Notes from abroad

My wife and I are just recently back from two weeks in Poland and Ukraine. How recently? We are still encouraging each other each evening at 8:30 to stay awake for another hour, and our eyes still pop open at 4:30 in the morning (but with a little will power we roll over until 6:00).

I was giving lectures on liturgical theology at the Catholic University of Lublin at the invitation of a now dear friend who hosted and guided us those two weeks, Fr Boguslaw Migut. He also took us to my lectures at the Ukrainian (Greek) Catholic University in L’viv. Fr Boguslaw holds a chair in liturgical spirituality. I know that many in North America are interested in the relationship between liturgy and spirituality, but I, personally, am unaware of any chair in the subject here, and found that fact interesting.

There are a good number of other impressions that are also interesting as I now attempt to remember them and sort them out. I would like to share some cursorily, and one at some greater length.

1. The Poles like to correct the geography acquired by someone like me, raised during the cold war when the nation was behind the iron curtain, and say that Poland is not in Eastern Europe, it is Central Europe.

2. The Polish sense of humor contains a delightful critique of presumption. It can be trained on both clergy and laity. “A taxi driver struck a man at a crosswalk. He climbed out of his car crying ‘Oh no! I have killed a man.’ Then he saw a cassock and cried, ‘Oh no! I have killed a priest.’ And then he saw an Episcopal ring and cried, ‘Oh no! I have killed a bishop.’ And from under the taxi a voice gasped ‘An archbishop.’” Another concerns a caricatured figure of the over-efficient and self-important housekeeper in the rectory. “The congregation gathered for liturgy and this housekeeper comes out to make the announcement: ‘I’m sorry, there will be no mass this morning. The priest is ill and I’m not feeling very well, myself, either.”

3. A mix of old and young. The Dominicans came to Krakow in 1222 and we went to their evening prayer. As they processed by, I counted fifty brothers and only five appeared to be over forty years in age. Sometimes one sees an old tree trunk from which new, green shoots keep emerging, and here new vocations sprouted from an 800 year old trunk.

4. We were privileged to attend an ordination of eleven to the priesthood in the cathedral at Lublin, presided over by four bishops of the diocese. The seminary choir sang beautifully, and people brought bouquets of flowers to give to the new priests. It was standing room only, shoulder to shoulder, and yet the people found a way to all kneel for the Eucharistic prayer. It was fascinating to watch the distribution of communion in such cramped quarters. The newly ordained brought the Body of Christ into the crowd which somehow opened an aisle for them, like the sea moving back for Moses. Then, when the priest reached a spot, he began distributing communion and little eddies pooled around him as people came forward and then stepped back. No organization, but no chaos.

5. An interesting mix of icon and statue in Poland. The décor is mostly baroque. Yet in the gold and silver, and under the chubby cherubs, one finds in the Lublin cathedral an icon which wept miraculously sixty years ago, and that day is celebrated in the local calendar.

The reference to icon brings me to one longer reflection, perhaps of more interest to you than this travelogue.

We celebrated Pentecost Sunday at the shrine of the icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa. When I say it was standing room only here, I mean that one could scarcely raise one’s hand to make the sign of the cross. Just when I thought our little corner of the Church was full, half a dozen more would shoulder their way forward in an attempt to glimpse Our Lady. Thus we ended up before a side altar, without a line of vision to the main altar, and could not see any of the liturgy.

Someone once said that Europe was lifted at a tilt and all the consonants rolled into Poland. I cannot understand a word of Polish, but I could follow where we were by the structure. Then they did the Sanctus in Latin, and I felt strangely at home. And then the bells were rung at consecration, and I had an almost mystical experience (which is quite unnatural for someone of placid, Norwegian temperament).

I had been taught – though exactly by whom I cannot say – that consecratory bells were bad.  Somewhere in the books that I have read on the history of the mass, or from classroom lectures, I had been taught that these bells were rung for only one reason: to wake up the laity who weren’t able to follow the Latin, and so were doing private devotions. Since we don’t want anyone doing private devotions any more, therefore the bells are neither needed nor desirable.

But when I stood there in Częstochowa I had a different experience. The sound did not enter my ear and turn left, to my brain; it entered my ear and turned right, to my heart. The bells did not remind me of something; they carried me somewhere. The sound linked me to an action I knew was going on at the altar. It did not make me think of the consecration, it enveloped me into the sacrifice.

An Orthodox friend of mine once objected to calling icons “a window on heaven,” because you only look through a window. He called them “doors to heaven,” because you walk through a door. Some similar shift happened in my experience of this sound. It wasn’t a school bell, or an alarm bell, or a fire bell – it wasn’t sending me a message. It was an acoustic pathway that I took into the presence of Christ. An aural anaphora.

The experience makes me question my conclusions from the histories of the medieval mass I have read. What was it really like for those believers? Have we judged their liturgical action by our standards?

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10 comments

  1. I really enjoyed this post, and apreciate your insight. We are generally judging the actions of others — whether of other cultures or older forms of our own — by our present standards. It’s important to be aware of our biases when making such judgments, but we are never fully aware of all our biases.

    I think it would be very fair to say that people long ago had similar experiences to yours during the ringing of the bells or the singing of the Sanctus in Latin. However, it might also be fair to say that such an experience might be based upon their level of catechesis. You obviously knew what these things meant. Many people before you did as well. I would suppose that, at a minimum, people would know that the consecration was a big deal.

    However, in a period before hand missals (a rather recent invention), I would suppose that their experience and participation in the liturgy would be limited essentially to those things you mentioned. They might recognize the structure, the order and ordinary, the various sounds and smells. To recognize these things in the first place, they would need to first have an interest and pay attention.

    I know that I did not pay attention at Mass as a child, and only as a teenager did I really get a sense of what was going on (and this was in my own language!). I can imagine that a similar sense of obliviousness coexisted among the more participatory (better educated/catechized) perception.

  2. Fortunately for my entire life except from 1976 to 1985, bells have been in my parishes. I’ve heard all the reasons why they are no longer needed, but in fact bells, like incense, certain types of sacred music and solemnity touch people in a heart-felt way as you describe, not necessarily in an intellectual, rational or practical way. Liturgy shouldn’t just be a a rational, intellectual pursuit, but a mystical, heart touching, life affirming and life changing action of God’s grace and love. When I took the altar railing out of my current parish to expand the sanctuary, I explained to people the rationale for it and that these are no longer liturgically needed (although this was before Summorum Pontificum, so as usual I acted in haste, but I digress). But for the people it wasn’t an issue of theology or doctrine, separating sanctuary and nave, it was a part of their historical memory, mom and dad kneeling at that railing years ago, prayer and adoration offered at a difficult time of life and recollections of those for whom the railing was important. I didn’t fully grasp that at the time when they were removed. I think we can say the same thing as to why so many like the “Benedictine” altar arrangement, it’s not a issue of the mind, but one of the heart and what this evokes from their heart. I think the period of iconoclastic reform based upon rational explanations failed our people by forgetting about their heart and their collective sense of parish salvation history.

  3. Thank you for this excellent post! (That archbishop joke is priceless, and I shall have to share it with my priest brother… unless he’s already read it here!)

    Your experience of the liturgy in a foreign language was wonderful to read. I attend a Polish-American parish in New Jersey, and I been to one Mass celebrated in Polish and one liturgy (Good Friday) celebrated in both languages. I know what you mean about the apparent incomprehensibility of Polish, but I also was able to “keep up” by knowing my bearings.

    (Regarding the bells, I recommend this excellent article, or its longer PDF version with illustrations.)

  4. Herrera is not so good on the very early origins of handbells, which were known to St Patrick and used by him in the 5th century (and his bell, like those of many other Celtic saints, were preserved as relics) .

    (Incidentally, the Irish word for “bell” is clog from which we get the French cloche [bell] and the English clock.)

    Abbots originally used bells for calling monks to pray. Herrera does not tell us that in fact they took over this practice from the secular world — fishmongers calling customers’ attention to their wares, and bath boys in imperial Rome who used bells to notify people that the bath houses were open.

    Early bells could be small handbells, or jingles, or gongs. Bronze bowls led to larger metal bells which could be mounted and swung by ropes. By the 6th century, bells had become the norm in Gaul. They were used initially to call people to church, and subsequently at important moments in the liturgy and for special solemn occasions.

    How wonderful that a purely functional and utilitarian instrument should in the course of two thousand years become the potential for the kind of spiritual experience that David experienced! Tibetan prayer bowls, too, can produce the same sort of effect when struck or rubbed in an appropriate way.

    The archbishop joke, by the way, is said to originate in a diocese in the US tornado belt.

  5. Fr. McDonald – I have seen you use the phrase “iconoclastic reform” in a couple of your posts now. In many cases, I agree with you that wonderful artwork and architecture was removed/whitewashed/torn down, etc., too hastily and to the detriment of a worshipping community. But the new style of liturgical art and architecture that arose is also quite wonderful. Look at St. John’s Abbey Church, for instance. In that case, it seems that much of the ‘reform’ you speak of was actually a rebirth. I think calling the aesthetic changes after Vatican II an ‘iconoclasm’ is far too extreme and quite dismissive of the wonderful developments in art and culture that can and have come from the period following the liturgical reforms. Furthermore, it is important that we judge the artwork and structure of churches for the message that it communicates to the worshipping community. A rail works in some places – definitely not in others. Those changes take prudence and pastoral insight. In many places, these changes have been made successfully and gracefully.

    1. Dear Clarey, when we took out the altar railing in my current parish, it now looks very graceful and beautiful and the sanctuary area is not impeded. However, at our EF monthly Mass and weekly Tuesday EF Mass, I have to put out kneelers. I don’t disagree with you a bit on truly artistic modern architecture, I like the inside of both the Los Angeles Cathedral and the one in San Francisco, outside I’m not sure about. But there is artistic merit. I prefer the new Cathedral in Houston, but that’s personal preference. I was writing more about a subjective feeling concerning actions in the liturgy that rational explanations either for their presence or removal don’t truly help. I’d say that this is also true of Church architecture,if someone doesn’t like a particular style, all explanations about art and style and function do not address the subjective attitude about what one simply likes and the history of attachment to a particular thing or style.

  6. “The bells did not remind me of something; they carried me somewhere. The sound linked me to an action I knew was going on at the altar. It did not make me think of the consecration, it enveloped me into the sacrifice.”

    It seems to me that this description beautifully exemplifies the distinction between symbol and sign–as ways of experiencing the very same event (as I understand Chauvet’s use those terms). David describes a symbolic experience (gathering one into communion); the text books are decrying the use of bells as “sign” (conveying information, now redundant, etc)…

  7. Beautiful piece, David, and so well-written as usual.

    I’m wondering if you would have had the same experience had the church not been so packed and you had had a visual connection to the action at the altar? Would the moment have been as powerful if your eyes had been the main pathway to your heart?

    I’m thinking of times when our other senses take over when our more dominant ones are unable to. Perhaps because you could not see what was happening, couldn’t understand the language, and couldn’t move, your ears took over at that significant moment. And perhaps that “change of perspective” was key.

    In the US (for those sight-abled) we’ve become so tied to visual input, I think we’ve lost our ability to make sense of our surroundings aurally. Sound, music, become background, ambient noise. One of the saddest results of this is our loss of silence and our comfort with it.

    A note on the singing bells or bowls Paul mentioned. In some Asian cultures, bells and drums serve as a kind of aural incense, struck each time a prayer is offered. While in a Buddhist temple in Vietnam, I watched one monk pull off slips of paper from a wall, read it, then strike a bell or a drum. He did this for hours. At the beginning of Catholic Mass in Vietnam, large drums are struck, not as a call to worship but as a “purifying” of the space, similar to the use of incense in the gathering rite. Here in San Jose, our Vietnamese Catholic churches stike a large singing bowl at the…

  8. As the previous comment mentions, bells are important in Buddhism. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who visited Merton, has a very simple, almost child-like book, Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices, using breathing to center oneself. A therapist could easily recommend it to anyone regardless of religious or non religious background to increase calm in their life. It is helpful to anyone wishing to live a more centered contemplative life.

    He has a chapter giving the background to Buddhist meditation rituals of “inviting the Bell to sound” followed by one on telephone mediation applying the ideas to three phone rings.

    When he first came to Europe years ago he didn’t pay attention to church bells. Then one day as he was doing walking meditation in Prague “Suddenly I heard the sound of a church bell and for the first time I was able to touch deeply the soul of ancient Europe. Since then, every time I hear… I deeply touch the soul of Europe.”

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