Praying the Divine Office at Home
As many churches begin phasing in the use of Propers during Mass, some may still use hymns, but if many of the young voices that I sing with have our way, hymns are likely on their way out in the parochial church. But do we hate hymns? No way! There are a great stock of traditional hymns we might use. When, though, might we sing them? During the prayed hours of the Divine Office, of course!
Many Catholic families who are actively seeking to raise their children in the Catholic faith are always on the lookout for things that will draw themselves and their children deeper into the Faith. Maybe they pray a nightly family Rosary, or they engage in Liturgical Living activities as advocated by Kendra Tierney in her book The Catholic All Year Compendium, or they prioritize going to daily Mass. In any case, they want to introduce as much extra-liturgical faith-based activity as they can into their home, the domestic church. This isn’t always easy, though. Take the idea of the daily family Rosary. Many mothers and fathers are incredibly impressed by great figures such as Scott Hahn talking about the spiritual benefit that a nightly Rosary had on their family. When actually attempting it, though, they fall way short of this ideal. Maybe they get through a decade every night, maybe they do a couple Rosaries a week, or maybe they only figure out how to do it together one evening a week.
To be clear, whatever you are doing is great. One Rosary a week, I believe, still makes a drastic difference on your family’s prayer life.
If you’re like me, though, you might ask “what is the best thing that a family can do outside of going to regular Mass?”
The Other Liturgy of the Church
I shudder when people refer to the Mass as ‘(The) Liturgy,’ as if there is no other liturgy or, if there is, the Mass is somehow equated to it. What can equal the literal presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist? The truth is that “The Liturgy refers to the public and common worship of the Church, which necessarily has a repetitive nature. The Mass is, as Vatican II says, “the source and summit of the Christian life,” but is there anything else involved under this larger umbrella of ‘Liturgy’?
Yes, the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours.
Inherited from Jewish practice, and kept richly alive in the tradition of the monastics, the Church considers the Divine Office an integral part of Her liturgy. Through a period of time, all 150 psalms are recited at the various hours of the day. Some eastern traditions pray all 150 psalms every day. In The Rule of St. Benedict, he lauds this as the highest of standards. Some traditions, like the western monastic that started by St. Benedict, prays all 150 psalms over the course of a week. In anticipation of the grumblings he might hear because of the requirement to pray all 150 psalms in a week, he points to the eastern traditions and basically says ‘man up!’ and get over it. The Liturgy of the Hours which came into being after Vatican II prays all 150 psalms over the course of four weeks.
Notice, though, how I referred to the fact that this has been largely kept alive in the monastic tradition, even when the Church requires all of her clergy to pray the full Divine Office as well. That means that in the traditional Catholic family, praying the Divine Office hasn’t been high on the priority list in times past. And this makes all the sense in the world! Families are busy.
Before getting into the depths of the Office itself, I would like to highlight that this is exactly how the Rosary came into existence. St. Dominic, a monastic used to praying all 150 psalms every week, wanted a way for the laity to participate in the Church’s liturgy in some extended way. To this end there is the Rosary. Just as the Divine Office has one praying all the psalms and meditating on God’s mysteries, praying all of the mysteries of the Rosary also draws one deeper into thought on God’s mysteries. Just as there are 150 psalms, the Rosary was originally designed so that, all mysteries prayed, 150 Hail Marys are said. So if you take nothing else away from this article, and you already pray a daily Rosary, know that you are still participating in the Church’s liturgical prayer through St. Dominic’s pastoral provision.
“So if you take nothing else away from this article, and you already pray a daily Rosary, know that you are still participating in the Church’s liturgical prayer through St. Dominic’s pastoral provision.”
To this end I will begin by saying this: just as praying a daily or weekly or Rosary is a great spiritual goal, so any amount of the Office that you incorporate into your life is also a great spiritual goal.
The Divine Office Basics
The reason that one associates the Divine Office with the monastic tradition before even associating it with the priestly and clerical offices of the Church is because praying the full Divine Office takes work. This is why the USCCB and tradition refers to this as “God’s work”: because it is a difficult task. There are, traditionally, 8 canonical hours:
Matins, the vigil office, tends to take the most time. Fully chanted, it isn’t unreasonable that it takes a full hour to complete. Each subsequent hour can take anywhere between 15 mins and 30 mins. In other words, fully committing to praying the office, especially at first, is a huge time commitment. The monastic life, unlike Peg + Cat‘s immature definition, is not primarily about helping people while dressed in a robe. The monastic life is primarily centered on praying the Divine Office, on doing the work of God.
The meat of each hour is of course the psalmody, the psalms done each hour. After the psalmody follows readings from the Bible or from great saints, and each hour has a timely hymn. The conclusion of the hour focuses on a liturgically appropriate prayer, usually the collect, or opening prayer, from the previous Sunday’s Mass.
Speaking of Mass, it is important to note that the Divine Office, as a portion of the Church’s Liturgy as a whole, deserves a lot of the same reverence and attention that the Mass gets. Daily Mass, for example, is well abound in the western Church, but that means it is often said rather than sung. Similarly the Office is more often said quietly to oneself, rather than sung. In terms of importance, though, the Divine Office, like the Mass, deserves to be sung on every occasion. This is where I discovered the largest treasure trove of Gregorian Chant in the modern time when trying to learn how to do it. A good textual example of this repertoire is the Liber Usualis, which contains nearly all of the Church’s chant for Mass and for a large portion of the Office.
How to Add the Habit of the Office
Before discussing the how, it is probably important to mention a why. Why pray (or attempt to pray) the Divine Office instead of just a daily Rosary, or on top of the Rosary? Paragraph 100 of Sacrosanctum Concilium states that: “The laity…are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.” Wrapping this conciliar document into the discussion complicates things, but let it be known as a good starting point that while the monastic tradition is what has really kept the life of the Divine Office singing, it is meant for the whole Church to pray. While the Rosary and other devotional prayers are good for the soul, is it not more fitting that the central liturgy of the Church be prioritized as a main part of the Christian’s everyday prayer?
Adding in the practice of praying the Divine Office from no prior use is going to be nearly impossible. It takes time to form effective habits, and learning the rubrics of the Office takes time, just like learning the rubrics of Mass. Once learned, of course, the motions are secondhand, just like for the Mass. It is best to begin with the major elements. Once again we invoke that conciliar document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and how it emphasizes certain hours. Lauds and Vespers, said at sunrise and sunset, are, according to the document, the primary hours around which the Office hinges. Therefore it makes absolute sense that one praying the hours would begin by implementing these into their prayer habits. Out of the two, Vespers is probably the easiest to begin with. Instead of an evening Rosary, you instead simply pray the evening office of the Church. Out of all of the hours, these are also the ones you are most likely to pray in choir with your family at home, if you have one.
Once habits are formed around these two main hours, Compline is the next to add. In many ways, Compline is a choral favorite, and some may feel inclined to start here instead of the two major hours. It is a very special way to truly end the day, especially by candlelight and perhaps with some incense burning.
From here the daytime hours are the next to add. These will structurally be the more difficult to add in, especially depending on your job. If you are allowed to take a couple of breaks in addition to lunch, then this will be quite easy, for example. Here it is best to say “pray what you can” and to be merciful with yourself for what you may or may not do otherwise. Start with incorporating one hour into your daily work routine and only add in another once the first is comfortably set. I personally find that Sixth is the easier hour to add, since you would pray it somewhere around lunchtime. Of course if you don’t pray exactly starting the minute of the hour, that’s okay as well. If one day you start Sixth at 1230 PM, or 1130 AM, or even 130 PM, then you’re probably fine.
Lastly, and most weightily, Matins is to add. At this point if you’ve added all the other hours into your routine, then you’re well accustomed to the nature of the Divine Office, and so you won’t be bogged down with how to do the hour as much as being bogged down for the time. Now, if you’re single and have no family, then you have every reason to plan on waking up early (around 5 am, maybe) to pray it then. But, if you do have a family and/or you are bogged down with important responsibilities, then you can take advice from the Breviary’s General Norms (here in line 144) which states that, with good reason, Matins may be moved to the previous afternoon or evening, so long as it does not precede 2 p.m. I don’t know about you but I would consider kids a pretty good reason! Because Matins is the heaviest with 9 psalms and 3 readings, or maybe even 9 readings, it might show itself to be a proving grounds for your familiarity of the Office.
Which Divine Office resource to use
Now, you may have noticed so far that a lot of my references are coming from the 1960s – and there’s a bit of a caveat I have to add to everything on which I’ve just advised you. I have essentially been showing you the old way to pray the Divine Office. Why? Primarily so that you understand the fullness of the meaning of the Office from time past, but also so that when I explain the new office to you, you can see it for what it is: a simplification. This is where we see that my previous invocation of Sancrosanctum Concilium is a bit difficult, as this document is what called for the simplification of the Divine Office in the 1960s. Note the hours, for example:
There’s not a problem with praying the new Liturgy of the Hours. It is the common prayer book of the Church. But you do have to understand the old structure of the hours in order to understand what the new structure of the hours wants to achieve. Besides the restructuring of the hours, the Psalms are also spread out over the course of a 4 week cycle, meaning that there are generally less Psalms in any given hour than the old way, so it is quicker to do.
Whichever way you want to go, the first thing to do is to try and use some digital resources to begin praying the hours. If you can build up the discipline of praying the hours on an app then you might be more disposed to successfully purchase and use a printed version.
Divinum Officum – This website has everything laid out plainly and you just navigate to the day. Use this if you want to become familiar with the old form of the Office.
iBreviary – This website, as well as app, allows you to quickly and simply navigate what you need for the old form AND the new form of the Divine Office. This is very easy to begin navigating.
After you prove to yourself that you can begin praying the Office, then you can upgrade and move on to actual printed texts.
Liturgy of the Hours – 4 Volume Set – This is for the new Office after Vatican II. Anytime you find a four volume set for the Liturgy of the Hours, this is the same set you will find. And yes, they all cost about the same. Each volume has everything you need to pray the Office at the various times of the season, and everything is listed out pretty straightforward. There is a simpler version of this, titled Christian Prayer, which has some good short term uses (like for Evening Prayer and Morning Prayer), but is not useful for praying the full office. The shorter version lacks a huge portion of the Office.
Nova et Vetera Breviary – This two volume set for the Old Divine Office is excellent. I have not seen it in person, but if I were to buy a printed version of the old Office, this is the one I would go with. The first volume is for Advent through Lent, and the second volume covers Easter through the end of the Church year. If you needed English text as well, then I would recommend checking out the Baronius Press Breviary.
If you ultimately do find this to be all too overwhelming, then there are some abbreviated resources that are excellent.
The Little Office of Baltimore – The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore met in 1884, and one of the fruits of this Plenary Council was the production of a smaller Office, meant for the American laity. This office, being established in 1884, follows the structure of the Old Office, but essentially makes it the same for every day. Sundays are different and certain feast days are different, but otherwise it’s a great resource for praying the office in a much smaller way. I used this to help acclimate my family to the experience of praying the Office, and since it is the same every day, my daughter has very quickly memorized whole psalms!
The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary – This very old devotional prayer book follows the hours of the old Office, but attunes the psalms and readings to the Blessed Virgin. These, also, are the same every day.
Singing the Office
If you, like I, take chant and prayer seriously, then you very well may be interested in singing and chanting the Office. Here the water gets murkier, and this is a misfortune.
The Liturgy of the Hours – There are no full English chant books for the Liturgy of the Hours! And resources for the new Office are few and far between. If you know anything about chant you will know that the Abbey of Solesmes is responsible for everything we have as resources in the modern era. They are part of the whole revival of Gregorian Chant in the early 20th Century! They have since developed a set of the Antiphonale Romanum, which is a lot. While useful and effective, they specifically say that these books are not intended for the average monk, which means that though a good resource, it may not be easy to use. It is also in Latin, of course, which removes part of the accessibility of the new Liturgy of the Hours.
The Liber Usualis – This is a book containing all of the chant for the Mass as well as for Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. It has Lauds and Matins of some special Feast days, but that is all. This book would be more specific for people who chant a lot at Mass and are also interested in singing some of the hours.
Antiphonale Monasticum (1934) – This classic volume, also composed by the Abbey of Solesmes, has all of the Divine Office prior to Vatican II except for Matins. So it is a leg up from the Liber Usualis. It is actually rather common that Matins wouldn’t be included in chant volumes, unless it is for a special feast, since Matins as the vigil hour is probably very difficult to make everyone come together and do. It is much simpler to have everyone do it by themselves and maybe only chant it with a straight tone. The Nocturnale Romanum, an elusive text that contains all of the chants for the Old Matins, has made momentary appearances in recent history, but is currently not available anywhere.
Yes, a Family can really pray the Divine Office
One of the reasons I write this article is so that anyone, especially families, might be encouraged to start praying the Divine Office. Just like I encouraged the good use of praying a daily or weekly Rosary at the beginning of the article, I wish to emphasize again that whatever you include from the Divine Office in your life will be of great benefit. Sancrosanctum Concilium, in that same paragraph 100, states that “Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts,” meaning that the Council envisioned that even a once a week celebration of Vespers by a parochial community would add great spiritual benefit to their lives. Imagine that you and your family prayed Vespers every night, then, compared to that original goal!
As a father myself, though, I already know the excuses:
“We just have too busy a family schedule.”
“Nobody else is interested in it.”
“The kids won’t sit still!”
“I don’t know enough Latin.”
“The kids won’t understand what is going on.”
“It’s too much for me to learn.”
The great news here is that as laity, we are not required to pray the Divine Office. Our participation whatsoever in this liturgical prayer is a great blessing to ourselves and to the Church, and does great honor to God. If you only pray one or two of the hours as a family, and then pray the rest individually, or if the only hour prayed is one of the hours as a family, then, just like the daily or weekly Rosary, these are great victories and wonderful prayerful acts to be celebrated. Not to mention, this is why those abbreviated versions of the Office exist!
This being said, I want to echo what I heard Matt Fradd say recently when commenting on pulling himself away from constant modern cell phone usage: “How much are you willing to sacrifice?” in order to live a more prayerful and peaceful life? Are those excuses above really true? Or is there something else going on that you really want to spend more time doing, like scrolling through your phone, watching youtube videos go leor, staying caught up with a tv show, or being involved with sports or other leisure activities?
As families and even single people, we are always busy. I think of all the retired people I know, who are somehow busier now than they ever were when they were still working. We’re always going to have excuses to not dig in deeper and give our time to God. In my own family I have already seen this fruit. While I pray the more full Divine Office by myself, we use the Little Office of Baltimore as a family – my daughter has multiple psalms and the Magnificat already memorized, and she’s FOUR. If you, like my family and I, really want to turn away from the world and look more directly to God, then this is the way to do it. Plug into the fullness of the liturgy of the Church, and do the Opus Dei (the work of God) in the Divine Office.
Bullet list of tips to pray the Divine Office with family:
- Revisit the order of introducing the hours into your daily routine that I mentioned at the beginning. It may take a year or longer to really get into the swing of the full office, if not a good amount of it!
- Don’t pressure other members to do more than they’re able.
- Allow kids a little wandering freedom (but keep them close!).
- Provide kids with a tactile focus (Rosary beads, a book of their own, a religious image book).
- Singing is way better than just reading – even if you want to adopt just one of the eight simple Gregorian Tones for the whole of the Office.
- Allow yourself to feel a little confused at first. Eventually the habit will build itself. You’ll know you’re there when you’re kids start spontaneously singing and saying parts of the office on their own!
In previous articles, I have written about the existence of the human soul, justifying it using Aristotelian and Thomistic logic. Expounding on the logic is difficult for a new reader, laborious for an amateur explaining it, and grueling for an academic trying to add to the already standing body of work around Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysical ideas. Of course, the intersection of my academic studies and Aristotle or Aquinas really collide when speaking about language. While there is plenty to speak of within the Thomistic tradition about the nature of language, it is done in one sort of way.
Seemingly from age to age, it is enough to send the minds of philosophers spinning to contemplate the fact that the phenomenon of language is so uniquely intertwined with the human soul, indivisible from our nature as both rational and animal. Most of the energy that St. Thomas puts toward contemplating the nature of language and the mind deals with the nature of man’s reception of knowledge. The reception of knowledge is the grounds on which we formally understand that we do have souls, and rational ones at that. This fact, as O’Callaghan writes, is closely intertwined with St. Thomas’ understanding of the purpose of man.
“Not only is it the case that for St. Thomas our mental life is incomplete without its welling in the world of animals, plants, and inanimate objects, but perhaps even more striking is St. Thomas’s position that the created world of animals, plants, and inanimate beings is itself incomplete until it is taken up into the mental life of the human person who dwells within it. This mutual indwelling is for St. Thomas the perfection of the created order, a more perfect image and likeness of God” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 280-281).
Man’s teleos, final purpose, is to behold God as He truly is, for “final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence” (Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Q. 3, Art. 8) This is the Beatific Vision. God is a truly infinite being, infinitely higher in nature than we ever could be, and our purpose is to spend eternity beholding Him, coming to know Him. We could spend all of eternity beholding Him and still never find an end of wonder.
For Aquinas, the human soul is, primarily, receptive in nature. Its teleos is receptive, therefore Aquinas understands the whole of the soul as primarily being a receiver in and of the world, and more so a receiver of God. Thus, when exploring the soul’s relationship to language, Aquinas primarily engages in the notion of comprehension, the work of such contemplation leading to my aforementioned articles.
Yet as many know, this is not the whole of language. Sure, language is comprehended, but how does an integral view of an ensouled human explain the action of speech? How does it explain where languages come from and how they develop and change? There are many questions that we could get to, but for now my big question is this: how do we explain the phenomenon of language grammar within a Thomistic framework? Modern linguists all have their ideas about how words exist in the human mind, but a large part of my linguistic studies at university were not so much interested in how words are and become manifest in the human mind (though that was certainly of interest as well) but also how those words cooperated, whether in comprehension or production, to produce elements bigger than themselves.
Curious to my experience, there, was how the most successful language acquisition models would often sidestep some of these questions of the nature of grammar, deeming any one model or idea insufficient, ultimately claiming it wasn’t an important enough question to satisfy before looking on to classroom practices. It was especially odd since most of my other classes spent time looking at just how language is constructed in the mind, such as my syntax classes. It didn’t take long, though, to notice a particular obsession with my favorite acquisition theories that was common to my favorite philosopher: comprehension. From observing Stephen Krashen to Bill VanPatten and beyond into the larger community of language instructors that were hyper focused on enveloping learners with mountains of opportunity for purposeful comprehension, it was impossible to not connect my favorite academic subjects.
The theories expounded by these academics, the Input Hypothesis and the Input Processing theory, subordinate or eliminate grammar lessons in the language classroom when practically applied to curriculum. Overt grammar knowledge, they argue (and prove), is unnatural and isn’t effective for novices. What is? Many repeated innocuous exposures to significant forms of grammar in context.
So can Aquinas explain why these theories are true? Can Aquinas explain how the human mind learns grammar without overly explicit lessons? I firmly believe that a Thomistic Theory of Grammar would help explain and inform many courses of modern linguistic study.
Grammar exists as Aristotelian form knowledge in the intellect as abstracted relationships.
In Article #3 of this series, I presented the facts that words are equivalent to the passiones animae, the impressions made on the soul from reality around it. As an important beginning point, I wish to recap the way that words exist in our minds. From the perspective of comprehension, we see that a set of phonological or orthographical conveniences become associated with a distinct passion of, or impression on, the soul. The human subject perceives something in reality, or rather, something in reality makes an impression on the human senses, and the intellect becomes impressed upon by the senses themselves. While the true Aristotelian form of the perceived object never leaves itself, the very what-ness (quidditas) of the object becomes grasped at by the soul, and the impression can be called a passio animae. The act of receiving the passio and remembering the passio within the passive intellect becomes comprehension.
Now, in my classes and in the field of study of linguistics, grammar is classified as a unique branch of the reality of language, because it seems to be its own category. Suddenly one is not considering the abstraction of ‘dog’ or even the abstract motion of ‘eating’ but the strange application and rules of how these words work together. We do not say “Eating dog” or “Eat dog” or “Dog eat” but rather “The dog eats.” It is no surprise that multiple words get strung together, but the linguist studying grammar wishes to understand not only why we string words together in this specific way, but how we implicitly know and control this construction of language and how we know when to add or remove different linguistic affixes. Perhaps, even, the linguist wants to know why an incorrect construction of these elements leads to miscommunication. The average man does not overtly think about constructing his sentences, but simply communicates his observations, needs, desires, and inquiries. Even an educated man, though, can be quite confused by obscure sentence strings and sentences that ignore standard grammar conventions.
Returning to our information of St. Thomas Aquinas, we see that when words work together, there is in fact a single passio animae that results from the conveyed information. All of the individual components work together and create a single impression, a “complex concept” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 19-20) . Thus informed, one might ask where grammar fits in. It cannot be ignored, as clearly incorrect grammar leads to obstruction of comprehension, but done well or with little deviance it is unnoticeable.
Since language is particular, and not universal to all of mankind, it would be easy to propose that grammar somehow belongs solely within the material domain, in the brain, or, at the very least, as a sensory phenomenon. This would likely be akin to a behaviorist understanding of language and grammar, where there are positive associations built up with certain word or sound relationships, and negative associations with incorrect relationships. If I said to my friend “Nosotros hablas mucho bien español” I would suffer some negative reactions, but if I then corrected to “Nosotros hablamos muy bien el español” I would be received much more positively. The issue with this approach is that it ignores the fact that words and grammar conventions themselves carry meaning, which within the human mind properly belongs to the intellect. There’s a reason that behaviorist ideas of psychology haven’t aged well.
If grammar somehow belongs to the intellect, then we have to differentiate grammar and words. Words observe a singular entity, while grammar primarily entertains multiple entities. Here it is helpful to consider what sorts of substantial categories of things the intellect abstracts. Aristotle long ago distinguished between substantial forms and accidental forms, substantial being something like “human” whereas accidental is “red hair.” Within the concept of accidental forms, Aristotle described nine types, and one of the most significant here for us to understand is that of relation. Mere relationships are themselves abstracted accidental forms, beings, that the intellect entertains, separate even from the things that a relationship enjoins.
In Spanish, there are many suffixes for verbs which convey a range of information, from the time of the action and the subject that performed the action to subtle mood differences of the action (whether it for sure happened or whether it is desired that it happens). Certainly, then, the suffixes connect the primal identity of the word with more subtle applications of that word with other abstract notions of ‘past’ and ‘unfulfilled’ and ‘by us.’ At play is a distinct relationship. But this distinct relationship does not exist solely to that unique action in that one context. It can be applied to many words describing different actions, but it is the same abstract relationship at play.
When students learn a new language, it can be fascinating to learn about the novel grammar constructions of new languages. One of my favorites of these is one I learned of Irish Gaeilge, where possession cannot be expressed by a transitive verb. One must say that a certain object is “at” them. But by saying something is “at” one self, they have thus expressed possession.
Tá an uisce agam.
Is the water at-me.
I have the water.
Yet, as wild and foreign as the grammatical concept may propose itself to be, it is nonetheless still comprehensible to the student, even if only after many exposures to the various instances in which the language proposes it to the student. In my experience of teaching language, this is the part that students struggle with the most. It’s not necessarily learning that certain phonetic or orthographic pieces are constructed together, but that the abstract relationships proposed by the grammar are actually meaningful and appropriate.
Why can’t I just say that I LIKE the food Mr. Skipper? Why do I have to say that it pleases me? That’s so wEiRd.
So inevitably, grammar is a composition of certain abstract relationships that one language orchestrates very differently than another. In Spanish one of the most important relationships is between Action, Time, and Subject. The importance can be seen in not just the primacy in a phrase, but how convenient the expression of this relationship is in phonetics. It all gets conjoined in the very same word.
Fuimos – We left
It is not impossible for other languages to convey similar meanings, but the conventions of expressing those meanings look differently, and the attention given to those conventions and relationships take on different value as an abstract whole. The fact that prepositions are always connected to other subjects or objects means that in Irish, personal pronouns become subjugated as suffixes to the pronoun in question. Yet that is the key – the two separate elements of preposition and pronoun, in Irish, are subject to a grammar relationship that results in a phonetic merge.
Ag + mé
Where Grammar Comes From
This is a point I want to address with particular importance and stress. In an “I-make-me” world, we want to decentralize power into the individual, often to the detriment of our communal nature.
When a baby learns a language, they have to learn about the conventions of grammar and the abstract relationships that the language of their parents prioritizes. But the parents do not take the baby to school to expound on the nature of those relationships, and the baby still learns the language just fine. In general, it’s probably a common assurance that most parents are not able to expound on those relationships. For them, the language is as much innate given as it will be for their child.
Here I want to stress the obscure nature of the soul. You see, when Aquinas investigates the nature of the soul and talks about comprehension, he is never speaking about an overt process. He doesn’t talk about the intellect recognizing the act of cognition. He talks about the immediate and incognito effects of cognition. For Aquinas, comprehension is not really a voluntary action, it is mostly involuntary. Callaghan explains that, “in the case of intellect, a potentially intelligible thing extra animam, rendered actually intelligible by the agent intellect, moves the possible intellect to its act” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 214), where the motion of intelligibility and comprehension begins outside of the intellect. The intellect is capable of recognizing how it works, but it is a complex act of self-analysis, a reception of itself into itself, only after the primary acts of comprehension are already complete. So when one speaks of analyzing grammar, we are already speaking about things that we have understood, and are grasping at how it is possible for our intellects to have already done what they have. In other words, we do not know what the primary relationships motivating our language’s construction are until we are able to later reflect on them.
Initially, of course, humans did not just have their languages. They had to have come out of something else. What is innate to humanity as a source out of which language came? Perhaps philosophers like Naom Chomsky want to talk about the powers of Universal Grammar, where there are certain neurologically based constructs that predict the growth of language in the human person, and are evident in the analysis of syntax across languages. Later advocates, such as Ray Jackendoff, will of course be sure to tell us that such explanations are possible without resorting to a ‘magical’ view of the mind as soul. Yet, truly, it is the intellect and will, that which makes us rational creatures, that is the true substrate of the human person, which gives rise to language.
At some early point in human development, historically and not in any one person, groups of humans could have begun with artificially and intentional phonetic relationships that conveyed abstract relationships. One can think of how a string of words can convey grammatical notions:
Dog eat now but cat eat morning not now.
The children of those who came up with the more artificial constructions of language would receive them more naturally, and it would not be so difficult to use and explicitly remember those linguistic conventions. They might even feel so free as to build or synthesize more linguistic conventions and further their language into something more advanced. There is modern evidence of this behavior with the phenomena of pidgin and creole languages, where a certain community synthesizes two or more languages, oftentimes with difficulty or with novel structures and what would previously be considered unconventional, but then the children of that community acquire the synthesized language as its own and do so with ease, essentially creating a new language. To conceive of primitive human communities doing so without a previous linguistic base is not difficult. Certainly within three generations it is conceivable to think of a human community moving from not having a language at all to having an incredibly elaborate language. Yet, as the third generation carries on to the fourth, there is no need to overtly convey linguistic grammar conventions, if there ever was a need to do so.
Wherefore doth it import to us?
In the general process of abstraction, there is an observation of particulars that contributes towards a non-specific thing which is shared between all of them. In the case of grammar, I have appealed to something of a grammatical relationship that guides specific linguistic constructions. But, one may ask, why is that any different than the more recent tradition of understanding a linguistic ‘rule’? In other words, how is a rule different than a relationship?
Before even engaging in the specifics, I think the description of rule vs. relationship is already a tangible difference. One can think of rule as something with authority that imposes on another, that conveys overt control, and paints an image of very finely tuned divisions between correct and incorrect. Yet quite readily anyone who has spent time in the language classroom will be able to observe that the ‘authority’ of a rule is realistically only a façade, that overt knowledge of rules does not guarantee fluency in the language, and that there are always exceptions. In other words, while there is speak of grammar ‘rules’ it’s really difficult to maintain such an appearance. Instead, a relationship implies something that works dynamically between idea and user, even between ideas, that more often exists implicitly, and is much more forgiving, or even encouraging, of deviances from any norm.
More critically, the average grammar rules are often too dependent on the material elements of language. I can easily picture a Spanish textbook in my head which looks at grammatical categories that are based on purely orthographic and phonetic differences, such as the difference between –ar and -ir verbs. Yet there is no movement of difference in meaning when analyzing these categories.
Fruitfully one can look at these textbooks and see the relationships that stand out as foundational. Ironically they can be found when textbooks attempt to explain the rules, talking about why exceptions exist, what the goal of these different grammatical forms are, etc. When looking at the differences between –ar and -ir verbs, for example, one might end up instead contemplating the relationship between verbs and the present sense of their action as compared to the relationship between verbs and a future sense of their action. While the traditional rules are generally divided somewhat arbitrarily, understanding grammar as a set of relationships is a notion fraught with meaning and purpose. Instead of a learner being taught how to create “correct” phrases, they are instead oriented towards finding meaning and purpose in phrases, and are oriented towards creating meaning and purpose in production.
Now, I hear the critics crying out, “the lists and divisions may be arbitrary, but they help divide up what is a long and complicated list of deviations! There’s no other way to learn so much content! Textbooks can still be used in the classroom if they were to perhaps include more organization around these relationships!” And in a sense, they are correct. Trying to organize grammar lessons and principles around relationships, one may inevitably separate out –ar, -er, and -ir verbs because of the ease of demonstrating their orthographic and phonetic differences, but this returns us to our friends who are teaching language in input-intensive comprehensible classrooms.
The goal of the Input Hypothesis in a practical application is to provide a language learner with a ton of rich and meaningful input, input that actually bears meaning and relevance to a student, so that the student comes to possess the language. The input is often context-rich, heavy with cognates at the beginning of education, and long and drawn out towards a lofty goal at the end of every lesson, filled with many repetitions along the way. It draws the student with purpose towards a third-party goal that immerses and guides the student through language growth the entire time.
Over the years countless studies around input comprehension have demonstrated that students exposed to this rich input perhaps do not develop a rich overt knowledge of textbook rules, but that they have a high implicit understanding of how a language works. They do not struggle in reading books (yes, full books) that target their language level, they engage in relatively fluent conversations, and otherwise have a quite natural possession of a language.
In other words, students taught in Comprehensible Input based classrooms, classrooms that might be considered ‘immersive’ and most often without textbooks or guided curriculum, come to possess a language much in the way that a young child comes to possess their first language(s), without overt grammatical knowledge of a language. They implicitly have formed an understanding of the way that grammatical relationships work within a language, possessing those abstract forms within their intellect that easily guide their comprehension and production of a language, no matter the format.
The Soul is Necessary to Explain Language.
In the end, we return to the main point of this article. At the beginning I asked: “how do we explain the phenomenon of language grammar within a Thomistic framework?” to which we have this answer:
Grammar exists as Aristotelian form knowledge in the intellect as abstracted relationships.
Since grammar in practicality is a set of organizing principles of language that relate two or more meaningful notions together, then those organizing principles, relationships, must exist somewhere that can implicitly exert a governing dominance over the words and affixes that need to be arranged together. Since it has already been established that words root themselves in the abstract formations of the intellect, then it follows that grammar relationships need to similarly take residence in the intellect. Once again we find ourselves needing philosophical logic of the human soul in order to explain the phenomenon of language.
Of course, while this doesn’t seem to have any practical applications, we see that it is incredibly relevant not only to scientists and academics who are trying to explore the nature of language and the forces that govern it, but also to those who teach and learn language. Before you say “I’m not taking a foreign language class!” I just want you to think about how you’re understanding the words of this article, and how you perhaps have taught your own children to speak. What about that word you saw last week for the first time and you had to google search its definition? Language acquisition is most effective, it has generally been documented, when set up with effective Comprehensible Input. As a whole, also, language knowledge is largely implicit, and this Theory of Grammar – a Thomistic Theory of Grammar, finally explains what is going on at the root of our human nature to make it all possible.
~ * ~
Rising high in the midst of beautiful lands,
Are great ugly spires of death and decay.
Built to mimic ascent and to help men pray,
They created dissent, and made it a brand
The men who traipse in the mire below,
Only partially less happy than they
Who in misery built their prisons so gray;
The commoner, at least, is blessed to not know.
In great waves of toil, all fell in to fight,
Donning breastplates of old, effaced with great age,
Under those great towers of pleasure, their cage,
But heraldry, also, aloft at great height.
Recalled not their steps from afore, just what’s next,
They billowed into a carcass of salt,
A desiccate ocean where life came to halt.
So came these armies; into battle they trekked.
Grimly opposed, there sat fathers and brothers,
Staring down a world they’d ne’er think to bear.
Caressing the breeze, plate hard-cut, like feathers,
Capturing the sun and suspending the air.
Their vestments were white, full of color and life.
Calling on their Remittress, heraldry shone.
Close aligned they marched on, more keen than a knife,
Their strike ordained as much as mission condoned.
Plowing through their foe, relentlessly they flayed,
Laying waste to the mobs, though bearing no sword.
They descend’d up that hill whence fell their poor prey,
Sparing not mind nor heart ’til all heard their Lord.
Form never broken, their numbers now higher,
Their order never more graceful and tame.
Hardened faces and eyes ablaze with white fire,
In singular passion and voice they acclaim:
~ * ~
One of my favorite political comments that I have ever heard was given by Bishop Robert Barron. He said, perhaps not exactly, that America has a fickle relationship with the law. In his book Catholicism he writes, “For those who love freedom as choice, the law is, at best, something grudgingly accepted” (p. 40). America is not the only recipient of his comment, as the U.S. is only one of many nations which share a Western history. As my patria and especially as the cause of this article, I will really only focus on the U.S.
In grad school one of my professors engaged us with the topic of epistemology in the vein of historical critical studies. The notion is that communities of men, at different times, had such different views of the world that we could not somehow equate our perspective with theirs, even if we live in the same region and culture as they did. Of course men have always had their disagreements, but there is always something that they have in common, uniting them without even realizing it. At one point in the course my professor asked us: “What is it in our modern time? What do people share in common now without even realizing it?”
I won’t pretend to have an answer to his question, as in many ways the changes that occurred at the beginning of the 19th century have persisted, even if radicalized. I do think, though, that there is something that the modern mind in the U.S. shares, and that is the notion of freedom of choice. This is such an essential characteristic of American identity that it may seem redundant to talk about it in the land of liberty, but there is more to it than that. As my patron was oft fond of doing, we here must make distinctions.
Freedom of choice, the ability to choose everything for oneself internally and externally, may be contrasted with freedom for excellence, the ability to know one’s limits and freely pursue excellence without excessive worry. If “liberty” is a positive trigger word for Americans, “limit” is certainly the opposite. As Barron says, lovers of choice only grudgingly accept limits as necessary evils, mostly to keep “others” from infringing on their own choices.
The wild thing for me is that everyone along the political spectrum is extremely concerned with freedom of choice. Many of our current “hot topics” can be boiled down to a preoccupation of choice. The ability to choose an abortion, to choose citizenship, to choose gender, to choose marriage, to choose gun ownership, to choose schools, to choose careers, to choose pleasure, to choose religion, to choose luxury, to choose healthcare, and, most recently, to choose stock investments. In order to maintain freedom of choice in areas one is interested in, there must be tolerable laws in place that protect one’s right to choose, but that is the extent to which most believe law should go.
I’ve made this observation before in a more casual circumstance and it was, naturally, deflected very quickly. Living in a hyper-politicized environment, it’s not a simple matter of picking and choosing what topics you want to be able to fight for. If one supports freedom to choose abortion, they likely support a specific set of other choices, and deny others’ right to choices as somehow infringing on their own. I know of an individual who is homosexual and obviously supports the freedom to choose what marriage looks like; but they also support the freedom to choose guns! One can imagine the controversy.
More often than not I see that if someone truly aligns themselves with an ideology or with a system of thought outside of the U.S., like religion, they might think outside of this framework. They might conclude that abortion is wrong, not because it impedes choice but because it commits a mortal evil. They might conclude that freedom to choose stocks is too volatile and there need to be strict rules in place not to impede choice, but to stabilize markets. They might conclude that the government should regulate a static income for all citizens, because self-interested companies are unlikely to provide fair wages ALL of the time.
Yet even if one perceives themselves as being outside of this struggle, as being part of an intellectual and moral framework that denies certain pleasures to achieve higher goods, there are temptations, ways that a priority of choice makes its way into one’s mind. Even if one perceives themselves as having concluded that their beliefs are based off of some external logic and not innate desires, I would imagine they are still prone to this way of thinking.
On a day to day basis, when one grows frustrated in not being able to choose the course of their activities and instead has to participate in something of someone else’s design, it is a frustration with freedom of choice. I teach middle-schoolers; I have an idea of what I’m talking about.
A preoccupation with freedom of choice is also really evident in the way that my contemporaries approach raising families, as well. That is, if they do at all. Many people cannot imagine having children because once one does, one has many less options about how to spend their time. Who wants to give up that freedom?
Going to work is a chore; it is the 9-5 grind that we are all trained to brace for and endure. One works for the weekend. Why? Because one does not choose what their daily life looks like while working. On the weekends, one has all the control they desire.
I know I myself get frustrated when my weekend is filled with obligations, and I love when I get to do my choice of activities.
So when a secular gun rights advocate is opposed to abortion, and vice versa, I truly stand astounded. When arguing on purely secular terms, and when both prioritize such freedom to choose, it makes no sense for there to be opposition. Surely both parties can agree and value the priority of choice that the other desires. After all, when someone’s choice might seem to conflict with yours, but you want to honor their difference, the first thing you say might be “it’s your choice!”
Overall when our very politically divided nation can’t find anything to agree on, it’s important to fight and find common ground, or at the very least create it. What better ground than this?
This is only the beginning, though.
As Bishop Barron illustrates, Freedom of Choice is something of an illusion. The appearance goes something like this:
- Pleasurable activities make me happy.
- The more good activities I do, the more happy I am.
- I have to choose activities to do them.
- Therefore: I should choose as many of my activities as possible.
Everyone knows, though, that having a lot of choices to make is often burdensome. In fact what Bishop Barron might point out is that when one is consumed with prioritizing a freedom of choice, one becomes a slave to their choices. Time has to be spent, effort has to be made, and consequences must be faced, all to prioritize a freedom of choice.
Counter to Freedom of Choice, as I have said, is Freedom for Excellence. By appealing to a higher or more external authority to determine what is or isn’t appropriate, correct, or quotidian, one is more truly free to excel at what is presented to them. Bishop Barron’s classic examples of two people who have done this are Shakespeare and Michael Jordan. Both have found excellence and goodness not because they made all the right choices from scratch, but because they stuck to all of the rules (of the English language and of basketball, respectively), and made artistic choices within the proper confines of them. This is the true mark of their excellence : that they stuck to the rules.
Some see the Catholic Church’s depth of regulation as an obstacle to happiness, but the reality is that it is actually essential to any chance of lasting goodness.
The unspoken burden of the modern teacher.
Atlas is a famous titan of Greek mythology, condemned to forever bear the weight of the world. He alone is responsible for holding it on his shoulders; if he falters for even a second, the world will fall away and perish, and he will forever bear the fault of it.
Today’s teachers stand in Atlas’ place. The educational success of each student that comes through their classroom rests entirely on their shoulders. It is fair to say that this was not always the expectation of society. In more recent years there has been an excessive attempt to standardize and systematize education so that all who participate may receive equitable profit, yet this mission is fraught itself with iniquity. Most importantly, here, is that the teacher becomes the focus point of education, and this is no good thing.
Standardization was generally achieved through a few main channels. Standardized tests is the most recognizable, but textbooks are also significant for this process. Most importantly is the notion of Standards Based Grading (SBG), where students are graded according to content mastery rather than assignment completion.
Most definitely, at face value, we see that standardization really helps students. By establishing a system for better education and for more regular education, we find less educational performance gaps, regardless of where the students are living and regardless of who the teachers are. I personally have found that SBG really does seem to take away the “racing” mentality of school. Students are less focused on earning all their points and are more focused on mastering content knowledge.
At its root, standardization is an attempt to systematize what already existed. Standardization determined education to be a good thing and disparities in education to be a sad thing. That one child in rural Arkansas might not be getting the same level of education as a child in a well-to-do area of Washington D.C was not okay. By systematizing the medium of education (curriculum, grading policies, etc.) then education itself became systematized. The ultimate goal? To fine-tune the system of education so that every child, no matter of background, strengths, or interests, will come out the other side as a well-educated and well-rounded individual.
An Unintended Consequence
For a moment, I will lay aside some philosophical concerns about the nature of systemizing a civic institution. I instead want us to think about the effects of standardization and what it does with its participants. For the children, there are a mountain of benefits. There are, perhaps, some drawbacks when we think about creativity, but on the whole we find that more children are improved than not. But children aren’t the only people in this scenario: teachers are also in the midst of it.
Instead of an approach to education that begins with the unique qualities of all participants, standardization methods begin with predicting appropriate or inappropriate methods of instruction. With this understanding, teachers are part of the medium itself. Just as textbooks have to be standardized in order to deliver a standardized curriculum across broad circumstances, teachers also have to be standardized. This is necessary in order to truly establish a singular standard of education across the nation, but it has a serious side effect:
When teachers themselves are seen as part of the system at hand, that means that they are attributed direct causal authority over the outcomes of said system.
Your standard drip coffee maker has a filter holder, a filter that you insert, a water vat, a heating element, a switch, and an electrical plug. Each of these elements are arranged in such a way that they all have a causal effect on the outcome of the coffee maker. They are individual pieces, but there are a cascade of causes that make them work. If you have your coffee maker plugged in, and it doesn’t make coffee, what is to be assumed? Certainly that something in the middle isn’t working.
We can think about a standardized education system looking something like a coffee maker. We hope to design such a system that when used, produces expected results; if it’s plugged in, it should make coffee. When something goes wrong in the educational system, we can assume something similar to the coffee maker problem: something in the system failed. There could be a number of things that end up receiving the blame: the textbooks, the structure a school administration has put in place, or, most importantly here, the teacher.
Under the principle of subsidiarity, the teacher is the most significant element in a system of education, as they are the closest human element to the students. Being human means they are the most variable, and so the most problematic in the face of standardizing education.
The Teacher, Atlas
The teacher is the last domino to hit the children, so to speak. They are the final deliverers of content, the assessors, the troubleshooters, etc. Now, when I was teaching as a graduate student at the university, my role was extremely minimized into being a mere facilitator of content. I had no design authority and it was not my place to change anything; I was merely meant to deliver. My professor meant it when he said that we were not responsible for our students’ outcomes. Barring some major immoral act, the challenge of our university level classes was between our students and the content. We were not Atlas.
When I got my first public teaching job, I got the complete opposite message. It was told, albeit not directly, that my students’ performances were a result of my efforts. If my students failed, it was my fault. If my students succeeded, I had done my job sufficiently. The idea was that the curriculum and knowledge was already standard, and so any variance in student performance would be a result of my effectiveness as a teacher.
The first test I gave went very poorly for my Spanish students. I’ll never forget when a student asked me:
“Well you’re going to curve the grades, right? That’s what all the other teachers do.”
“No, absolutely not!”
“Why? It’s only going to look bad on you if you don’t.”
Even my students thought that their failure was actually mine.
The teacher, here, is the Atlas that holds up the classroom. Whereas my college professor told us that we were nigh an independent variable when it came to student success at the university, my new school’s policy was telling me that there were nigh any other variable as causal as myself. The most crushing reality of my new job was in this difference: that an entire world came down on my shoulders, and nearly swallowed me up.
“Oh, get over yourself Robert. You just don’t get it. One group is made up of university students and the other is made up of high schoolers.”
“You’re just upset because you finally took on a real job instead of babysitting university level students, and you don’t actually like having responsibility.”
Thankfully no one has ever said these things to my face, but I’m just anticipating the most likely responses to my article. They might even be comments I would have levied against myself, had I not experienced it for myself. Now, though, with more experience I am able to look back and realize that I had been thrust into Atlas’ place without warning. The newfound weight was unbearable.
When teachers become part of the system, their individuality is forgotten: their strengths, weaknesses, and unique experiences are pushed aside in the interest of standardization. What is worse, though, is that children are almost forgotten, too. As previously discussed, children do indeed reap many benefits from standardized education, but by forgetting their individuality along with their teachers’, their learning is negatively impacted.
Think back to the coffee maker example: in order for the device to be effective, and for the resulting cup of coffee to be the same every time, the coffee grinds going into the filter need to be the same as well. If the grinds are different, you notice.
It goes without saying that children are even more diverse than coffee grounds.
Any perfected system of standardized education necessarily forgets that all human beings have free will.
For teachers, the issue of human will is a pretty easy variable to rule out. We want to be there, either intrinsically because we want to teach and we want the kids to be successful or extrinsically because we want to be paid for doing a good job. That means that our will power is automatically counted in and you don’t have to worry about whether the teacher is invested. There are, of course, exceptions, but by and large this rule applies.
Students are not equally incentivized. Students are not coffee grounds that can simply be placed into the machine: they have to will themselves to be educated. In application, standards-based education suggests that motivation is irrelevant. As long as students are put through the best system their motivation doesn’t matter, because the best system has accounted for their motivation and has provided the right tools to get the students engaged.
But this makes my analysis too shallow. I’m not just addressing the issue of intrinsic motivation in students. If that was my issue alone, I might get on board the “gamification” trend within education. What I am getting at is a deeper reality within the culture. Students are not only human beings that have will power that needs to be engaged at school. How they are raised at home to handle life’s challenges are dramatically more important than what they learn at school.
First and foremost, parents are the primary educators of children.
This is a teaching of the Catholic Church. Part of the burden of parenting is that as a parent, you become the primary teacher and role model of your children.
Does the parent:
- Care that students master content or only care that students bring home a letter grade?
- Think education is about getting a good job or that education is primarily about self-improvement?
- Care more about their own work and interests over their children’s growth?
- Foster that inner moral compass innate to us all?
Teachers are sometimes recognized as spending more active time with children than parents, but this isn’t ever just one teacher. Usually it’s multiple, and even then it’s with a large group of children. The time that matters most is the time at home and the voices that matter most are the ones that feed them every night.
Not only are parents’ voices the ones that matter most, but parents’ actions are the things kids watch the most. We tend to think of our sins as private, but the reality is that our children are very perceptive of us at home. They’re very quick to recognize hypocritical tendencies. They know our habits sometimes better than we do. They hear what we say about government, about our own friends, about our worries, and about school. Sure, they know what you want them to do at school, but what do they think you would do if you yourself were sitting in a classroom?
It is said that actions speak louder than words.
When I talk about the unique human quality of will when it comes to understanding children, I do not exclusively mean intrinsic motivation. I instead mean the entire culture that students carry with themselves as they enter the school doors, and that is nothing a teacher has ordinary power over. It has everything to do with priorities in a student’s home life.
Upon the many goats and the few sheep.
Christ tells us in Matthew 7:13 that the way to hell is broad and easy to follow, while the path to heaven is narrow and difficult. Many will enter through the wide gate, he warns. Thus in an operative way we are obliged to have great hope that many will be saved, but we must live with the reality that this will probably not be the truth of what occurs. This is the shadow under which the Church operates. The most fundamental reality which we face, the existence of God and the necessity that we cooperate with the Church, is something that we don’t expect everyone to conform to.
Certainly we don’t expect that there is some miraculous system of evangelization that will convert the whole world, if Christ Himself didn’t even convert every person He came into contact with.
Education is a process that involves the human will, just like religious conversion. We might refer here to St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s notion of assent. As much as any human individual needs to assent to something for it to be manifest in them in a real way, education must reach past logical agreement and into a deep assent. But it will not reach into a real assent if the student never consents to receiving educational content.
If the Church herself does not assume that all she preaches to will be receptive of God’s word, why does educational policy assume that all it drafts into its curriculum will be receptive of its content?
By no means does this mean that the Church does not have hope that all she preaches to will be receptive. Similarly, too, it does not mean that the educational system itself must fail to hope to reach all of its recipients in an authentic way.
What I am trying to address in this article is the ultimate issue of the Atlas Complex. When we forget that the ultimate source and goal of education is a group of human beings, we might have the arrogance to assume that there could ever be a perfect system of education. Most importantly, when we forget that students are also human beings with will power, with their own ideas, with their own goals, with opinions, with problems, we think that they are all average and adequate recipients of educational formation. Thusly, and usually unfairly, we attribute student success and failure to the next most variable portion of the educational system: teachers.
When standardization is the primary organizing principle for education, and when it is allowed to play out, then teachers bear the weight of the responsibility for the success of their classrooms. If my student fails, it is my fault. If they are successful, it is due to my good effort. This is a detriment to the student because it forgets them and their inherent personality and ignores their necessary volition as a part of the educational process. We must not forget our students’ humanity. We must not be so arrogant as to assume that we can perfect human institutions and that we can solve all human problems with them.
No matter the system of education in place, students will fail. No matter the quality of teacher, students will fail. No matter the accessibility of knowledge, students will fail. We must always remember that public and standardized education exists at the service of parents, the primary educators. If parents raise and teach their children to be cynical and untrusting, then the children stand a good chance of becoming cynical and untrusting. If parents raise their children to value education (in and of itself, not for some further goal of money or status), then their children stand a good chance of making something of their education.
Of course, I would be remiss to leave it at that and possibly leave you thinking that parents are Atlas in place of the teacher. As much as a perfect system of education and the perfect teacher will not lead to 100% student success, I must also emphasize that perfect parents and a perfect family will also not lead to 100% student success. The nuclear family is just the most basic unit of societal structure and is where people are most affected by others’ opinions and beliefs. If anyone stands a chance to make a drastic impact on children, it is the people that exist within that unit.
The issue in this article is that teachers, especially in public education, have been encouraged to have an Atlas Complex. If the main factor contributing is that the educational system has shifted all responsibility of success onto the teacher, the antidote is to successfully remember the place of student assent. Instead of further questioning teachers and encouraging an Atlas Complex, we should focus on supporting families and fostering a culture that values education for its own sake. Then, of course, remembering that nothing we do will establish a perfect system for success, we must incorporate an expectation of failure into our systems of education, and do our best to accommodate those failures with compassion and charity.
Protestants may shudder at the mere mention of the word altar, a word that is inherently tied to the notion of sacrifice, perhaps supposed to be a relic of an ancient Israelite past. Yet every Catholic church has an altar within it, where we believe that the same sacrifice Christ offered which was Himself to the Father and is as eternal as Himself, is re-presented during every Mass. In other words we say, by Christ’s own authority, His flesh is made present to us in the Eucharist. Since this is His sacrificed flesh which we are called to consume, as the Jews of old were to eat the sacrificial lamb, then the Altar in a Catholic Church is the dignified place where the very flesh of Christ is again made present.
Now this Holy Sacrifice is only ever had under the authority of a priest, as he has particularly been handed the authority through Apostolic Succession, an authority which is sourced first in Christ at the Last Supper. Lay Catholics may not do this on their own as they have not been handed the authority to do so, but we are all called to present ourselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1), and so we ought to find ways to do this. One way we can do this is by offering our prayers, which St. Paul suggests we do without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). At home we can have our own altar dedicated to prayer, and this is what I have done in our own home.
Of course the first place I had to begin was by planning. I drew up some rough plans:
Now, this is where I began:
Incredibly modest, using what was available around the house we had just moved into, it was enough. Using a table leaf on top of storage boxes, I set it up with some basics: A diptych as the central focus as well as a few appropriate candles. Of course, this is highly unsustainable. It was only a matter of time before my infant crawled and pulled something down!
Initially we found a local craftsman who was putting together custom tables from pieces of a building that fell in Nashville after a really large tornado. Ultimately, for a couple of reasons, the plan fell through. Yet nearly as soon as we forwent our deal with the craftsman we stumbled across a lovely buffet table on Facebook Marketplace. That, combined with a crucifix and icon of the Theotokos, really made a big difference.
With the buffet table serving as a base I was finally ready to begin on the back, which I generally have referred to as a retable. This is because it sits primarily on the back of the table rather than having support from the ground.
I went to the local hardware store and picked up my next supplies. My plan? Use a smooth-sided piece of plywood as the base and find some molding pieces to serve as columns. I would find a jigsaw to cut out the main shape of the retable as well as form my own molding for the arches from the remaining plywood.
When I got there, I actually found newel posts that had been cut in half length-wise. It was perfect!
The first thing I did was cut the newel posts down by taking off the heads and most of the bases.
Having a general idea of where the pieces would lay and what I wanted the arches to look like, I went ahead and stained the columns. I also drew out the arch shapes onto the plywood.
After getting my hands on a jigsaw, which was most generously gifted by a new friend, I got to work cutting.
My cuts were far from perfect, but I also knew I would be layering it with some higher trim pieces, so I let it be okay…not that the trim pieces were much better!
Using paper towels I made stencils for the trim pieces.
The trim pieces…well…required much trimming. But the result was pretty neat! I prioritized the fullness of the outside arches while cutting the middle arch pieces into finer tips so that the result was a mostly-seamless connection between the arches.
Next was putting stain on the trim pieces and the back of the retable!
In line with the design I began with, I also painted the face of the plywood with a light blue in honor of our Blessed Mother.
With an extra set of hands (clamps), I held the columns and trim pieces to the board while I screwed them in from the back.
Once the pieces were on I used wood putty and stain to fill in those cracks. I also put wood putty on areas of the plywood that had knots, painting over it once it was dry.
Once it was put together, it was just a matter of using trim screws to secure the retable to studs and rearranging the altar pieces.
Just in time for Advent!
Adornéd maid, never lacking in beauty,
Within and without, life ever begetting,
Her veil her virtues, by Him ever breathing,
Highest of all by fulfilling her duty.
She is ancient and worn, her gown just now rags.
Vain children, forgetful, grown into their own,
Cast aside their life-giver to play, then groan,
Treasures of her bosom sit out in dead bags.
Here, as much as then, does her splendor abound.
Only the wise, between Mother and Daughter,
Can discern, and then, understand and behold.
For none is her love concealed, though she offers.
Her prayers, her tears, unceasing aid through night’s hold,
Caressing this vine planted in her womb’s ground.
“I’m sorry, that’s too much religion for me.”
“I wanted to make sure my kids had enough religion, but not that it consumed their whole life.”
“Christianity is about faith, not about religion” or “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.”
I’ve had about enough of this statement. Let’s look at a bit of a hypothetical conversation.
Michael: Here, sir. Consider the Catholic faith. We go to Church every Sunday, we receive the very Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we go to confession to restore our relationship with God every time that we cause God pain through sin, we hold that sacraments have literal effects in the world, we formally pray about five times a day, and we hold that God wants to invade every part of our lives. Won’t you join us?
John: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.
M: Well, then, consider going to Church every Sunday, receiving Holy Communion, participating every so often in the sacraments, pray five times a day, but just ask Jesus to forgive your sins personally.
J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.
M: Well, then, consider going to Church every Sunday, participating every so often in the sacraments, pray a few times a day, and we won’t worry about regular reflection and repentance.
J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.
M: Well, then, consider going to Church every Sunday, we’ll extend the preaching so you don’t have to study Scripture on your own, pray every once in a while, and just make sure you’re baptized at some point.
J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.
M: Well, then consider going to Church every Sunday, and make sure you say some prayer at some point during the week.
J: No, sir, I’m sorry. That’s too much religion for me.
M: Well…come to Church every Sunday?
What is the notion of ‘religion’? Where does that come from? Even in ancient Rome the origin of the word was not exactly known. St. Augustine considers multiple, good, potential etymologies, but the most significant one he entertains is connecting the word to religare, which means ‘to bind together again’, ‘to reconnect’.
People who have fallen away from Catholicism or people who would never in their right mind consider it as a legitimate expression of Christianity (much less the expression of Christianity), see the notion of religion as a stumbling block.
“It’s just a bunch of stuffy rules.”
“It’s not authentic.”
“If you are following a religion, you are trying to work your way into heaven. That’s not faith.”
Let’s walk through a little exercise together, if you don’t mind doing a bit of work.
John has, for some personal reason, accepted the Lord Christ into his heart. He believes He died and rose again, won victory over Sin and True Death, and that He truly loves him.
Great! Now what? Does John lie back and wait for Christ to come again, or until death takes him?
I should think not. He should engage his faith! React to it! But how?
He could start by going to Church every Sunday. He could start by joining a community. This way he is not practicing his faith in isolation, something very counter to the nature of God. By going to Church every Sunday he can also open his heart and mind to hear the Word of God, to increase his faith in previously unknown ways. At what point, though, is prioritizing this important faith activity and regularly participating in it then “too religious”?
He could pray more. Prayer is not an act that changes God, as God does not change, but primarily an act that draws us closer to Him! Be it the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), a Hail Mary (Luke 1:28, Luke 1:42-43, James 5:16), singing/chanting/meditation on any of the 151 Psalms, or spontaneous prayer, these are all opportunities to engage with the Lord. St. Paul exhorts us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). All of these are ways for John to do that. At what point, though, is prioritizing this important faith activity and regularly participating in it then “too religious”?
He could follow Christ’s commands.
Christ said for His disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So John could participate in baptism.
Christ said “This is my Body” and “This is the Chalice of my Blood” and “Do this in remembrance of me” (wherein remember means more than just recall the fond memory). He said whoever does not eat His flesh and drink His blood will have no life in Him (John 6:53).
Christ told His disciples that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in Heaven and whatever they loose will be loosed in Heaven. This is the power Christ gives to His disciples to bind and loose sins, not in their own power, but as avatars of Christ on Earth.
At what point, though, is prioritizing these important faith activities and regularly participating in them then “too religious”?
I’m sure you understand my point, but let me make my point clear:
One may shove off religiosity in the name of faith, assuming that these elements are contrary to each other. But in the act of faith, seeking and trying to bind ourselves to our Creator and Sustainer, what better way is there to join ourselves to our God than through regularly practice and custom, or even ritual?
I think there is a misconception against religion that begins with an understanding of God as unchanging and immutable. Because He is unchanging, then we assume that our participation in His saving grace is similarly unchanging and immutable. But remember the dynamic of prayer: it is not about changing God, it is about changing us. While here on Earth our mission as Christians is not about passive participation in faith, it is about actively approximating ourselves to God, it is about sanctification and justification.
A faith without works is dead (James 2:17), but works alone does not save. The Catholic Church has long recognized (since the beginning) that one must receive faith and then respond to the faith with works of love.
The truth of the matter is that religion is a tool wherein one can deepen their faith, their hope, and their charity.
The other truth of the matter is that even those who say they do not like religion, yet have deep faith, actually practice religion. They have habits that actively deepen their faith. They have habits that protect them from sin and from breaking away from God. They have habits of learning more things about God. They have habits of participating in Community around God’s love and grace.
The phrase “I’m sorry, that’s too much religion for me” is a dangerous slippery slope.
Even if one maintains proper religiosity, but utters this phrase or expresses it in some way to the people around them, they promote an air of disregard for the Faith. It tells people that “you can do what you want, so long as you acknowledge God,” yet doing whatever one wants is exactly what drives us away from God.
Don’t be afraid of religiosity. Embrace it.
I’ve only been a Catholic for two years. Two years. That’s not long, in Catholic terms. And of course, when you enter a community, you don’t begin by first understanding every nuance of their people. You get to know the surface level of the people and the core tenets of their bond. But as you sink in longer, you start to see more and more sides of people, their delights, their frustrations, their arguments, etc. Since I came into the Catholic faith already barreling through books and podcasts at a million miles an hour, I didn’t stop, and these two years have been almost as enlightening as the one leading up to my conversion.
One thing of interest to me is the general Catholic community’s response to traditionalists (rad-trads, glad-trads, etc). Ironically, since I converted from a pretty vague and liberal non-denominational Christianity, I’ve seen it in other people’s faces as I myself have approached them. My goal in this article is to offer a method of healing conversation in this rift between modern Catholics.
The source of conflict seems to arise from the Second Vatican Council, started in the early 60s, generally concluding around 1965. This council was different than many, primarily being *more of a pastoral council, rather than being a doctrinal council, as almost all others in the past had been. One of the documents from this council was Sacrosanctum Concilium, a document that addressed the shape of liturgical life within the Catholic Church. In and of itself it left a lot of wiggle room, but the idea was to remember the way that the early Church adapted itself to the many cultures it was evangelizing to, and the way that it married the sacred and true, within the church, with the beautiful that was found uniquely expressed in the people it was preaching to. Pretty soon after the Second Vatican Council, however, came up a group called the *Concilium, who took it upon themselves to respond to Sacrosanctum Concilium‘s demands and modify the regular Catholic Church’s liturgy so that it conformed to the Council’s demands. It is generally agreed that the *Concilium was much more left-leaning than the Council Fathers themselves, and modified the liturgy in much more extreme ways than anticipated. The result? The *Missal of Paul VI, or the Novus Ordo Missae, the New Order of the Mass, standing in contrast to the Tridentine Mass of old. As you can imagine, not everyone was happy with the new changes.
Imagine Father Michael, a priest at a pretty normal parish. He knows most of his parishioners well. One of the parishioners, John, has talked with Fr. Michael often about the Liturgy and traditional elements of the old Latin Mass. But John is not the only trad that Fr. Michael has known. He’s encountered many trads in the past who are angry, perhaps vitriolic in their speech, and who waste no time in correcting Fr. Michael or his fellow priests on ‘abuses’ of the liturgy. John has never himself demonstrated these negative behaviors towards Fr. Michael, but he has been talking more and more about traditional liturgy and traditional Catholic practices.
One day, John approaches Fr. Michael with a calm smile on his face, excited to talk about a new element of traditional liturgy he learned about the other day. Fr. Michael sees John coming and immediately tenses. What will he do this time? Is he finally going to be angry? Reprimand him with false authority? Call him a bad priest? Fr. Michael steels himself, puts up a wall to genuine conversation, and hopes the barrage passes soon.
Sadly this reaction is not uncalled for. Recently Bishop Barron directed a video to trads who, while claiming to uphold a better example of the faith, are spewing vitriol all over the internet and social media, committing the mortal sin of calumny. Despite the novelty of my own Catholicism and the staunchly different origin of my conversion, I have encountered the same measure of ‘shut down’ from priests and other church leaders that I have directly spoken with. Once they learn that I’m even interested in elements of older liturgy, they seem to stop listening, and steel themselves against whatever I might say next. It seems to me that this conflict of the recent past has erupted into mountains of pain and ill-speak. The result? Liturgy has almost become a taboo topic within the Catholic Church. People put themselves and others into camps, they don’t open themselves up to hear what other influences might offer, and nothing productive seems to be done.
My goal here is to offer a bridge of connection, a way for non-trads to understand trads.
Firstly, why are trads always so angry? Why do they hurt people so recklessly? There may be a mountain of reasons, but one thing most trads have in common is this: a desire for beauty.
Think about walking into a beautiful old Cathedral, that has stood since the time of the Roman Empire, but has been burned down and abandoned. What is that pain that you feel, watching something so beautiful be cast to the wayside?
Recently I walked into St. John’s Episcopal Church for the first time in Tallahassee, Florida. Beautiful. Stunning. Compared to the Catholic Cathedral of St. Thomas More down the street? A hundred times more beautiful. But when I thought about that Church not being in Catholic hands? When I thought about the Catholic Church just down the street not having the same level of beauty? I felt a pain in my chest. A heartache.
The main source of anger, or, if more vulnerably revealed, sadness and hurt, is having a high expectation of beauty and reverence in every aspect of the Catholic faith, but not having those expectations fulfilled.
The Catholic Church is nigh 2,000 years old. It’s traditions are old and beautiful, and have had much time to refine themselves and become elevated to all new levels. Architecture, music, art, iconography and liturgy have all had so much time to be taken to such high levels of sophistication that the trad has many expectations for the current Church. Yet when a trad walks into a Church shaped by the Novus Ordo Missae, he typically does not find these things. Along with many of the adaptations of the Novus Ordo in the late 20th century, architecture became increasingly simplified. Music was taken in from local cultures, and Gregorian Chant was all but deleted. Art was infiltrated by modernists and postmodernists. Liturgy had many elements of mysticism erased, and, comparatively, can be incredibly less reverential.
When a trad looks at a ‘progressive’ Catholic Church, they feel pain from the lack of fulfillment of their expectation.
Regarding Vatican II
Certainly, yes, there are trads who actually have beef with the Second Vatican Council documents themselves. They think the Church has somehow ‘protestantized’ itself, abandoned Church teaching, and is living in some sort of apostasy. But not all trads are that way. I, for one, enjoyed the Vatican II documents. Were it not for them, I don’t think my article here would be very welcome by clergy. Even understanding Sacrosanctum Concilium, while I admit has been difficult for me, is something I can get by. But in processing that document and coming to terms with it, it has helped me understand something about the relationship between more progressive and conservative strains of Catholics.
The Sacredness of the Liturgy
What I think non-trad priests and clergy may not understand about the trad movement is that the manner of celebration of the liturgy and conformity to the Second Vatican Council are not a unified identifier for trads. In other words, just because I as a trad do not like the Novus Ordo Missae as much as I like the Tridentine Mass, does not mean that I don’t agree with the Second Vatican Council. These things are separate.
Bishop Barron, in a video (1:20) recently about the Second Vatican Council, reminded viewers that the Novus Ordo Missae spiritually fed the lives of saints such as Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II. While it might be easy to retort that the Tridentine Mass spiritually fed almost all of the other saints in Catholic history, it is important to recognize what Bishop Barron is getting at. In many ways this is what a lot of non-trad clergy would wish for trads to understand. Since the Novus Ordo is valid and licit, it means that Christ is present just as much there as it was in the old Mass. It is an objectively good thing. We don’t need to return to an older liturgy just to find Christ’s presence, or to be reverent when praying the Mass. Reverence is just as possible in the Novus Ordo as it is in the old Tridentine Mass.
Fr. Michael O’Loughlin, a Byzantine Rite Catholic priest, once said something that made me think about this. He highlighted on the podcast Catholic Stuff You Should Know that the Novus Ordo may not be as outwardly obvious when it comes to portraying reverence for Christ, but does not negate it. It just means that the responsibility for reverence lies more within the heart of the mass-goer to seek out and give that worship. This, compared to something like the Tridentine Mass, where directions for reverence and general beauty are simply more obvious and easier for people to understand. Fr. Michael’s point here is that it actually demonstrates a stronger faith if someone is able to find Christ in the Novus Ordo, as much as that person is able to find Christ in the heart of a homeless person, because they don’t need all of the outward beauty in order to carry their minds into the deep heart of Christ’s love.
A bridge between these two perspectives.
Wise trads will legitimately recognize the validity of the Novus Ordo, and should even agree that reverence is just as possible. But how do we find a path forward between self-identified trads and non-trads? What do we talk about?
The first point is that just because reverence and beauty are possible does not mean that they are effectively implemented. In order to make the Mass adaptable and understandable to the many cultures it has reached out to in this globalized world, many optional instructions had to be introduced. Even though the general structure is the same as the old Tridentine Mass, there are many ways to adapt the Novus Ordo Missae that may make it look very similar or incredibly different.
One of my firm beliefs, and this may be the most important section of my article, is that there are many ways that the Novus Ordo Missae can be implemented that would actually form a bridge to those trads that people seem to be so afraid of. My suspicion is that upon implementing these changes, or at least seriously entertaining these more traditional aspects, many may find that rad-trads will be plenty appeased. As I previously said, the source of pain in a trad’s heart is usually about a lack of beauty within the Church. When the only people offering these elements of beauty are those offering the Tridentine Mass, should we be surprised that people would flock to that? *After listening to a recent episode of the Burrowshire Podcast, I would even go so far as to say that the Novus Ordo Missae can be done incredibly reverently.
Here is a list of things (in no particular order of importance) that should not bring any conflict, and, if implemented reverently, may inspire all to a deeper beauty and reverence for the Mass, all the while *properly and actually conforming to the demands of Sacrosanctum Concilium:
A. Reception of the Eucharist
Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, the Eucharist is primarily received on the hand, while standing. After receiving, the communicant steps to the side and then crosses themselves. They then receive the Eucharist under the species of wine from a common cup. Communicants alternatively may receive the Eucharist, under the species of bread, directly on the tongue, usually while standing as well.
More traditionally, the Eucharist is only received on the tongue while kneeling at an altar rail. Yes, many elders find it difficult to kneel, and an accommodation seems to be in order, but on the whole, what is the best way to receive the sacrificed corpus of the King of the Universe? Tradition says that we should kneel before our King. By receiving directly on the tongue, we are letting the hands that consecrated the Eucharist, the hands of the priest, be the only hands that are worthy of touching something so precious. This posture of receptivity, more reverential towards the magnitude of God-made-flesh, communicates this reality not only to the communicant, but the whole community around them. Then, the communicant does not cross themselves. Why? When crossing oneself, we are calling to us the presence of the triune God in our prayer. In the reception of the Eucharist, have we not received the most perfect earthly presence of God into ourselves? At best, crossing oneself is redundant, and at worse, it is border-line heretical, not acknowledging the true presence of Christ within the Eucharist, thinking that there is some ingredient further necessary in the reception of the Eucharist.
Lastly, regarding the common cup containing the Eucharist under the species of wine, we traditionally find that the laity does not regularly consume it. The Catholic Church teaches that the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist under each species. If you only receive one form, you receive it all (hence during this time of pandemic, we do not commonly find the distribution of the common cup). At times of importance in one’s life (confirmation, first communion, marriage) it is encouraged that the laity may receive under both species, but certainly not every Sunday. Some of the reasons are for logistic purposes, but generally it is so that the Eucharist is handled as carefully and reverently as possible.
B. Celebrating Mass Ad Orientem
Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, the priest celebrates Mass while facing the people. More things are typically pronounced aloud so that the people can hear and generally feel more included in the act of consecration.
More traditionally, the priest celebrates Mass while facing away from the people, typically facing the crucifix that the laity themselves look at. Did you know that Catholic Churches are typically constructed so that the laity faces the east (oriens)? The idea of the Mass is that the priest, as the representative of Christ, offering up the sacrifice of our Lord, is doing so with the people. In the modern sense this would seem to suggest that the priest face the people, as an act of cooperation, but in tradition the priest also faces the east (ad orientem). With everyone facing the same direction, it helps everyone call to mind that what is happening during the mass is not something that is internal to the Church; it is directed towards something Heavenly, something outside of the Church.
An often circulated idea around the internet is this question: Which way would you prefer your bus driver to face? Towards the passengers, or away from the passengers, leading them as they travel on?
C. Using Gregorian Chant
Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, Sacred Music takes on the form of hymns in the local language, or in the language of most of the parishioners. Sometimes other music like popular Christian Rock songs may find some adaptation into the liturgy as well. Many instruments are potentially used: guitars, violins, trumpets, keyboards, pianos, etc, in addition to the traditional organ. There are many ways that the ordinaries of the Mass can be sung, usually with one overriding melody that repeats throughout the ordinaries.
More traditionally, Sacred Music exists in the form of Gregorian Chant or Polyphony. Many people find this daunting because of the use of Latin, but more on Latin in a second. Polyphony is when multiple voices come together and harmonize around the traditional Gregorian Chant music. This music has, intentionally, a more solemn tone than much modern music. This is not contrary to the Christian image, it is to be encouraged! The documents of the Second Vatican Council say that Gregorian Chant should be the golden standard of Sacred Music. This does not mean to cast it aside: it means that Sacred Music should conform largely to the form of Gregorian Chant, excepting some differences for how it can be localized in different regions. One example of this is how we might view chant in the High Anglican Church or in The Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (The rite within the Catholic Church that is an Anglican celebration of the Mass properly ordered under the rule of the Catholic Church). Because of a more intimate familiarity of the use of the English language within a holy setting, the Ordinariate and the Anglican Church, I believe, contain more Sacred Music that is in the form of Gregorian Chant, but which properly recognizes the way that it interacts with the English language. In the end, this is what I think Vatican II wanted to see, not upbeat guitar music in Mass.
Unfortunately when the Norvus Ordo was implemented, the standard of Gregorian Chant materials for it were delayed and not fully implemented. The result is that Gregorian Chant has fallen to the wayside in the modern Church. It needs to be revitalized!
D. Using Latin for the Ordinaries of the Mass
Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, Latin is not used. It might be used on occasion during extra solemn occasions (during Lent or Advent). Even then it might only be used for the penitential rite and for parts of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, like the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. When combined with some sort of chant, the music tends to have a simple tone (compared to a highly variant tone).
More traditionally, Latin is used for the whole of the Mass, except for the Homily. Vatican II documents call for, at the very least, that Latin be used for all of the Ordinaries of the Mass. These are the parts of the Mass that don’t change week to week. The goal is that the laity learn what the Latin is for these parts of the Mass and don’t have difficulty encountering them on the regular.
Further, by using Latin, a language not commonly used by the laity, the Mass becomes a place of extraordinary difference. It becomes the most out-of-place element of our lives. It stands out. By using this different, albeit common, language across the same rite, the liturgy itself helps Catholics remember that the world they are living in is a passing and fleeting place, that the reality of Heaven is more beautiful and other compared to the world that we currently live in. Latin helps draw the Catholic out of the haze of this world and encourage them to seek what is holy, which is often considered illogical by the world.
The goal is not to alienate the laity from the Church, it is to remind the laity that they are aliens to the world and the world’s ways.
E. Bowing when certain names are pronounced during the Liturgy
Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, everyone bows during the pronunciation of the Nicene Creed, when acknowledging the conception of our Lord by the Holy Spirit through Mary. Entering the Church, and ideally every time that someone crosses in front of the altar, all genuflect.
More traditionally, in addition to the elements above, everyone bows at the pronunciation of the name of our Lord and when the Trinitarian doxology is pronounced, and during the Nicene creed everyone genuflects instead of bowing. These extra gestures of physical movement, which are inherently reverential, direct the worshiper towards Christ and towards God many times throughout the liturgy. Call it Active Participation, if you will.
F. Forgoing the assistance of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist
Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, there are a regular squad of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, who help distribute the Eucharist and, ideally, speed up communion. They make the whole process more efficient. These are especially necessary when considering the distribution of the common cup, as the priest alone cannot effectively distribute both forms of the Eucharist in a timely and careful manner. By distributing the work out, it is possible to help everyone receive under both species in a safe way.
More traditionally, the laity do not receive from the cup. They only receive the Eucharist under the species of bread, except for special occasions. Calling back to the idea of receiving the Eucharist in a more reverential way, the use of Extraordinary Ministers presents conflict for the traditionalist. Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist are not able to consecrate the Eucharist itself. They have not been ordained to consecrate it. The priest’s hands, by virtue of his priesthood and by virtue of the hand cleansing that he does prior to the consecration of the Eucharist, is particularly disposed to handling the Eucharist in a reverential way. No matter how much hand sanitizer an Extraordinary Minister uses, it does not change that they do not share themselves in the priesthood and that they do not set aside their hands for holy purposes the way that a priest does, especially during Mass. They are not as “set-aside” as the priests intentionally are. You will also find trads become uncomfortable if they see a priest touch his face after having consecrated the Eucharist, prior to completing the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Ironically, while Extraordinary Ministers are Extraordinary, they are a pretty ordinary staple of most Novus Ordo parishes.
G. Vestments for Lectors and Cantors
Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, Lectors and Cantors (much less Extraordiary Ministers) are not vested. They are not marked as set aside for the purpose of Holy Mass. I have always seen Altar Servers vested, but I have only ever seen Lectors vested in one Church, and I have only ever seen Cantors vested in one other.
More traditionally, anyone directly supporting the flow of Holy Mass, be it lectors, cantors, or altar servers, are all vested. By having some kind of vestment, however simple, it helps all involved recognize the measure that the Holy Mass is “set-apart.”
Something else about these roles that disrupts an air of reverence is how the altar is approached and treated by these figures. In the Tridentine Mass the priest spends a significant time in prayer before ascending to the altar to begin the Mass, yet in the Novus Ordo Missae lectors, cantors, and extraordinary ministers seem to simply walk up to that area around the altar with a simple bow, if any reaction at all. My wife and I first served as lectors at our Church, but thinking about how casually we were able to enter the area of the altar put us in a place of great discomfort. We initially thought that our Pastor’s restriction of needing to wear fancy clothes was a burden, but we came to think that even that wasn’t enough.
H. Incense. All the time.
Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, incense is used on special occasion, typically in times of solemn celebration.
More traditionally, incense is used
Sunday. (and every sung mass)
Should all of the more traditional elements of the liturgy, as lain out above, be incorporated into the Novus Ordo Missae, I imagine you would find many trads happily cooperating and participating in non-Tridentine Mass. I truly believe that much of the unrest in trads’ hearts lies with the way in which the Liturgy is reverentially treated.
These suggestions are not somehow contrary to the Second Vatican Council. They are very much in line and are able to be used in the Novus Ordo Missae. The desire for their inclusion is not bad, either. The desire for the more traditional implementations of these elements of the Mass are holy. We are an institutional Church. We desire not only to be more holy at the individual level, but also as parochial , diocesan, national, and global communities.
Don’t be afraid talking to a trad. Some are scary, I give you that. Some are spiteful, hateful, and are in deep need of love, just as much as anyone. But if we, as Catholics, were more unified and more reverential in our conduct of the Mass? I think we would find this source of division to be a source of holy unity and power in the modern world. Church isn’t where we go to be comfortable. It’s where we go to seek that which is out of this world, which is truly “set-apart,” or holy. Let’s treat it like that.
The most important thing is that we celebrate one Eucharist, and that we know Jesus loves us.
Yes, yes, we know. We get it! But more and more young people do not platitudes. We don’t want to be appeased. We don’t want to be handheld through the faith and through the liturgy.
We want to be challenged.
We want the liturgy to put us in our place.
We want to worship God.
We want to break that jar of perfume for our Lord’s feet.
#011 – What You Need to Know about Vatican II – Burrowshire Podcast
This podcast, hosted by Brandon Vogt and Father Blake Britton, delicately and profoundly engages the meat of the Second Vatican Council. They address the notion of the Para-Council which dramatically affected the Post-Conciliar Church, especially when considering the Liturgy.
*Based on listening to the Burrowshire podcast, I made a number of edits to this article. Any changes will be noted by this asterisk note.