic and symbolic way not only of worship, but of viewing the world. The common man understood at a primitive and profound level that there was another plane of being and that the rituals of religion were intended to propel you out of the quotidian quagmire into a transcendent transposition into another realm. The signs, symbols, language, and liturgy were an ancient dance that lifted you beyond this bitter world to a better world.

Abandoning all that “mumbo jumbo hocus pocus priestcraft” we have all become American Protestants—even the Catholics. Worship has become utilitarian entertainment in which we gather in a large room to hear someone sing trite, sentimental ditties and listen to a pep talk about teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony.

We have forgotten that religion is not about making the world a better place, but about going to a better place. All the old chthonic mysteries of the cave have been replaced by cheerful exhortations and enthusiasm for self-improvement and prosperity. The ancient commerce with the other world and the soul saving transactions with eternity have been relegated to the shelf with the books on ancient civilizations, anthropology and psychology. We know better now. We have outgrown that stuff. We are no longer in the dark ages.

Or are we? The ancient symbolism of myth and magic still thrives in the superhero movies, the fantasy novels and the popular stories of the supernatural. Indeed the supernatural and the superheroes are popular everywhere but in church—where ordinary people once did extraordinary business with the supernatural and learned to be those superheroes called saints.

Joseph Campbell left his boyhood Catholic faith because of his disgust and dismay at the iconoclastic reforms of his church after the Second Vatican Council. He understood the language of the liturgy was not only Latin, but a complex communication of symbols interplaying within the architecture, music, language, costumes, rites, gestures, and rituals of worship.

In The Power of Myth he lamented thus: “There has been a reduction of ritual. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, they’ve translated the Mass out of the ritual language and into a language with domestic associations. The Latin of the Mass was a language that threw you out of the field of domesticity. The altar was turned around so that the priest’s back was to you, and with him you addressed yourself outward. Now they have turned the altar around and it looks like Julia Child giving a cooking demonstration—all homey and cozy… They have forgotten that the function of ritual is to pitch you out not to wrap you back in where you have been all the time.”

This is why traditionalists in the Catholic Church insist on certain forms in worship. Whether they adopt the ancient Latin rite or not, they worship facing East and argue that the priest is not “turning his back to the people” but focusing with the people on the work of heaven which is the worship of God. They insist that beautiful clerical vestments are important. Their beauty hints of heaven. The priest does not wear brocade chasubles, lace albs, and opulent copes because he likes dressing up, but because he understands that the vestments provide a powerful contribution to the overall symbolism of worship. Along with the ceremonial actions, the ancient absurdity of incense, and the iconography of architecture and art, they help pitch him and the worshippers out of the ordinary world and into the other world.

Likewise, traditional Catholic priests take time to learn the precise gestures of worship. The way you walk, your posture, and your gesture matter because every part of the ritual contributes to the overall effect of transposing ordinary time and place into the extraordinary. Heightened, somewhat archaic and poetical language was used deliberately in the new translation of the Catholic Mass. The translators explain that a more lofty language is necessary to lift the worship from the mundane to the marvelous. Likewise, the music of the Mass is to be sacred. What this means precisely is the stuff of arcane debates among sacred music scholars, liturgists, and priests. While we may argue about what is included we know what should be excluded: the musical styles that are purloined from the Broadway musical, the rock concert, muzak, and the Grand Ole Opry.

What is accomplished when Christian worship is traditional in style? First, a living connection is made with the past. Pope Benedict spoke of the need for “a hermeneutic of continuity.” This is another way of expressing the conservative principle that the past should inform the present and illuminate the future. When an ordinary twenty-first century Catholic worships in a traditional style he or she is participating in a tradition that stretches not only to the first century but back into the Hebrew roots of Christianity.

Even more profoundly, they are participating in what I term myth for the masses. In addition to connecting with ancient Christianity and Judaism, they are also participating in the mythical mysticism of the ancient world. The interaction between gods and men, the themes of sacrifice and service, vulnerability and virginity, heroism and hedonism, love and life, nature and nurture—all these deep surges within the depths of the collective humanity are also present in a living and vital way as one experiences the rituals of religion practiced in a symbolic and liturgical way. Within the Catholic and Orthodox traditions we call these sacraments and sacramentals “the Holy Mysteries” for they connect us not only with the mysteries of our salvation, but also with those mysteries which in ancient times were the strange precursors of the events of Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem.

Does this matter in the modern world? It is my conviction that it matters more in the modern world than ever before because our fractured society is so vapid and disconnected from the great depths and awesome traditions of the human heart and human history. We may study the past in an academic forum. We may discuss psychology and be fascinated with myth and meaning. We may analyze anthropology and poke at prehistoric peoples with an eye to dissection, but in liturgy we participate in a profound way with the past. In liturgy we do not discuss the meaning of life. We experience the mystery of life.

Theologians explain that the Greek word anamnesis is the beating heart beneath the rituals of Catholic and Jewish religion. This is the concept that within the re-enactment of the Passover feast of the Catholic Mass a history changing event from the past is not simply remembered as one might view photographs of a family holiday. Instead the past event, through the ritual is brought into the present moment so that the participants share in the timeless event out of time. If you like, the “there and then” is brought into the “here and now.”

This is the heart of the practice of the Catholic religion and the heart of true conservatism—that the past is active in the present and the future. For believers this truth is not just believed, but lived. Through the symbolic language of liturgy we experience the reality of T.S. Eliot’s poignant and profound words, “Time present and time past, Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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20 replies to this post
  1. I used to listen to a Public Radio program that had the tag, “all music was once new.” (I don’t get up that early since I retired.)
    All enamored as I am for Tradition, Ritual, and Order (i.e., all that is “conservative”), once upon time, Latin was not the well-rounded periods polished by centuries of Latin Teachers, but was a living language, as vulgate (!) as it came. What, then, was the effect on the average Christian in those days? Did they see all the rituals as innovative? Was the language dismissed as being common?
    We native English speakers (I cannot say what is the problem in other cultures) tend to romanticize that which is venerable. Which is why some revanchists hold only for the King James Version for pulpit and private study. (I cut my teeth, so to speak, on the KJV, and have had only fondness, and no trouble of comprehension when reading it.) It is easily seen that the KJV, the BCP (C of E) and The Bard have formed both the English language, and the consciousness of speakers of English for 400 years. Love them I do. However…
    How long before the vernacular Mass settles down (the latest change of wording in English is a mark that it has not yet begun to do so), and becomes the “venerable” vernacular Mass?
    How long before the rituals which were “novus” yesterday have become the normal “ordo”?
    To be sure, there are some very flakey things out yonder (like the Cat-in-the-Hat Mass), and I am not fully reconciled to guitars instead of an organ at the English-language Mass (although they fit in perfectly well with the Spanish-language Mass — and, I love the Spanish mass, since it *almost* sounds like they are singing in Latin).
    However, all good things eventually triumph, and the generation which deliberately misunderstood Vatican II is passing away. Amazing, isn’t it, that to the youngsters we are looking for a return to sanity!
    While it may not appear to be such, I did truly appreciate the essay above, and wish profoundly that more clerics and religious would get back in the habit of rep[resenting the Church as it should be represented. (OK, just another curmudgeon, most likely.)

  2. One thing about the Eastern Orthodox Church is that it still takes the liturgy seriously. I am sad to see how much the Roman Catholic mass has changed.

  3. I think I understand and agree with what both Father Longenecker and Mr. Naas are stating. To be honest, I think if I do not watch myself, my love of ancient art and language would devolve into idolatry. I see this propensity to worship the traditional liturgy in others and I fear I will do the same. That said, I find the Latin Mass to be superior to English mass in its ability to transport me outside of my self.

    • Thanks for this, Eric. I’ve seen this too. While I am growing in my appreciation of and desire for a more traditional liturgy, art, and language, I am reticent to go that path very passionately because of what you describe. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it’s not uncommon.

  4. I think turning the altar toward the people was a big mistake. It is an immense change in orientation that has had ill effects in the perception of what is happening in the mass.

  5. Thank you so much The Imaginative Conservative for accurately and clearly explaining why our family will only attend the Tridentine Latin Catholic Mass. We have our traditional (pre-Vatican II) priest come to our house (the Canyon Chapel) once a month from Nebraska to give us confession and Mass.

  6. As much as I love the traditional Latin Mass, I would be hard pressed to get my converted wife to attend one regularly (although I am trying to get her to one just once). However, through her eyes (and the wonderful teacher she had), I am seeing the rites and traditions anew and realize how important all of it is. Part of the reason I came back was the emptiness I felt in her Baptist congregation, where there was no art, no rite, no ceremony, and, except for the occassional sermon, no passion. I am slowly rediscovering the Church. I had the misfortune of spending my formative Church years in the aftermath of Vatican II. I have now learned that Vatican II was not really as responsible for the disaster as were misguided people, some of who meant well, and others whom, I am afraid, knew exactly what they were doing. As we continue to regain our Church, I hope that we can regain that mystery, mysticism and magistry that traditionaly was part of the Catholic faith and tradition.

  7. Father, incredible piece and stress so many of the points as to why I love the TLM and traditional Catholic faith. I see you are building a new Church, may I ask whether there will be a high altar with our Lord at center high in the tabernacle and kneeling rails for communion? Well do sir cassocks, traditional vestments and ad orientum, boy you have come along way Padre!! Well done sir. I will fall out of my chair if you tell me you are starting a men’s schola, Greenville will never be the same.

  8. One other thing Father, since your designing a new Church I highly recommend, if you have an arch above the apse/high altar have it inscribed with “Terribilis est locos iste hic domus Dei est et porta coeli” it is a great reminder as to where you are at and what is going on. What I ment by you have come a long way Padre in my last post was a long way from Bob Jones University. My Uncle that I asked you to pray for is recovering well thank you for your prayers. Hopefully one day I can convince them to visit your parish.

  9. There is nothing wrong with having a guitar at Mass as long as it can help lift the sanctity of the Mass. I lived in Papua New Guinea for almost 2 decades and the lack of resources there meant that people had to improvise with what they had. Where will an organ come from unless someone has the funds to generously donate one to their parish? The Melanesians are extremely talented when it comes to music and they managed to preserve, not diminish in any way, the rituals of the Mass by using guitars and kundu drums. In addition to that they can naturally harmonise hence why it is not unusual to attend Mass with the whole congregation singing in 4 part harmony or maybe even more.

  10. Michelle, Gregorian Chant does not require any instrument it is acapella. But it is not just the music, it is the form, the attitude, the silence the simple principle of realizing when you walk into the nave and look upon the high altar you are in the Holy of Holies, you are standing at the gateway between heaven and earth where at the consecraction heaven and earth come together, God is not only spiritually present but physically present. From the Sign of the Cross to the Dismissal you are in prayer re-entering the greatest sacrifice of all time. Most of this is completely lost in the new churches and how most priests present the Novus Ordo. It is more like a community picinic at the beach then the greatest wedding feast anyone has ever attended. One priest, once a year use to be able to go into the Holy of Holies, God has allowed all of those that accept Him to enter it everyday if they choose but instead of realizing what a great honor that is we have taken His presense off of the high altar and placed him in a separate room or off to the side and turned the altar, apse and nave into a concert hall where the music does not only often does not flow with the prayer of the day it is painful to the human ear and sensibilities. The other thing is if every parish on the planet offered the mass in Latin, anyone from anywhere could walk into any Church and with a Latin/ones native language missal fully partispate in mass. The only time any person that was not familar with the local language would be out of the loop would be during the homily and announcements. That is what I call unity. Lord only knows now days what kind of mass you will walk into when you walk through the doors of an unfamilar parish. Trying to find the tabernacle is like hide and seek in some Catholic parishes I have been in. When ever I walk into a traditional Catholic Parish no matter where it is I immediately feel at home, I know were every thing is at and what I am supposed to be doing. Just like any Jew when they would go to the Temple prior to its destruction in 70 AD they were coming home and knew what was expected. Whether they were coming from Jerusalem, Palestine, Rome, Greece, Syria, Egypt, no matter what language they spoke at home they knew their Hebrew prayers and Psalms when they entered the Temple. So should we when we enter the Holy of Holies. Except in the New Covenant instead of one location to offer sacrifice where ever there is a priest, altar, and faithful gathered a sacrafice can be offered and God enters us, physically and spiritually.

  11. It’s not even about Latin; look at the Ordinariate parishes and their mode of traditional worship, and it is in English. Frankly, these parishes should be the standard for all English-speaking Catholics. English is a beautiful language when spoken properly!

    Lex orandi, lex credendi…

    In the West, I don’t know why we are so insistent upon possessing instruments for worship. Whether it is an organ or a tambourine, we have tragically neglected the power of the voice. We are hamstrung on the fact that if Betty the musician is sick, then there will be no music at Mass. What about re-learning beautiful chant and polyphony? Again, it is stunning in English. Let us take inspiration from the Eastern Catholic Churches and our brethern in the Orthodox Faith.

    There are reasons why hoards of Westerners seek out pseudo-spiritual mysticism in Buddhism and elsewhere. We have lost a tremendous deal of imagination and mysticism in the West, which is why our countries are fading in my humble opinion. And it seems, the Catholic Church with it. I don’t know why we ever attached our Church to the hips of modern society and its unstable fluctuating norms.

  12. My parish has adopted the “new thought” of removing the tabernacle from public view to, basically, outside the church proper. This is to remove any confusion from those present? It, essentially changes the church to a building as it removes the sanctity and God. I’ve always known that the initial translation into English was incorrect due to “et spiritu tuo” does not mean “and also with you”. I won’t even go to “mass” and its ignorant change from the Latin…..

  13. “This is the concept that within the re-enactment of the Passover feast of the Catholic Mass . . . ” The mass is not a re-enactment of the Passover, it is the un-bloody re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. Most of the difficulty we have with the Mass of Paul VI is that it attempts to replace Christ’s suffering and sacrifice with a ‘dinner’. The use of the vulgar language(s) in its offering facilitated this misinterpretation as well as paving the way for other abuses (moving the tabernacles, etc.)

  14. Not being particular “Traddie” nor “Trendie”, I have no dog in the fight, but the main argument for the Latin Mass, it would seem, is what was stated by Rick, ” if every parish on the planet offered the mass in Latin, anyone from anywhere could walk into any Church and with a Latin/ones native language missal fully partispate in mass.” THAT, my friends, is a sign of a Universal church!

    • Whether it is a majestic organ or a simple tambourine, Catholics are too limited by instruments. We should rediscover the power of our voices and regain sacred polphony and chant in our parishes. Heck, they can all be in the vernacular! English chant is stunning.

      Let us follow our Eastern Catholic brothers.

  15. The usage of Latin in the Roman liturgy ought to be readily accessible, especially since the ‘novus ordo missae’ of Pope Paul vi has its normative text in Latin. However, its judicious utilization should be determined by pastoral considerations, ultimately made by the local ordinary.

    The liturgy can be executed reverently and profoundly in the vernacular, so long as the proper senses of the original orations are conveyed, and so long as those ordained strive in gesture and word to convey the dignity of what is being offered.

    On the other hand, I find it questionable to advocate the conservation of the pre-Vatican ii rubrics. Even though one can dispute how early formulations and implementations of what is designated now the ‘missa normativa’ (= ‘novus ordo missae’) were accomplished, there were profound pastoral, theological and historical reasons to eliminate many of the repetitions and excessive dependency upon neo-Platonized motifs woven into the texture of the pre-Conciliar rubrics (even though those, as well, had a rather complex history).

    Finally, celebration of the liturgy ‘versus populum’ was not mandated for the ‘novus ordo’, nor much less was there any justification for marginalizing, even suppressing the utilization of the great repertory of sacred music of prior generations, whether in Latin or the vernacular.

    In fact, the ‘novus ordo missae’ is ‘traditional’ in its elements and composition, albeit in distinctive ways. It is a mistake to promote the restriction of the notion of ‘tradition’ with what the pre-Conciliar rubrics. Much less can one argue that discipline and morality are, or were, only conserved in the pre-Vatican ii era.

    To reinforce such erroneous views encourages confusion and a tendency to not deal with our actual historical situation, not only in terms of its imperfections and limitations, but also its Providential virtualiites.

  16. Was not Jesus facing the disciples, reclined at dinner, when He instituted Communion? Was not the common language used for services for the first few hundred years of Christianity? Dressing the minister as some mediating high priest was exactly the thing Christ ended on the cross. He taught us to pray “Thy Kingdom come…on Earth as it is in Heaven”. At the end of Revelation God comes to dwell with man, not the reverse. Christ said, “Do this in remembrance of me”, not “Do this to temporarily be with me in the next life”.

  17. I AM ABOUT TO GIVE UP ON “TRADITIONAL”, “CONSERVATIVE” “RIGHT WING” CATHOLIC BLOGS AND WEBSITES..Frances remind us again:… “In this sense, we can once again listen to the words of Blessed John XXIII on the memorable day of 11 October 1962: “At times we have to listen, much to our regret, to the voices of people who, though burning with zeal, lack a sense of discretion and measure. In this modern age they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin … We feel that we must disagree with those prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand. In our times, divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by human effort and even beyond all expectations, are directed to the fulfilment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs, in which everything, even human setbacks, leads to the greater good of the Church”

  18. Do not forget about the Lutherans! I am a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and we also have a beautiful and sacramental liturgy of the Divine Service. Nice article. Also see:, an article from the Brothers of St. John the Steadfast on “A New Era in American Evangelicalism?” from an LCMS historian on some parts of American evangelicalism re-discovering the Nicene Creed, the liturgical calendar, etc.

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