If Masses Were Men…

I went to my second ever Latin Mass.

And I’m pleased to report that it was slightly less disorientating than the first time. (See My First Latin Mass for all the disorientating weirdness.) But it was still ten different types of weird, and I still didn’t know what was going on. Apparently, this is a very normal response.

But oh my, it was beautiful. The music was to die for, the vestments were gorgeous, and the only glow was a golden one from flickering candles, and not a blue one from a malfunctioning power-point. (Not that I speak from personal experience…) It was just objectively, certifiably, stick-it-in-a-museum-and-charge-an-entrance-fee beautiful.

I also loved how full it was. I don’t mean there were lots of people, though there were and a surprising number (surprising to me at least) were young adults. I mean that it seemed to be full of meaning, and memories, and layers. Like the very history of our Church was woven through every hushed syllable, or humble genuflection, and that in that stillness, you might just pull a thread and watch Salvation History pour out before you. It seemed deep, and old, and rather Entish in a way.

And weird as it sounds, I also loved how manly it was. I mean, it was also had a very feminine vibe, but I’m used to that. This was a bit different. I think it seemed masculine because it seemed like hard work. Every action was deliberate and precise, and some even required actual physical strength. I mean, those giant candlesticks the altar boys were carrying looked seriously heavy. And then the incense dude (what’s it called?) started swinging that thurible like it was a freaking sword, and I was all, woah.

That doesn’t seem very safe… It was fantastic.

From the Society of St Hugh of Cluny (click through to site)

From the Society of St Hugh of Cluny (click through to site)

In fact, I’ve decided that Latin Mass is definitely not safe.

If masses were men, Latin Mass would be a tall, dark, handsome stranger. Enticing but with a dangerous edge. Endless fascinating but also just really, really strange…

And I’m just not sure I should be going home with that kind of man.

Because I also kept wondering, how much of this beauty – this allure – is only in this mass? Why can’t all our parishes, with our run-of-the-mill vernacular masses, recover that sense of beauty? Is it something of the old-fashioned Latinness that makes it so awesome, or is should all our masses be like that?

I love hearing the Mass in English. Even more, I believe it should be in English. (And by English, I mean the vernacular of course.) Not that there is anything wrong with having it in Latin, but why have it in Latin? I don’t think I have good enough reasons yet. And there are so many things I love about the “new” mass, like all the readings from the Old and New Testaments, the prayers of the faithful, the different canons, the sign of peace, and yes, the fact that I can hear what’s going on in my own language. That helps me enter into the Sacred Mysteries more than anything else.

If masses were actually men, we’d all agree that tall, dark, handsome strangers are positively delicious, but communication is still the key to any good relationship. And our masses might be a bit bland or dorky at times, but at least you know what’s going on. It gives you security, and he (I mean it) has a good heart… he just need some help with his dress sense.

How much of the beauty and allure of the Latin Mass is because it is a Mass properly and reverently done, and how much because it’s this particular Latin Mass? Why couldn’t our normal masses be just as beautiful? Just as reverent? But if there is actually some reason – some inherent, structural – reason that the Latin Mass is beautiful in a way that the new masses just can’t be, then that’s a serious problem.

Ok maybe I’m the only one who feels distinctly uncomfortable about the Latin Mass. And I’m not even sure whether it’s a good or bad discomfort, but it’s there.

Maybe it’s because if trashy romance novels have taught me anything (and they haven’t), it’s that the dark, handsome strangers never turn out to be particularly communicative, well-balanced or even sane. You just know that the stranger is going to turn out to be a murderer or Heathcliff reincarnated, and he will probably have more mummy issues than poor Oedipus…

I just don’t know about this whole Latin Mass thing. It honestly scares me a little.

But I know I have to keep thinking about it because it’s important. Our masses should be both beautiful and comprehensible, both ancient and ever-new. They should be shallow enough for lambs to wade, and deep enough for elephants to swim.

So if you find a mass like that, I want his number. I mean, the number of the parish… Awkward.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer Above the Fog, 1818 (Kunsthalle Hamburg)

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer Above the Fog, 1818 (Kunsthalle Hamburg)


8 responses to “If Masses Were Men…

  1. Once a month, I attend Latin Mass in the Novus Ordo. The Mass prayers and responses are in Latin but the readings are in English. It’s a simpler form than the EF Latin Mass (which seems to be what you’re describing ?) but is still beautiful.

    • That sounds lovely. Yes, sorry I should have clarified that it was the extraordinary form. To push my question further, do you think there’s something about the Latin itself or is it just a coincidence that masses in Latin, wether new or old, tend to be more reverent and beautiful?

  2. Great post Laura! I’ve just discovered the Latin mass myself in the last 6-12 months. You are not the only one who felt disoriented and lost but equally dazzled by the beauty and reverence of the Latin mass. I think it grows on you.

    Similar to you I think there is great benefit to intelligibility and having the mass in the vernacular…but I’m not opposed to the mass in Latin either and I think there are solid reasons for having it this way. I’m still up in the air on this one.

    On the flip side I’ve also become extremely uncomfortable with the Novus Ordo mass of late. I think there is waaaaay too much room for abuse and irreverence in it. You just can’t improvise during the Latin mass…to my understanding it is considered a MORTAL SIN for a priest to do so…at least prior to the 1960’s.

    I just typed up a long ranting email to one of my parish priests who thought it would be a good idea to interject comments throughout the mass (second and third homilies in effect on his personal views on X & Y in the church) and even directed the congregation to change the recitation of one of the lines in the Lord’s prayer on the spot! That got my blood pressure going…although thankfully I refrained from sending the email and decided to speak with him as calmly as possible in person!

    As you can see the reality of the average parish mass makes it extremely difficult for me to focus on prayer and the worship of God. Sometimes I just want to fall through a crack in the floor!

    I’ve still not totally comfortable with the Latin mass but I’m ok with that. As you mention the liturgy should be other-worldly and sublime. We should not feel like God is our chum and everyone is just groovy (what’s Hell again???). We are sinful and God is Holy. Mea Culpa! Kyrie Eleison!

    At the moment I’m trying to be a positive force at my NO parish encouraging my priests to teach the FULL truth of the Catholic faith and celebrate the mass with reverence. I’ve debated switching to a Latin mass community, but I need more time to pray and think it through.

    Keep thinking, praying, and studying. These are precarious times in the history of the Church. We need much wisdom to know what is God’s will.

    • Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I pretty much just want to copy and paste this into a whole new post because you’ve summed up all my crazy thoughts! 🙂 I will keep thinking and praying. It’s not an easy one to quickly get.

  3. I can assure you, Laura, you are not the only one with the discomfort you describe in relation to the EF, although you may be one of a very few who admit to some ambivalence both ways. At least that’s how it seems from where I am in the US, where liturgical preferences among Catholics are frustratingly polarized.

    I totally agree with you on the need for both beauty and comprehensibility (both of which are pretty subjective terms, which makes it complicated). I have often said something similar, perhaps putting it a bit more negatively, in a way that I think gets at your intuitions of the dangers on either side: what we need in liturgy is something between the monotony of the familiar and the obscurity of the inaccessible.

    Actually, I think I may have found something close to the “handsome and communicative” mass you’re looking for. If you’re ever stateside, you might want to check out St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. They were on the cutting edge in the liturgical movement and leading up to Vatican II, so very into the whole “full, conscious and active participation” thing – AND they really know how to tell the Church’s story with beauty and reverence (really pulling out all the stops on the major feastdays especially), and often using chant propers! I do miss kneeling, as their custom is to stand during the Eucharistic prayer – but I can’t get too picky about any place that recites the creed and chants the Our Father (in English) at a deliberate enough pace to actually think about what we’re saying, which is more than I can say for any US parish I’ve been to.

    Of course, it’s probably as impossible for any of us to find our “perfect mass” as it is to find the “perfect man” – but that’s just part of what it means to be Church!

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  5. I wouldn’t think of the Traditional Latin Mass as a tall, dark, handsome stranger (partly ’cause I’m a guy). More of a strong, protective, soldier defending the sanctity of the Church from the temptation to improvise. If the Novus Ordo was said facing East and towards God instead of man, never deviated into improve or the mundane, and was accompanied by Catholic hymns instead of youth group rock band (which I admit I took part in a couple years ago) it would gain much more splendor. The Traditional Mass has a sense of sacredness, a sense of worship, that Fr. Joe Downthestreet doesn’t usually convey with his jokes in the homily and how he makes Mass into a community gathering rather than the worship of the Creator of the whole Universe.

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