Friday, March 13, 2009

Whatever twitches I will always have from abusive nuns, I forgive them everything for teaching me hymns like ADESTE FIDELES, PANGE LINGUA, VEXILLA REGIS and DIES IRAE. With no other access to great music, the plain-chant was a revelation. The Church has thrown out much of the old liturgy (except for the Easter vigil) and replaced the old Black Requiem with a cheerful White Resurrection Mass.

The DIES IRAE, the canticle of the Last Judgment, was not trumpeting the damnation of ordinary sinners. These could repent and make it into Purgatory.
I heard this hymn as revolutionary, about how the smug mighty ones would be exposed on Judgment Day—when the solid-seeming social world of winners and losers would dissolve.

Repentance was easy, and mercy available, for us garden-variety sinners.
The priests who were lions in the pulpit were often lambs in the confessional.
In theory, a single dirty thought could damn you; but the priest might say calmly,
“Suppose you ate some poisoned sweet—then even when you were trying to spit it out, you couldn’t help enjoying the sweet taste.” (Actually, this didn’t help that much.) But it turned out you weren’t expected to do your best—only to do your best to do your best. Remorse and excessive guilt were suspect, Judas-like.
What was appropriate for ordinary people was the shame felt by Peter when he wept over his weak betrayal.

It was said of the unlucky horseman, “Between the stirrup and the ground,
He mercy sought and mercy found.” Another slogan was “inter pontem et fontem”—
You might find mercy between the bridge and the river. God was fair-minded, if strict—and the Blessed Virgin was there for one who needed mercy beyond any rational limit. So when I heard the DIES IRAE, I didn’t worry about being trapped in sin at death-time (especially since I had made the 9 First Fridays!) This awful fate was reserved for distinguished and insolent rebels, not for us tame, weak sheep
Marked for Purgatory. (Somehow we avoided thinking about the painful aspect of Purgatory.)

Another reason I’m not so happy about the cheerfulness in the New Church is that now, when we really need a liturgy of mourning for our crumbling world,
The Catholic Church—once so magnificently able to express grief—
Seems to have succumbed to a mindless, Rotarian optimism.
But there was no hint of this strange outcome in Assumption parish
In the ‘30s.

The Holy Week liturgy, with its awesome purple-draped statues, led us masterfully into the story of the Divine Hero, His awful death and His springtime Resurrection.
On Good Friday it always rained and we always planted potatoes.

Then at noon came the 3-hour Royal Funeral, with that magnificent anti-Semitic hymn: ”MY PEOPLE, MY PEOPLE, WHAT HAVE I DONE TO YOU? HOW HAVE I FAILED YOU? I LED YOU OUT OF EGYPT AND YOU LED ME TO THE GIBBET OF THE CROSS.” Then we prayed in English for the ‘perfidious Jews’.

Early on the dark morning of Holy Saturday came the archaic ceremonies of fire and water, where the six-foot male candle was plunged again and again into the fertile baptismal water. Half nauseated from fasting, we looked forward to gorging ourselves on candy at the stroke of noon,to end our Lenten fast (kept well or ill).

All this convinced me that we really did know the secret name of God, while the snickering outsiders were sunk in invincible ignorance. Those outsiders said wrongly that we worshipped statues; Little did they know that what we really adored was the white, round Host, the Body of Christ, displayed in a golden Monstrance, which I stared at hypnotically during half-hour ‘visits’—we approached the altar with three double genuflections. Walking past the church on a dull Iowa street, I felt with Chesteron that the inside of the church was bigger than the outside. The liturgy did not grip most Catholics this way; it took a special combination of neurotic family tradition and high taste to make me love it so.

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