Thursday, September 03, 2009

Ritual Apologies

The Rule of Benedict forms the backbone of Western monasticism. It has its roots in the coenobitic tradition that began in Egypt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and draws upon such diverse sources as St Basil, St Augustine, John Cassian, and the anonymous Rule of the Master. While it is certainly worth reading on its own, one learns a great deal more from reading it with a commentary, and I can highly recommend the commentary of Fr. Terrence Kardong, OSB (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996).

Recently I came across a passage in Kardong's commentary in which he discusses the numerous times St Benedict calls for some sort of "correction" or "punishment" for "faults" committed during the liturgy (in this case "liturgy" refers to the opus Dei ["work of God"] or the Divine Office). The language used in Rule 45 moves gradually from mere mistake (fallor) through bad mistake (delinquo) to bad intention (culpa). Often these "faults" are merely mistakes in the chanting of the words of the liturgy or some other failure to follow the rubrics carefully. But in commenting on the progression from fallor to culpa Kardong says
...the author moves from description of the error to refusal to acknowledge the error. That recalcitrance is the real "fault" involved. And indeed such contumacy is the only real fault that Benedict ever punishes. But the effect here is to make it sound as if all such errors were rooted in bad will, which is manifestly not the case. Indeed, the whole question of liturgical faults and their correction is somewhat vexing. On the one hand, no one wants a slovenly and undisciplined liturgy. Yet the question remains as to how to achieve that goal without introducing disciplinary measures alien to the very spirit of the liturgy itself. In response to Vatican II, which calls for a much more humane approach to liturgy, most Benedictine communities have distanced themselves from the rather draconian measures suggested by Rule 45. And this has been done without any noticeable sign of deterioration, at least in the Divine Office.
This is a topic near and dear to my own heart, because like many converts to Catholicism (especially converts to Catholicism from Anglicanism) I am deeply wedded to the view that it is precisely the formal beauty and spiritual reverence of a carefully executed liturgy that connects the participant to the underlying realities of which the liturgical movements are signs. Some of these signs are particularly important ones, because they are Sacramental signs. There was much uproar in the 1980s over various liturgical experiments in which substances other than bread and wine were used as Sacred Elements for consecration, and in the end the Vatican issued an instruction requiring only unleavened wheat bread and real fermented grape juice (i.e., "wine") be used for consecration. We don't see the Vatican intervening in the case of lesser signs, although very recently there have been some exceptions to this general rule. For example, the faithful who approach to receive Communion are to make a profound reverence prior to reception--the intention behind this instruction was to emphasize through a sign the unity that is Communion by eliminating the many disparate forms of personal piety that one sometimes could find within a single parish (kneeling upon exiting the pew, for example, or making a sign of the cross after reception) and imposing a kind of unity of action on those who participate. But I doubt that we will see any Vatican instructions about whether one ought to bow one╒s head at the Divine Name (as some do, but many do not), and we certainly will see no penalties imposed for those who fail to follow these instructions (the situation is different for the Sacramental signs, of course, but laymen need not worry about those sorts of penalties).

So why the fuss over the chanting of the Psalms at the Office? In antiquity, monks who made such mistakes had to lie prostrate at the feet of their confreres while the latter filed out of the oratory after the liturgy, begging their forgiveness. In modern monasteries the penalty has been greatly reduced, if that is the right word: monks typically just touch their lips with a finger, or tap the pew, when they make a mistake. I'm not entirely sure that this is really what Kardong has in mind when he writes that the penalties have become more "humane" since Vatican II, so I won't comment on that. What I find interesting in this is not so much the penal character of the Rule, but rather the symbolic function of penalties in general as they are implemented in the Rule.

I play a lot of soccer, and anyone who plays soccer at the amateurish level at which I play it will often hear players all over the field calling out "my bad", "my fault", "sorry!" and the like (along with much more colorful epithets that I will pass over in silence). These are all of them admissions of mistakes, blunders that may well cost a possession or a goal or, in certain kinds of cases, an entire game. There is no requirement that anybody say anything at all after such a mistake, and in some sorts of competitions--notably those at a higher level of competitiveness--one doesn't hear them very often, if at all. I think that this can be explained by the sort of community one is dealing with. A pick-up game played by amateurs has a very different sort of social structure to it from what one might find in a competitive game played by professionals. Amateurs at a pick-up game often are friends getting together just to have some fun or to get some exercise. They often don't keep score, and they usually don't get into fights with other players. They see one another off the field at the grocery store, the farmers' market, their kids' schools, and other places, and they are friendly to each other in these other settings even if they are not otherwise very close socially. They talk about the games, of course, but they also wind up talking about other things. They are, in short, a kind of community. Professional athletes are often friends, too, of course, and they see each other in other settings, but I suggest that the situation for them is really quite different. When David Beckham plays soccer, he is not doing it for the exercise or even because it is fun (though it might be). He is doing it because it is his job. If he messes up, or if another player messes up, there might be some recriminations of some kind later, but then there might not be. It's just a job. What usually gets more notice than the mistakes are the great plays, the goals scored, the fancy footwork. Successes are admired and played and replayed on the Sports news or on YouTube; mistakes are often just ignored (unless, of course, they are spectacular ones, like running the wrong way with the ball, or scoring an own-goal). In a professional setting, the point is to play the game well, and it is the well-played game that gets the attention and the highlight footage attention. The game is an end in itself, not a sign of some greater end.

This difference in social structure explains why one hears "my bad" more often in amateur games than in professional games. True, amateurs probably make a lot more mistakes than professionals, but I think more importantly in the amateur setting the person who has made the mistake is more prone to say something like that because he is more prone to be sensitive to how his mistake will affect the other people he is playing with. Since there is no money on the line, to say "my bad" after such a mistake clearly has no purely utilitarian motive behind it: one says it because one genuinely wants to own up to something that was not done as well as it ought to have been done. The other players probably do not care all that much about the mistake, but I can say from personal experience that the other players appreciate hearing it the admission of a mistake, because it shows that the person who said it cares about how the game is going, and he cares about that not because he fears losing his bonus pay or because he is going to lose a bet, but because he sees that it was because of something that he did that the game was made somehow less, both for him and for the other players, and he is sorry about that.

Sports metaphors can be pushed only so far, of course, but my idea is this. In a coenobitic community the emphasis is not on perfection of liturgical technique, but on communal love. One does not bemoan a poorly executed neume because one wants to strive for a perfect performance as some kind of end in itself, but because the execution of the neumes in choir is a sign of something much more important than mere melody. The monks chant the Psalms together--in unison--because they are one body. Their execution of the liturgy is a sign of their community, and if an individual does something that makes the sign less effective, it diminishes the effectiveness of that sign. It is, in a certain sense, an insult to the unity of the community to be slovenly in representing it through signs, just as it is poor manners to slur your words and talk indistinctly when you answer a question someone has asked you in earnest. Since communal love is the highest Christian virtue, we are talking about something far more important here than mere bad manners. If you find it obnoxious that some artist somewhere has decided to immerse a Crucifix in a jar or urine and call it a work of art, or to portray the Virgin Mary using elephant dung as a medium, then you should see the importance of avoiding liturgical errors.

Just as I don't expect an amateur soccer player to run off the field in tears when he makes a mistake, neither do I think it essential that monks--or anyone else, really--prostrate themselves and beg forgiveness after liturgical mistakes. I guess I agree with Kardong that the finger to the lips or the tap on the pew will do, just as "my bad" will do in the soccer game. But that something ought to be done, if not to make the error go away, at least to admit that one is part of a community and that one has in some way diminished that community, whether intentionally or not, I think is an important point. Indeed, I think it may be one of the many gifts of monasticism to the rest of us that there is such a sense of communal obligation over such things. I don't mean to suggest that we introduce a whole new set of rubrics for things we ought to do when we screw up at Mass. I will be content if people are just a little more careful about things than many appear to be these days. And I certainly would have no objection if Andres Serrano were to lie prostrate and beg everyone╒s forgiveness for "Piss Christ".


Michelle said...

A quick comment until I have the time:

- a thought provoking post
- I pray the hours with a monastic community, where roughly half the participants are not monastics (and where the roles rotate through both monastics and lay participants); even without the imposition of a rule, I notice that apologies for errors are typically forthcoming (even in a single word in a psalm) at the close of prayer.

Michel said...

I am a Benedictine oblate who is associated to an abbey that still chants the pole hours (Lauds and Vespers) in Gregorian chant, in Latin. When a monk makes a mistake in the psalmody or any other part of the Office, he kneels at his stall and bows, then rises and returns to his seat or stands as the rubrics require at that point. It is very touching. I otherwise chant the hours myself at home but I don't kneel at mistakes... otherwise I'd be continually on my knees!

This abbey, incidentally, uses plainchant at all liturgical offices including the Mass, either in Latin (propers and the kyriale...ok strictly speaking the Kyrie is Greek, but the Gloria, etc, are Latin), or French (Vigils, little offices, Compline and the rest of the Mass). All reverently and beautifully done. I live nearby, and can hardly bring myself to attend Mass in a parish unless our small Gregorian schola is singing for Mass (one weekend a month).