Milton, Lewis, and the Liturgy

By Diogenes (articles ) | Sep 21, 2003

"Go in the Peace of Christ, and have a nice day!"

Among the greatest gifts of the abundantly gifted C. S. Lewis was the ability to revive long-dead aspects of the Western imagination and make them not only comprehensible but even attractive to modern men. My own intuitions about how a priest should conduct himself at Mass were formed not by Jungmann or Bouyer but by the following passage in Lewis's A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford, 1942, p. 17). He is trying to help readers of Milton overcome an obstacle to enjoyment by breathing new life into a quality of his epic they may find repellent:

The quality will be understood by any one who really understands the meaning of the Middle English word solempne. This means something different, but not quite different, from the modern English solemn. Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity. ...

The following paragraph should be read once a year by professional liturgists, as a reminder or a remonstrance:

The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp -- and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of 'solemnity'. To recover it, you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must get rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespead inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess being led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar's head at a Christmas feast -- all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age ["do this"] which presides over every solemnity.

And how often would you like to have passed on these words of Lewis to the Sunday celebrant?:

The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is not proof of humility; rather it proves the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.

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  • Posted by: Cassandra - Sep. 25, 2003 7:51 PM ET USA

    I have the feeling that many problems with the Liturgy of the Holy Mass originates in the downplay of Eucharisty, from The Mistery of Transubstantiation into a human commemoration, not misterious at all.This is sometimes proposed in so many words, and sometimes suggested by the lack of reverence which, in the name of simplicity and humility pervades the cerimony.So, I would start by a forceful exposition of the basic doctrin and leave the convenience or not of handclapping for later.CASSANDRA

  • Posted by: Ave Maria - Sep. 23, 2003 12:58 AM ET USA

    At a monastery, sure, a good Mass would hopefully be ensured, however, on the other end of the spectrum, such as in my parish, is the diocesan pastor being assisted by deacon friends where Mass is celebrated with giggling and laughing on the altar, inappropriate remarks being made during the's like a couple of schoolboys acting up during class. Pls pray for this 50+ yr old pastor (and for me who has to go to his Mass and endure this never-ceasing lack of solemnity).

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Sep. 22, 2003 11:46 PM ET USA

    Two psychological reasons for ritual: (1) to make what we do today connects to what others have done before in a definite and precise way and (2) to make sure that what is done is done correctly without additions, deletions, or modifications -- that is done right, so it does not have to done over again. Seen this way, the Super Bowl or the cermemony that swears in a president of the US is ritual.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 22, 2003 6:20 PM ET USA

    It's funny. I was thinking only a few days ago of how to describe the liturgy (traditional) at the monastery where I assist at Mass, and "solemn" in the most joyous sense of the word summed it up best. Is _is_ like a wedding or a coronation. How I pray that this sense of the sacred will be reawakened throughout the Church in America!

  • Posted by: - Sep. 22, 2003 4:49 PM ET USA

    All sang as bad as possible by a lead guitarist (the only instrument) and a chorus of very young people, mostly girls, all dress as bad as the rest of the congregation.While the mass is given in a good form and chanted Gregorian style by a Franciscan monk, his good intention crashes against the bad music and the lack or reverence of the congregation. No pomp, no solemnity, no sense of the otherworldly. The total lack of care, reverence and awe of most of us Catholics is appaling.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 22, 2003 4:45 PM ET USA

    In my parish last Sunday mass: We file in dressed in the most casual attire possible; short, sandals, tank tops, jeans, tennis shoes, see through blouses, girls wearing low cut pants that show more than we want to see, indeed a veritable circus parade. Our music is your average run of the mill “folk” type music, singing the now all-pervasive “On Eagles Wings” and other milquetoast songs of the Joncas tradition.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 21, 2003 10:10 PM ET USA

    Dom, In my pursuit of perspicuous prose to avoid the perdition that awaits those who use a perfunctory periphrasis, I have overlooked the Permalink. A pyrrhic victory. Pardon me.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 21, 2003 9:10 PM ET USA

    Pseudo, See that "permalink" at the bottom of the article? If you send that link to people, they will always be able to get to this article.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 21, 2003 5:35 PM ET USA

    "...the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite..." How true! When we went to English in the Mass and turned the altar around I had the premonition that the 'cult of personality' would ensue - like in many other churches. People would be attracted or turned away by the presenter and the presentation - forgetting the real reason they should be there in the first place: Christ and His Sacrifice. All - from priest to liturgist - ought to be made repeat daily: "This is not about me...!"

  • Posted by: - Sep. 21, 2003 11:44 AM ET USA

    Brilliant. I suggest to Phil that this be put up in some type of format that can be linked to or passed around at will. Pithy, poignant, powerful. No more needs to be said.