Friday, October 01, 2010

"Nothing is so consoling, so piercing, so thrilling, so overcoming"

There's a book I really enjoyed called Loss and Gain. John Henry Newman (recently beatified, woohoo!) wrote it in 1848, and it's a short novel set in Oxford in the early 1800's, portraying every religious opinion and character the university had to offer. One character in the book is an emotional and impetuous young man named Willis, who up and converts to Catholicism one fine day. An Anglican named Bateman challenges Willis' new beliefs, finally asking him about the Mass.
"These are such difficult questions," answered Willis; "must I speak? Such difficult questions," he continued, rising into a more animated manner, and kindling as he went on; "I mean, people view them so differently: it is so difficult to convey to one person the idea of another. The idea of worship is different in the Catholic Church from the idea of it in your Church; for, in truth, the religions are different. Don't deceive yourself, my dear Bateman," he said tenderly, "it is not that ours is your religion carried a little farther,—a little too far, as you would say. No, they differ in kind, not in degree; ours is one religion, yours another. [....] I declare, to me," he said, and he clasped his hands on his knees, and looked forward as if soliloquising,—"to me nothing is so consoling, so piercing, so thrilling, so overcoming, as the Mass, said as it is among us. I could attend Masses for ever and not be tired. It is not a mere form of words, —it is a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth. It is, not the invocation merely, but, if I dare use the word, the evocation of the Eternal. He becomes present on the altar in flesh and blood, before whom angels bow and devils tremble. This is that awful event which is the scope, and is the interpretation, of every part of the solemnity. Words are necessary, but as means, not as ends; they are not mere addresses to the throne of grace, they are instruments of what is far higher, of consecration, of sacrifice. They hurry on as if impatient to fulfil their mission. Quickly they go, the whole is quick; for they are all parts of one integral action. Quickly they go; for they are awful words of sacrifice, they are a work too great to delay upon; as when it was said in the beginning: 'What thou doest, do quickly'. Quickly they pass; for the Lord Jesus goes with them, as He passed along the lake in the days of His flesh, quickly calling first one and then another. Quickly they pass; because as the lightning which shineth from one part of heaven unto the other, so is the coming of the Son of Man. Quickly they pass; for they are as the words of Moses, when the Lord came down in the cloud, calling on the Name of the Lord as He passed by, 'the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth'. And as Moses on the mountain, so we too 'make haste and bow our heads to the earth, and adore'. So we, all around, each in his place, look out for the great Advent, 'waiting for the moving of the water'. Each in his place, with his own heart, with his own wants, with his own thoughts, with his own intention, with his own prayers, separate but concordant, watching what is going on, watching its progress, uniting in its consummation;—not painfully and hopelessly following a hard form of prayer from beginning to end, but, like a concert of musical instruments, each different, but concurring in a sweet harmony, we take our part with God's priest, supporting him, yet guided by him. There are little children there, and old men, and simple labourers, and students in seminaries, priests preparing for Mass, priests making their thanksgiving; there are innocent maidens, and there are penitent sinners; but out of these many minds rises one eucharistic hymn, and the great Action is the measure and scope of it. And oh, my dear Bateman," he added, turning to him, "you ask me whether this is not a formal, unreasonable service—it is wonderful!" he cried, rising up, "quite wonderful. When will these dear good people be enlightened? O Sapientia, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia, O Adonai, O Clavis David et Exspectatio gentium, veni ad salvandum nos, Domine Deus noster."

[The Latin outburst at the end is from the O Antiphons of Advent season and means something like: "O Wisdom, sweetly and mightily ordering all things, O Lord, O Key of David and Desire of Nations, come and save us, O Lord our God."]

It was December 2006 when I first read Newman's book and there was a lot of it I didn't understand-- and not just because his characters spoke in an overwrought Victorian style.  I was in RCIA at the time and set to be received into the Catholic church at Easter, and I'd been going to Mass at least weekly for several months.  But I had never noticed that it was thrilling and overcoming, or that the words passed quickly as the lightning which shineth from one part of heaven unto the other, or that we in the congregation were concurring in a sweet harmony, taking our part with God's priest, supporting him, yet guided by him.

Really the Mass seemed kinda dead to me. The people barely tried to sing the hymns, there were no Bibles in the pews, and (this was by far the worst thing) the sermons were vague and wishy-washy. I remember thinking that my old Evangelical church would look so warm and loving and zealous and fun to any of those Catholics. Those first few months of trying to become Catholic illustrated for me one reason why so many people move the other way.

But slowly I started to appreciate the Catholic ways of expressing piety, and I began to see signs of faith in that parish where I hadn't been looking before.  And then I found a much better parish where the preaching was real, and that was when I really fell in love with the Mass and started going every day.  In April 2007 I was received into the Church and was thrilled about it.

Then in late 2007 my parish started offering the traditional Latin Mass, which is the way Mass was said for centuries (until 1970 when it switched from Latin to the vernacular language, and was simplified and changed in other ways as well.)  That older form of Mass was what Willis was talking about in the novel.  After I became familiar with the old Mass, I re-read Newman's novel and came across that paragraph again.  And I understood.  That's exactly it.


Unknown said...

Hi Rachel! Quick background, I've been following your blog ever since I googled "Norbertine nuns" back in August and came across the charming account of your stay there. I've been wondering if you had ever posted a conversion story of your journey into the Catholic Church? For example, what thing or things began your investigation into Catholicism, especially when you came from such a vibrant and loving evangelical church? Thanks again, I'll miss your posts, but it was such a blessing stumbling over your blog and reading your insights into the religious life and other topics. God Bless! -Irene

Rachel said...

Hi Irene, and thanks so much for your lovely comment! I've never written a coherent account of my conversion to Catholicism-- I always meant to, but now I don't know if I'll have the time. It's nice to hear that you're interested. At least I can say very briefly that my investigation into Catholic doctrine was precipitated by the conversion of a writer named J. Budziszewski, and two decisive turning points for me were discovering that Sola Scriptura is self-contradictory, and facing the fact that Sola Fide is contradicted as explicitly as possible by James 2:24. But of course it was first and foremost a work of God's grace.