Beautiful Liturgy is Worth the Effort, Explains Wyoming Catholic Professor

Editor’s note: The Cardinal Newman Society is pleased to be able to present an excerpt from Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s new book, Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages (Angelico Press, 2017).

Dr. Kwasniewski is a professor of philosophy and music at Newman Guide-recommended Wyoming Catholic College. He was appointed a fellow of the Newman Society in 2008-2009, in which capacity he served as a representative at the Sacra Liturgia conference in Rome in 2013. He appeared on a Newman Society panel with Cardinal Raymond Burke and several others to discuss liturgy and Catholic education at the Sacra Liturgia conference in New York City in 2015.

The Newman Society has published a number of articles connected with Dr. Kwasniewski’s work, including Q&A: Peter Kwasniewski on Sacraments, Curriculum and Moral Formation at Catholic Colleges; Author Explains New Sacred Music Book, Importance for Catholic Education; The Mass Is Source and Summit of a Catholic Campus, By Dr. Peter Kwasniewski; and Center Fellow Publishes New Book on Thomas Aquinas.

That the Lord may be counted on to provide does not excuse us from doing what is in our power to be deserving of His providence. It is His very generosity that entails in us a corresponding activity by which we strive to be worthy of His gifts. I shall expand on this point with an image. It feels easier to walk downhill than uphill, but it is harder on the knees. It feels harder to climb uphill, but the beautiful view at the top is always worth the effort. As hikers often experience, you will be walking along a narrow trail, perhaps in the midst of crowded trees, thinking the small thoughts that go with one step after another. You turn a bend, and suddenly the whole world opens up in a breathtaking vista that almost makes you feel dizzy, as if the beauty might subvert your muscles. That beauty was put there by God, not by you, and yet it took your effort to reach it. We make the trails, we walk on them, but the beauty is from above; it was there before we existed and it will long outlast our mortality. Human effort was the indispensable condition for the sight of this beauty.

The same is true of the liturgical tradition: it is God’s immense gift to us, it comes before us and goes beyond us, we did not generate it and we cannot, of ourselves, guarantee it. It is a gift given to us in trust; it is not our possession to dispose of, like a piece of clothing, a book, or a vehicle we own. Its intrinsic worth as well as the identity of the giver obliges us to work hard to preserve it, to know it intimately, to live it as fully as we can; in short, to be worthy of it. What we absolutely must not do is to think that it would be better to create an alternative, easier, more controllable “tradition” and attempt to rejoice in it. That would be like planting a giant flat screen at the end of the trail and looking at a filmed sunset.

The notion that we should strive to make ourselves worthy of our liturgical tradition is one that is, I am afraid, quite unfamiliar today, because of decades-long bad habits induced by reformers, revisers, translators, and other committee members who placed themselves over and above the tradition as its superiors, its judges, its improvers, its improvisers. This is not and cannot be the attitude of one who, conscious of his own limitations and of the narrowness of any age, people, or culture, gratefully and humbly receives a noble inheritance, rejoices in its prayer-saturated beauty and stability, and delivers it integrally to his successors—perhaps embellished with additional signs of reverence and devotion, if he has been prompted to originate them.

A Catholic who is aware of himself, who senses the smallness of his vision and the greatness of the tradition that precedes and carries him, is, in fact, relieved that he does not have to make things up as he goes along; he need not second-guess the river along which he floats. He lets himself be the ready instrument of a far greater actor, the mouth through which the same word continues to sound, the hand or foot that executes the head’s bidding:

This beauty which fell on his ears, which enveloped and possessed him, which humbled him with its austere and stately measures, was too great to have its source in him. Arising elsewhere, it flowed through him; he had no part in it, except to lend, to give, himself. His voice? Perhaps; but Another sang. (Kent, Brother Michel, 299-300)

As an instrument, a voice, a servant, he does not fear messing up that which was whole and safe and salvific before he even came to be and which will continue long after he is gone. He simply strives to order His life according to the gift of tradition, so that he may be ever more pleasing to its divine author, ever more apt to receive from Him the grace of further insights into it and deeper affection for it. The prayers of such a one are truly humble and destined to be heard, because he is grateful for what the Lord has granted and industrious in making use of it, instead of second-guessing Him and looking askance at His decrees.

No matter how much emphasis we place on divine initiative and generosity, there is something important, something indispensable, that the individual—the bishop, the priest, the deacon, the religious, the layman—must contribute in order that the tradition will not die out or shrivel up. True, he does not have to invent the tradition, but neither can he ignore it or treat it lightly. He must embrace it or else it will cease to exist. (See the superb article of Joseph Shaw, “Does Tradition preserve us, or we the Tradition?,” published at LMS Chairman, October 13, 2015.) In the end, the recipient must actually, energetically receive. Receptivity is no passivity, much less inertia, but the most vital activity of the creature in relation to God in His eternal mystery and to all that is supernatural.

In a famous interview published in The Latin Mass magazine, Alice von Hildebrand addressed this issue head on. When asked: “There are those critics of the ancient Latin Mass who point out that the crisis in the Church developed at a time when the Mass was offered throughout the world. Why should we then think its revival is intrinsic to the solution?,” she replied:

The devil hates the ancient Mass. He hates it because it is the most perfect reformulation of all the teachings of the Church. It was my husband who gave me this insight about the Mass. The problem that ushered in the present crisis was not the traditional Mass. The problem was that priests who offered it had already lost the sense of the supernatural and the transcendent. They rushed through the prayers, they mumbled and didn’t enunciate them. That is a sign that they had brought to the Mass their growing secularism. The ancient Mass does not abide irreverence, and that was why so many priests were just as happy to see it go. (“Present at the Demolition: An Interview with Dr. Alice von Hildebrand,” The Latin Mass, Summer 2001)

The law of entropy states that any system left to itself, without new energy added to it from outside, will lose order, will devolve or unwind. The tendency of the material world, taken as a closed system, is towards unraveling. If order cannot somehow be re-introduced, decay is unavoidable.

In the little universe of the liturgy, that necessary principle of order is reverence for texts, music, rubrics, and decorum handed down in the life of the faithful and sustained by Church authority properly exercised. These things—the reverence, the handing down, the sustaining—can be contributed only by living human beings who correspond with the grace of the Holy Spirit. As long as they are supplied, the liturgy thrives and continues along its way, undiminished, introducing new energy from outside, from the inexhaustible Heart of Jesus. Without these things, however, the liturgy as an opus hominis is doomed to disintegration. The man who lets himself become unreceptive or, worse, hardens his heart against the gift, becomes unworthy. The loss of a wealthy inheritance is just punishment for the failure to value one’s family name, one’s spiritual aristocracy.

Liturgical decadence, deviation, and disorder are, like the natural tendency of entropy, a downhill walk for fallen man. Left to himself, left without the guidance of the tradition willed by the Holy Spirit and the example of many saints who have shown us how to walk the often grueling uphill path of fidelity, fallen man will make liturgy conform to his own whims and wants, his own programs and purposes—something easier, and more damaging. It is the uphill climb, prepared for by self-discipline, that leads to the magnificent vista, the glimpse of a vast and humbling beauty that can only come from the mind of the Creator. “Hate not laborious works, nor husbandry ordained by the Most High. Number not thyself among the multitude of the disorderly” (Sir 7:16–17).

A story will illustrate this point. As part of my work I lead a Gregorian schola consisting of men enrolled in the college. For six years running, the schola has sung the traditional office of Tenebrae for Maundy Thursday; this past year we added the office for Holy Saturday as well. It has been wonderful to see the growth from year to year: the schola boasted twice as many members in 2017 as in 2012, and the congregation was about four times as large. The singing has improved as we become habituated to the psalm tones and texts, and the faithful in the pews, who have all the psalms in booklets, voluntarily sing along just a bit better each year.

For me, this prompts a couple of heartening reflections. The first is simply that our Holy Mother Church gives us so many beautiful resources for entering into the mystery of Our Lord Jesus Christ—if only we would use them! Yes, it takes time and effort and planning, as a two-and-a-half hour service of Latin chant is not something one can do at the drop of a hat. But it is worth it in the end. The people are edified, their hearts immersed in the darkness of the Passion, which the office of Tenebrae probes and evokes without sentimentality or haste. The singers themselves feel that the Lord has worked in and through them. The inherent sacredness and sanctifying power of these services draw in the faithful who are seeking for ways to observe the Triduum with great devotion. In short: we do not need to invent new things; we need to rediscover old things that have always worked and will always work, wherever men and women are hungering for God.

The second reflection is that the best and deepest things take time to assimilate, to understand, to perfect. When it comes to liturgy in particular, we have to fight tooth and nail against the modern spirit of immediate gratification and quick results. When we first did the office of Tenebrae, we could barely chant the music, let alone follow the texts. The people stumbled over the psalms. It was not exactly elegant. But we did it anyhow because we saw it as a mountain worth climbing, no matter how many bruises along the way. The next year it was a little easier; one felt oriented and clued in. The year after, the psalm tones came more naturally and the responsories felt like old acquaintances. A year later, more fellows were volunteering to sing the nine readings. The fifth year, for the first time, I was not worrying about the music and found myself drawn deeply into the meaning of the psalms and readings. It took me five years to get to that point. It is like a treasure chest containing exquisite treasure but locked with formidable locks: you work at it patiently because you know that the yield is worthwhile.

Nothing valuable comes cheaply. Many people, maybe even most people, value a challenge that corresponds to their dignity, calls upon all their powers, rewards their efforts. This truth is brought out vividly by the contrast between Tridentine and non-Tridentine altar serving. The former is much more demanding, takes an investment of time, requires precision, thoughtfulness, and obedience to commands—but the boys and young men go in for that, thrive on it. If we pay attention to the way human beings are made and what calls forth their greatest potential, we will see anew the wisdom of the Church in placing at our disposal such hard-won treasures.

There is a scene in the remarkable (and far too little known) novel The Mass of Brother Michel where the titular character reflects on the difficult climb from earthly love to the love of God. How well these words apply, mutatis mutandis, to the traditional liturgy!

While it is true beyond question that this love of heaven rewards and satisfies the heart, filling it with riches of joy and beauty and delight as no love of earth can ever do, it is likewise true that this love may not be enjoyed without cost: for so God has ordered it. But the cost, far from tempting us to part with it, convinces us rather of its exalted worth. A man will permit trash to be stolen from him without a struggle, but a treasure beyond price he will defend with his life. And if he must fight to keep it, and is wounded in the encounter, he regards his hurts as of little moment, provided only he has beaten off the thief, and preserved his treasure from harm. So it is with this heavenly treasure, this gift of love, which God has given us: how little would we esteem it, if to keep it cost us nothing! Because of the cost, we know that it is not our virtue, but His gift; because of the cost, we are reminded into how hideous a state we should fall, did He withdraw it from us; because of the cost, we are on our knees daily, beseeching Him for grace to preserve and defend it to the end; because of the cost, we value it and cherish it the more. (Kent, Brother Michel, 158-59)

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