Sunday, March 16, 2014


Today we recall the Transfiguration, when Peter said: "Lord, it is good for us to be here". And that was true enough, but this was not the time to pitch tents: for who, lighting a lamp, then hides it under a bushel basket? This was not the time to preserve the sign, for He who gave the sign had not yet accomplished that for which He came.
When I was in Rome (for about a week, in 1997), I was taken to the Forum, which was a strangely gravely place. In some places the gravel was thinned-out from much walking to-and-fro, and there one could see tile mosaics in the pavement; I wanted to clear away all the gravel, to get the "right effect" of these thousand-year-old artworks. Four years later, (my summer of nine airplanes) I had been taken to Turkey for about a week, and yet more Roman ruins. Here we were told (as we hadn't been in Rome) that the tile mosaics are covered in gravel (of all things) deliberately, to preserve them. Apparently, the constant gritty treading is less damaging to the tile than the changed weathers of the world since the advent of motorcar and lorry.
Everyone has, I'm sure, heard some awful choirs. Even that everyone has heard some awful choirs singing in a liturgical context, alas... It is indeed possible that this has happened more frequently in the last... forty? ... years ... than the previous forty. It is possible, but I wouldn't jump from this to any surmise that we have become worse singers in any intrinsic sense. I dare say there may have been plenty of unsupportable choirs in, say, the 1920s, the era of decadence (in which setting, for instance, Waugh imagines a most uninspiring but dreadfully sincere young cellista, in Brideshead Revisited). That is, bad music and bad performance and bad liturgy definitely aren't anything new. Bad theology is almost as old as Cain, I'm sure.
An interesting fellow I know, around here, who reads and thinks about these things better than I do, tells me that many of the things sensitive folk find banal in the New Mass are actually codifications of abuses that had arisen more than a hundred years ago — the particular one he mentioned was by the name "three-hymn sandwich": In many poorer parishes, they could afford a Priest maybe but not three (and certainly not three clerics and a smashing-good choirmaster); So Mass was always Low Mass, with the laity singing hymns together whenever the Order didn't have something else going on to listen to or a command for silence.

But a funny thing happens when you have abuses (pious, well-intentioned, and popular... abuses) running for sixty years or more: they fall into time immemorial. "Put them into the books, please".
And so, for a brief little while, it seemed as if what we now may call the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite had been buried. There seem also to have been many who were happy, even gleeful, to leave it buried, happy to cover it with gritty mud and trample over the lot. Yet there have always been places where the gravel seemed thin, and always folk who were fascinated by the intricate patterns one could glimpse here and there. It's hard to tell, but there may just as well have been bits of the old pattern that had already worn out, before the covering was made. We can't see the state of the whole.

Meanwhile, in another part of town is the very new New Courthouse building, whose architecture is a bit odd, that still smells of new plaster and paint and silicone caulking. Most of us aren't quite used to it yet, how to move around in it, its acoustics, and all that. They've already given the English Room a renovation, and the fumes of the glue are still dissipating. It's very busy, though, all of it.
Sometimes, when you bury a thing in mud and later clean the mud off, you find you've also cleaned away lots of other faint dust and stains, and you've polished away scratches that had obscured the colours, and on the whole improved appearances everywhere. Something like this is going on in that strange ritual known by the latin words for care of the foot.

I'm looking forward to a time when we can clean away God's gravel and everyone walk freely in the Roman Forum and admire its ancient craftsmanship, and if that time comes in Time we may well then enjoy something truer than anything enjoyed before. But we may have to wait for a change of weather, a change in the air, a time when our habits and our exhalations aren't worse for it than being covered in gravel.


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