07 June 2011

Time to Smash the Coffee Tables

As I tried out titles for this post, here were the runners-up:

Triumph of the Coffee Tables

Coffee Table of Plenty (of Indifference)

"Consignment sale, party of none, your table is ready."

Masses Measured Out in Coffee Tables

Yet, considering that the ubiquitous versus populum Mass, where the priest is part ringmaster, part cooking show host, I thought about a title of In Persona Julia Child Capita.  I ditched that because the production quality of the typical abuse-filled liturgy isn't that good-- more like watching Dierberg's infomercial "Everybody Cooks".  

And really, that is the problem, isn't it?  Everybody "cooks", and there are too many cooks in what should be a solo kitchen.

What am I talking about?  Good question.  Recalling the crime against God and humanity that was the systematic desecration, smashing, tearing, ripping out and destruction of high altars throughout the world's Catholic churches, I would like to call for the smashing of the lowly coffee table altars that currently plague so many churches today.  I was moved to issue this call by the following New Liturgical Movement article about the biggest keys to true liturgical restoration, regardless of form: Altar and Orientation:


We recently shared an article by Dom Mark Daniel Kirby, OSB, on the topic of sacred music. When reading that article this past Friday, I was also rather interested to see another posted by him -- apparently the result of a present trip to Italy.

Dom Mark speaks to a few aspects, but of particular interest are his comments on the altar and orientation. He describes the problem as he sees it:

Mass Facing the People: The Single Greatest Obstacle to the Reform

Here in Italy it is evident that churches were designed and constructed with an eye to the absolute centrality of the altar with priest and people facing together in the same direction. The placement, within perfectly proportioned sanctuaries, of secondary altars to allow for Mass facing the people has utterly destroyed the harmony, order, and spaciousness that the Sacred Liturgy, by its very nature, requires.


Crucifix, Candles, and Flowers

Here in Italy -- and also in France -- the traditional symmetrical arrangement of the candles and crucifix has all but disappeared in favour of a curious asymmetrical disposition that nearly always includes a bouquet of flowers placed at one end of the altar, one, two, or three candles at the opposite end, and a crucifix somewhere in the sanctuary that may or may not be construed as having an inherent relationship with the altar.

The Priest Magnified

Apart from these considerations, the most deleterious effect continues to be the magnification of the priest and of his personality. The theological direction of all liturgical prayer --
ad Patrem, per Filium, in Spiritu -- is obscured, while the priest, even in spite of himself, appears to be, at every moment, addressing the faithful or engaging personally with them.

It's All About Me

Certain priests and bishops, marked by a streak of narcissism, abuse their position in front of and over the congregation to soak up the attention and energy of the faithful,
attention and energy that, by right, belong to God alone during the Sacred Liturgy. [NLM emphasis]

Placed in front of and over the congregation, priests an bishops all too easily give in to an arrogant liturgical clericalism, subjecting the faithful to their own additions amendments, comments, and embolisms. The faithful, being a captive audience, are subjected to the personality of the priest, which can and often does obscure the purity of the liturgical actions and texts that constitute the Roman Rite.

The matter as it relates to Italy and architecture has been rather well documented by John Sonnen over the past few years. A few examples:

The result of these arrangements is not only deleterious to the integrity of the architecture and the practicalities and focus of the sacred liturgy, it likewise hardly seems exemplary of noble simplicity.

Dom Mark moves to his proposed solution:

In churches possessing an ad orientem altar integral to the architectural genius of the original design of the apse or of the sanctuary, secondary versus populum altars should be removed, and the sanctuaries should be restored to the original order, harmony, and spaciousness that characterized them.

In churches possessing only a versus populum altar, that altar should be so arranged as to place the crucifix, with the corpus facing the priest, in a central position with three candles at either side, following the Roman practice.

(The only point I would here add, as it relates to the last paragraph, is that there would seem to be no reason to not also consider the possible use of ad orientem in these latter instances as well.)

As Dom Mark notes, the theological direction of liturgical prayer is primarily Godward; to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Put another way: the liturgy is divine worship and whatever we can do to help emphasize and teach this orientation, we ought to do. Similarly, whatever has the potential to obscure this or lead to confusion or ambiguity should be looked at very seriously and with due expediency.

On the architectural question, as we have commented here in the past, a strong centrality, substantiality and verticality with regard the altar is important in orienting our focus. Ciboria, reredos, substantive candlesticks and cross, antependia, these all contribute in this regard -- as does symmetry.

Key as well for the Benedictine arrangement, where employed, is that we here too see a substantialityin 2008:

Provided the altar cross and candles are substantial, this will ... help make clear that the liturgy is not a matter of the priest being oriented toward the faithful and vice versa, but rather the common orientation toward God, with the priest leading the faithful in the worship of the Father through the sacrifice of the Son. In this regard, if a priest is implementing this arrangement, I must encourage him to avoid being meagre or bashful about it -- as might be represented in using an arrangement which might be less substantial. We should be robust and confident about it, not weighting the altar down with a "brass reredos" of course, but neither being insubstantial nor apologetic about it either.

And of course, outside these architectural and ornamental questions is the all important matter of the physical direction of the priest in liturgical prayer. While facing ad populum is not inherently inimical to the possibility of proper liturgical orientation, as Dom Mark rightly points out it is much more difficult in those instances even despite the very best of intentions -- and what we say here not only applies to the priest, but also to the faithful. This is a point which merits serious consideration and should not be underestimated.

Altar and orientation are indeed key considerations for a new liturgical movement and, like sacred music, should be at the forefront of our considerations and actions.


Anonymous said...

Matthew 26: 20-26.
Mark 14: 17-25.
Luke 22: 11-17
John 13: 23-25

What does it signify to you as the People of God to join with the priest at Mass facing you or
turned to face the altar?

Interesting how the Last Supper was celebrated!

Anonymous said...

Michaelangelo's "Last Supper" had it all wrong!!!

Don't know what the idiot was thinking! Obviously from this website, Jesus should have been facing AWAY from the disciples sitting around the table with him, staring off into the three windows behind him.
Jesus should also have been speaking his prayers in a language that 98% of them wouldn't understand.
And the scandal of the disciples wearing sandals - oh my!

thetimman said...

I think that basing one's theological and historical views on a painting, however great, may not be wise. I have posted on my blog a painting of the apostles at the last supper receiving Holy Communion on their knees, on their tongues. Does that count?

The important point in all of this is that all of the participants at the Last Supper WERE PRIESTS. If they faced towards Christ, would that surprise?

Athelstane said...

Hello Anon,

Actually, Michaelangelo did have it partially wrong, and in any event, the canon of the mass is not meant to be just a reproduction of the Last Supper. It's also a sacrifice. And that sacrificial dimension of the mass is what has been lost, in significant degree, in the last several decades.

Uwe Michael Lang of the London Oratory puts it more succinctly in his recent book Turning Towards the Lord (effusively reviewed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger): "The sacrament of the New Covenant was instituted in the context of a Jewish festal meal, but it was the new reality, not the meal as such, that Christ commanded us to repeat in memory of him. The eucharistic sacrifice of Our Lord's Body and Blood perpetuates the saving sacrifice of the Cross until he comes again in glory. Christian worship refers to the paschal mystery, that is, the total reality of Christ's passion, death and resurrection, and cannot be reduced to the category of a 'meal.'" (Emphasis added)

As for the language thing, it's a distractor, isn't it? If all that had been done in the 60's was to translate most of the mass into an accurate (and one hopes, elevated) English, we'd be in a very different place than we are now. But the Roman Church is far from the only church which has used an ancient language for its liturgical language. And that includes the ancient churches of the Holy Land, such as the Melkites. Do they have it wrong, too?

Anonymous said...

We still laugh at the joke that Michaelangelo told Jesus and all the disciples, as if he were taking a photograph: "Okay, everyone, go sit and stand on the other side of that table so I can squeeze you all in."

The fact, though, is that Jesus, an observant Jew, was celebrating the Seder Meal, as was the custom for Passover. To say that the "Last Supper" didn't have its basis in Jewish tradition, and didn't have the breaking of the bread among friends as it's core, is just wrong. Yes, Jesus's messages far transcended what was expected, but it still was based on a meal.

To call the disciples "priests" at that time would be premature, as Jesus only turned to Peter, who would deny him later that night, and said "I will build my church on you." (Unless you think that Jesus would have ordained everyone there at that time, knowing Peter would deny him, Thomas would doubt him, and Judas would betray him? IF so, that would explain why we end up with some of the priests we have :)

The Liturgy in the first centuries immedately afterwards were shared meals with the breaking of the bread. The jump to a liturgy 1,200 years later that had the priest turn away from those 'at table' with him shows the pendulum moving from "Christ among us" to "Christ transcendental to us." Either extreme is heretical. Vatican II tried to move our spirituality closer to "Christ among us," but the fact is that Christ is BOTH immanent and transcendent.

While pre-Vatican II might have erred on the side of a God that is too transcendent, Post-Vatican II might err on the side of a God that is too immanent. The fact is, we live in a BOTH/AND world here, and not an EITHER/OR fallacy as this blog-site supports.

Timman, your website would have more credibility if it would cite heretical trends at both extremes, but I know, I know: you have to pander to your base.

thetimman said...

Anonymous, I have to take issue with your recitation of facts. Jesus did not tell Peter He would build His Church on him at the Last Supper; that was in the region of Caesarea Philippi. And the priesthood was instituted that night of the Last Supper. The fact that Peter later denied and that Thomas later doubted is particularly illustrative that priests and bishops are capable of weakness and sin yet Christ calls them anyway. It is a sign of mercy and hope.

And your description of the early Church Masses is surely commonly repeated, but isn't accurate. I would like some evidence for your assertion.

Ironically enough, on Holy Thursday the epistle read at both the EF and the OF is from 1 Corinthians 11: and you know the reading well: beginning at verse 23: "For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed..."

However, in an odd coincidence, the first part of that reading was excised from the novus ordo. The passage traditionally begins with verse 20:

"When you come therefore together into one place, it is not now to eat the Lord's supper.
11 21 For every one taketh before his own supper to eat. And one indeed is hungry and another is drunk.
11 22 What, have you no houses to eat and to drink in? Or despise ye the church of God and put them to shame that have not? What shall I say to you? Do I praise you? In this I praise you not." This seems to me to be a rebuke of the friendly love meal model of the Mass from one of the great Saints writing about Christian Masses of the first century.

In the end, one can "pander" to their base on the blog or in the combox, I suppose.

X said...

Did Michaelangelo do a Last Supper? I'm not familiar with it, unless you are all referring to da Vinci's Last Supper. On the opposite wall of da Vinci's Last Supper is a painting of the Crucifixion, which preceded it. In that sense they are all facing towards the Crucifixion which is the essence of the Mass, the point at which mankind was redeemed.

Anonymous said...

The first photo posted in this entry displays an exquisite altar. Where is it located? Do you know what woods are used? I certainly would like to visit this church.

It most certainly is as stunning as any marble altar.