I lift up my eyes to the mountains.
Some of us have been following the latest advice from the Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship for quite some time now.
I came across an article (from an Episcopalian pastor) who has introduced the practice and his reflections stemming from a more aesthetic approach. This doesn't mean it is only a secondary consideration, for the architecture of the built environment forms and teaches us in very many subtle ways. The terrible tower blocks of the 1960's remind us of this no less than the fact that supermarkets take great care in the layout of their premises to influence how and what we buy there.
The pastor's experience mirrored some of my own:
I received my theological education and training in liturgy under the assurance that versus populum celebration was the most ancient and liturgically correct option. All else was accursed medievalism.
Something happened to me over these years. I became more and more sensitive to the architectural violence done to so many sanctuaries in refitting them for a freestanding altar. Usually the high altar is still there against the wall, abandoned but looming in the background, while the Eucharist is celebrated at a table that often looks too small and shoehorned into the space. I wonder now about the iconoclasm perpetrated in the name of the liturgical movement.
He goes on to explain that seen through fresh eyes of someone not brainwashed by the ecclesial hippy mantras of the 1960's, the abandonment of the high altar in favour of the picnic table sized mockeries installed before them is an obvious nonsense.
A former parishioner of mine is a Harvard-trained landscape architect. She is a wonderful person with a limited interest in Christian doctrine who enthusiastically defines herself as an Episco-Buddhist. She is sensitive to design, but with little background in theology and no axe to grind in this debate. She asked me once why the altar has been abandoned in so many of our churches. There was more theology in her observation than she knew.
He asks the question I have often asked myself when entering a church where every sight-line and every stone directs the eye to the high altar. all this focus and direction has been abandoned and disturbed by some obviously inferior postage stamp sized block plonked down somewhere on the sanctuary, destroying all possibility of graceful or ordered movement around the once elegant sanctuary.
In most refitted liturgical spaces that one encounters, the message of iconoclasm and abandonment is unavoidable. I have come to find this visual message a poignant embarrassment. What drove my elders’ compulsion to disturb and distort liturgical spaces that were based upon a completely coherent and orthodox theological rationale? Why the drive to fight the original design and turn one thing done well into a poor copy of the other?
Of the history of what is more ancient he says:
C.S. Lewis said somewhere that most laity are more interested in whether something is meat or poison than in its original position on the menu. In Letters to Malcolm, he noted that the clergy had changed Feed my sheep into Experiment on my rats. “It lays one’s devotion waste.”
One of these things is not like the others.
One of these things just doesn't belong here.
(Here for those who are not of a certain age!)
Some friends of mine are on their way to Compostella at the moment. I recall a visit there some years ago being amazed that the great High Altar, directly under which St James' remains lie in a silver casket (where I was fortunate enough to celebrate Mass) had been abandoned for the celebration of Mass there. The link between the present celebration of Faith and the very reason for the church being there had been broken. (To say nothing of the fact that many such altars are privileged - do we no longer think that speeding souls from Purgatory is a worthwhile pursuit?) It is a real oddity that the whole focus of the church - the Saint's relics below and the statue the pilgrims embrace above in the reredos - has been divorced from the contemporary celebration of Mass there.
I say an "oddity" but sadly, it's one repeated again and again in churches the world over.
Again, some years ago, I concelebrated Mass in St Mark's Basilica, Venice. It's quite a large building (!) with an main altar of spiritual, artistic and cultural importance but we celebrated on a tiny, shoddy construction, with the lectern (I hesitate to call it an ambo) placed so close to the altar that you had to be careful not to knock over the (compulsory in Italy) arrangement of flowers of the end of it when proclaiming the Gospel.
Visually and subliminally, it is a message of iconaclasm, taking what is good and perverting the meaning to weaken and empty it. Who would do such a thing? Usually, such tactics are usually those of