Politics & Policy

Mysterious Encounters

Benedict XVI resurrects the aesthetics of the Mass.

In a recent address to the bishops and priests of St. Peter’s, Pope Benedict called for a greater “continuity with tradition” in the music of the Church, and spoke of the value of the Church’s older musical traditions, among them the baroque sacred music of the 17th and 18th centuries and Gregorian Chant. The address followed the pope’s issuance, in July, of an Apostolic Letter (accompanying letter in English here) in which he permitted broader use of the Latin Mass, the “Tridentine” rite authorized by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and promulgated most recently by John XXIII in 1962.

The pope’s pronouncements were received with skepticism by those who regard his views on sacred music, like his sympathy for the Latin Mass, as so much reactionary old-fogeyism. But neither the pope’s critics nor even many of his supporters appear to have grasped what His Holiness is up to.

The pope adheres to old Greek belief that words and sounds — and the rhythmic patterns in which they are bound together in music and poetry — have a unique power to awaken the mind. He has spoken frequently of the power of rhythm to prepare the soul to receive truths that would otherwise remain unintelligible. In 2002 he described the experience of listening to music as an “encounter with the beautiful,” one that becomes “the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes.” He went on to say,

For me, an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death [in 1981] of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas faded away, we looked at each spontaneously and right then we said, ‘Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.’ The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration.

For Benedict, the music and poetry of the liturgy are not merely ornamental; they are essential to the education to the soul. “How often,” the pope exclaimed, in October, to members of the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music, “does the rich biblical and patristic tradition stress the effectiveness of song and sacred music in moving and uplifting hearts to penetrate, so to speak, the intimate depths of God’s life itself!”

It is this conception of the educational power of rhythm that underlies the pope’s defense of the Latin Mass and of the baroque and Gregorian traditions. It is a fair assumption that, in liberating these forms from liturgical purgatory, His Holiness hopes that their rhythmic virtues will serve as a bulwark against the bad rhythm (kakometros) that today permeates the West.

Those who dismiss the pope’s efforts as an exercise in retrograde pomposity are oddly tone-deaf. They fail to grasp the power of the traditional Mass’s auditory as well as its visual music, its intricate interplay of harmonious sound and harmonious movement. Andrew Sullivan rejects the Tridentine Mass as “a relic.” Fr. James Martin, S.J., was quoted in Time as saying that the revival of the Latin Mass “would make it much more difficult for people to engage in full conscious and active participation” in the liturgy. Fr. Martin’s critique echoed that of Lord Macaulay, who argued that the “service, being in a dead language, is intelligible only to the learned; and the great majority of the congregation may be said to assist as spectators rather than as auditors.”

Introibo ad altare Dei . . . Sursum corda . . . Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, misere nobis . . . Critics of the Tridentine rite who contend that the Latin is a barrier to what the pope calls an “encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist” overlook the fact that the words of the liturgy, beautiful and mysterious as they are, are but approximations of the Word (et Deus erat Verbum) that, according to the Gospels, was born in Bethlehem, died on the cross, and ascended into heaven — the logos which, St. Paul says in first Corinthians, we perceive now only as an αινιγμα, a dark saying, a riddle, an enigma. The music of the Mass does as much to illuminate this mystery as the words.

In his essay on Dante, T. S. Eliot observed that the poetic intensity of a work of art or of the spirit often lies concealed in the music of its rhythm. “I was passionately fond,” Eliot wrote, “of certain French poetry long before I could have translated two verses of it correctly. With Dante the discrepancy between enjoyment and discrepancy was still wider. . . . The enjoyment of the Divine Comedy is a continuous process. If you get nothing out of it at first, you probably never will; but if from your first deciphering of it there comes now and then some direct shock of poetic intensity, nothing but laziness can deaden the desire for fuller and fuller knowledge.”

So it is with the Latin Mass. Nor is it only in the rhythms of its language that the poetic intensity of the Mass is made manifest. Its rhythms of motion have their own peculiar power. Eliot described the Mass as “one of the highest forms of dancing” he knew. It was this interplay of sound and movement that led him to say that “the consummation of the drama, the perfect and ideal drama, is to be found in the ceremony of the Mass.”

Oscar Wilde, who also knew a thing or two about drama, was no less beguiled by the dramatic rhythms of the Latin Mass. It “is always a source of pleasure and awe to me,” he wrote in De Profundis, “to remember that the ultimate survival of the Greek chorus, lost elsewhere to art, is to be found in the servitor answering the priest at Mass.”

In vindicating the music of the Latin Mass and the baroque and Gregorian traditions, Pope Benedict is attempting to restore a rhythmic balance that has been lost in art, in popular culture, and in the Church itself. “The writings of Plato and Aristotle on music,” he wrote in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy,

show that the Greek world in their time was faced with a choice between two kinds of worship, two different images of God and man. Now what this choice came down to concretely was a choice between two fundamental types of music. On the one hand, there is the music that Plato ascribes, in line with mythology, to Apollo, the god of light and reason. . . . But then there is the music that Plato ascribes to Marsyas, which we might describe, in terms of cultic history, as “Dionysian.” It drags man into the intoxication of the senses, crushes rationality, and subjects the spirit to the senses.

The Greeks cherished an Apollonian idea of order. Yet, such was their wisdom, they did not repudiate Apollo’s rival, Dionysus; they took his yelps and howls and made them into music. The dithyramb and the tragic chorus preserved the uncanny power of Dionysus while they at the same time restrained his savagery with the civilizing influences of rhythm. Thus the pope writes of “music that draws senses into spirit and so brings man to wholeness.” Such music “does not abolish the senses, but inserts them into the unity of this creature that is man. It elevates the spirit precisely by wedding it to the senses, and it elevates the senses by uniting them with the spirit.”

The pope’s critique of the “cultic character” of certain kinds of rock music — music which, he argues, converts the self into a “prison” and leaves the soul in thrall to the “elemental passions,” to “the ecstasy of having” its “defenses torn down” — is not old-fogeyism: it is a persuasive account of a civilization that is losing its sense of what Plato called eurhythmia, order, proportion, and gracefulness.

Of course the eurhythmia which the pope extols does not invariably lead people towards the good and the true. The music of Tristan und Isolde went deep into the soul of Adolf Hitler; he expressed the wish that, at the moment of his own annihilation, he should hear the Liebestod in the bunker. The beauty of Wagner’s music did not save Hitler from damnation, and may indeed have strengthened his longing for a murderous apocalypse. But if good music does not always save the soul, bad music never does. When the electric guitar sounds during the Sacrifice of the Mass, the cherubim weep.

The pope’s attempts to revive the musical glories of a Church that inspired Mozart’s Requiem and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis represent a cultural event of primary importance. If Benedict is successful, the Church, in becoming once again the patron and protector of eurhythmia, will be better able to carry out its historic mission as an educator of the spirit.

 –Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His book, Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, has just been published by Free Press.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published in August.


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