Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Treading clouds of glory

I had the chance to attend a Pontifical High Mass at the cathedral downtown last weekend in celebration of it’s 150th anniversary. It was quite the spectacle: a Cardinal came in from Sydney to celebrate it, the cathedral was sparkling from the week of preparation, and the entire Latin service was chanted by a flawless choir. I enjoyed the chance to see (and hear and smell and touch) the cathedral used the way it had been intended, to hear the liturgy as it had been sung for centuries. It was breathtakingly beautiful.

Then this past weekend, I happened to stumble on the regular monthly Latin mass at the same cathedral. The contrast was striking. The Irish priest butchered the Latin that he raced and mumbled through, the congregation had no idea when it was supposed to sit or stand or kneel (nor could, from what I could tell, the priests), and the choir could not even sing in unison with the organist, much less with each other (on-key was nowhere on the trajectory).

It was Latin mass the Irish way, from what I could tell: they did it because they are infamously hard-core Catholics, and doing it at all is more important than doing it right. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Irish succeed at saying anything in unison at their masses even when it is in English; perhaps it is their way of being individual, or perhaps with the varied rhythm of their speech they cannot say anything in unison to save their souls. One way or another, I had to check myself to keep from giggling.

There was something beautifully farcical about the picture; I think if I were a cartoonist I would try to draw it. They gathered in the saturated richness of their inheritance of marble, stained glass, and craftsmanship of generations of their predecessors, performing the time-honored ceremony our spiritual ancestors have been crafting for centuries, and there within the wealth of beauty and substance they could not so much as follow the tempo of the organ, and did not even seem to notice.

It was the perfect contrast of polish and roughness, beauty and tastelessness, thought and carelessness, somberness and ridiculousness. The Irish sit on the shoulders of giants as if they are barstools, and tread on clouds of glory as if they are yesterday’s newspaper. They are beneficiaries of riches they hardly know are there to be probed.

Indeed, aren’t we all?

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