Romantic and Patristic Liturgy in Louis Bouyer

The work of Louis Bouyer (1913-2004) was a unique contribution to French ressourcement theology. A convert from Lutheranism and a French Oratorian, he followed John-Henry Newman in many ways, inspired by Newman’s patristic approach rather than a slavish conversion to Scholasticism. He was particularly keen on Scripture and the Fathers. He was also intensely interested in Dom Odo Casel’s Mysteriumslehre, and the Church’s liturgy bringing about the entire mystery of Christ according to a Platonist notion of metaphysics and sacramental theology.

Bouyer took an active part in the work of Vatican II and aspired towards a restored liturgy inspired by patristic sources and notions. The spirit of the post-war French liturgical movement can be seen in many churches from the era with the abolition of any distance between the nave and the sanctuary. The result was the modern Roman Catholic liturgy celebrated on an altar facing the people and a considerable amount of licence for abritrary modifications. By 1968, Bouyer saw where it was all going as he wrote La décomposition du catholicisme with its memorable quote:

La liturgie d’hier n’était plus guère qu’un cadavre embaumé. Ce qu’on appelle liturgie aujourd’hui n’est plus guère que ce cadavre décomposé.

Yesterday’s liturgy was little more than an embalmed corpse. What we call liturgy today is little more than the same corpse in a decomposed state. Bouyer was quite waspish in his criticisms, but never far from the truth. Since I am quite enamoured of Romanticism as a world view, I find that Bouyer was critical of it in its early nineteenth-century form, even though it sought a new way out of the ultra-rationalist baroque world view of before the French Revolution. In particular, he wrote on this subject in his second chapter of La Vie de la Liturgie, Paris 1957.

Bouyer’s motivation is seen in his Lutheran background, a desire to tear the liturgy away from the sentimentalism of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth. He wished the liturgy to be more biblical in its language. It was to be pastoral in character, and involve the active participation of the faithful, therefore no more choir screens or elitism in the sanctuary. He advocated the vernacular, emphasis on Communion, concelebration in religious communities, reform of the breviary and calendar and stripping down of decorative aspects in churches. Most of us have seen the results with whitewashed and minimalist churches. Bouyer was also for rolling back the history of the liturgy to the patristic era, and thus joined the Jansenists of the era of the Synod of Pistoia (1786). Paul VI would have been thrilled by these ideas as he worked with elements of the Roman Curia like Annabile Bugnini (1912-1982). However, by the mid 1960’s, Bouyer became distanced from other elements of the liturgical movement and became highly critical. See An Artist at Vatican II by Francesca Aran Murphy which contrasts Bouyer from the “philistine” Bugnini. Also read Fr Louis Bouyer on the Liturgical Reform and Its Architects.

I now come to the notion of Romanticism in the liturgy, at least in the way Bouyer understood the word as simple nostalgia for the past. His criticism is certainly at the root of the so-called “barrier” I allude to when observing a large number of people showing interest in the Sarum rite, but being unwilling to consider its actual restoration. For Bouyer, reconstruction was not an option, nor was continuing with the Tridentine liturgy, nor was the “decomposed corpse” of Roman Catholicism in his later life. On the other hand, perhaps he was also being critical of those who wanted to revive Ordo Romanus Primus and the Gregorian Sacramentary. That was precisely what Dr Ray Winch in Oxford wanted to do in an Orthodox context. The older the liturgical source, the more scant the documentation will be, and therefore there will be a need for speculative reconstruction.

We are brought to consider the quote from Göthe’s Faust:

Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast,
Erwib es um es zu besitzen.

What you receive from your father, earn it anew before you call it your own. Perhaps that is a perfect meditation for the rest of this Lent! If we also reflect on the darkness preceding any new middle-age, the destruction of the liturgy brings us to consider living without it until it grows again from our faith and desire for the Kingdom. However, that destruction was no more the fault of most of us living today than the mass murder committed nearly a century ago by the Nazis. Some measure of compromise is called for.

For Bouyer, Romanticism was essentially nostalgia for the middle ages. Perhaps it was in the eyes of some of the French liberals and traditionalists of the early nineteenth century. He lifted the aestheticism of some out of the mish-mash for criticism, saying that the gothic style could not be a permanent achievement in history. He did recognise that Romanticism characterised the medieval period as being:

that sensitiveness to Christian feelings and Christian motives so conspicuously lacking in the Baroque, and, since it possessed this sensitiveness, the medieval period was taken to provide a clue to the true significance of the liturgy itself. Hence the frenzy for Gothic everywhere—Gothic buildings, Gothic vestments, Gothic singing, Gothic poetry and romance, and so on.

Man sought his lost innocence as we do today. The apologetics of Chateaubriand or Lamennais leave much to desire in their theology. The Germans and English Romantics seemed to be more substantial in intellectual terms. The Roman Catholic institution is no more indefectible than it has proved to be at the time of the French Revolution or now. (Yes, I know about the argument of the “faithful remnant” – which is irrelevant to me since I am not a Roman Catholic.) Here I agree with Bouyer in that Romanticism without any real intellectual or cultural foundation is little more than childish sentimentalism. In the early nineteenth century, France was essentially a ruin in terms both of feeling, critical reasoning and science. However, there were as many Romanticisms as Romantics!

He rightly lambasts traditionalism as made famous by Chateaubriand and Lamennais which took sola tradition as opposed to rational and critical knowledge. Thus, tradition itself could only be condemned to wither away. In my own attraction to Romanticism, it has not been to French traditionalism or sentimentalism, but more towards the robust German idealist tendency. Returning to my subject, Bouyer went from this fundamental criticism of French Romanticism and traditionalism to another character in this same school, Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875). Dom Guéranger was an ultramontanist as many of the French liberals were. Better to have an episcopal despot thousands of miles away than on one’s own doorstep! He advocated the Tridentine missal (and the monastic breviary) but with the

restoration of Gregorian Chant, scrupulous observance of the rubrics of all the ceremonies, and, above all, a sober and dignified kind of celebration neatly pruned of all those theatrical additions by which Baroque practice had been altering and ruining the lines of the liturgy.

It is also possible to sympathise with Bouyer’s criticism of neo-gothic architecture with its nineteenth century industrial accuracy. Viollet-le-Duc and Pugin did tend to gild the lily and over-decorate their creations.

I contrast this notion of the illegitimacy or restoring the past with my own sentiment, that of leaving the trappings in their secondary position and seeking to make the best of an impossible situation of being able to do nothing at all. Everywhere you turn, there is an obstacle. I am reminded of the sadistic punishment meted out by Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado to those who cheat at games:

The billiard sharp whom anyone catches,
His doom’s extremely hard:
He’s made to dwell in a dungeon cell
In a spot that’s always barred.
And there he plays extravagant matches
In fitless finger-stalls,
On a cloth untrue
With a twisted cue
And elliptical billiard balls !

Perhaps some would like God to treat us all like that, leaving us with something totally insoluble and impossible!

The Romantic period in France was insufficiently critical of baroque piety as the emphasis of eucharistic devotion over the liturgical actio and communio. Guéranger the ultramontanist was unjustifiably critical of the diversity of diocesan rites, though it is easy to understand his position on rational reductionism and the abolition of a sense of the sacred and wonder. Some of the Neo-Gallican rites were quite un-traditional and arbitrary, but to a lesser extent than the modern minimalist liturgy. Guéranger was influenced by Lamennais until the latter was condemned for his Liberalism by Gregory XVI in Mirari vos. That must have been a desperately bitter blow!

The assumption made by Guéranger that the Roman liturgy as being the only purely and perfectly Catholic of all the Christian liturgies is a notion we meet today with conservative Roman Catholics. I would give Bouyer that one, but I baulk at Bouyer’s condemnation of the influx of parts of the Gallican liturgy into what eventually became the codified Roman liturgy of 1570. Did Guéranger make a distinction between the Neo-Gallican liturgies of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries and older local usages? I would need to return to Les Institutions Liturgiques to research the question. That being said, I can only trust Bouyer in his affirming that Guéranger made some serious historical errors in his work. I studied Guéranger’s work when I was up at Fribourg, and remember that he played fast and loose with historical fact. At the same time, he was one of the first to begin to lever the liturgy out of its rubricist sarcophagus.

Bouyer is most insistent on the intellectual hollowness, as he perceived it, of French Romanticism. He understood Romanticism as a rejection of Enlightenment rationalism. As I understand it, the Revolution itself destroyed the rationalism that gave it birth, and (some) Romantics sought to complete rationalism with the faculties of the whole human being. Returning to the monastic liturgical movement, other monks like Dom Lambert Beauduin and Odo Casel in Germany took on Guéranger’s lagacy with a greater intellectual robustness and rigour. Even there, Bouyer was critical of the idea of the monastery being made for the liturgy (which is central in the Rule of St Benedict) rather than for the congregations of parish churches.

If not to medievalism, where? The real historical medieval period led to Protestantism as the baroque liturgy led to neglect and the virtual death of European Catholicism. Bouyer was a fan of Jungmann’s Missarum Sollemnia, affirming the inadequacy of the medieval liturgy. Especially at fault were the medieval Expositiones Missae and allegory. Where was Jungmann the Jesuit going? I took in many of these ideas under the influence of my tutor as I was writing my piece on the Tridentine missal, an abridgement of which went into Dom Alcuin Reid’s Companion to Liturgy. Where was anything going? Subjectivity? Objectivity? Personalism? Collectivism?

Perhaps Bouyer himself realised that he was going nowhere, that the modern Roman liturgy did not produce a general renewal (even if some parishes using it are very dynamic in the USA and some European cities). Bouyer was above all a theologian interested in the Fathers, and who wrote fascinating books on Gnosticism, Sophiology, various biblical themes and philosophy. In spite of his acidic polemical criticism, he is one of my favourites. He was a fan of Dom Odo Casel and his theory about the Kultmysterium, the Mystery of Christian Worship.

This gave a theological basis to the liturgy, as in some of the Russian Orthodox theologians like Boris Bobrinskoy. It represented a shift away from an Arisotelian metaphysical basis to that of Plato. The Mystery was expanded from the pascha – passio to the entire salvific work of Christ including the future Parousia. Much of this theological consciousness was gone by about the thirteenth century and almost totally now. I would then ask the question of whether anyone can produce evidence that there was ever a time in history when the ordinary faithful were in any way articulate in matters of liturgical theology! Monks perhaps, but ordinary churchgoers? I would doubt it.

Was not Dom Casel also a Romantic? From his writings (I read them in English or French translation), I would see that frame of mind – but as it was incarnate in Germany. Bouyer was French and saw everything through that lens. However, Bouyer does wonder whether looking to the Fathers was not also an exercise in Romantic nostalgia like for later periods.

Were this true, it would hardly matter which historical period was used as the norm for such a hopeless endeavour! For if the stubborn rejection of the Church and the world as they are today were held to be the necessary preliminary to any authentic liturgical renaissance, this fact in itself would certainly constitute the most perfect condemnation of that renaissance.

Bingo! Bouyer and I both see the point: where can we go?

What we can do is to look to the “high” periods of history for inspiration and use them as parables like Novalis did in Die Christenheit oder Europa. I see this in the Arts & Crafts movement which was clearly inspired by medievalism and Romanticism, yet the result was of a “noble simplicity” like Beuronese art. Liturgy is not about reproducing the past or archaeologism but finding what is of enduring value. This is why I have no scruple about celebrating a Sarum mass in Roman vestments and with the baroque French chalice I was given for my ordination.

Cardinal Ratzinger who became Pope Benedict XVI is very much a part of this ressourcement school of theology to which Fribourg University introduced me. He coined the expression reform of the reform to mean the improvement of the modern Roman liturgy as is found with the Ordinariate rites with material from the Anglican Prayer Book and as done with great solemnity in the various English Oratories of St Philip Neri and French Benedictine abbeys where the spirit of Dom Guéranger continues to this day. I understand Benedict XVI’s position as trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, doing something with what he has on board. However, I would be no more satisfied in such an approach than Dearmer stuffing out the Prayer Book Eucharist as he advocated in the Parson’s Handbook. What I do advocate is taking the very complete texts we have of the Sarum and various French rites (of before the Neo-Gallican craze) and bring them into our time with little in the way of being too fussy about exact details of trappings.

Our time is one of weakness in our gnosis and faith, and it is no time to think about inventing a new rite without it being a banal representation of secular life. Our time is too deprived of spiritual references for it to be possible to inculturate the Christian message into modern secular life. This is where Romanticism in a moderate and intellectually robust version is needed to weather the storm and withstand the vacuity of most institutional Christianity. Lessons have been learned in both Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism since the 1950’s when Dix wrote The Shape of the Liturgy alongside Bouyer’s aspirations to similar ideas both sides of the Channel. We have the benefit of bitter experience and no longer so things with their naivety.

Those who are parish priests, and those of us whose ministry it is to study and write, have a duty of educating our faithful. We need first of all to teach the hermeneutic keys of Scripture as Origen indicated – not only literal and historical, but also allegorical, moral and spiritual. The liturgy alone will not accomplish this task. They need catechesis, mystagogical catechesis and notions of church history. Education is absolutely essential for anyone who aspires to follow Christ and belong to the communion of the universal Church. Thus, we can be acculturated to the liturgy and not need the liturgy to be banalised and demolished for short-term ends.

Bouyer was writing from the point of view of his time, especially the 1950’s and 60’s, and made many mistaken assumptions as time proved. His essential intuitions are profound and germane. We have much to learn from reading his many books.

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7 Responses to Romantic and Patristic Liturgy in Louis Bouyer

  1. Caedmon says:

    I wonder [what?] is the future of Christianity with non-liturgical forms like Pentecostalism?

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for this! That “we can be acculturated to the liturgy and not need the liturgy to be banalised and demolished for short-term ends” seems very well thought, well said, and true in various ways to the experience of many (as far as I can see, from others and myself). How many have been unexpectedly bowled over – often by hearing one or another example of liturgical music? And how often has such a first step not been the last one?

    Can that sort of ‘romantic’ experience (to use the word with experiences C.S. Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy in the back of my mind) have been more common down the ages than we have any record of – also among the ordinary faithful?

    With respect to finding evidence of their being in any way articulate in matters of liturgical theology, I wonder if records of popular preaching might be of some help – with extant sermons and (anecdotal) descriptions both taken into consideration? (C.S. Lewis has interesting things to say – from his own experience – about what a speaker tries to say, and what hearers takes him to be saying.)

    • The famous quote by Bouyer about the Anglican Office is something that deeply impressed him:

      . . . is a Divine Office which is not a devotion of specialists but a truly public Office of the whole Christian people . . . we must admit frankly that the Offices of Morning Prayer and of Evensong, as they are performed even today in St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, York Minster, or Canterbury Cathedral, are not only one of the most impressive, but also one of the purest forms of Christian common prayer to be found anywhere in the world.

      It is especially music that speaks (or sings) to the human soul in a way that is impossible for simple speech. I remember as a teenager being very ignorant about doctrine and the meaning of liturgy, but deeply affected by the music of the choir and the organ. Perhaps the catechesis of the senses has to take precedence over the (also necessary) instruction of the intellect.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you for this quotation and observation!

        Turning to today’s entry in Charles Williams’s New Christian Year, with selections for each day, I find a striking one from Woodburn O. Ross’s edition, Middle English Sermons (Early English Text Society, Original Series, No. 209 from 1940). Checking the Internet Archive to see if it is scanned there, I do not find it among the results, but my eye is caught by scans of J.M. Neale’s Mediæval preachers and Mediæval Preaching : A series of extracts, translated from the sermons of the Middle Ages, chronologically arranged: with notes and an introduction (1856) – not all vernacular sermons, from a first glance; and a Camden Society publication from 1875, Two Sermons Preached by the Boy Bishop […] – the only two such in English then known (I don’t know if that’s changed in the 145 years since) (ed. J,M. Nichols, with an Introduction giving an account of the Festival of the Boy Bishop in England by E.F. Rimbault).

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