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 and gesture?

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 well-meaning decency.

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 oppositional stance.

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 as theater.

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.

Gingerbread Tabernacle

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 accompany it.

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 of Tupperware.

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 culture.

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 to Part 2



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