by Alessandro Gnocchi
No great man, said Hegel, can escape the censure of the servant who looks after his hidden rooms. In the same way, revolutions and their traumas of reform do not escape the judgment of the second hand dealers who frequent the shops selling things retro and antique, where one finds the vestiges of times past and the disposition of a time now swept away. In so far as it is hidden, it is always the place in which the exceptional individual and the epochal event are obliged to manifest their very nature at an intimate level, even if only in a detail.
The liturgical reform that took place in the Catholic Church at the end of the 1960s does not escape the Hegelian guillotine. That great leap towards the world, which can be called a revolution, when one considers the orientation of prayer reversed with respect to what was the case in the past, has its own revealing retro boutique. It is enough to go through rectories, convents and sacristies in search of antique liturgical vestments to see the proof of this. With a little patience and a strong disposition to humility, in this tour of liturgical remembrance one always finds a priest, a sister, more often an old sacristan, who unearth Roman chasubles, dalmatics, tunicles, cottas and birettas, longing for the times when the Mass was really the Mass. But even they, except with rare exceptions, are not able to recover the maniple, that slender piece of cloth similar to a little stole that the celebrant wears on his left arm.
For obscure reasons, it seems as if someone wanted to erase the memory of this vestment that originated from the mappula, the linen handkerchief that the Roman nobility wore on their left arm to wipe away tears and sweat. It was used also to give the signal to begin the combat games in the Circus. “Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris; ut cum exsultatione recipiam mercedem laboris”, says the priest as he puts it on while vesting. “O Lord, may I be worthy to wear the maniple of tears and suffering, so that I may receive with joy the reward of my labors.” And once again the battle begins against the world and its prince, in which mystically the priest sweats, cries, bleeds, and does battle in so far as he is on the Cross as the alter Christus. But there needs to be that painful and manly interpenetration in the sacrifice, of which the maniple is the sign and instrument. Meanwhile, instead, if the memory of it has been lost willingly so that one can dedicate oneself to the festal banquet of a salvation lacking any sweat and toil, then there is no place for the signs of the battle to which one must consign one’s own body.
The agony of Padre Pio and of his stigmatized flesh, the ecstasy of Saint Philip Neri who sunk his teeth into the chalice to drink avidly his whole Lord, the visions of Saint John Chrysostom who witnessed the descent of a lightening bolt on the altar, and also all the Masses down to those of the most unworthy priest who might have had only a bit of faith in the miracle of transubstantiation have always been, at the same time, the heart and fruit of the battle against the Prince of this world. “Impone, Domine, capiti meo galeam salutis, ad expugnandos diabolicos incursus”. Place on my head, O Lord, the helmet of salvation so that I may conquer the assaults of the devil”. So prays the priest when, preparing for the celebration of Mass, he puts on the amice, another vestment that recalls the battle and the sacrifice, fallen into disuse in the reformed Mass. Today, in the post-Conciliar Church, one speaks to speak, one dialogues to have a dialogue, to have an amiable conversation with the world, all made drunk by the illusory and seductive power of chattering. There is no need any longer for a vestment like the amice that, in addition to symbolizing the helmet of the warrior, symbolizes also the “castigatio vocis”, or “discipline of the voice”, and banishes from the act of religion every word that is not part of ritual and, therefore, inexorably, too many. The capacity for ritual has been lost, and, therefore, the aptitude for command has been lost, and for this reason priests have abandoned the practice of wearing the cassock as a rule. “When men want to appear safely impressive”, writes G.K. Chesterton in What is Wrong with the World, referring to the stupidity of women who want the “right” to wear pants, “as in the case of judges, priests and the king, they do wear skirts, the long, trailing robes of female dignity The whole world is under petticoat government; for even men wear petticoats when they wish to govern.”
The idea of giving orders and of battle, of arms and the armature of the spirit, have been dismissed by the Christians who love to be rocked in the cradle of acedia, the most perverse of the capital sins. That deadly snare that the Church Fathers called akidia or acedia, is transmitted from believer to believer until it infects the whole Church body. This is the source of a “sickness of being”, a “heresy of form” that foreshadows errors in ways of thinking and acting that are quite diverse and even contradict each other, painfully grimacing at the virile and warlike principle of non-contradiction. Having succumbed to the sickness of acedia, the Church has ended up seeing herself and presenting herself as a problem instead of a solution to the deepest ill of man. When she speaks of the world she lets show forth her awareness of her incapacity to point to a way of salvation, as if she is excusing herself for having done so for so many centuries. She has doubts about fundamental and ascetical principles themselves, and, at the very time she proclaims that she is opening up to the world, she declares herself to be incapable of knowing it, defining it, and, therefore, incapable of educating and converting it. At the most, she makes herself available to interpret it.
“Acedia”, writes St. John Climacus in the Ladder of Paradise, (which seems to describe the Church of the past ten years instead of the solitary monk prostrated before the rigors of the religious life) “is a depression of the soul, a weakening of the mind, negligence of ascetical practices, a hostility to vows taken, approval of those who lead a worldly life, calumny against God, a lack of compassion and love for men. It is slackness in chanting the psalms, weakness in prayer”. This true man of God who understands human nature goes on to speak about the treacherous effects of this acedia, a sickness so subtle that it presents itself as an illusory remedy for itself. Acedia is a pretext for hospitality and exhorts one to do manual labor as a means of giving alms. It urges us to visit the sick, recalling the words of the One who said: “I was sick and you came to see me.” It urges us to go visit those who are discouraged and weak in spirit, bringing about the situation where those who are sick are being ministered to by one who has the same sickness. While we are in prayer acedia makes us call to mind urgent obligations, and it stops at nothing to drag us as with a halter from our prayers, all with a sense of rationality when in fact what it asks us to do is irrational.
What was an admonition for individual persons in the seventh century today pertains for the whole ecclesial body, the prey of that sickness of “doing”, a bit “tango y corazon”, the emphasis in the media on spontaneous initiative and the heartful minimalism of the present pontificate. But it is not in becoming like the world or in being wedded to the language of the world that one wins over the world. It is not in the exaltation of the gesture and the word of which ritual is the “castigatio” (correction) that the world is conquered. For the world has above all an abhorrence of itself, and it is not by secularizing himself that the Christian conquers the world. St. Moses the Strong, another Desert Father, tells a monk who is suffering from acedia: “Go into your cell and sit there, and your cell will teach you everything.” In her essay “Supernatural senses” Cristina Campo writes: “Not without impunity does one practice that baleful homeopathy that recommends curing a world desperately sick from squalor, anonymity, profanity and license by means of squalor, anonymity, profanity and license.” And further: “To believe that the regeneration of the profane, the “consecration of the world”, can take place other than on the dizzying heights, on the peaks of Sinai, is puerile. To eat a symbolic meal among friends, where and as fantasy dictates it, in memory of a philanthropist of ancient times is at once the putrefaction of the sacred and the loss of the profane…Heschel reminds us that if we cease to call God down upon our altars, demons will inexorably occupy the altars."
But the altar, the great test before which man is called in the act of religion, is intimately bound to dogma, the great test to which man is called in the act of intelligence. If one fails, the other does as well, triggering a perverse chain reaction. The Benedictine, Dom Prosper Guéranger, wrote in his Liturgical Institutes: “ And finally came Luther, who did not say anything that his precursors had not already said before him, but he claimed to liberate man at the same time from slavery of thought with respect to teaching authority and from slavery of the body with respect to liturgical authority. “
The vice of acedia that afflicts the people of God that is making them lose the sense of the boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy has its roots in the religious drama of that German Augustinian, expressed in aggression against the liturgy and against reason, in aggression against the altar and dogma, against lex orandi and lex credendi. There is nothing strange about this, if one holds that man is a rational being because he is a liturgical being and has adoration as his ultimate end. Since he cannot eliminate ritual from his own horizon, he therefore must limit himself to diverting it from its proper object and perverting it. In the same way he relates to reason and, when he does not sanctify it, he prostitutes it. The attacks on the mystical Body of Christ always involve an attempt to demolish the liturgy. The heretical ideas of Arius were diffused by means of liturgical hymns, and the orthodoxy of St. Ambrose overcame that heresy again by means of liturgical hymns.
Connatural with the liturgical and rational essence of man, the altar and dogma are the testing place on which one takes measure of salvation that a creature cannot give to himself. They ask for a supreme act of faith, since they veil that which would be evident to every human being. This veiling, considered as odious to modern man, is the fruit of the incapacity on the part of the one who has lost the state of grace to understand these things naturally. Left on his own, man is no longer able to perceive the ultimate sense of things, and therefore the liturgy, up to the point when he has not surrendered to the spell of the Enlightenment, has always assisted him in re-clothing material reality with significance that points beyond itself. Moving across the hanging drapes that are placed as a boundary between the finite and the infinite, the act of adoration leads the intelligence to intuit, however little, the beautiful reasonableness of dogma. And the veil becomes the visible sign of Grace and of an invisible sanctity to the eyes of man, showing forth the deepest essence of things.
But faith is needed, as St. Thomas Aquinas says in his sublime Eucharistic hymn “Adoro te devote”: Visus tactus, gustus, in te fallitur,/Sed auditu solo tuto creditur:/Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius;/Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius”,” Taste, and touch, and vision, to discern Thee fail; Faith, that comes by hearing, pierces through the veil.I believe whate'er the Son of God hath told; What the Truth hath spoken, that for truth I hold.” Only in such rarified ambits that are at the same time so concrete that they can be touched, eaten, drunk, is it possible to find the very place in which salvation dwells, namely, the Cross. The Cross is folly to the world that considers a Christian a crazy man who is destined to live “upside-down”. But this is really how it is, like Saint Peter in the last moment of his crucifixion with his head turned to the ground, that the following of the Cross has as its reward the wonderful and child-like vision in which the world appears as it actually is: with the stars like the flowers and the clouds like hills and all men suspended in the space between at the mercy of God.
One such vision produces a gaze that disturbs the world so much as to conquer it, without an earthly word or gesture. It is the shimmering light painted with perfect devotion in the St. Francis of Francisco de Zurbarán, dominated by two eyes that convey a startling spirituality, one eye penetrated by light, the other immersed in darkness, both of which belong to another world and see nothing else but that world. And when these eyes gaze on material things they do so only to speak of the beauty of those things that are veiled and unattainable by profane eyes. The image of a man standing with his head covered by his cowl, his hands hidden in the sleeves of his habit and his gaze heavenward as painted by the Spanish artist is not a representation of the saint when he was alive, but of his incorrupt body after his death as it was found in the crypt in Assisi. Usually paintings of St. Francis are of an episodic type that tell a narrative. Zurbarán instead shows the saint standing erect in an eternal liturgical moment, shaped by light and shadow, by Grace and the veil. Only his face, half immersed in shadow, appears as flesh, but lends itself to a witness of a corporeal manifestation of someone who returns from the world of the dead in an epiphany lacking any notes of terror, since the soul is full of supernatural serenity and blessedness.
Even in the smallest chapel in the countryside, where the perfume of simple incense mixes with that of old candles, the entrance of the priest ready for the celebration of the Sacrifice has the same sacred roots as those sensed by the Spanish visionary, when the divine irrupts into time. “Introibo ad altare Dei. Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutum meum”, and while he approaches the altar of God, to the God who makes joyful his youth, the priest, even if he is not vested in the glory painted by Zurburán, speaks to every creature in the universe, veiling himself with the signs that carry the footprints of glory. And he becomes in truth joyfully young, whether he is a unworthy sinner, as the priest in Graham Greene’s in The Power and the Glory, or a martyr, as in Robert Hugh Benson’s By What Authority.
(The priest) made an attempt to raise the amice but could not, and turned slightly; and the man from behind stepped up again and lifted it for him. Then he helped him with each of the vestments, lifted the alb over his head and tenderly drew the bandaged hands through the sleeves; knit the girdle around him and adjusted the amice; then he placed the maniple on his left arm, but so tenderly! And lastly, lifted the great red chasuble and dropped it over his head and straightened it—and there stood the priest as he had stood last Sunday, in crimson vestments again; but bowed and thin-faced now.