Friday, January 12, 2007

On Mystery

In her post on the issues raised by Bishop Trautman regarding the new translation of the Roman Missal, particularly the pro multis component, Amy gave us this little nugget:

After we attended the Byzantine liturgy at Christmas down in Knoxville, Michael observed that one of the fruits of a liturgy like that (and remember, it was in English), with its chant, movement, constant back-and-forth between congregation and priest/deacon, incense, iconostasis, etc., was that it rouses curiosity. It prompts you to ask questions, it inspires you to think and to seek because it is not all laid out like a pancake on your plate. Face it. God is Mystery. Who is God? How can God be, what is the power of this Love and Mercy? Is it possible that in this mess of world, redemption awaits me, you, all of us, invites us, entices us? It is not about willful obtuseness. It is about, at some level, imaging the reality of God's Presence, even as we acknoweldge the reality of that Presence. That is what sign and symbol is all about. By flattening the symbols, by making all very ordinary, we communicate that God is ordinary, that there's nothing much to this religious business, nothing much at all.

Christian faith is this amazing, heady mix of paradoxes and contradictions. The gospel is grasped by the simple, by children. God is here, right here among us. But that God is ...well...God, One mysterious and immanent all at the same time. Pastorally concerned liturgy seems to end up in this odd place in which, because the symbols and rituals are stripped, made ordinary and endlessly explained, we understand far less than we did before.

Now, neither of us is about to suggest that those who care about good liturgy flee the Latin rite for the nearest Byzantine rite church, but the rest of the point remains. Mystery. In recent years (and even not-so-recent years) it has been the butt of many concerns and even quite a few jokes. You know, how the nun at school would explain anything she didn't know as "it's a mystery". But we needn't descend to that level. Does it not say something of the current state of the liturgy that the "preferred" response to the Mysterium Fidei is one that in fact is invented and not a translation of any approved Latin response?

But back to mystery. In times past people complained that it was not "mystery" but "obfuscation" that was the goal of the clerics, with their back to the people, their whispered prayers et cetera. One need only look at the lived experience (to use a term so popular with those interested in changing what they feel like changing) of those who have experienced both forms to see the effect of an honest participation in both. It's an experience of the "other", sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes uplifting, but always of "other", not of "same". If liturgy deprives us of the experience of "other" for the comfort of conversation just like we have anywhere else, it has deprived us of that one chance we have to bring us out of where we are today to where God would have us be.