Monday, June 16, 2014

Mozart, Herbert, and John the Baptist

George Herbert in clerical garb
     The great composer W.A. Mozart (who pops up fairly often on this blog) is reported to have said that “Protestantism was all in the head”, that “Protestants did not know the meaning of the Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi [Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world]”.  I would not put it so harshly, but with all due respect to my friends among the separated brethren, but I think he has a point.   Protestantism on the whole is very uncomfortable with the corporeality of more traditional expressions of Christianity, starting with its rejection of the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the efficacy of sacraments in general, and carrying that same mind-set through to a suspicion of any physical expression of faith apart from the Scriptures (and, in some congregations, speaking in tongues).  As a consequence, the Sign of the Cross, genuflection, rosaries, icons and statues all seem foreign to them. It almost appears that many of our Protestant friends, relying on Sola Scriptura and focusing on just the Word, are trying to uncarnate (so to speak) the Word made Flesh.
     Many of them, but not all: there have always been some members of the reformation churches who nonetheless understand and embrace the sacramental outlook that has been preserved in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  One such is the 17th century English religious poet George Herbert.  Herbert was an Anglican cleric in addition to being a poet, and so devoted a portion of his poetry to defending his church.  Being an Anglican, he directed some of his fire at the Catholic Church, as one would expect, mostly criticism of the papacy and what he considered a certain superficiality (needless to say, I don’t concur in these objections).  He reserves his harshest and most substantive criticism, however, for the Puritans, accusing them of being “undrest” in his poem “The British Church”.   One needs to look at his Latin poetry (which is, unfortunately, rarely read today) to get the full context for this criticism.  The Puritans, according to Herbert, miss the importance and implications of the Incarnation.  In his poem “In Angelos” (“On the Angels”) he says:

            The perfected mind of Angels is not like ours at all,
            Which must by nature look to our senses
            For concrete images . . .
If it weren’t for concrete things,
we ourselves could not by thinking find
            what we are in ourselves.

            Intellectus adultus Angelorum
            Haud nostro similis, cui necesse,
            Ut dentur species, rogare sensum . . .
            Si non per species, nequimus ipsi,
            Quid ipsi sumus, assequi putando.

While Angels are pure intellect, we mortals must rely on sense experiences to attain knowledge.  That, it follows, is why God became Man, and why he continues to speak to us through Sacraments, sacramentals, liturgies, devotions, etc.  The Puritans, however, have lost this vital understanding.  In “De Rituum Usu” (“On the Use of Rites”) Herbert says:

            And so the Puritans, while they are covetous of a
            Lord’s bride bare of sacred rites, and while they wish
            All things regressed to their fathers’ barbaric state,
            Lay her, entirely ignorant of clothing, bare to conquest
            By Satan and her enemies.

            Non alio Cathari modo
            Dom sponsam Domini piis
            Orbam ritibus expetunt,
            Atque ad barbariem partum
            Vellent Omnia regredi,
            Illam tegminis insciam
            Prorsus Daemoni et hostibus
            Exponunt superabilem.

Herbert uses clothing to represent liturgical rites, which are the concrete channels of God’s grace.  By doing away with such outward signs, the Puritans are aspiring to an Angelic state of understanding and failing to take into account our human limitations.  In denying our physicality, the Puritans have actually eliminated the means of achieving spiritual understanding.
     I don’t believe that Herbert’s choice of symbol was lightly made.  He was fully committed to a very catholic version of Anglicanism. The fact is that clothing has important, often unconscious, symbolic meanings for people in every time and place (consider all the various uniforms, traditional attires, kinds of ritual or formal wear, etc. throughout the world), but especially for Catholic Christians because of our sacramental view of the universe.  Think back also through scripture to how often clothing is mentioned prominently: not just those first primitive garments worn by Adam and Eve that were the outward sign of their fall from grace, but Joseph’s coat that became a focus of his brothers’ jealousy, the special garments God commands the Aaronic priests to wear (which King David puts on to dance in front of the Arc of the Covenant), Jesus’
seamless garment for which his executioners cast dice, John the Baptist’s clothing of camel’s hair and skins.
John the Baptist, dressed for prophecy

     John the Baptist is an interesting case. One reader of my post on Mass attire last week [here] asserted that God must not care how we dress, citing John the Baptist’s less-than-formal clothing in the desert as proof. It may seem that way at first, but in fact John the Baptist is actually not a refutation, but a very good illustration of the deep significance of dress. He was very aware of his appearance.  Like the Old Testament prophets, he carefully chose his dress and actions in order to represent spiritual truths in the physical realm (this is also at least part of the reason for the habits worn by religious orders, which another commentor mentioned).  By dressing like the Prophet Elijah (see 2 Kings 1:8) John asserts his prophetic authority, and the austerity of his apparel is a rebuke to the extravagance of the Temple priests and the legalism of the Pharisees.  If only we were all as conscious of our dress as John the Baptist!
     For me, that earlier discussion of how we dress for Mass should be situated in the larger context of the sacramental view of the universe.  Catholics and Orthodox Christians are particularly aware of the deeper meaning of clothing, even when we resist it. Our tradition helps us to understand that how we dress for Mass is not important for its own sake (except, as I point out in the original post, for those cases in which one person’s provocative dress is a temptation to others to violate the sixth commandment in their hearts) so much as for what it says about the importance we place on the Sacrament, and an expression of our love for Jesus Christ.  We used to know a family in which the father drove a delivery truck for a living; he was required to wear a company uniform on the job, and his work schedule was such that he could not attend Mass with his family unless he came straight from the job without changing, so he attended Sunday Mass in his worn blue coveralls.  Very few of us would find fault with his attire; in fact, we would see his determination to be present as the spiritual head of his family as an exemplary thing.  It’s a very different matter when we show up for Mass dressed for a barbeque or the beach simply because we didn’t bother to put on something more formal (and perhaps a little less comfortable), which sends the message that attending Mass is nothing special.
     How does all of this fit together?  I think we all have a tendency to get stuck in our own heads, as Mozart accuses the Protestants of doing, and Herbert likewise accuses the Puritans.  We don’t open ourselves up to God’s Grace as he wants to confer it, but try to put everything in neat categories of our own devising.  Taking our focus off our own will and desires has always been at least part of the point of spiritual disciplines, including fasting and other mortifications, and of liturgical prayer like the Liturgy of the Hours.  If we find ourselves saying “God will understand  . . . “, well, of course, God understands everything.  The question is what, and how, do we understand?