Thursday, 30 December 2010

Liturgical culture, and St Dunstan...

The culture of Roman Catholicism in the Counter Reformation period seems very different to me than the culture and tradition of Catholicism in the Early Church and the Middle Ages. This is not some quibble or personal vendetta I have against the lace cotta, but something which genuinely startles me. The liturgical life of the Roman Church became sterile or frozen after Trent, and there was little to no room left for a natural flowering of liturgical piety, and an authentic, traditional local praxis built upon the natural development of the received diocesan, even parochial, custom. Pius V, who reformed the Missal and Breviary, seems to have mistook the meaning of ecclesiastical universality for uniformity, and the imposition of the Tridentine Missal upon the whole of Europe pretty much heralded the end of local custom in the Roman Rite. I expect that it would surprise no reader of this blog if I said that I have significantly less reverence for the English Martyrs (such as St Robert Southwell, who was among the first to use the reformed Missal in this country) than I have for such English saints who herald from a time long before Trent as St Bede, St Hilda and St Dunstan. They possessed a wisdom and piety which is significantly lacking in modern saints, who were bored (sorry, nourished) by Low Mass, busy telling their beads and being devout before the Blessed Sacrament exposed in a monstrance.
I have no idea why but Fr Hunwicke's brilliant post on St Mary's perpetual virginity today put me in mind of Eadmer's Life of Dunstan, which I read for the first time when I was at college. It's exquisite:

When he was in residence at Canterbury, Dunstan used to visit the holy places in the dead of night to sing psalms and to keep vigil. On one occasion he moved to the eastern end of the church to pray to the Mother of God.

Suddenly, and in a quite unexpected way, he heard unusually sweet voices singing in the darkness, echoeing through the church with subtle melodies. Peeping through a hole in the perforated screen, he saw that the church was completely filled with shining light, and a crown of virgins were moving round in procession, singing as a choir the hymn by the poet Sedulius: ''Cantemus socii Domini.''

Each half of the choir answered the other, verse by verse, as if in a round, singing: ''Let us sing, O friends, let us sing to the honour of the Lord! Let the sweet love of Christ sound through pious lips!''

I don't mean to sound disparaging, but there is no mention here of ecstasy induced by the radiance of the Eucharistic Lord emanating from the Ostensorium, or of miraculous medals or of sacred hearts; just psalmody, traditional hymnody, liturgical procession and keeping the night vigils - and all in common. If such devotion as this is inspired purely by liturgical witness to Christ, then what shall we say of devotion inspired by more famous, but far less worthy, traditions as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament? If St Dunstan were alive today I think he would find Catholicism wholly alien and tacky.


  1. On what basis, exactly, do you object to Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament? ... and now Rosaries and devotion to the Sacred Heart, apparently?

  2. The Texan Traditionalist, my objection is based on my understanding of the Eucharist primarily as food for the soul. Although the Blessed Sacrament Is of Itself infinitely worshipful and inviolate and a source of all Grace and comfort, it is a great coincidence (or perhaps the two are connected?) that at about the same time as the explosion in the 13th century of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament began the decline of the ancient choral Office tradition, and the compilation of Missals and Breviaries (thereby the destruction of real liturgical books). There was a shift in ''emphasis'', away from communal liturgical worship to worship of the Sacrament, which led to things like private devotions imposing themselves upon Liturgy.

    I have no objection, per se, to the pious practice of praying the Rosary. I just personally find it boring and monotonous, and am moreover rather peeved when I see people during solemn Liturgy telling beads - such as what I saw when I was privileged to attend a Pentecost Vigil this year - a handful of people turned up, and most of them were knelt (during Paschaltide!) praying the Rosary; completely oblivious to the fact that only a handful of churches worldwide were observing the Vigil!

    As to the Sacred Heart, I believe I have addressed that issue. You will find the relevant stuff in the Archives for June.

  3. So you have less respect for St. Robert Southwell because he happened to use the Missal of St. Pius V and celebrate it in it's low form?

    Has it occurred to you that St Bede, St Hilda and St Dunstan were not suffering the same persecutions as St. Robert Southwell? Just exactly how are Catholics meant to have hosted an underground solemn high mass with the requisite ministers, when getting one Catholic priest abroad onto these isles was dangerous enough and meant certain death if caught?

    I do wish you would think these things through before going off on one.

  4. Auricularis, you misunderstand me. I don't wish to pass judgement upon the Saints, and decide which saint is more holy and heroic than the next one. I just have more interest in English saints who herald from a time unsulllied by things like Low Mass, or Protestantism. I can identify more with St Dunstan, for example, than I can with any of the forty martyrs. Would it surprise you to learn that I have a particular devotion to St William Tyndale too?!

  5. A happy New Year's Eve to you, Patricius. Thank you for the reply.

    I am in total agreement with you in regard to the practice of private devotions during the Liturgy.

    In regard to Benediction and Exposition, one must recall that Solemn Benediction is a liturgical act and not to be regarded as a form of private devotion. Many TLM parishes I have visited possess a Solemn Vespers service because of an existing devotion to the Blessed Sacrament (Benediction usually preceding or following Vespers) within the parochial community. I share in your dismay at the total neglect of the Divine Office within the spiritual and liturgical lives of Catholics (even among the so-called traditionalists), but I believe the primacy of Eucharistic devotion came not with a correlation to a decline in the sung offices, but rather with theological challenges to the doctrine of the Eucharistic Real Presence. You astutely mention the 13th century as a time of greater practice of this devotion because, as I'm sure you are aware, this was the time of the great struggles against the Albigensian heretics who considered the doctrine surrounding the Eucharist (among other things) as a pure abomination. With the ascendancy of the various dime-a-dozen Protestant sects who continued the denial of the Real Presence (and of sacramental theology in general) it would seem logical for the Church to promote the practice of Eucharistic adoration to counter this diabolical disorientation ... with greater vigor and priority than generations past (new enemies = new tactics). I think we students of the great liturgical patrimony of the Church should be cautious in our zeal, lest we see liturgy as a self-serving institution.

    PS: BTW, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on a comment I made on your "Guess the Quote ..." article.