Wednesday, October 09, 2019

C. S. Lewis was Wrong about the Liturgy; Observations from Sohrab Ahmari's From Fire By Water

Ahmari, Sohrab, From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith. San Francisco, CA. Ignatius Press. 2019. 240 pages.

Capuchin Monastery with "Alien" Jesus 
One Sunday evening in 2008, after two nights in a row of binge drinking—part of a pattern of compulsive misbehavior that shamed him when he was sober—Sohrab Ahmari was pacing around the block near Penn Station in New York City, killing time waiting for a train back to Boston. After several turns past a building that had what he described as a “nondescript brick fa├žade” with “a relief above the entrance of an almost alien Jesus,” he went in and found a passage into a church where Mass was about to begin.

Sohrab Ahmari’s First Mass

Ahmari had never attended a Mass before. “The first thing I noticed on entering the vestibule was the serenity of the place, which struck me as almost impossible. Miraculous even, amid the pandemonium of midtown.”

A young guitarist with a man-bun played and led the congregation in singing hymns. While the congregation around him stood, kneeled, sat, prayed, and sang, Ahmari stayed seated in the back and wrestled with his ambivalence about religious belief. He paid little attention to what the friar was doing at the altar.

Skepticism had been ingrained in him in Iran from his bohemian family, and it had been reinforced by his experiences after he came to live in the United States with his mother at the age of 13. He had deep spiritual longings, but he didn’t want to be counted among the gullible by his intellectual peers. He thought he was too smart to be a believer. “But all of a sudden, the singing and the strumming dissolved into that all-encompassing serenity, and something extraordinary happened.”

During the consecration, he began to cry, not tears of sorrow or of joy, but of peace. The Mass appealed to two deeply-rooted parts of his personal make-up that he described in the first chapters of the book: he had always admired the ideal of heroic self-less sacrifice, and he longed for cosmic and moral absolutes. The words of the consecration struck him because they made present at the Mass the redeeming death of the blameless Victim, who humbled Himself to become human and died on the Cross that all may live. On his way out after Mass, he saw a photo of Pope Benedict XVI in the vestibule, and that set off a new bout of tears— because he intensely craved loving, paternal, moral authority and the continuity that the papacy stands for.

He attended another Mass, and from then on he found that he could no longer honestly say he was an atheist. As he said in a Fox News interview, although he felt the faith was true on the level of his imagination and emotions, “it took, still, a long time to finally assent to faith.”

Wrong Worship (without the Mass)

Sohrab and Ting Ahmari
Seven years later, Ahmari was married and was working in London as an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal’s European edition. He had come to believe in Christianity and—with the encouragement of a zealous friend—he occasionally worshipped at evangelical services. He lived near an evangelical Anglican church called Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), and he began to occasionally attend services there.“[T]he Regency church with its elaborate stained-glass windows and vaulting arches, played host to charismatic worship that included JumboTrons, rock bands, and funky lighting.”

The Mass at the Brompton Oratory

On the way home after one such charismatic service at HTB at 8:30 on a Sunday morning, Ahmari noticed a sign at the nearby Catholic Brompton Oratory (Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) advertising a Solemn High Latin Mass, starting at 11, and he went in.

It was Pentecost Sunday. The richness of the church decor with abundant marble and carvings, the way that the architecture beautifully leads every eye to the altar of sacrifice, and what he felt was the rightful inclusion of the carving of the Immaculate Heart of Mary under the baldacchino and in a painting above the main altar, all captivated him. “It was a holy place. It was a place of right worship.”

A world-renowned choir chants and sings traditional sacred music at the Brompton Oratory’s Solemn High Latin Masses. The priests celebrate ad orientem, facing towards Jesus, towards liturgical East. Instead of staying aloof as he had at that first Mass, Ahmari threw himself into following along with the other worshippers as best he could, standing, sitting, kneeling, and blessing himself (a few times with his left hand).

Ahmari was struck that “the metalwork and masonry and painting directed my imagination to spiritual realities,” and in contrast to what he had just experienced at the HTB service, “the Catholic Church didn’t need to herself to the vacuous fads of 2016.”

The very next day he sought out a priest at the Brompton Oratory’s offices and announced he wanted to become a Roman Catholic.

There is more of great interest in Ahmari’s story, much more. For the rest of the fascinating story, you need to read From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith yourself. Conservative journalist and media figure Sohrab Ahmari wrote it to show the influences and events of his life and the changes in his convictions that brought him—from the fire of misery and the captivity of sin, through the water of Baptism—and into the Catholic Church.

Ahmari Speaks About the Mass with Ignatius Press


As noted at the start of this article, From Fire by Water was published by Ignatius Press. The quotes below are from “From Fire by Water, pt. 4, Summary with Sohrab Ahmari”—one of a series of videos discussing Ahmari’s book as part of the Ignatius Press FORMED Book Club series. Ahmari talked about the differences between his experiences at the two Masses described above, and the form of the Mass he prefers. The quotes are included here by permission from Ignatius Press.

You can watch the entire episode here.

Abbreviations and Terms
FJF: Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., founder and editor of Ignatius Press
VD: Vivian Dudro, senior editor of Ignatius Press
SA: Sohrab Ahmari
Novus Ordo: NO, Mass of 1969, Mass of Pope Saint Paul VI, New Mass, Ordinary Form OF of the Mass
Traditional Latin Mass: TLM, Mass of 1962, Mass of Pope Saint John XIII, Vetus Ordo, Extraordinary Form of the Mass.
________________________________________
FJF: In your conversion story two liturgical events were critical. One was right around Penn Station . . . when you went into the Capuchin Church. The other was when you went into Brompton Oratory. Vivian, why don’t you make your point about the first experience?

VD: When you went to the chapel near Penn Station, . . . that Mass was a low Mass in English. At the consecration when you heard those words, “This is my Body,” you made the association that a sacrifice was occurring, and that was an “aha” moment for you. And then later you were at a Brompton Oratory Mass in Latin. I was wondering if your first experience of the Mass had been the one at the Brompton Oratory, do you think you would have understood that a sacrifice was being made if you hadn’t been able to understand the words of the consecration?

SA: I think it would have struck me more, but I would have understood less. That [Brompton] Mass is a richer presentation of both the symbolism and the supernatural action of the Mass, and it would have been an experience I would not soon have forgotten.

“But I don’t think I would have put two and two together to understand that this is an altar like any altar of every civilization that has offered sacrifice—which all civilizations have—but in this case, it’s God Himself offering Himself up as the sacrificial Lamb. I don’t think I would have understood that as much, but at the level of mystery and emotion and imagination I have no doubt that the Brompton Mass would have made more of an impression on me.

“But overall my state of mind in going to that mass was one of ‘I am lousy. I am abject. I need something to redeem me,’ and as it happened, I found the Mass but thereafter within twelve hours I had forgotten about it.

“In either case it would probably have taken some time to get to the point of willingly seeking out the Roman Catholic Church.”
11:00am Solemn Latin VO Mass Ahmari Attended
FJF: What’s your preference liturgically now?

SA: I have a son who I like to take to Mass. [Since the interview, he has also a baby daughter.] I’m registered at a church that has a Solemn High Latin Mass on Sundays. But my son can’t sit through all of it. I vary. Sometimes I need that beauty of the Latin Mass. . . . So that means I will go alone on some Sundays to have that. And then on other Sundays, when I want to take him and my wife, then we’ll go to a different church where the liturgy is fifty minutes, a reverent Novus Ordo Mass [in English]. I try to go to Mass daily; I don’t always succeed. My day is so packed that I’m grateful for the twenty-minute daily English Masses at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

FJF: I celebrate ordinarily the Novus Ordo mass, but in Latin, with English for the readings and prayers and the Preface and for everything that changes each day. I celebrate the rest that stays the same especially the Roman Canon, [Eucharistic Prayer I in the Ordinary Form] in Latin.

SA: I have to mention the Mass that is described in the book in the final chapter at the Brompton Oratory was not the Traditional Latin Mass. It too was a Novus Ordo Mass in Latin—also with the variable parts being done in English. I’m quite fond of that format.

FJF: You’re young and energetic and a talented writer, so I hope to pass the torch onto to you from the Brompton Oratory and from me that in the future you can agitate for more widespread use of the Novus Ordo in Latin. I call it the Mass of Vatican II because it’s what the Vatican fathers were thinking about when they were talking about the reform of the liturgy.

What Actually Is the Mass of Vatican II?

You might wonder what led Father Fessio to refer to the Novus Ordo Mass in Latin the “Mass of Vatican II”—especially since most of the Masses celebrated around the world are not in Latin. Following is some background information to help explain.

It is a much disputed topic whether or not Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Apostolic Constitution on the liturgy published in December 1963, was implemented correctly in the Ordinary Form of the Mass that has been celebrated since 1969. Even now, 50 years later, lots of people argue in favor of rethinking some of the changes that were supposedly justified by the Second Vatican Council, including the Church Music Association of America President, Stanford Professor William P. Mahrt, along with many others in the CMAA, contributors to the New Liturgical Movement website, and scholars of the liturgical changes of the twentieth century fro, around the world.

Most people who attend the Ordinary form of the Mass are not aware of this, but most of the changes that were made to the form of the Mass, the music, the vestments, and even the furnishings and arrangement of churches after the Second Vatican Council were not actually called for in the council's document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium—and in some cases the changes contradicted what Sacrosanctum Concilium literally said.

For example, the following list of practices were not mandated by Sacrosanctum Concilium but are almost universally seen wherever Novus Ordo Masses are celebrated:

• Vernacular-only Masses, with Latin virtually banished
• The priest facing versus populum (towards the people) instead of ad orientem (to the symbolic East, towards Christ)
• The abolishment of Gregorian chant and polyphony
• Randomly chosen hymns replacing the sung Propers and Ordinary (the Four-Hymn Sandwich)
• Organ music replaced with secular instruments
• Removal of altar rails
• Female altar servers: “girl altar boys”
• Communion received in the hand
• Communion in both species at all Masses
• Standing instead of kneeling for Communion and after Communion
• Resurrection images replacing crucifixes over the altar
• Churches in the round
• Iconoclasm (removal of images of saints)
• Felt banners
• Lay lectors
• Lay ministers of Communion

What Sacrosanctum Concilium Actually Said: A Few Examples

It’s too big a topic to cover thoroughly here, but here is one example concerning the use of Latin. Section 36 of Sacrosanctum Concilium states:

36. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.
37. But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants, according to the regulations on this matter to be laid down separately in subsequent chapters.
The above two paragraphs justify use of the vernacular in the readings, and some priests like Father Fessio and the Oratorians at Brompton, extend the use of the vernacular to the Preface and other parts of the Mass that change every day. But it took later directives after Sacrosanctum Concilium to effect a sweeping change of the entire Mass to the vernacular.

It may be a surprise to learn that the definitive version of the form of the Mass put in place after the Second Vatican Council is in Latin, and from the Latin version all other translations are made. And it was never forbidden for priests to celebrate the modern Mass facing the altar.

For another thing, it was nowhere written that chant should be replaced with hymns. Or that hymns should replace the prayers of the Mass.
116. The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as especially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.
117. The typical edition of the books of Gregorian chant is to be completed; and a more critical edition is to be prepared of those books already published since the restoration by St. Pius X. It is desirable also that an edition be prepared containing simpler melodies, for use in small churches.

Pope Paul VI's Wish for the Faithful: To Say or Sing Unchanging Parts of the Mass in Latin

To bring about the desire expressed section 54 of SC, which said that "steps should be taken enabling the faithful to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass belonging to them" in 1974, Pope Paul VI issued Jubilate Deo (Joyfully Sing Out to God is an English paraphrase, but note that the title is in Latin) a booklet with simple chant settings of the Ordinary chants and responses and some other hymns. An accompanying letter to all the bishops and heads of religious orders said that the Gregorian chants contained in the booklet were to be considered the "minimum repertoire of plainchant." Pope Paul VI asked them to both teach the faithful these Latin chants and have the faithful sing them.

The sad truth is that the bishops ignored the pope’s gift, and Jubilate Deo is unknown in most parishes.

The Spectrum of Opinion

Some claim that the additional changes are “essentially institutionalized abuses.” A more-moderate line of thinking goes: since some changes were not explicitly mandated, such as the versus populum posture of the priest, those changes might easily be reversed in Ordinary Form Masses, and the ad orientem posture of the priest could be normalized again without undermining the council's reforms.

Others believe that Sacrosanctum Concilium was deliberately and appropriately worded to leave the way open for additional changes beyond what was explicitly set down. Those who think that way believe that the Ordinary Form Mass as it is ordinarily celebrated now is the correct and complete interpretation of the directives in Sacrosanctum Concilium, and it should be left as it is currently celebrated.

Final Thoughts

Sorab Ahrari's conversion experience seems to affirm the power of a reverently celebrated Novus Ordo Mass in Latin to appeal to the imagination and emotions of a person trying to decide where best to worship God. Here is a comment from Ahmari's book about the importance of liturgy, in which he takes exception to C. S. Lewis:
Lewis had been wrong to write off "style of worship" as a secondary matter in Mere Christianity. As with beauty and imagination, the order and symbolism of public prayer were bound up with truth. The Mass gave full expression to the truths and mysteries of Christianity."
Here is what Father Joseph Fessio, S.J. of Ignatius Press thinks.
Those who advocate the reform of the reform want to see the present Novus Ordo Mass celebrated in a way that makes visible the deeper christological continuity with the Church’s celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass over the millennia. Cardinal Ratzinger called attention to this deep christological continuity in his Spirit of the Liturgy, when he evoked “the real interior act” of Jesus’ “Yes” to the Father on the Cross that takes all time into his heart (pp. 56-57). This is the “event of institution” that assures organic continuity down the ages. It is possible to make this profound reality visible by celebrating the Novus Ordo Mass in ways that make the continuity with tradition much more obvious. The Novus Ordo permits that Mass be celebrated with all its parts, or the canon and ordinary parts, in Latin. It permits Mass to be celebrated ad orientem (facing the Lord); the traditional first canon may be used; Gregorian Chant is still to be given "pride of place"; incense may be used and sacred polyphony sung; altar boys, bells, patens, communion rails where people may kneel if they choose, beautiful and noble vestments and sacred vessels; all this is permitted in the Novus Ordo. Permitted, but too rarely experienced.”—Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., in his “Foreword” to Martin Mosebach's The Heresy of Formlessness: The Roman Liturgy and Its Enemy
And this is what the late author Michael Davies thought:
Altar of the Brompton Oratory on the cover of
Michael Davies' The Catholic Sanctuary
Anyone wishing to see a famous church which has stuck to the letter of the law in reordering its sanctuary and made only those changes which are mandatory should visit the Brompton Oratory in London. The Oratorian Fathers are certainly the most liturgically literate group of priests in Britain, and they have not made a single change in their sanctuary because there is no law requiring them to do so. Their magnificent altar stands just as it always has, with the prominent tabernacle in the center."—Michael Davies, The Catholic Sanctuary And The second Vatican Council
The Musings of a Pertinacious Papist blog posted this photo:

And the blog continued: "Pictured above is the sanctuary of the Brompton Oratory in London after all the changes had been made that were mandated for Catholic churches by Vatican II and post-Vatican II legislation. Yes, that's right. Read it again.

"In short, NO changes were mandated -- not moving the Tabernacle from the central point in the altar, nor placing a chair in the middle of the sanctuary, or removing the Communion rails, or even Mass facing the people with the priest standing behind a free-standing altar."

Now for what Cardinal Robert Sarah thinks. He has been quoted as stating that a more reverent and sober form of liturgy that places the accent on the “primacy of God” has never been more important than now, facing a world marked by “an ever more aggressive secularism, consumerism, a terrorism without God, and a culture of death that puts at risk our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.” He also stated that “much remains to be accomplished for a complete and correct application” of the vision of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on sacred liturgy.
Cardinal Sarah celebrating Mass at the Bromptom Oratory in 2016
And finally, I was amused to come across this in the writings of  the late bohemian British Catholic novelist and editor Alice Thomas Ellis. She used photographs of the Brompton Oratory in her book Snake on the Rock, which was her exploration of the changes that happened since Vatican II. Photos of the outside and outside of the oratory were compared (unfavorably) with the straight unembellished lines of a modern Catholic church exterior and the "scooped out look" of its interior.
Interior Bromptom Oratory Compared to Modern Renovation

What do you think?

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