Those of us who love old-style worship services are sometimes accused of antiquarianism, cherishing the old for its own sake. But while it’s important that worship be “of the moment,” in the sense that it comes sincerely out of the lived reality of current worshipers and is not a purely imitative act, people in any given time can expand their spiritual understanding by entering into the thought-world of past religious practices. One Manhattan high-Anglican church is undertaking an experiment in just this sort of worship: This coming Thursday, the Church of the Resurrection on East 74th Street will be celebrating a Mass “in Latin by candlelight in the style of the late Middle Ages.” The Mass setting will be the 14th-century polyphonic Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut (familiar to most of us as the first name one encounters in the music-history textbook).
The church’s website stresses that the service is “an actual mass (not a concert or recreation)” – in other words, it’s for worshipers as opposed to curiosity seekers. But I do encourage curiosity seekers to take advantage of opportunities like this — because they might open themselves up to some serious spiritual enrichment. A vicar of my acquaintance likes to refer to Choral Evensong as “a gateway drug” to religion: People fall in love with the beauty in worship, and later discover that the beauty is a channel for even greater realities.
A few years ago, during a convention of Lutheran liturgists here in NYC, an ELCA church on the Upper West Side did something similar, celebrating a Sunday Eucharist in the style of Luther’s time. There’s no sense in denying that we are in the present, but we must continually remind ourselves that we are not its prisoners. Back in the 1970s, one of my high-school teachers, a very liberal Jesuit (yes, I know, I repeat myself), jokingly threatened to celebrate one of the school liturgies according to the Tridentine Rite — to make all us boys appreciate how lucky we were to be living in such an enlightened time, with the new liturgy established and the old, at long last, cast into the dustbin.
But some things that are repressed deserve to return, not to replace the new but to keep us in touch with mankind’s religious patrimony, and out of captivity to the present.