Sunday, September 10, 2006

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti

Well I had an interesting morning today: I went to a Latin mass (Tridentine rite). There's a church here in Rust Belt that offers them twice a month and this morning's service was even a high mass, so it was extra, extra special.

First of all, I should say that I went for scholarly and intellectual enlightenment, not in a spiritual quest or for devotional puporses. I realized while teaching the Jeu d'Adam last week -- a 12th century Anglo-Norman play that draws on the liturgy and includes a great amount of song and non-dialogue material in Latin -- that everything I said about the Latin mass came from what I knew, but not what I'd experienced, given that I was born after Vatican II and raised in a large, suburban, and relatively young Catholic parish. So I thought it might be instructive for me to go hear a Latin mass and see what mass is like when the priest doesn't face the congregation and the choir and servers say most of the responses and prayers on behalf of the congregation. Now, I realize that a modern Tridentine Latin mass in Rust Belt, USA, isn't going to be exactly like a medieval mass, but I figured it was the closest thing going. And since I'm a baptised Catholic, I participated as fully as one does in a Latin mass, including receiving communion (at the rail! on my tongue! -- more on that below) because what I really wanted to do was compare my own post-Vatican II experiences with this one and their effects on me as fully as possible. As I frequently tell me students, even if you're Catholic, your modern experiences and practices in the church and in your religous life are very different from medieval Christian ones. (I do this in part to get all students -- including non-Catholics and non-Christians -- on as much of the same page as possible: we're all reading texts at some remove from us.) Now, I don't think I needed to have heard a Latin mass for anything of these things I say to have been "authentic," but I thought it would still be instructive. Plus, I thought if students wanted to check it out themselves, I could report on what to expect of this particular church and congregation.

And wow. It was completely different from anything I've experienced or seen. First of all, as you might expect, a traditional Latin mass attracts people with attachments to the "traditional," however one might parse that word. Although I've heard my baby-boomer siblings describe life before Vatican II, there's much that I had never seen. For example, I'd never seen women wearing lace veils over their heads, but there were about ten such women in this church (which, by the way, was not a huge church -- about the size of a standard 19th century church of just about any high church denomination). Some of those women were also dressed in what Bullock calls "Little House on the Prairie style" or what I sometimes call the "Amish jumper" -- shapeless jumpers over long-sleeved blouses, or floral print dresses, all with arms and necks covered, i.e., "modest dress," as interpreted by American religious ultra-conservatives (wherein, apparently, the biblical writers were clearly thinking of 19th century fashions when they wrote the passages ultra-conservatives use to justify their brand of modest dress). Aside from the veils, the style of dress really surprised me, since I associate that style and the assumptions that go with it with certain strains of American fundamentalist Protestantism, and not with Catholics at all. Actually, though, now that I think about it, I think I've seen a few of these styles in the church I grew up in, but without the veils and head-coverings, so I just interpreted it as plain old, non-ideological bad taste! Who knew their bad taste has meaning to them! Te-hee! Anyway, some of the younger girls had a bit of lace attached to barrettes in the back of their hair, but not exactly what you'd call a head covering. I found that kind of curious -- does it signify something (perhaps they were pre-confirmation but post-First Communion)? And there were other women and girls all wearing nice, fashionable skirts, often in a group together (some families, but also teenage girls in groups). But there were also plenty of women in pants -- and among the ladies of a certain age, pant suits -- so really, in terms of manifesting conservativism through dress (harder to tell among the men -- there were no ties that I saw) the congregation ran the gamut up to but excluding jeans (though denim jumpers and skirts were OK). So I didn't stick out in my trousers, thank god. (And if my bountiful curls distracted some man from his godly thoughts, well then he's got issues a lace doily on my head isn't going to solve!)

But I didn't do all that much people watching once the mass started because I was too busy trying to keep up. Seriously, I felt like non-Catholics at a Catholic wedding, trying to figure out when to stand, sit, or kneel, because, of course, the cues I know by heart are in English. I should have just watched and listened, since plenty of people knew what they were doing and I could have followed them, but I kept trying to read both the Latin and the English in my missal (it had a facing-page translation) and all the instructive marginal notes about what the priest was doing and why (with helpful illustrations, too, including little bell icons for every time the altar servers rang the bells!). My friend the Big Teutonic Queer had advised me to get the missal ahead of time to read through it and he was right. I was very distracted at times and so not focused on what was going on at the altar (which is where I should have been focused, both in devotional terms and for my own interests). But about halfway through I realized that the missal was more distracting than helpful during mass, and just watched and "heard" mass (as they say). And then I realized that, since I wasn't saying any of the prayers or responses, I noticed much more what the priest was doing -- how he held his body, the gestures he made, whether he was speaking aloud or not, when the incense was used, what he was doing when the servers rang the bells (which they still do in vernacular masses, but become all the more meaningful in a mass you can't understand) -- much more so than in an English mass. And in a way that was kind of cool and interesting. I can imagine that if I saw this every week it could potentially become too habitual, easy to take for granted, and with the mass not in my own language, it would be easy to become passive. I understand that the very point of all the changes that came with the Vatican II Council was about involving the lay person more actively in the sacramental life of the Church. But one can become passive and do things by rote in one's own language, too, -- witness my father, who I'm sure could not tell you accurately the words he slurs and mumbles before meals and in mass, even though they're in English. But in the Latin mass, I was much more focused on the rite itself -- at least as impartial observer, if not believer -- than on what I had to do or say. Again, I'm sure the novelty had something to do with this, but I got the theory of it, anyway.

And the same goes for the fact that the priest mostly has his back to the congregation. Suddenly it didn't matter so much who the priest was as an individual, and though his body blocks much of what he does (and the rood screen would have blocked even more in a medieval church), the mental focus is on the rite itself, not the person performing it. I was talking to Bullock about this afterwards, and he said it made it clearer to him how then priests could be moved from parish to parish and a congregation thus expected to accept the priest who they're sent. Of course, the individual comes out in the homily -- when he faces the congregation and speaks in their language -- so it's not all about the role over and above the individual. But still, the idea of corpus Christi as composed of all believers who share in the eucharist makes much more sense to me when the priest's individual identity is erased under the vestments that cover his body, which you can only see from behind, and with his face turned away in the same direction which all the congregation also faces: the altar, the tabernacle, and the eucharist. And the fact that the priest's vestments matched the altar cloth suddenly also became more meaningful or functional than I'd before noticed, since this priest, when he was before the altar with his back turned to us, really did seem to melt into to the altar itself and become a vessel of the sacrament, rather than an individual authority figure, although clearly he had a connection to and authority of the altar that we did not. Still, one of the key times the priest does face the congretation -- thus calling attention to this moment in a way that a modern mass doesn't -- is when he asks the congregation's blessing ("Orate, fratres..." or "Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours, may be acceptable to God the Father Almighty") as he is about to begin the consecration.

And the other thing that I saw with fresh eyes was the symbolic use of space in relation to the gesture and text, but which in my experience is underplayed in modern churches. In the church I grew up in, built while I was in grade school, the altar dais is a bit like a Globe Theatre style "thrust" stage, and the congregants sit around it in a 180 degree arrangement. The altar is in the center of this dais, there are two lecterns on either side, and the tabernacle is the only thing that is flush against a back wall. (Ugh, and I just realized it's at the western point of the compass, not the East -- what were they thinking?) There are steps up to the altar, but the priest can conduct an entire mass without ever having to ascend or descend them since the altar is mostly in front of him, between him and the congregation, which he faces except when he's in front of the tabernacle. And in front of the dais, there's open space which the current pastor likes to use for giving his sermons (I go to church with Dad when I'm home) -- you know, so he's "down with the people" and all that, so he does make *some* self-consciously symbolic use of his space. But in that church, there's a missal or Bible on each lectern, so the lay reader who reads the Old Testament or Epistle reading and the priest who reads the Gospel simply have to step up to the lecturn to read. In the Latin mass I heard, though, where both readings are done by the priest, in Latin, with his back turned, and at the rather small altar/tabernacle that is flush against the wall (on the East side of this church), the missal had to be picked up and moved to and from the "Epistle side" (the right as you face it) and the "Gospel side" (the left as you face it), and each time this was done there were accompanying gestures and movements. I think the way this mass called my attention to the symbolic creation and use of space could be very useful for thinking about medieval dramaturgy, which, while not simply aping or even necessarily drawing on the mass (depending on the play), still made use of space and the gestures in it in similarly rich and symbolic ways. Again, I realize the 'foreigness' of the Latin mass to me drew my attention to these things in a way that I wouldn't necessarily always think consciously about if I were to hear this mass every week, but I still thought it was interesting and theoretically effective that the sacred text itself is made to exist fully in space during the mass -- it's a concrete way of thinking about text (sacred or not) that isn't really something we do regularly, and which is something I've been thinking about more generally while teaching medieval literature and book culture. (I commented once over at New Kid's place that lately I've made my students in the medieval survey make their own miscellanies -- on paper, not vellum, alas -- in which they handwrite texts they think are worth saving for posterity or knowing or reading, just so they can get some sense of the physical reality of handwritten books. But that's a post for another day.)

But one of the best parts of the mass for me -- being the medievalist geek that I am -- was the sermon. The priest talked about how we are led astray from God's will by the World, the Flesh, and the Devil! Holy cow! Talk about getting medieval! I swear I've never heard any other Catholic priest give a sermon in those terms, at least not since I've been studying medieval literature, so I wonder if the priest has altered his sermon topics to fit the "traditional" nature of the Latin mass. (But then, I've pretty much forgotten most of my Catholic school youth, so I can't be sure.) Anyway, too bad my students who are reading The Castle of Perseverance next week weren't there. I'm hoping to get together some of the graduate students in my seminar to go to the next Latin service or one next month, so we'll see if the sermons continue to have medieval inspiration. (A side note: Big Teutonic Queer once went to a mass, in English, in which the priest ripped off Wulfstan's "Sermo Lupi," adapting it a little bit for the present day -- changing the Vikings to terrorists I believe, and getting rid of references to slaves -- so medieval-style sermons are not limited to Latin masses, I guess.)

Although I was pretty caught up in and fascinated by the whole mass, there was one part where I goofed -- and where I should have been reading the marginal notes in the missal! That was at communion, of course. I say of course, because I remember before my First Communion and for some time after I was all anxious about screwing up in some way, and when you're a little kid dealing with the Body of Christ, that's some serious anxiety! So here I was, having to do communion in a way I hadn't done since those first anxious years -- kneeling at a communion rail, receiving it on the tongue -- and feeling like perhaps I really shouldn't be receiving communion anyway, given that I don't believe in it any more, and being in a strange church with strange practices and strange people with strange headwear, and, of course, I screw it up. It wasn't really a big deal, but I felt like a dolt for not being more observant. See, when the priest offered the communion wafer and said, "Corpus Domini," etc. (it's a lot longer in Latin, by the way, than the mere "Body of Christ" I'm used to), not only was I thinking, "This isn't really a very ergonomic height for the priest, is it? And this poor old man seems a little arthritic, to boot" but I also didn't realize I was not supposed to say "Amen" as in the modern practice. I was just supposed to open my mouth. There was a split second there when some real awkwardness was barely avoided -- visions of me nipping the priest's fingers between the "A-" and the "-men" or of a communion wafer on the floor flashed through my head -- but the priest was clearly used to idiots like me (after all, the Latin mass hasn't been regularly said since before I was born) and the altar server had the paten very well poised to catch any mishaps, just in case. Embarrassment was averted.

Oh, and speaking of altar servers, there were *six* of them, plus a deacon. That's many more people doing stuff than at the giant suburban church of my youth. Of course, there were all those bells to ring and missals to help move and pages to turn, and censers to swing, and so forth. And the servers were older than the young boys (and now girls) who do it in modern churches. Since a server really has to learn all that Latin, at least phonetically, my guess is that they were from the local boys' Catholic high school (where Latin is still required -- and yet, our university doesn't offer it any more; but that's another post) and doing it as part of their community service requirements.

All in all, it was a really educational experience, and if you ever teach anything having to do with the Middle Ages, or Catholicism or Catholic writers before Vatican II, and you've never heard or seen a Latin mass, I recommend seeing if your community has one and attending at least once. It really is quite a different experience from modern Christian services, even Catholic ones. It's worth knowing the difference first-hand if it directly relates to what you do. Plus it's also just really pretty. For someone who grew up with the congregation singing all those cheesy modern religious songs, it was really lovely to hear a talented choir do Latin chant and sing Latin hymns!


Flavia said...

What an awesome experience--I'm totally going to look into attending a Latin mass around these parts sometime soon. Thanks for writing about it!

Anonymous said...

I went to one in London when I was doing my doctoral research there. My biggest fear was being thrown out on my ear, because I am Jewish :). I watched the queue for Communion from a healthy distance and felt a bit like a cheat among the rst. It was straightforward and hard to get lost in the service (maybe that was my training showing - we use verbal cues in a 3 hour Orthodox Hebrew service?). I found Latin easier to follow than Hebrew (partly because the service was so short) and the space stuff made *so* much sense of a number of things. It helped that I wasn't trying to actually say any of the Mass (it was bad enough to actually *enter* a church according to the way I was brought up, to give the responses as well would have been majorly wrong) but I found the cues for the congregation very strong and yes, it would be very easy to turn into a passive participant. The thing that got under my skin was the feeling that this was the service my ancestors had listened to compulsorily during those various conversion attempts - and the minute you put *that* gloss on it, some of the service becomes more threatening.

I'd agree with you, though, that all Western Medievalists ought to attend at least one Latin mass in a lifetime.

Dr. Virago said...

Gillian, clearly your Latin is better than mine, or you're a better listener in general. Or else you weren't distracting yourself by trying to pay attention to multiple things at once, as I was when I tried to follow in the Missal. I found, as you say, it was pretty easy to follow once I put the damn missal down.

And I can completely understand your discomfort, too (kudos to you for going anyway). Clearly I wasn't thinking of Jews and other non-Christian medievalists when I was urging everyone to go to one. Obviously, I was writing from inside the point of view of a former Catholic, which is how I experienced it, but maybe I should have thought a little more before enthusiastically endorsing it for all scholars. Even intellectual curiosity can't assuage genuine and understandable discomfort. Mea culpa.

And Flavia -- you are one of the people I had in mind when I was writing this post, since you actually are still a practicing Catholic. Yes, go if you can!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Cranky Professor and I (and some other friends) used to go pretty regularly to Latin Mass in the Romanesque-y church in Grad U City. The only thing I didn't like was that it was not so much of a 'congregation sings with the choir' mass. But yeah, it's neat. I do sometimes wonder, though about how passive medieval people were, just because it was in Latin. Maybe no more or less disengaged than your father?

Dr. Virago said...

Maybe no more or less disengaged than your father?

Exactly, ADM!

Anonymous said...

Can I have the Sparksnotes for this post?

Dr. Virago said...

You're so funny Fizzy. But didn't you have to learn the Latin mass when you were a kid and an altar server?

Anonymous said...

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

Dr. Virago said...


longobard said...

Can I invite you to visit my site “IN NOMINE PATRIS ET FILII ET SPIRITUS SANCTI”. You can find biblical and liturgical prayers in different languages introduced by Latin, the language through which we have received, in the Catholic Church, until today the along the centuries, the unchanged “depositum fidei”.
The URL is:

Anonymous said...

I had not been to mass in a long time when my mother died in 1971. Her funeral mass was not the mass I grew up with.
At one point the priest told us to all take hands and there we were crossing our arms in front of ourselves and catching the hand of the people at our sides. The priest had a way of rolling his eyes up holding his fingers as if he were making quotes and looking like St. Terese in estacy. But it turned out later that he was into a group that went into tongues. My high school friend took me to that gathering after my mothers' funeral and there he was in the center of a group of folks going into glosslalia. I was a bit bent flying back to California from Michigan, When a group of men dressed in brightly striped shirts came aboard the plan in Chicago I thought I had really lost it, but it turned out to be guys from a paint convention. I was glad to get back to good old LA where life was normal.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Virago,
Thank you for your excellent description of the Latin Mass and its beauty. To follow up on your interest in how laypeople participated in the liturgy during the late middle ages I recommend the book "The Stripping of the Altars" by Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy. Duffy there describes a participation very much in the nature of what you observed the liturgy as a whole conducing to: by the use of space, gesture, and the deliberate movement, as well as accompanying prayers, the laity participated in such a way as to extend the liturgical 'fabric' throughout the church building.
One other minor point: Although being a woman you may find this difficult to believe, men (especially young men) are rather distracted by hair, even if only briefly. A woman's hair is perceived by a man both for its beauty and its sensuality. Hence the veils not only during worship but (in the middle ages) in general public space. The letting down of a woman's hair, as you might observe in older poetry and in modern movies, is rather sensual. There is a hint of that sensuality even in the sight of hair that is down.
Samuel Michaelson

Anonymous said...


in Nomine Matri
et Filia
et Anima Sancti