4 February 2020
Facing the Mystery; or Catholic Crustaceans
The sort of liturgical culture which Catholics have experienced since the 1960s is in fact a culture which was common in English Protestant Non-Conformity for many generations before the 1960s; and in a Protestant ethos it represents the theologically right and appropriate liturgical expectation. If the faith-feeling, fiducia, is the salvific reality to which the Christian must cling, then worship can have no other purpose than to produce and sustain it. It is not for nothing that Protestant ideologues have seen the Sacraments - on the rare occasions when they celebrate them - as merely 'enacted Words'. The problem for us is that for half a century most Catholics have been indoctrinated into that same essentially Protestant presupposition. When, now, they are exposed to something as ancient and authentic as versus Orientem, they can feel excluded by the celebrant - "Why isn't he attending to me?": the reaction of the toddler whose mother seems now to be devoting to the new baby all the love and attention upon which previously that toddler had an exclusive claim. "Leave your horrid private God alone and turn round and be my friend again". These poor layfolk are bound to feel repulsed; the outrage done to their gut-instincts may even make them revolted.
Those of my readers who do not know their Dix off by heart may be amused - as well as instructed - by his well-known account of his Methodist grandmother.
It is an uncanny fact that there is still scarcely any subject on which the imagination of those outside the faith is more apt to surrender to the unrestrained nonsense of panic than that of what happens at the catholic eucharist. As a trivial instance, I remember that my own grandmorther, a devout Wesleyan, believed to her dying day that at the Roman Catholic mass the priest let a crab loose upon the altar, which it was his mysterious duty to prevent from crawling sideways into the view of the congregation. (Hence the gestures of the celebrant.) How she became possessed of this notion, or what she supposed eventually happened to the crustacean, I never discovered. But she affirmed with the utmost sincerity that she had once with her own eyes actually watched this horrible rite in progress; and there could be no doubt of the deplorable effect that solitary visit to a Roman Catholic church had had on her estmate of Roman Catholics in general, though she was the soul of charity in all things else. To all suggestions that the mass might be intended as some sort of holy communion service she replied only with the wise and gentle pity of the fully informed for the ignorant.