Duomo Press: Featured Book

Excerpts: Recreating Tradition: Liturgynext

holy family
Holy Family bas relief (note St. Joseph’s Irish derby hat), Holy Family Church, Chicago

notre dame
Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

st. anthony
St. Anthony and Christ Child, Notre-Dame de Reims, Reims, France

quoteThe Art Institute of Chicago hosted an exhibit in 2011 called Kings, Queens, and Courtiers: Art in Early Renaissance France. One of the objects it contained was a “Reliquary of the Virgin’s Milk” from sixteenth-century France, a lovely silver and bejeweled concoction built to hold the breast milk of the Blessed Virgin. With the exercise of a little cross-temporal imagination, we might enter into the mindset of the artist Simon Hayeneufve, who constructed it, and the faithful who prayed in its presence, providing as it did a very physical and intimate link to a very human yet also divine experience, the feeding of the Christ child by his mother. As my Protestant friend commented upon seeing it: “You Catholics, you celebrate everything!”

That is the Catholic sacramental imagination.

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Complexity has gotten a bad rap since Vatican II with its desire to celebrate the liturgy with simplicity. Yet liturgy is complex because what it represents can’t be encapsulated in one easily understandable form. Like poetry, it needs multiple images. There should be more going on than is easily understood one time through. Like watching a great old movie or a Shakespeare play or listening to a Beethoven symphony, repeated exposure unveils riches previously undiscovered. Such works cannot be improved by simplification. ... Complexity also stands up better under repeated exposure. Going from Gregorian chant to a three-chord folk song does make the music more accessible. That’s fine for a while. But after a while, the repetition of simplicity just grinds you down—think “ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.” You can only do that so many times in your life. Yet chant, which is more complex and clearly less accessible, stands up well under repetition specifically because it is complex.

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Mystery has also gotten a bad rap since Vatican II with its desire to celebrate the liturgy with clarity. Yet what we celebrate is not in the least bit rational, never mind amenable to clarity—it is mystery.

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Public liturgy is the place where we allow the possibility of private vulnerability in public communion. We all struggle together. We’re there because we need to be, our heads down and our tails between our legs. Through a common ritual, we each enter into a relationship with mystery, open our hearts and minds, and experience the grace that transforms. ... Liturgy enables this personal yet communal transformation by creating a sacred experience that ritually puts us face to face with the truth of Christ, provoking us to take ourselves out of the confines of our egos, families, problems, and concerns to see what we might become— to see our own possibilities for goodness as well as our own negligence.

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Tradition should not only be the domain of conservatives (just as reform should not only be the domain of progressives). Let’s give our children the chance to explore it in all its richness and depth so they can experience it and remake as they will. Nothing says we can’t have a Church that revels in mystery and tradition and has sane governance. ... In today’s world, it’s pretty hard to preach with anything resembling intellectual credibility when you’re also justifying the perpetuation of the last absolute monarchy in the West. It just doesn’t pass the crazy test.

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