The appeal of mysticism

Our family, like many others, are fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (only nine sleeps until Guardians of the Galaxy II!) which, for the ignorant and uninitiated, are light hearted action films centred on a plethora of comic heroes. Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Spiderman etc..

One of the latest heroes to be introduced is Dr. Stephen Strange, played by the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch. Strange is a brilliant surgeon who, having lost the use of his hands in a car accident, travels the world seeking a cure. He finds it, in the East, under the guidance of ‘The Ancient One’ who, alongside healing his hands, grants to him extraordinary mind-bending powers. It is great fun!

Dr. Strange is not alone in finding revelation in the East. Iron Fist, Netflix hero for a more adult audience, fell from a plane over the Himalayas and was rescued by Tibetan monks before learning amazing mystical things. Even Batman, in the DC universe, trained amongst the Eastern mystics. Tibet is clearly the place to go if you desire to wear underpants over your trousers and save humanity. Why am I telling you this?

Because the thought that Marvel might swap East for West, in search of mystical encounter, is laughable. Imagine Dr. Strange sat in the chancel of a typical modern parish. He would not find ancient mystical encounter but rather die of boredom. A curse on the Christian tendency of recent time to de-mystify its liturgy and buildings! What damage this has done. Why seek to secularise and seek worldly relevance instead of going further into the mystical realm? Isn’t that what faith is all about? I suspect the sort of hero the modern church would churn out would be an altogether different species…

Pope Benedict XVI stated that the great ecclesial crisis of modern time is the loss of our sense of the sacred. A theme oft repeated on this blog because I share this conviction. We are what we pray; and rescuing faith from the bland and mundane, from the protestantisation of modernists, is of vital importance. That which Benedict XVI began in his reform of the reform  (seen in the liturgical emphasis of the Ordinariate) now in danger of being undone under the present pontificate.

The success of Marvel tells us that mysticism is important. It still holds appeal to the modern culture. There is fascination, even yearning, for the supernatural. People are drawn to that which points beyond our knowledge and which can inspire awe. See how serious it is then, that since Vatican II, many set out to de-mythologise the church? Out went altar rails, the plainsong and haunting chants, the statues and Eastward facing altars; that which pointed beyond self and into the realm of heaven.

In came delight in the mundane. The building of hideous functional worship spaces, the use of ditties and infantile secular music that led to clapping glorias, the turning of priests to face people so that we only gaze on one another but never beyond ourselves. In short any sense of the supernatural evaporated and the evidence is seen in so many parishes today. We are left with a church whose tendency is to operate horizontally not vertically; a big NGO centred on the needs of man not on worship of God. People line up to receive the body and blood of Christ in obvious disbelief; they do not gaze in wonder but line up as if at a school cafeteria.

We have to stop treating the church like a political body or worldly institution- pretending there is creative tension between traditionalist and liberal, between warring factions centred on the views of man. We must encourage instead a unity stemming from firm supernatural faith; a belief in one church, one faith, one Lord!  That which brooks no compromise because it comes from the revelation of God himself. A fidelity to ancient scriptures and the teaching of the church in all ages.  It requires authentic worship. The sort we once did well but no longer bother with.

Because, until we restore these vital elements to the Church, Dr. Stephen Strange and all his friends, will continue to look elsewhere for revelation and meaning in life. So I continue to pray for the success of Pope Benedict’s reform of the reform.

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23 thoughts on “The appeal of mysticism

  1. But does traditionalist worship conduce to mysticism rather than to an aesthetic simulacrum? A tremulous, masochistic rapture is always hovering.

    You are right, of course, about the real magic of the Eucharist, than which there is nothing more time-dissolving and astonishing.

    Mysticism and unconditional, irresistible love are not to be separated. That’s where the traddies always fall down, being great fans of eternal perdition and the smack of firm Divine Government. Ecstasy through order and straight lines.

    Mysticism cannot, of course, be planned and the transcendent breaks through anywhere, even (perhaps sometimes especially) amid guitars and very bad liturgy.

    1. “magic of the Eucharist”
      Now there you have it. ‘Magic’ is a word which should never be used in a Eucharistic context. The danger of concentrating overly on vestments and ceremonial is that the sacred and eternal sphere of the Eucharistic Sacrifice can be degraded to the temporal and profane worlds and the central meaning can become lost. Similarly, although mystical experiences can be very real and a true gift of grace from God we should not actively seek them. I know from personal experience that He can suddenly make his presence known in a very real manner in the most unexpected situation. It took a long time for me to understand why.
      Incidentally, I understand that the Tridentine Liturgy is celebrated daily in St. Peter’s and on Sundays at St. Mary Major.

      1. I don’t think Tony meant to use the word ‘magic’ in its traditional literal sense. Language is always changing over time and many young people now use that word in the context of ‘awesome, amazing’ or even ‘beautiful’.
        I have sensed the mystic in the context of practically all expressions of the liturgy but I find the deliberate chasing of ‘spiritual highs’ disturbing whether the addict is a raving charismatic or a died in the wool traddy.

        1. As it happens, I think you may be right. But, we need to bear in mind that although words change or expand their meaning they can carry with them a baggage of still current usage. ‘Magic’ is a word in point. It still has the embedded meaning of illusion, trickery and the circus. When the kids were small, I used to have some skill in such fun and games myself – It will be rusty now because I haven’t used it for years. Unfortunately, there are adults who actually believe in ‘real magic’ and are deeply influenced by such things. Likewise, I have friends from other denominations who live for the ‘happy-clappy’ environment of their services. It would not be to my taste. As for ‘traddy’ I grew up with theTridentine Liturgy but I much prefer the current rite. It is closer to early usage and more inclusive. Perhaps I’ve been lucky in that most of the churches I’ve attended since its introduction have been very good practicioners and calm, respectful dignity has been preserved in deeply spiritual atmospheres.

  2. I’m not quite sure what is going on in your fourth picture. The presence of an assistant priest in a cope would indicate that this is either a pontifical high mass or a priest’s first mass. However, in either case, should not the deacon at this point be kneeling and lifting the chasuble? And should the subdeacon not be wearing the humeral veil?

    Or is this one of those esoteric Ordinariate services?

  3. Of course, the Marvel universe does have one devoutly Catholic superhero, Daredevil. While the post Frank Miller era Daredevil, and subsequent movie and television adaptations, have also emphasized Eastern mysticism and martial arts, Matt Murdock has been consistently portrayed as a fairly devout Irish Catholic. However, the churches Murdock frequents always strike me as fairly traditional establishments – Gothic architecture, stained glass, candles, darkened confessionals. I’ve never seen him go off to a Pizza Hut style church to have a chat in the reconciliation room.

  4. “Mysticism cannot, of course, be planned and the transcendent breaks through anywhere, even (perhaps sometimes especially) amid guitars and very bad liturgy.

    Yes but in this case the transcendent may be breaking through to complain about the racket.

    1. What a wonderful concept; the Holy Spirit hovering above a church wherein a “Folk Mass”(see my many and various comments as to why these are no such things) is being celebrated and attempting to clamp its wings over whatever doves have for ears. I think I can feel a specially designed T shirt coming on for all those of us who hate these musical abominations. The caption could be “Shut the Folk up!”

      1. Remember something.

        The Lord hears what is coming from the heart and that need not be what we hear. In any case, not all Folk Mass music need be poor. Ramírez:- Misa Criolla is a case in point, as far as I am concerned.

        1. Martin Shaw’s ‘Anglican Folk Mass’ was once a staple of Anglo Catholic churches, including Edward’s old stomping ground of S.Barnabas TB. Of course the epithet ‘folk’ had a rather different nuances in the early part of the 20th century, more akin to the German ‘volkisch’ so I don’t think it was meant to mean anything more than a ‘people’s mass’ i.e. one that the people coukld sing along to.

        2. I absolutely agree Pat but I think we can also agree that most so called Folk mass music is drivel/banal/uninspiring/dated/impossible to sing etc etc/.
          Furthermore – and I speak with some authority on this – whatever it is most , if not all, of it is not Folk music! see Thomas Day “Why Catholics Can’t sing”

          1. Two points come to mind.
            1. Music is either pleasing or not pleasing. The appreciation of its ‘quality’ lies in the ear, culture and mind of the listener. I can’t stand Chopin but I love the classical Sitar music of India and the organ. I also have much rock music in my collection but the ‘inane’ howling that passes for music in stores often drives me out. I accept that to others is must be pleasing.

            2. Musician friends tell me that changes in our bodies over the years have led to a situation where a lot of our congregation members (with un-trained voices) cannot reach the higher notes and don’t try. They have suggested that the written music needs to be revisited to correct that problem. But I suspect that there may also be an underlying cultural problem. We’ve been lucky, so far, in that our regular church has an excellent folk group with some first class musicians (we also have an excellent organist) and some very good singers in the congregation. I’ve also encountered some superb church music in Ireland especially where the singing is in the Irish Language.

      2. There has always been bad liturgy. I remember as a young man a priest friend who took a pride in being able to gabble the old Mass in 16 minutes, including the prayers at the foot of the altar, and then show me his stop watch as proof! Of course the N.O.can be celebrated in ways that range from banal to splendid (although gabbled English sounds even worse than gabbled Latin).
        As regards folk Masses I have experienced ones where I would have to agree that shutting the folk up would have applied. However I have to say that I have also attended some wonderful, spiritually uplifting Charismatic/folk Masses.
        If enough thought and love goes into liturgical planning and preparation, selecting and rehearsing the music and celebrating with care and dignity, every Eucharist is likely to engender a transcendental mysticism especially in those who really love the Mass. Even my priest friend who took pride in his liturgical sprint would pause reverently and take time to adore the Host with great reverence and love.

        1. David /Pat. I know that what David says about gabbled Latin in the old rite is true and I am sure you are both right that there are some reverently celebrated masses with lovely ” reformed Folk even though that is not an accurate description” type music. It’s just that they are very, very rare and what is far more common is the kind of narcissistic “I know three chords and I haven’t tuned up but, so what, I am going to prance about at the front of the church anyway” music which is dire in content and even direr in delivery. For those who may not have guessed I have spent the whole of my adult life in the traditional “folk” scene and folk music this ain’t which is one of the reasons I get so wound up about it. I know what proper folk sounds like and it isn’t the “sounds like a detergent advert jingle”.
          So far as singability is concerned the issue of being able to sing high enough goes right back to the days when hymns were written SATB. So, unless you are a soprano, you wouldn’t expect to be able to sing the melody comfortably. Of course modern hymns continued, long after the days when people did in fact sing in four parts, to be written in the same sort of keys hence the problem. Actually what I was referring to was the kind of hymn which leaps about up and down the scale like a demented gazelle. For example try the verse of “A New commandment” or ” Eagles’ wings.” There is a reason why congregations hush at these pieces and it isn’t reverent awe.
          And yes, of course, we all like different types of music. The distinction here is however that the church has set forth very clearly what is acceptable and appropriate in church whether it appeals to us personally or not. I know this is, certainly in this country, more often ignored but that doesn’t mean that it’s not relevant as a point of authority, and it doesn’t include trite music or instruments which are more commonly used in the secular world eg Guitars, drums or even, God help us in my parish, a ukulele and bongo drums played off beat. Badly.
          So now you may understand why I can rant about this for ages. Anyway does anyone want a t-shirt were I to commission some?!

          1. I think the problem is that we are discussing styles when the real problem is one of culture. What matters is that worship is utterly God-centric and reverent. But all too often it seems centred on the celebration of the community and political causes instead. Music that is banal and jingly is secular and aimed at entertainment not worship. I personally think it would be better for most parishes to have no hymns rather than bad songs. And then go and analyse them. The old hymns taught theology- ‘immortal, invisible God, only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes’ turned into ‘is it me Lord? Is it me, me, me, me, me, meeeee’

          2. Fr Ed. Absolutely. There is of course, as I have mentioned, at least one binding directive on music in church; I think one of the V2 documents plus something that was issued by the Congregation for the Sacraments some years ago. Anyway the fact that hardly any priest seems to know about it/them let alone enforces the norms promulgated is one of the reasons we are in the state we are. I sometimes think I am the only person in the world who doesn’t like ‘Here I am Lord’ and, as for the clapping Gloria, if I ever meet the person who not only thought that was a good idea but then actually sat down to write it, I will be hard to restrain from physical violence. One of the things Kevin Mayhew (who has published more rubbish than any other ecclesiastical music publisher) was whingeing about when the new Mass translation came in was that this particular dross would no longer be able to be sung. I personally thought that was one of the best reasons I had hitherto heard for bringing the new version in.

          3. Sadly the introduction of entertainment songs proved very lucrative to certain publishers and the diocesan influencers they no doubt rewarded for pushing it. Money so often is the root of all evil and I certainly detected animosity at the new mass from quarters where business interests were damaged.

          4. ‘God-centric’ seems a strange chimaera of a word. ‘Theocentric’ would surely be better, or, if the aim is to keep to Anglo-Saxon purity, perhaps ‘God-hubbed’ could be coined.

            What you say is right and true, though.

            And I don’t really see what the problem is with a 16 minute gabbled mass. After all the mass is an offering to God, not a vehicle of instruction or entertainment for man , and in God’s sight one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as one day (2 Peter 3.8)
            Scaling that all down would mean that even a 15 minute mass would be about ten and a half years.

          5. In addition to MV’s comment on speed/length of service. I’d opine that speed of sevice does not directly map to depth of worship. More so these days when one priest may to serve multiple congregations. Nevertheless, calm worshipful respect is to be aimed for wherever and whenever possible.

  5. As a Parish Priest for more than 40 years, I always insisted that I chose the music so that when a more modern piece was used, then it was one with a decent theology behind it. Occasionally I allowed a substandard hymn if it was much requested, but always made sure the rest of the hymns were decent, theologically sound and uplifting. It can be done with tact and adequate explanations.

  6. Whilst the use of stop watches and a checking on a priest’s PB seems to be more Fr.Ted territory what I can say is that the lunch time Masses at Westminster Cathedral (which I tried to get to a couple of times a week when I was working nearby) and which often took no more than 25 minutes (including a brief homily) never left me feeling short changed. The perfect antidote to working in the madness of the smoke and the minutiae of office politics.

  7. MV

    I completely agree with what you say about the gabbled Tridentine Mass because it was indeed understood principally as an offering to God and in times of persecution gabbling may have even been the norm. Mass before Vatican II was merely ‘heard’ by the people and ‘said’ by the priest.
    However now that the Mass is in English and the faithful are required to ‘respond’ and ‘participate’ surely alternate gabbling from priest and people would be at the very least rediculously unedifying and at the most blasphemous !
    In my old age I am beginning to feel more than a bit nostalgic for the days when the Mass was just the Mass and not a boe of contention.

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