This past week I attended the Dominican Rite Missa Cantata that was celebrated at the House of Studies of the St. Joseph Province of the Order of Preachers in Washington, DC. As most PrayTell readers undoubtedly know, the Dominican Rite is actually a usage of the Roman Rite that the Dominicans were allowed to keep in the reforms after the Council of Trent. Except for liturgy geeks, the average person in the pew would not notice many differences from the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The differences are largely in prayers that the celebrant says silently (e.g. the prayers at the foot of the altar and the offertory prayers, which are notably briefer than those found in the EF), though if you’re watching carefully you might notice the priest preparing the chalice during the gradual rather than at the offertory.
The Mass itself was quite beautifully done: a Missa cantata with the student brothers chanting all the Propers of the Mass. It also showed some of the fruits of the Liturgical Movement, with the congregation joining in as best they could on the Ordinary, most present going forward to receive communion, and, to my surprise, a server chanting the Epistle while facing the congregation (I checked afterwards; the Dominicans were granted permission to do this for the Missa Cantata in 1961). The congregation — a self-selected group of mostly-young enthusiasts for older forms of liturgy and all things Dominican — was very engaged. But the nature of their engagement was quite different from what one finds at the reformed liturgy.
What was most striking to me (aside from the extraordinary form of discomfort brought about by kneeling for extended periods on the wooden floor — perhaps for future Masses the friars could provide better kneeling facilities) was the difference in the kind of cognitive engagement that this form of liturgy requires (and the standard EF is not really different from the Dominican Rite in this regard). The relatively seamless transitions from Introit (or Officium, as it is called by the Dominicans) to Kyrie to Gloria to Collect to Epistle to Gradual to Gospel sort of wash over you and even if you join in singing the Ordinary and following the translated texts the effect is quite different from the Ordinary Form. The reformed liturgy, typically in the vernacular and with continuous interaction between celebrant and assembly, virtually demands a high level of cognitive engagement. It is as if you are persistently being told, “pay attention! stay focused!” It’s a little bit like being in school, where in order to get the most out of it you need to make sure your mind never wanders and you take notes. When my mind does wander, as it inevitably does, I always feel a bit guilty, worried that I’ve missed something important or let down the team.
The older form of liturgy is more like sitting on a beach watching the tide come in. Your mind can wander and return to check in every once in a while on the liturgy’s progress. You are welcome to wade in, but there is less of a sense that what is going on depends upon you. Even when you’re singing and know what the words you are singing mean, their impact is filtered, and even blunted, by the alienness of the language. As I said, it all sort of washes over you. It is, at least for me, more restful and I am less anxious about paying attention. The mind is engaged, but perhaps more in the limbic system than the prefrontal cortex.
Which sort of cognitive engagement should we prefer? I suppose an ideal liturgy would do both. Is that possible? Can we craft liturgy that is clearly both something we do and something that sweeps us up in a movement quite independent of our efforts? Can our liturgy be intelligible without being mentally taxing? Can it be mysterious without being mystifying? Or is the quest for such a liturgy just tilting at windmills. I, for one, certainly hope not.