Thursday, July 8, 2010

"It was Fascination, I Know..."

A couple days ago, I commented on Archbishop Chaput's talk at Mundelein - specifically regarding his remarks about the integrity of the liturgy being hindered by the quest for "novelty." Nick Wagner, commenting on my post, was kind enough to point me to one of his own previous blog posts where there is a more nuanced term for what I was talking about: "fascination". (No, I am not talking about the song made popular by Jane Morgan!) Nick used the term  mysterium fascinans "fascinating mystery" from theologian Rudolph Otto.

I think our culture, in which we are primed by advertisers, the concept of planned obsolescence, the media's constant quest to latch onto the new and unique, has us wired to seek fascination. (It's that soap-opera culture thing I mentioned in my comment back to Nick in the earlier post.) Just this last week a young man who appeared on "America's Got Talent" was lionized on all the news shows and the internet as "another Susan Boyle."  Not. While the young man was unexpectedly talented for his shy demeanor, it was nothing like the ugly-duckling unexpectedness of what happened with Boyle. You simply cannot artificialy create the thrill of a moment like that hers. Close, but no cigar. 
(Actually, as I write this, I have the Oprah show on in the background - and it is incidentally the "That's Incredible!" episode on the greatest, fastest, tallest, biggest, best, etc. - another manifestation of our fascination with what makes our jaws drop.)

In terms of the liturgy, what I see happening in at least some average parishes is, since presiders and liturgy committees often do not readily sense the mysterium fascinans of God, or understand the simple power inherent in the Mass to evoke it, they try to create artificial fascination by inserting gimmicks, adding symbols and practices that seem "nicer" or "more exciting" than what is in the rubrics. They feel the the repetitiousness of the ritual - which is part of the core of liturgy - is simply not fascinating enough to engage people. And it is not, if it is done with mediocrity.

Nick, in his comment, defended professional liturgists. I agree. These things don't normally happen in those parishes. However, the majority of parishes in my area do not have professionally trained liturgists. They may have excellent professional musicians who have, from years of experience and self-study, come to a good understanding of the liturgy, but it is a rare parish, even in my affluent neck of the woods in the Chicago suburbs, that has someone with an actual degree in liturgy on staff.

We also suffer in our area (outer southern/western suburbs of Chicago) from the memory of a liturgy planning process made popular in the 1980's that seemed to indicate that a seasonal "theme" is always required. Now a "theme" is not of itself a bad thing if it arises from the readings, prayers and the activity and identity of a parish - or is integral to the rite. It is how that theme is illustrated that can become "gimmicky" - a novelty.  It's the difference between putting a literal picture with a verbal caption on a banner and creating an abstract fabric accent that points toward some essential reality without naming it.  It is the difference between adding an artificial action or gesture to the liturgy and  incorporating one that grows from the heart of the spirituality of a season, or the words of the Mass or directly from our baptismal call to service. Occasional good enhancements to the liturgy are not wrong. It is the mediocre ones and the downright inappropriate ones that call undue attention to themselves and qualify as "gimmicks" - which their creators no doubt hoped would attract and fascinate us. In fact, we remember these things for themselves, not for how they enhanced our experience of a celebration.

I have been watching, as you may note from my posts, the national obsession this week with LeBron James, the self-styled "King James" - who, by playing hard-to-get created a fever of speculation and an epidemic of people holding their breath to see where he would play basketball next. The excitement was planned and was all artificially created .. and the media and most people ate it right up. The effect of all this will be gone in a few days - after they stop talking about why he decided to go to Florida.

Temporal fascination is short-lived. The true fascinating mystery of God is eternal. That is the crux of the difference. We only try to create excitement in the Mass when we don't see what is already there... or are unable to appreciate it for what it is. (More about that in an upcoming post.)

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