Monday, 25 May 2015

Reckless words

“What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

We hanker for the past when the present fails to make reason, and the future looks dimmer than a starless December sky. This is not nostalgia. Nostalgia is a cowardly word, cheapened by how often people used and continue to use it to invalidate our labours in upholding the wisdom of the Church. Nostalgia is the sigh of the vanquished, or of those facing the throes of extinction.

El suspiro del moro
Francisco Pradilla Ortiz

This is survival instinct. The smoke of Satan creeps into our midst. We groan under its heavy stench. This is disaster preparedness. Doctrinal deforestation invites a flash flood of heresies. We plan to survive this impending deluge of errors. This is preventive measure. A door with a loose hinge creaks, its noise unbearably piteous when hostile winds blow. We merely want to repair the hinge, lest the next hurricane blow it away.

Two quotations reported here are the bedrock of these musings: “Many people want to witness to Christ in some idealised past that they long for with nostalgia,” and “No, we witness to Christ now, here, where we are in our world.”

Such words come from a mind that looks at the past with the eyes of a museum curator or an antique collector. Now, these past years were to us an education, during which we learned that whenever we hear the words past and nostalgia in one sentence, they always refer to Tradition. To those who are not one of those “many people,” Tradition is beautiful only in its own epoch. It must not transcend time. It must be kept outside the orbit of the present time to prevent it from becoming relevant.

Ce sunt eu, vei fi şi tu. Ce eşti tu, am fost şi eu.
What I am, you will be, too. What you are, I’ve been myself.

If we admit this thinking, then we are left with no choice but to count ourselves amongst those “many people.” But we like to think of ourselves as open-minded creatures, able to see the benefits the world can get in its exposure to Tradition.
“What Catholics once were, we are. If we are wrong, then Catholics through the ages have been wrong. We are what you once were. We believe what you once believed. We worship as you once worshipped. If we are wrong now, you were wrong then. If you were right then, we are right now.”
We are, in one way or another, called to become guardians of Tradition.

We often hear other people eulogise the last ecumenical council for having opened the Church to the world. We also end up hearing ourselves remark that instead of seeing the Church infect the world with Her holiness and stability, we have so far only seen the world contaminating the Church with its mundaneness and transience. The truth is: they thought that, in order for the Church, instituted divine as the Mystical Body of Christ, to become accessible in the plane of human understanding, She must leave some of her trappings, if not all.

Mankind comes to the Church to experience the divine. The treasury of the Faith ensures that the Church dispensed what rightly should satisfy mankind’s spiritual needs. The last century, however, with its series of ideological upheavals intervening, disrupted the landscape upon which the Church exercises Her ministry. These upheavals left gaping vacuums in their wake, to the point that the Princes of the Church finally thought it was time to allow Her to get out of Her way and reach out to the world.

In the chaos that ensued—for it was really more than mere confusion—the methodologies they came up with were too immature and ill-devised, that their more sinister and enterprising brethren soon found themselves opposed by Tradition. Unflinching devotees of the Council believe it was promulgated as reasonably as they imagine it to have been. Allow me to recount how a deceased aunt explained to a younger me the reason behind the priest facing the people at Mass. As a background: I asked the question because all the prayer books passed on to me contained pictures of the Mass with the priest facing the altar, in the same way old women face the makeshift altar when they lead our novenas.
“When the priest used to say Mass with his back to the people, a long time ago, the father of Ma’am Sálak converted to Protestantism. In his sect, a member was considered of high rank if he had injured a Roman Catholic priest. So, during Mass, this manic person who wanted a high position in his new church went up to the altar and smote the priest with a dos-por-dos. The event apparently reached Rome so the Pope ordered that priests face the people while saying Mass.”
When I first heard this anecdote, I did not know better. It left me awestruck. I thought that day: Wow, someone from my town caught the attention of Rome! Alas, it was incorrect. I never had the chance to instruct my aunt before she died.

What appears to be the presentation of the cruets
in a missa normativa

Most Filipino layfolk of that tumultuous time never understood what the Council was. It was as remote to them as though it never happened at all. (Legends are probably a unique Filipino way to cope with ignorance of a thing’s origin, circumstantial or not; hence, my aunt’s own brash explanation.) They just woke up one Sunday and the Mass was in the same language their neighbours cursed in. Here and there hurtled the busybodies of reform. They rounded up the Church’s repository of sacramentals and consigned it either to rabid flames or to dingy warehouses. Never did an innovation before require so great a destruction, one would think they were trying to exterminate the Church and replace Her with a hippie glee club. Bolts of precious damask burned in church furnaces, volumes of chant books fuelled backyard bonfires, marble blocks from altars and communion rails paved many a rectory driveway. These are just few of the gruesome stories we have heard.

Changing times, or rather the organic depletion of the original hardliners, softened this injustice. They left heirs but the looming threat of extinction has impelled them to assert their predecessors’ stance in a more battle-ready position. It is an excruciating death accompanied by slow reversal in the undercurrent. The few chalices and ciboria remaining in overlooked chests, the sheets of silver antependia not liquidated by the reformers, the complete sets of vestments left to rot in the great sacristy trousseaus are now allowed to escape their nondescript existence (which became their salvation) and return as half-living treasures enshrined behind walls of glass.

Vestments on display

A glass box encapsulating an artefact builds an atmosphere around that object. Not exactly of reverence, but somewhere along the lines of otherworldliness. A precious chalice, by the mere fact that it once contained the Blood of Christ, is worthy of reverence. A glass box crystallises that aura of venerability. But the glass box also alienates the object from reality. It cuts it off from the flow of time. And so it is a venerability rendered futile and meaningless by circumstance. Ironically, it is in this hermetic seclusion that the modern world sees value. Some artistes and most fallen-away tourists only go to church to check the treasure trove displayed in the former refectory!

What we see right now are ugly excuses of sacred vessels, coupled with ugly excuses of sacred vestments. Instead of gold purified in the furnaces, we see wooden bowls that in some places would have become substitute to firewood. Instead of brocade kept away in the museum, they buy a new garishly-coloured chasualb, paired with a yarn-woven overlay stole, at an obscene price well beyond the merit of the design.

This is the great vision of modernism that sadly overtook what many hail as the spirit of Vatican II: To reduce Tradition to an academic spectacle and replace it with a parody. Banality comes to mind. In the language of postmodernism, this is called a pastiche. What more can be damaging than recognising the sacredness of an object and showcasing it in such a way as to disjoin it from the reality of time?

The modernists’ machine has at its fulcrum the universal rejection of beauty, deemed incomprehensible to a world searching for meaning, in favour of something that arrogates to itself a meaning that it can never possess, rendering it in the end equally incomprehensible to the world. [Why on earth would priests have a lot of mnemonics and antics to explain the meanings of the contraptions they place on the altar if these were understandable in the first place?]

Chalice on exhibit

This is where the antique collector and the true guardian of Tradition reveal their differences. To an antique collector, the chalice’s beauty makes it an outstanding museum piece. His assessment of the object does not penetrate the material. To a true guardian of Tradition, beyond the gold that makes up the chalice, the knowledge that the Precious Blood once eddied in its consecrated cavity is a compelling truth that weighs upon his conscience. He remains firm in the conviction that this precious chalice is a far worthier vessel for the Precious Blood than the ugly clay cup his parish priest received as gift for his ordination.

What are we trying to communicate here?  The greatest fault liberals find in Tradition is its inability to be relevant to the present world. This is, of course, from their point of view. From ours, Tradition is perfectly abreast with the preoccupations of the modern world, and so far provides superior solutions to lingering dilemmas. [If it were not, why would Gaudium et spes be so peppered with quotations from the Popes that came before John XXIII?] But suppose we credit the liberals with their claim, whose fault is it that Tradition has “ceased” to be relevant? Obviously, the guilt has to be harboured by the very agents who attempted, attempt, and will attempt to decouple Tradition from the reality of time. And who are these agents? The answer is mentioned twice in this very paragraph.

Modernism is an antiquating paradigm. It needlessly labels its opponents as obsolete mumbo-jumbo. Interestingly, it too cannot keep itself from becoming old and tiresome. Only its most blinkered lackeys refuse to see its stupor, or the lethargy it engenders. There are those who wisely avoid articulating their denial, but show an understanding of its problems. Semiotics operates through actions too. Surely, we know that not only sacred vessels and reliquary busts are surrounded by four walls of glass in the Church today. People too are placed inside glass boxes. Church people, for that matter.

Popemobile with less glass walls

Besides the desire to be closer to his flock, perhaps the Pope knew the alienating power of the glass box that elsewhere other people use to bind Tradition away from the people, both actually and figuratively.

What is more interesting beyond the fact that they accuse many people of “[wanting] to witness to Christ in some idealised past that they long for with nostalgia,” is the fact that, to them, the past stops where the Second Vatican Council begins. It seems that, to them, this Council is the perpetual present, the “now” and “here,” the confluence of time and space, immune to the judgment of history.

We know, however, that, in all chronological fairness, 11 October 1962 (the opening of the Council) is as much in the past as 23 June 1962 (promulgation of the Missal of John XXIII) is. By excluding the Council in their conscious notion of what constitute the past, they have unwittingly idealised it. And, if we mull over each of the six morphemes of the word, recontextualisation soon surfaces as another jargon for nostalgia. That is, their own nostalgia for their idealised past.

This is the proverbial pot calling the kettle black.

If they could say that the Council had a “mystical, missionary amazement … of the worth of human beings,” it would seem to us that those many people who “want to witness to Christ in some idealised past that they long for with nostalgia” do not possess enough worth to inspire that mystical amazement they think the Council is so rooting for. It might shock them to death to know that it does not matter to us. Not now. Not ever. Our worth, and the worth of all the people throughout the world, immensely pales in comparison to that Sacrifice offered by the Lord on Calvary, re-enacted day by day in an unbloody manner upon our august altars.

Cristo contemplado por el alma cristiana tras la Flagelación
Diego Velázquez

“Some laud man so extravagantly that their faith in God lapses into a kind of anaemia, though they seem more inclined to affirm man than to deny God,” warns Gaudium et spes. They say: “The Church finds its true identity only in reference to Jesus and never to itself.” Because the preeminent identity of the Church is that of being the Mystical Body of Christ—our Lord at the centre, and not the collective dignities of each individual constituting that Mystical Body—we are but compelled to say:  Bigyán ng malakíng check ng red na ballpen!

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.

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