View from a Tabernacle
Style in Liturgical Arts
Do the sites and decorums of worship really matter?
Is there any gravity to issues of style in the liturgy? Many
thoughtful Catholics dismiss concern for style as an affectation,
an indulgence in personal taste. Like Puritan prelates, they
pull their hems back from what they regard as an overemphasis
on ornament and human ceremony. These are distractions from
the true ecclesia, the living temple that is the people of God.
If Christ is found in the dynamics of ongoing human experience,
why focus on objects? On buildings or the aesthetics of language
Masking the Real Presence
Certainly, something far deeper than style is our ultimate
object. Nevertheless, it is critical. The motto "Form follows
function" has greater poignancy in liturgical matters than
in everyday ones. Hugh of Saint-Victor would have been quite
at home with the phrase. For the medieval Hugh, the material
element in Christian ritual is never arbitrary. On the contrary,
he insisted on correspondence between the material and the spiritual
reality it makes visible.
This correspondence extends to the whole of our liturgical
life. The look, tone, and tenor of things have a substantial
impact on the way we comprehend the meaning of liturgical forms.
The full ballet of expressive worship either directs attention
to the Presence addressed or it turns in on itself, hallowing
the world and the worshipper. In liturgy as in life, changes
in appearance and demeanor--style--indicate changes in identity.
A crisis in one is, ultimately, a crisis in the other.
Repercussions are not visible at once. They work through capillary
action, slowly, like corrosive salts on a fresco. However gradual
the process, mutation is inevitable. If that were not so, Gallup
would not be publishing statistics on the flight of Catholics
from belief in the Real Presence. Magazines like Crisis would
not need to run articles avowing the tenets of the doctrine.
And Catholics struggling to sustain that belief would not feel
like exiles in their own churches.
Change of Sign Is Change of Belief?
Granted, complex factors are at work in such statistics. But
violence done to the numinous character of the liturgy over
the last 30 years is no minor culprit. Signs have their effect.
Images and symbols--of gesture and phrasing as well as iconography--induce
a disposition to worship or inhibit it. They suggest a theology
or its demolition. Liturgical practices and decorations either
beckon us to prayer, summoning intuitions of transcendence,
or they leave us to confuse the kingdom of God with our own
The 33 percent of Catholics who profess orthodox belief in
the mystery of the Holy Eucharist are those who have ignored
the signposts installed in their parishes since the Second Vatican
Council. Whether this blessed blind eye is owed to inattention
or strength of heart is impossible to determine. All that is
clear is a remnant has persevered despite institutional undermining.
The majority, who confessed to Gallup that the Eucharist is
merely symbolic or admit that they tread water on the subject,
is following the compass needle. They are faithful to a theological
mood that affirms secularization even while it professes an
The mood is evident in my local parish, a suburban representative
of countless others. Sunday McMass takes the pressure off the
lukewarm, skeptical, and bored. Signals abound that they are
not in the presence of anything more transcendent than the people
of God's good opinion of themselves. Fine-tuned to the casual
sociability of confident, modern professionals, the service
hints at the real purpose for assembly: spiritual hygiene and
a dose of self-affirmation.
The reassuring, undemanding nature of the program is implicit
in the lector's opening line, delivered in the rising tone of
an Oscar telecast: "Our presider/celebrant for today is
Monsignor...." This is the language of stagecraft. The
majestic Psalm 42 ("I shall go into the altar of God, to
the God who was the joy of my youth"), an eloquent and
fitting approach to the altar since the tenth century, is exchanged
for a stratagem of showmanship. All that follows, then, is suspect
A stage-wise approach suits the summer-stock-in-a-converted-barn
style of the building. Without an altar rail to mark the boundaries
of sacred space, what is left is stage. Up center, in place
of an apse, are three tall, overlapping panels. Although fixed,
they appear to float, suggesting movable backdrops. The overall
effect is of something tentative, shifting, fit for repertory:
today, the Mass; tomorrow, the Blind Beggar of Alexandria.
Substitution of stage space for sanctum encourages the impulse
to desanctify, to render prosaic. Consider the tabernacle. Assault
on one's sense of transcendence is in full throttle here. One
look takes us out of the realm of the sacred and down the rabbit
hole of relevance. It telegraphs the fashion for desacralization,
by now well-established, that impedes belief and stymies prayer.
Made with shards of stone and slate, it is an undistinguished
replica of the parish's original fieldstone church. Built in
1922 and echoing the lines of a 13th-century transitional Gothic
chapel, the simplicity of the structure and quiet beauty of
its interior are themselves acts of prayer. Downhill of the
newer building, the little church is still used for very early
morning Mass, funerals, and weddings. Its gracious synthesis
of architectural space and religious aspiration stands in witness
to the cultural divide between pre- and postconciliar Catholics.
At first glance, our new tabernacle strikes the eye as a whimsy
of some sort. A collection box? A display maquette for a building
drive? The design hints at mundane purposes. Only the sanctuary
lamp links this gingerbread house with the mystery of the Holy
Eucharist and a salvific chain of association rooted in the
Jewish Pasch and reaching to the Resurrection. But frail light
is no contender against the aggression of kitsch. Visually,
the tabernacle disassociates the host within from both the sacrifice
that it embodies and the tasks of adoration and atonement that
No one seems disconcerted by the thing. Mainly, it is considered
"cute." And it really is. That is what makes it so
improbable. The cuteness of it attacks traditional habits of
reverence. It predigests the awful sublimity of its intended
purpose, banishing from memory the dreadful love of Golgotha
and the way of the cross. It regurgitates safe, retinal accompaniment
to the reductive sentimentalities put to music in our disposable
hymnal. Bloodless, mawkish notions of "joy" and "love"--almost
all of them written since 1963--find their complement in the
bathos of the tabernacle. They work together to mimic the kind
of corporate spirituality that inspired the hostess division
The tabernacle is intelligible mainly as a souvenir of discarded
sensibilities. Here is a cozy keepsake of attitudes of worship
that, if Gallup is correct, are in their twilight. Originating
in nostalgia, it appeals to everyone's fondness for memorabilia.
It commemorates a building, tilting attention earthward to something
that this specific "faith community" understands quite
well--a piece of property. What it does not do is attend to
the mystery within or prompt a sense of solemnity. Consequently,
the lamp above it seems a convention, more a theatrical prop
than an emblem of the Real Presence.
Parishioners face a second obstacle to veneration: placement.
Deployed flush against the left wall, the tabernacle rests on
a platform at the intersection of a side aisle with the walkway
behind a crescent of pews. These begin where, in previous times,
an altar rail would have set. The pews curve around the sanctuary
into what, in traditional cruciform design, would form the transepts.
Foot traffic criss-crosses behind the kneeler.
And the single kneeler only holds one person. Like a semaphore,
it signals unease with personal piety. Here is a deliberate
brake on private devotion. Anybody inclined to kneel, feet sticking
out into a crosswalk, is conspicuous, exposed in the spectacle
of a solitary, noncorporate act. The worshipper is turned sideways,
further segregated from the "eucharistic community"
facing forward. Placement impedes genuflection, a token of honor
to the Person of the Redeemer since the late Middle Ages. The
ensemble betokens suspicion, even distaste, for any deviation
from community prayer. It is barely open for worship. Can Catholics
be expected to embrace an observance under curfew by their own
liturgists? What We've Lost
The loss is immense. Current practice ruptures the previously
unbroken continuity between devotion to Christ in the Blessed
Sacrament and in the reception of the Eucharist. More significantly,
dilution of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament conditions Catholics
for a weakening of faith in the eucharistic presence. It is
a short walk from a diminished tabernacle to a communion rite
that is increasingly understood in the Protestant sense as simply
a symbolic meal.
The way to and from communion is hedged with informalities
and commonplaces. The kiss of peace, shrunk to a secular handshake,
is a jolly display of Rotarian good fellowship. Like a politician
on the stump, the presider descends on the congregation to pump
hands, greeting by name as often as he can. On the qui vive
to demonstrate bonhomie to as many spectators as possible, people
scoot across aisles to hug friends. In a spasm of reflexive,
unceremonious glad-handing we celebrate the cheap goodwill available
at office parties.
The source from which our peace derives is eclipsed by conventions
of shallow sociability. Gone is any hint of the kiss as a sign
of reconciliation, an illustration of "as we forgive those,"
required of us before we approach the altar of the Lamb. The
solemn kiss, proceeding from the altar, has been replaced by--in
theatrical terms--a stage wait.
Renowned German liturgist Joseph Jungmann, S.J., writing 50
years ago in The Mass of the Roman Rite, reminds: "The
ancient way of exchanging the kiss of peace would not entail
the disturbance and confusion in the service that we would be
led to expect today, for then the kiss was not continued from
person to person but merely exchanged between neighbors."
Reticence and sobriety insured recognition of its sacral purpose.
Our own facile "peace," offered by smiling strangers
at no cost to themselves, mocks the dreadful sacrifice from
which the Church draws her life. The tragic dimensions of communal
life are abandoned to a feel-good imperative derived from popular
Enforced informality--our kinder, gentler rubricism--dogs us
right to the communion cup. Parishioners conform willingly to
a do-it-yourself dispensation that domesticates the Eucharist
while lessening the sacramental authority of the priest.
Subjugation begins in the disconcerting phrase, newly added
to the ancient words of the consecration: "Fruit of the
vine and work of human hands." Emphasis here is on the
man-made, the finite. Yet in the Passover Haggadah (from which,
according to liturgists, this addition derives because it contains
the traditional prayers said by Jesus at the Seder table), stress
is exclusively on the divine hand. The ancient prayer intoned
at the beginning of the Passover meal is: "We praise you,
Eternal God...Creator of the fruit of the vine." And later:
"We praise You, Eternal God...Creator of the fruit of the
earth." In the traditional Jewish prayer, it is unmistakable
Whose handiwork this is.
Why is extra accent on man inserted as preface to the most
transcendent moment of the Mass? Gallup is a useful guide to
learning how the revised phrasing strikes Catholic ears. Despite
official justifications for receiving communion in the hand,
the fact of it, in our cultural climate, colludes with the prevailing
ethos that nullifies all instinct for the sacred. Premodern
cultures, including pagan culture, were charged with a sense
of otherworldliness and taboo. The miraculous and the magical,
the spiritual and the occult, lived side by side. The sensibilities
of ancient peoples, sharpened by pain, sickness, premature death,
and deprivations of all kind, were hospitable to the reality
of sacramental action.
By contrast, as liturgical scholar Msgr. Klaus Gamber states
in The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background:
"To add to spiritual confusion, we are also dealing with
the satiated state of mind of modern man who, living in our
consumer society, approaches anything that is holy with a complete
lack of understanding and has no appreciation of the concept
of religion, let alone of his own sinful state. For them, God,
if they believe in Him at all, exists only as their 'friend.'"
View from a Tabernacle: Style in
Liturgical Arts - Go
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