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Pope Significantly Restricts Latin Mass – A Polytheist’s Response

When I logged online yesterday, I discovered that Pope Francis (of whom, for many reasons, I am not a fan) had recently restricted the use of the Latin mass. You can read here, here, and here about that. I am so very sorry for my Catholic friends and family members who are already suffering under a watered-down liturgy and the results of Vatican II. I found myself disturbed enough by this move from the Vatican though, that this morning I was still thinking about it and it took me a bit of time to parse out why. 

Ritual and liturgy are part of a religion’s tradition. They don’t sustain themselves. These things are given to us within our own religious traditions to nourish, nurture, and protect. Traditions in general and ritual in particular are part of the alchemy that continually reifies the moment of creation, the most sacred mysteries of that tradition and thus keep our world clean of pollution and protected from evil. When one religion decides to shit on its rituals and pollute its own tradition, that affects the world’s balance as a whole – at least that’s how I and my House view the issue. 

The RCC has been shitting on the very traditions that were given to it to guard since at least Trent (and that’s not taking into account the use of those traditions to encourage forced conversion and genocide, not to mention the sexual abuse occurring within the Church hierarchy and noted from at least the 4th century). Vatican II, an attempt to reconcile with protestants, feminists, and modernity by performing a hatchet job on one’s tradition in the dubious name of “progress” (someone explain to me how a fucking guitar mass is progress?) was the start of what I personally think, was an all-out, internal attack on their tradition. I may not care overmuch about modern Catholicism in particular (academically, I study its origins, which are fascinating), but I do care about religious traditions in general, because I think to some degree, what happens in one tradition has the potential to affect us all (1). Also, there’s a general rule of liturgy that I was taught ages ago (ironically by a Catholic priest): if you don’t know what something is for, don’t change it. Or, to put it another way: if it ain’t broke, don’t “fix” it. Someone should have informed the pope. 

There are a few key differences that I’d like to talk about between the Latin mass (TLM) and the vernacular one. Now, I’ll preface this by saying that liturgical studies are not my cup of tea. Still, one picks up a few things here and there in the course of one’s studies. Firstly, in TLM, the priest does not face the congregation. He faces the eucharist. This may seem like a throw away, but I think it’s actually very, very important. When you face the congregation, you are, for better or worse, performing. When you face away, you are leading your congregation in veneration of your God. Psychologically, there is a huge difference here (2).

Secondly, with the use of Latin, not only are the congregants connected to a key See with all its history, but they key into a groove of the sacred by dropping into something used for two thousand years sacrally. I’ve seen Latin-English mass books and they are just as easy to follow as mass books in the vernacular. You have the Latin on one side and then matching vernacular on the other. Better yet, many religious schools would naturally teach Latin, which as far as I’m concerned only betters a person’s intellectual potential. Plus, my understanding is that there are certain prayers to ward off evil (like the prayer to St. Michael, and also at least one prayer to Mary) that were offered during TLM that were expunged from the vernacular mass (one of the things that Vatican II tried very hard to do was quash saints cultus and Marian devotion…unsuccessfully I guess, but the council did dampen it down quite a bit). I think the use of Latin and its formality increases the sense of solemnity, which is not a bad thing when (according to a Catholic relative of mine) today you have congregants on their cell phones and/or chatting as the priest is walking down the aisle to begin Mass!

Thirdly, Gregorian chant. Why, in the name of all that is holy, would anyone with any sense (not to mention an ear) replace centuries old tradition of Gregorian chant with hippy guitar masses or congregations singing off key to poorly trained organists doing abominable things to their instrument? Ritual should transport one into an altered state, creating a certain liminality of mindset wherein one has the capacity to properly and relatively safely (as much as it ever can be) encounter the Holy. It should create a sense of awe that shakes us out of our quotidian headspace. Music does this better than any other sense save perhaps smell. Now of course, I’m focusing on aesthetics because as Lo said in Art and Numen, aesthetics is cosmology writ large. I’ll take that one step farther: remove bits of the aesthetic willy-nilly and you risk shattering the architecture of the cosmology, closing any door or window by which your people can connect through liturgy, to the Divine. 

I’ll leave the theological issues inherent in the newer translation of the Mass to others to discuss. The way a religion treats the aesthetics of its ritual (and its sacred spaces) is enough for me to know whether they truly value their Gods or not. 

And this is one of the biggest issues I have with Francis. He doesn’t seem to care about preserving his church. He certainly doesn’t care about liturgical integrity. My wish for my Catholic friends is that he is removed from the papacy quickly and replaced with a hardline traditionalist who not only restores the Latin mass in toto but rolls back Vatican II completely. Hell, I’d roll it back to Trent.

Finally, and this is my key point: there is a huge lesson here for those of us engaged in restoring our own traditions. It doesn’t just happen and restoration once “done” will necessarily give way to preservation and protection. It is the grace and burden of each succeeding generation. If we forget that, even once, we’re likely to find ourselves facing the same challenges the Catholic Church is today: dissolution, degeneracy, and destruction. We’ll deserve it too, just like the Catholics (3).

Notes: 

  1. This is all the more so when we are still primarily a religion of converts. My whole point of this article should emphasize the need to raise children in their faith, educate them wisely, and instill in them a respect and reverence for the traditions they will inherit. 
  2. I can’t help but remember one of the liturgies I co-officiated at when I taught at an interfaith seminary. We were just about to begin and I was officiating with a Catholic priest (he had long since left the Catholic Church and belonged now to a break away sect). I had set up the altar table in a way that allowed me to stand in front of it facing away from the group. When my back was turned, his man, thinking I hadn’t gotten around to moving the table to the correct place yet, moved it so we were facing the congregation. I turned around to begin (we were that close to the opening of the rite) and was stuck doing the ritual facing not the Gods as is proper, but the people. It was disconcerting and we had words later. Now, I’d have stopped and insisted we not begin until things were arranged to my specifications but it so took me by surprise, I didn’t respond quickly enough, and the man’s actions had been well-meaning, not intending to cause impiety. 
  3. This is why one of the most important things a polytheistic couple can do is have children and *raise them as polytheists*. Families are sacred. Raise children in your tradition. This is the ONLY way our religions will survive, sustainably, into the next generation. Those of you who, like me, do not want children, find other ways to contribute to the long-term survival of the tradition: support your specialists, teach, pray, pray, pray, pray, do whatever is within your warrant to create sustainable communities. These are the two things we need desperately. The hostility amongst Pagans for raising their children in their traditions boggles. It is the most self-defeating thing we can do. Each child should be raised with an awareness that he or she is inheriting a great gift, grace, but also a burden, an obligation: a tradition to nourish, sustain, and protect. This is what we are here for, our birthright, but also our duty to our Gods. It’s what being an adult is all about and if that’s too difficult for some people, well, too fucking bad. Get out of the way. 

Experiencing the Gods – a Reader Question

A reader asked me recently asking whether or not it was really possible to experience the Gods through our senses, to have some type of direct engagement, where we sense, hear, or see the Holy Powers, what is called theophany (from two Greek words: φαίνω “to see” and θεοί “Gods” and meaning essentially to see or perceive the Gods). It was a very good question and forms, I think, one of the most difficult chasms to cross from 20th century post-modernism into actual devotion, and certainly to the type of devotion that informed the world of our ancestors. For our ancestors, including our medieval Christian ones, it was acknowledged that one might experience the Gods via the senses (how else would one experience Them? Our sensorium is the way that we experience every aspect of our world, after all) (1). They set up temples where one could go to pray for dreams, developed mystery cultus to allow for cathartic experience of the Powers, and worked this awareness into their philosophies and literature (2).

I will preface this by saying that I think everyone who experiences the Gods directly does so a little differently and that’s because our brains are not wired to take in something that inhuman and immense. The experience, the Being, the Presence gets filtered through our consciousness, so if person x sees but person y feels or hears that’s a matter of their own inborn facilities/predilections (some people learn better visually, some by hearing, etc.) and how their brain is processing the stimuli. One modality isn’t better than the other. Now onto the actual question!

One thing that I realized with this question is that I didn’t come to Heathenry or even to polytheism unprepared. I had a very good devotional upbringing. I was encouraged to pray, to do novenas, the idea of “God” being able and willing to engage with devotees was not a foreign one so I never self-censored there. I didn’t close that off, the idea that engagement was possible, but I think like a muscle one might work at the gym, the facility to sense the Gods was actively developed through years of prayer and meditation and later shrine work, devotional work, study, etc. Also putting myself in space where it was more likely such contact might occur didn’t hurt, and a couple of years of ritual work further developed that awareness.

I think many times the Gods show Themselves not through the raw impact of visions or direct theophany but through small graces, gifts given through the natural world or one’s daily life and that is potent and powerful too. Learning to see all things as sharing in that connection, that capacity for engagement is important because if we are always looking for the big explosion of Presence that overwhelms, we may miss the small whisper of grace that opens. Both are important and maybe, just maybe it’s the latter that prepares one for the former.

I’ve argued with other spirit workers about whether or not the capacity to experience theophany is part of one’s inborn psychic or spiritual wiring or whether it is something that can be developed through consistent prayer, meditation, and devotional work. I default to the latter and perhaps that is because I was a priest long before I became a spirit worker. It’s also though that I have seen ecstatic ritual move people away from the tightly locked down headspace of their daily lives and into receptivity toward the Gods. I also think that saying one can only experience the Gods directly if one has the inborn talent for it negates the agency of the Gods in this equation, and without that agency no one is going to be experiencing anything!

As a spiritworker I have to say, don’t be upset or discouraged if you don’t immediately receive the feedback of direct experience. You are having experience just by engaging in devotional work and there is far, far more merit in doing that work without the bold and obvious interaction/theophany/etc. than in doing it solely to receive that. Pray without expectation without preconception and you will be opening all the doors of your heart and senses to the glory of our Gods. Besides, theophanies usually come with work. The Gods are there and will usually meet us more than half way if we but start in whatever fumbling capacity we can down the road of devotion. In the end, that’s all that matters.

Notes:

  1. Even in omens, prodigies and κληδόνες, the person receiving such a gift is experiencing that through their sensorium: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.
  2. One of my favorite passages in the latter is found in the Virgil works in a powerful description of a priestess of Apollo being possessed by Her God:

“But the prophetess, not yet able to endure Apollo, raves in the cavern,

swollen in stature, striving to throw off the God from her breast;

he all the more exercises her frenzied mouth, quelling her wild heart,

and fashions her by pressure.”

At, Phoebi nondum patiens, immanis in antro
bacchatur vates, magnum si pectore possit
excussisse deum; tanto magis ille fatigat
rabidum, fera corda domans, fingitque premendo.

Virgil’s Aeneid, 6 77-83.

I love this description of possession because it so aptly depicts the partnership required and, while it’s been awhile since I’ve read the Aeneid in Latin, I believe in at least one other place, it’s actually described with vocabulary that conjures up the horse and rider paradigm that is used in modern Afro-Caribbean religions to describe the process of Deity possession, a metaphor that many polytheistic traditions use as well.

Note that the word that is here translated as ‘raves’ is ‘bacchatur’ and means to ‘behave in a bacchic manner,’ i.e. to be taken over completely in divinely inspired ecstasy, possibly violent ecstasy. It may also be translated accurately as ‘rave’ or ‘rant’.

I could have translated ‘fingit’ more as ‘tames’ rather than ‘fashions’ though either is an accurate translation. (this isn’t my translation — I’m not sure whose translation this is, but I liked it. I would probably translate it this way: “But, not yet fully opening to Apollo (or enduring Apollo, or allowing Him in, but the sense is that Apollo has not yet seated Himself fully on the prophetess because she is instinctively resisting), immense (vast) in the cave she raves, trying to drive out the great God from her breast; He exhausts her mad fury, taming her wild heart, instructing her by seating Himself fully (this is one of the possible poetic meanings of premendo).

So, just looking at this quickly before I hit ‘post’, I could make several choices in the translation and I’d probably have a half page of footnotes lol.

John Donne, ‘Batter my heart’ (Latin hexameters)

This is a brilliant site! there are modern renderings of well known poems (Donne, Shakespeare, Tennyson, et al) into classical latin and greek. it’s very, very well done. wow!

Permessus

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

pectora nostra, agedum, triplex o numen adepte,

tunde, precor! nam mollis adhuc tuus impetus instat:

inspiras, radias, animum emendare labantem

cura tibi est; potius, vero ut consurgere possim,

deicias penitus, magno me robore frangas –

en ego sum flammis flatuque novandus acuto!

te, velut urbs regem, quam hostes rapuere, requirit,

nitor ut admittam, tamen – heu! – via nulla reperta est.

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Latin, and Cicero, and Reading oh My!

My New Year’s resolution is (in part) to be better at setting aside four or five hours each day to study: Latin in the morning, then Greek and in the evening one of two other languages I need.

Today I started the day with Cicero. I never knew reading him could be so entertaining until I read his speeches against Catline (it’s like the Roman version of the “Inquirer” lol. there’s very little proof offered in his court speech but a lot of ad hominem attacks. It’s hilariously entertaining). Now i’m reading several of his letters to his wife and daughter, written while he was in exile in the 50s. They’re tender, moving, and filled with his worry about her health. It’s a totally different impression and insight into this Roman orator. Quite lovely.

To all the Latin students out there who might stumble across this: it does get easier and better. one day there will be this moment where your gut doesn’t twist in fear when presented with a latin translation and you’ll have a sudden sense of “i got this. i can do this. No problem.” it make take a couple of years, but it does happen and one day you’ll be able to pick up a Latin letter, or a history, or poem and it will make sense. Maybe you’ll have to look up a word or two, but the syntax and grammar will untangle itself with an ease you never thought possible. Persevere!