Liturgical Minimalism

John Beeler (who regularly writes on Facebook but rarely in his blog) wrote an interesting entry on Facebook about “no-frills Catholicism” showing an Ordinariate Mass in a rather kitschy modern church.

This is apparently somewhere in the USA. One comment says: Astounding- good lighting and merely facing eastward makes mass in a kitschy 60s building come off beautifully. This reminds me somewhat of the Other Modern articles in the New Liturgical Movement. Scroll down the page beyond the eighteenth century chant books, and you will find articles on church art and architecture from the twentieth century. I have often been intrigued by 1930’s and 1950’s churches some find ugly, but which express the reconstruction from the first and second world wars. I discovered some very interesting church buildings in Paris built under the Chantiers du Cardinal scheme.

One aspect common to these churches, as for those built later – when the plan was more or less traditional – was their extreme sobriety and plainness. In a certain way, they revive the ideals of the Cistercian movement in the twelfth century as they reacted from what they perceived as corruptions in Benedictine monasteries. Fontenay Abbey in France is a typical example from that era.

The Cistercians were quite “iconoclast” in their reduction in the number of statues and images, but the keynote of their architecture was harmony, symmetry and nobility. Some of the “other” modern churches tried to recapture this spirit.

Returning to John Beeler’s eastward-facing Mass in a modern church, the effect is quite other-worldly, the congregation deeply in prayer and the priest quietly saying Mass with a single server. One intriguing feature is the use of lights or candles in glass vases. They are just what I use when travelling and living in minimalist conditions. I wrote an article on the tuck box chapel some time ago. It is fiddly to use, and the tent doesn’t allow me to stand up fully.

Tea lights in glass vases are ideal for when there is wind (you have to be careful that the Host doesn’t get blown away!).It is quite amazing how much a modern tent blocks out most of the wind. The missal stand, though small, is unwieldy. I have ideas of making a new one on a round turned wood stand. I have the tiny travelling chalice and paten which my parents gave me on the day of my ordination.

Saying Mass outdoors is another experience. When I went on a sailing course at the Glénans in 2009, a large granite rock on the beach was my altar.

It all folded away into my rucksack, since I left my van at Concarneau and was isolated for a week on those lovely islands. What a way to begin the day!

There are many rational and historical arguments for the “eastward position” as Anglican ritualists in the nineteenth century once called it. One of the finest authors on this subject was Monsignor Klaus Gamber who found favour with Cardinal Ratzinger. These few notes and photos show the question from a more aesthetic and “emotional” point of view, even a pastoral point of view.

Finally, I should add that minimalism should not be a norm or an ideological refusal of beauty. Mass is normally celebrated in a consecrated church, and is only celebrated elsewhere in cases of necessity, for example being excluded from celebrating in historical churches because of not belonging to the establishment, being victims of persecution and brought to worship in clandestinity. It is better to worship in less than ideal conditions than not at all.

In terms of taste of church furnishing, I gradually “grew out” of my baroque formation at the seminary of Gricigliano and elsewhere, and gravitated to simpler styles influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements. Things did go a little over the top in the mid eighteenth century and with the grandiosity of the Victorian era. The twentieth century brought an attempt to simplify and seek a more “medieval style” – see the Parson’s Handbook by Percy Dearmer as an example of that ideal. Such inspirations continued for a long time, and I cite Guildford Cathedral and St Alban’s Holborn as examples of fine architecture from the 1960’s.

I tend to simplicity myself. I have not worn lace surplices or albs for many years, preferring plain white linen or cotton with simple vestments. I don’t impose my preferences on others, nor do I think they are wrong if they prefer more baroque or “Victorian” styles. Either way are options that indicate a frame of mind and preference in their living the Church’s liturgy. More is perceived by personal experience than arguing – something very exasperating in the English-speaking Catholic and Anglican world.

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15 Responses to Liturgical Minimalism

  1. I am happy to see that you are writing again, Fr. Chadwick, especially since you return with an essay of such beauty and importance.

    It is unfortunate that most people who read the liturgical documents of the Second Vatican Council fail to note, or to emulate, the repeated theme that the Divine Liturgy is to be marked by a ‘noble simplicity’.

    We write icons or carve rood screens so that they are as simple and as beautiful as possible. We chant because that is the simplest and most beautiful way of praising the Lord, and one that we have done for as long as we have been human. We use older forms of language in our worship because they are simpler, and less apt to the corruption of propagandists or other ‘Children of the Lie’. We cense with fragrant gums like frankincense and myrrh because they are a potent sign of purification, and to say, with the Psalmist, and toward our Lord, “Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as incense.”

    While it is a pity to see that so many have been caught up in the argument and confusion of the current culture wars, it is good to see that some are not trying to shout down others, but, in their own quiet and sincere way, doing that which is good, and right, and holy. Thank you for that, Fr. Chadwick.

    • Thank you for your kind comment. I have been quiet due to being away from home (with my wife) and having a reasonable amount of “alone” time, in particular to go out in my boat, and think things over. I have already been too talkative in this blog about personal matters, so I’ll just say that they have affected my entire sense of vocation and life and have prevented me from writing anything of any value.

      Indeed, “noble simplicity” doesn’t mean banality or studied ugliness, but the spirit of liturgy that is epitomised by monastic communities and Anglicans in the Continuing Churches and those now in communion with Rome in the Ordinariates. Many priests in France (I have known a few) were profoundly inspired by the Solesmes revival and went / go on retreat each year to Fontgombault Abbey. We are not all made to be monks, and I have differences of opinion about the current “spirit” of most monasteries. St Benedict himself advocated strong authority and strict discipline, very much like English grammar schools. For those who are made for that life, they do wonderful ora et labora and the Opus Dei to which nothing is preferred. However, those of us who are not monks can take inspiration from their love of the Divine Office and the Solemn Mass.

      Some things have beaten me down over the past months. Outside my own life, I am appalled by the present conflicts in America between “rednecks” and “antifas” or whatever they want to call themselves – especially every attempt to deny and suppress history. I am also appalled by the natural catastrophe in the Caribbean Islands and the States of Texas and Florida. Those unfortunate people have my prayers for what they are worth.

      All we can do is to go on, make the right changes in life with courage and conviction and cease living at odds with ourselves.

  2. Marko says:

    “you have to be careful that the Host doesn’t get blown away!”
    Yeah. Only one of many reasons why the Church needs to relax or at least modify its regulation on shape and form of bread used for the Eucharist.

    • In my experience, the solution is even simpler when you are saying Mass outdoors or any other windy place. Fold the front part of the corporal over the host.

      • Marko says:

        Well sure, but that wouldn’t be the only reason to change or rather, to revert the shape of the host. Only one of them.

        But yeah. I tend towards liturgical minimalism, or simplicity, as well. But that’s why pope Pius XII condemns me…

      • Oh dear…. I suppose that the European Union should enact a whole load of standards and norms for the liturgy so that observance becomes impossible. Then they can rake in all the fines and sanctions. If you want to do things the way you prefer, why not. No one is complaining. The world is big and indifferent where there isn’t money to be made. Where there’s muck, there’s brass! As for Pius XII or Francis, it depends on whether you are a Roman Catholic or not. I’m not.

      • Marko says:

        Well, i’m implying that the loaf bread shape should at least be allowed if one prefers it. Quite contrary to more rules. But it still isn’t allowed and i don’t like breaking rules whether the superiors see it or not.

        GIRM n. 321 says: “It is therefore expedient that the Eucharistic bread, even though unleavened and baked in the traditional shape, be made in such a way that the priest at Mass with a congregation is able in practice to break it into parts for distribution to at least some of the faithful.”. So yeah. I can dream…Though it would be of even greater sign value and it seems to me that it’s even easier to administer since (again, it seems to me) it is easier to pick up a chunk than a thin wafer especially if they’re one on top of another.

        And about Pius XII, that was just a tongue in cheek exaggeration. I like liturgical antiquity, and you know what he said in Mediator Dei about it.

        And about minimalism. I like simplicity because i think that simplicity lets the essence of the rite shine brighter. Christianity is a religion of “rational sacrifice” and therefore i don’t see it fit for overburdening its rites with symbolic rituals and spaces.

        The more regular the better. But regular doesn’t mean banal or ugly. Just as you pointed towards Cistercian architecture. It’s iconoclastic and very simple, but precisely there lies its beauty. Nothing is out of place and everything is in harmony. One must make an active effort to make disorder out of simple things and bring disharmony and asymmetry in them. To me, it is natural that if you have two candles, you’ll put one on one end of the altar, and the other one on the other one and not both on one end.

      • I suppose we can discuss such things, just as long as we don’t believe that Christian unity will ever be achieved by requiring that others conform to our particular “orthodoxy”. That is one thing that drives many people away from Christianity and political ideologies. We need to discover a liberalism that is truly liberal, ie. respects the freedom of others, even that of those with whom we don’t agree. Perhaps that is a fruit of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, etc.

        Personally, I buy my hosts from a firm in England that makes them quite thin and quite a lot smaller than what you generally find in continental Europe. My Bishop runs a small business in church requisites including hosts, candles, incense, linens and other items – and I buy them from him because his profits (very small) help our Church. The loaf shaped breads used by the Byzantine Church are usually baked fresh by those who know how to do it and who are local to the parish. They cannot be stored for long, so the use of flat unleavened hosts is more practical than anything else. My boxes contain 50 hosts, which is about eight to ten days short of two months, and I buy four boxes at a time so that my hosts are never older than a third of a year. I would be very surprised to see leavened breads being baked for daily Mass, so the Byzantine Liturgy is celebrated only on Sundays and major feasts except in monasteries. Nothing precludes the use of Byzantine breads for a western rite Mass. It’s perfectly possible, but I have never done it.

        Ah yes, liturgical antiquity. Some Orthodox communities have tried to revive a Gallican or Celtic rite, which usually comes out as a strange idiosyncratic caricature of the Byzantine rite. Dr Ray Winch, a philosopher in Oxford, came up with the idea of a Roman rite based on Ordo Romanus I and the Gregorian Sacramentary featuring a chalice looking something like a football trophy. It all tends to be somewhat sterile, and doesn’t really interest anyone. However, it can be argued that the only type of Christianity that does appeal to people is American Evangelicalism with its rants about the Rapture and predictions about the end of the world. Get ’em into the megachurch and get them to pray, pay and obey and then the pastor can buy his third Ferrari or luxury motor yacht! So what do you do? It depends whether you are a priest, run a parish, are an academic, whatever. “A chacun sa merde (son truc)” as they say here in France.

        However, I understand the appeal of monastic simplicity if there is the spiritual life to go with it. People with a solid spirituality have less need of “devotions” and kitschy statues, but they are those who have been the purgative way before finding illumination and self-knowledge. That is very rare, even in monasteries which are mostly run like cults or the army according to collectivist principles. I do believe that the reason why the modern liturgical reform did not take inspiration from monastic norms is that an anti-humanist and nihilistic ideology was involved, a question of destroying faith and religion in favour of using the Church to pursue materialist political ideologies. This ideology is to an extent expressed in Tony Equale’s blog which promotes “spiritual materialism”, whatever that means.

        I follow the practices of the Church I belong to, and my use of Sarum is by tolerance of my Bishop on the basis of it being a historical Anglican rite. I don’t know which Church you belong to, since it might have other standards and requirements. I’m open to divergences being suggested for consideration. In our Church, we have differences of style. I tend to like things from the beginning of the twentieth century inspired by the various neo-Romantic and aesthetic movements of the nineteenth, their fascination with mediaevalism. Others in our Church are more like pre Vatican II Roman Catholics in the way of appointing Churches. I refuse to quarrel with them. We have diversity in non-essentials, c’est tout.

      • Marko says:

        I don’t mean liturgical antiquity as 7th or 8th century. I mean liturgical antiquity like 1st or 2nd century.

        As to which Church i belong, i belong to the Đakovo-Osijek Church which is in union with and subjection to the Church of Rome and her bishop and pope, Francis, and is of the same, Roman Rite.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        “It […] doesn’t really interest anyone.” Alas! It interests me – but I don’t know it’s ever be put into practice (rather like symphonies never performed in the composer’s lifetime?).

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for this very interesting (an inadequate word) post!

    I suppose a validly consecrated ugly/kitschy modern church/altar would facilitate valid celebration.

    But I was just wondering about other sorts of buildings – especially, e.g., desecrated, or schismatically- /heretically-owned, churches/altars – are they, for example, easily overcome in practice by the use of a portable altar or antimension/antimensium, just as all sorts of other outdoor or indoor spaces are?

    Andrew Shipman’s interesting 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia article, “Antimensium” (as transcribed at New Advent) notes, “the use of the antimensium became quite general, because, owing to various heresies and schisms it was doubtful whether the altar in numberless churches had ever been consecrated by a bishop, or whether that rite had ever been canonically performed” and “It was also much used for altars in military camps, on shipboard, and among the hermits and cenobites of the desert, where a church or a chapel was unknown.”

    He also writes, “A Greek Catholic priest may say Mass in a Greek church upon an altar-stone, yet a Latin priest may not say Mass upon an antimensium in a Latin church, although either may use the antimensium in a Greek church (Benedict XIV, Impositu nobis).” Do ‘we’ know if that is still the situation? And, what of where a Latin priest may use a portable altar?

    It occurs to me that I do not know (and do not see from your “Tuck Box Chapel” post) how the Anglican Catholic Church regards such things as altar stones and the presence of relics.

    My searching the Internet Archive for Percy Dearmer (following your reference here) produced 103 results, including the 1899 “Second Edition”:

    and the 1907 “Sixth Edition” of The Parson’s Handbook:

    • I should really get an antemensium for my “tuck box” chapel and have my Bishop sign and consecrate it. However, our Canons are very poor in regard to the liturgy. There is a certain amount about Uses and Rites and derogations from the use of the Prayer Book. Consecrated altar stones and antemensia are rare in the Anglican world, but they do represent the origin of the Christian altar – the tombs of the Martyrs and the theme of the Old Testament Sacrifice transposed onto Christ the eternal priest and victim. It would be a good thing to introduce in our Church, as for the Minor Orders (other than the Lay Reader) and the Subdiaconate. Something known in western Catholicism is the “Greek corporal” made of linen with the five crosses embroidered on it like an altar ston, with relics sewn into the corner. It is consecrated by the Bishop and placed under the altar cloths, so that would be an option.

  4. Dale says:

    Oh, forgot, also happy to see that you are again posting. I missed you.

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