A famous phrase was coined after the Nuremberg trials…”the banality of evil.”
Wishing to stand things on their head I wonder sometimes about the evil of banality. I’m thinking of the banality of much religious life which is given over to dull talk about theology, rules, regulations and rubrics. It’s boring. It’s banal and perhaps the banality is evil.
To counter it many Christians have resorted to an entertainment approach. Let’s entertain! Let’s do the positive thinking thing! Let’s do therapy! Let’s do social action! Let’s do parenting help! Let’s be useful!
The recent memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes got me thinking about the role of mysticism in the church. By “mysticism” I am referring to that personal experience of the faith that transcends verbal explanation. If you want a treatise on the subject the classic is Evelyn Underhill’s book.
The famous atheist Bertrand Russell once quipped, “Poor little talkative Christianity.” He was right. We spend so much time about religion and so little time in prayer and worship. I’m the first offender in this. When people say I am holy or whatever (which is not very often by the way) I reply, “Well, I’m good on the theory.”
In other words, I can spin a fine phrase or give an inspiring talk. I can probably cut words with the theologians, philosophers and apologists if I have to, and I can split hairs over doctrine or rules with the best of them, but who cares?
Of course we need theologians and canon lawyers and liturgiologists. Somebody has to pay attention to dogma and doctrine, rules, rubrics and regulations, but these are the rules of the game. They are not the game. These are the musical notation on the page. They are not the music.
The language of faith is the language of experience. It is the experience spoken in symbols and signs–a language that beautifully transcends language itself. The Blessed Virgin Mary appears to a peasant child and says “I am the Immaculate Conception.” The child goes on to live an enclosed life and when she dies he own body–like that of the Immaculate Mother–does not see corruption. The whole thing is a wonderful drama that incarnates and presents to the world the truth of the Immaculate Conception.
Signs and symbols interlock with our human experience and validate the truths we believe. Without them Christianity is indeed poor and talkative, but with them the reality of God interacting with the human race becomes vital.
Mysticism is the manner through which we participate in this transaction, and the beauty of the Catholic way is that this mysticism is available for all in the simplest of ways. We participate in this as we consciously pray the rosary and enter into a meditative state. We participate as we attend adoration and learn the art of contemplation.
We should also participate in the mystical transaction through the liturgy. This is why traditional liturgy is ceremonial, ritualistic and refined. Through a traditional celebration of liturgy we enter into the realm of mysticism. All is sign, symbol and transcendence, and this language of liturgy should therefore be a participation in the mystical transaction of which I am speaking.
This is why the modern attempt to make the worship of the church “relevant” and “up to date” is such a mistake. It is not primarily because these attempts are vulgar and attempting entertainment rather than worship. It is not simply because the buildings are brutal, the music is banal, the lyrics are sentimental, the vestments are tacky, the sermons are shallow and the furniture is junk. These are only outward signs of a deeper illness.
The deeper illness is that we have forgotten the sense of mysticism and participation in the transcendent and swapped divine worship for a happy meal, campfire songs and a pep talk. As someone else wittily put it, “We have traded our birthright not for a mess of pottage, but for a pot of message.”
It gets worse I’m afraid. This travesty of worship which passes for the majority of Catholic masses in the USA, is the sign of an even deeper disease–a fundamental lack of belief in the transcendental and supernatural aspect of our faith. We are not reverent in God’s house because we don’t really believe he is dwelling there. We do not kneel to receive him because we think our “human dignity” is more important than his divine majesty. We do not truly worship because we have come to believe that the church is just a place to meet our friends and talk about changing the world.
What is the answer? I’m not sure, because in our utilitarian consumerist society the language of sign and symbol of liturgy and drama has largely disappeared.
I sense, however, a return of the human spirit to these fundamental things, and it is in the stirrings of the religious life. I think more and more young men and women will be called to the enclosed life of prayer and from that source will come the renewal of the imagination that will spark a counter action.