The Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, founded a little over a decade ago in Chicago, say that they are dedicated to “the restoration of the sacred.” I recall a conservative friend in Chicago commenting that, as much as he’s rooting for them and praying for their success, it concerns him that they talk about “the sacred” as if it’s a thing hidden away somewhere in Fort Knox which they’re out to liberate.
In fact the good canons are representative of an important strand of contemporary reformist thought. One of the main criticisms of the postconciliar Catholic liturgy from traditionalist quarters is that it fails to be truly sacred. This oftentimes includes the accusation that secular elements have wrongly been admitted into the postconciliar liturgy. One of the main themes of traditionalist music reformers is that we must distinguish more sharply between sacred and secular music – to foster the former and eliminate the latter. (See this, for example.)
But just where is the holiness of God to be found? How clearly are we able to identify and define and locate God’s sacred presence? It’s tempting to claim certainty about such things, but it might be spiritually wise to resist the temptation. To locate God’s presence in this building, this piece of Gregorian chant, this statuary, this vesture carries with it the illusory certainty that God is not present elsewhere. God’s presence is probably more mysterious than that.
I had thoughts such as these in mind as I read the explosive “Amen Corner” by Nathan Mitchell in the latest issue of Worship (September 2010). Mitchell takes up the issue of “a God who is elusive yet explosive, hidden yet revealed, absent yet accessible.” Mitchell notes that our Jewish forebears have struggled with this very issue throughout their history. By wanting God to be present – tangibly present – in an accessible and comprehensible way, our forbears couldn’t help but limit God. And God repeatedly reminded them what folly this is. Mitchell, drawing on the work of Walter Brueggemann, recalls the case of Moses, who asked to see God’s face (Exodus 33), but ended up seeing only a back. Mitchell writes of this, “So at root, the problem of presence is a cultic problem — a ‘liturgical’ problem. The question is not simply how is God present? — or why? — but where? And for what reasons, and what purposes? God’s refusal to show Moses the divine face is, in effect, a refusal to restrict the divine presence to a particular spot, shrine or location.”
Or again, when David, and later Solomon, attempted to build a temple (2 Samuel 7), God was almost insulted at the very idea of a house to live in. No matter how majestic such a house is – and Solomon and his workers certainly did their best – it can’t help but be a limitation. The notion of a place of glory and majesty as a site of God’s presence was to become problematic for the Jewish people. The awe-inspiring temple that so many labored so hard to build was destroyed and the Israelites sent into exile. Do we then say that God’s house became enemy territory? Or that God was no longer present to the Chosen People? Not at all; the people who could no longer worship at a particular place were forced to make necessary adaptations. As Mitchell puts it, their land became a text. Their experience became a story. The Israelites became a people who connected to the divine not though any physical temple, but through sacred story – the story that continues to inspire us today.
We Christians, too, are people of story before we are people of place. The meaning of God’s presence is transformed in the Death and Resurrection of Christ. Mitchell quotes Brueggemann, “The thorny conflict foreshadowed in the crisis of presence that shaped Exodus 33 reaches a searing climax in the great ‘liturgy’ of the cross. There, we are invited to perceive and ponder God’s presence as powerlessness, as absence, as brokenness, as a human howl of dereliction at history’s ragged edge. The divine epiphany becomes an execution. God’s ‘face’ turns to failure; it is no longer ‘the triumphant face from above but the suffering face from below’.”
We Christians have the tradition of “liturgical East,” but this is not obligatory or universal. We honor the earthly Jerusalem, Canterbury, or Rome, but we do not need to call to mind these physical locations when we pray. Instead, we are focused on the Risen Christ who transcends time and place. This Christ is present, as the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states, in four ways – in the Eucharistic species, in the person of the priest, in the word (the story) and in the gathered people of God. As Mitchell notes (and I’m summarizing him all too briefly), God’s presence is not only on the Eucharistic table, but at and around it. Sacred space is not just a place – it is a community. “Christians redefine sacred space and time as a Person who is Risen — and as a people who will rise. Sacred space and time are no longer temple or text, but companionship in care and cult.”
In this face of these very challenging assertions, I would want to uphold that we Catholics are a sacramental people. We believe that God’s presence is mediated through tangible, perceptible things – bread, wine, oil, water, icon, anthem, procession. God is revealed, however brokenly, in the liturgical life of the Church. We do well to look for God’s sacred presence in our temples and rites and sights and sounds. But Mitchell warns us of the ancient temptation to limit our elusive God to any of these things.
The present day reformists calls for a greater sense of the sacred and the holy are perhaps a salutary warning that something has gone wrong which needs fixing. But some of the proposed solutions appear to be not much more than the ancient temptation of idolatry. Warning: the Catholic Church stands before the very real possibility of a huge step backwards spiritually.
This post was written with substantial assistance in draft writing by Pray Tell Assistant to the Editor Chris Ángel, who is a liturgy student at Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary in Collegeville.