Tuesday 10 March 2015

A Rich Silence

It is Traddy Tuesday, the day I write a post for the would-be converts who are terribly shocked when they go to their local parish mass or divine the nudge-nudge-wink-wink attitude of their own particular RCIA instructors.

When I was in my early twenties, an Anglican son of a preacher man said that he would convert to Catholicism for me. I suggested that he visit my parish church before he did that.  Someone used to glorious High Church Anglican services--especially the musical traditions--should have found the realities of contemporary Roman Catholic worship a block to swimming the Tiber for such a frivolous reason as my flibbertigibbet self.

To answer a Google word search question, there is indeed a Traditional Latin Mass (aka the Extraordinary Form of the Mass) in Edinburgh and in other Scottish cities too. For details see this link. Dundee may be added to the list; there will be a TLM celebrated there at 4 PM this coming Sunday. B.A. and I will assist at (i.e. attend) the Dundee Mass, for it is Mothering Sunday in the UK, and we shall visit his mother and generally make a day of it.

Going back to the Trad Mass after a few weeks away was like taking up my new Scottish life again. Last week's Edinburgh Polish Mass had some of the charm and comfort of childhood. It wasn't just the familiar rhythm of the NO, it was the big screen the hymns were projected on. Nothing says 1970s/1980s like a big old-fashioned screen at the front of the church with someone putting on and taking away the plastic pages. But I associate Trad Mass with my theological education, with taking up at long last my vocation (Christian marriage), with the struggle to embrace middle age with dignity and new, sometimes startling, insights about what it is to be a woman in the Church.

For example, it is really quite staggering to realize, after decades of being told women need to DO MORE and that the BEST jobs are (by unspoken definition) the traditionally MALE jobs, and becoming the First Female this and the First Female that is really a wonderful achievement, that sometimes the best thing girls and women can do for public worship is NOT to volunteer to be lectors, cantors, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and altar servers. There is a real beauty and discipline in standing back so that slowly men will go forward to take the roles appropriate to them, to do the work they should be doing and, God willing, by their example awaken boys in our parishes to the voice of God calling them to priesthood. Will the men thank us for our sacrifice, for our resistance to our natural womanly desire to please the priests who ask us to take these roles? Probably not (at least, not in words), but that doesn't matter.

This Sunday I was well enough to go to Mass in the morning, so I stuck a beret on my curly-whirly head and went to the TLM with B.A. As usual we split up at the door, B.A. to join the choir in the back, and I to take my usual pew near the front. After my private prayers, I took up the White Sheet (the Propers of the Day in Latin and English) and noted with some astonishment that it was already the Third Sunday in Lent. There was no organ prelude, for unaccompanied organ music goes against Lenten traditions, and so the thurifer, candle bearers, MC and priest processed into the church from the sacristy in silence. Then the organist played a few guiding notes, and the priest intoned the opening words of the Asperges.

It is always a very dramatic and solemn moment when the priest's voice first breaks the Lenten Sunday silence. Silence is definitely something more than the space between notes and words and noises. It is either a reflection of the words, or the words are a reflection of it. At any rate, it is a rich stuff, like bolts of thick silk spilled out in a fabric shop.

Silence is essential to meditation, and after the Asperges, when the altar party returned to the sacristy, there was another holy Lenten silence.  When the party returned, the celebrant was draped in pale violet, the colour of most of Lent but also of half-mourning, a silent symbol of repentance for sin and sorrow for sin's legacy: the horrors unleashed by sinful men on the Middle Eastern Christians, for example. When we consider the sufferings we and others undergo in this world, it is no wonder that the Church's traditional Introit for the Third Sunday of Lent is

Oculi mei semper ad Domine (My eyes are always to the Lord) qui ipse evellet de laqueo pedes meos (who will free my feet from the snare); respice in me, et miserere me (look towards me and have pity on me), quoniam unicus et pauper ego (for I am alone and poor).

Quite a different tone from the average English processional hymn, wouldn't you say? And there was no Gloria, so we had the opportunity to contemplate both the Introit and the Kyrie in silence. The silence was broken by the priest beseeching God to hear "the prayers of the humble" (vota humilium) and to "stretch out the right hand of [His] majesty to protect us" (dexteram tuae majestatis extende).

And then, after another silence, came the spoken epistle: Saint Paul informing us that sexual sinners and the envious are cut off from God, and "Let no man deceive you with vain words, for because of these things comes the anger of God upon the children of unbelief."

Strong meat, eh?


Then came the sung Gradual, in which the Schola asked God not to allow our enemies to be strengthened and envisioned them perishing before His face, as I certainly can imagine with equanimity of the Islamic so-called State. And following immediately upon that, the Tract, which described how we watch God and wait for His mercy (one imagines upon His people in Iraq and Syria and Nigeria, as well as all His people struggling in the chains of sin). The Tract ended, not with the Alleluia, but with the cry of the Christian honest enough not to see the world through Sing-a-New-Song tinted glasses nor God as the indulgent proprietor of a candy store: Miserere nobis, Domine, miserere nobis. 

Silence. And then the Gospel, sung aloud to underscore its importance, its singularity. Our Lord casts out devils and warns lest an expelled devil, finding a newly swept house of our soul, move in and invite his even wickeder pals to join him.

Silence. Homily on the expelled devils, combining serious warnings with comfort that the power of devils is nothing, absolutely nothing, to the power of God.

Silence. Then the guiding notes. Then the priest's voice breaking into the holy silence once more, to proclaim Credum in Unum Deum. Next the chorus of men's voices (our soprano resting her voice for concerts this week) joining in to add strength to Pater Omnipotentem, factorum caeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et unvisibilium. And then the whole congregation loudly proclaiming the revelation of the Incarnation: ET IN UNUM DOMINUM JESUM CHRISTUM, filium Dei Unigenitum!  Then the Schola, adding a quiet theological assertion: Et ex Patrem natum ad omnia secula. DEUM DE DEO--thunders the congregation--LUMEN DE LUMINE, Deum Verum de Deo Vero! And on it goes in waves, the trained priestly tones of the Schola answered by the mingled male and female voices of the congregation, culminating in a great Amen.


Dominus vobiscum.




The Traditional Latin Missa Cantata is, among all the other wonderful things that it is, is a dance among word, music and silence, all weaving in and out, all supporting each other, all led by a Voice who is the Origin of all art and skill and creation.  

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the silence is something that I have come to love. I was initially enamoured by the singing (which I still am), but the silence has taken on a even greater dimension for me. I miss being able to regularly attend low Masses - the first one I went to, I wanted to flee because the silence was so persistent. The opportunity (the privilege) of not being excepted to say anything for an hour is incredible, even for the likes of my chatterbox self. Instead, speaking is replaced with silence spent with the Lord.


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