Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Hindrance to Full Participation in Mass Part Two: Sentimentality

We turn now to the second hinderance to full participation in the Mass which Guardini identifies as Sentimentality.  He describes it as follows: "the desire to be
moved: by loneliness or delight, sorrow or dread; by greatness and exaltedness or weakness and helplessness somehow to be moved."  Surprisingly, it is not the what we would consider emotionalism.  Most often, Guardini tells us, it is found in those who are rather self disciplined in approach to things, both in regard to their intellects and wills.  It is quite simply "a spiritual softness tinged with sensuality."  This softness tinges the perception of the saints and spiritual devotion, robbing it in a sense of its depth; a kind of Christian piety gone wrong.  To the sentimental, the Mass seems overly austere and uncomfortable and so it and other devotions become tinged with an artificial and unnatural fussiness and saccharine quality.  Where there should be silence and depth of reflection, one often finds a stylized mimicry that conceals rather than reveals.  The austerity and dignity of genuine mystery is lost to a false kind of mysticism steeped in personal leanings and tastes.  These personal inclinations must be brought to heel, Guardini tells us, under "the powers that govern the inner life of the Church."
TO PUT it bluntly, sentimentality is essentially the desire to be moved: by loneliness or delight, sorrow or dread; by greatness and exaltedness or weakness and helplessness somehow to be moved. The need is greater with one person than with another, but we all have it to some extent. Strangely enough, it is particularly dominant in people who do not appear at all emotional: self-disciplined men of intellect and will; practical, prosaic natures. From this we see that sentimentality is not the same as real sentiment, which is powerful, unclouded and chaste. Sentimentality is a half sentiment, a spiritual softness tinged with sensuality. Hence it is strong not only in people without a clear-cut genuine sense of values, but also in those who seem to stand completely on “character,” with emphasis leaning so heavily on will and discipline that their neglected feelings easily slide off into the questionable and inferior.
All this has its parallel in the religious life. The sentimental believer’s attitude to the great figures of sanctity, the truths he prefers, the passages he frequently quotes, his whole bearing, everything disposes him to emotionalism.
Up to a certain point there is little that can be said against this; it is simply a predisposition, like a fuzzy mind or weak muscles. But when a believer allows such a tendency to dominate him, it becomes disastrous, robbing revelation of its greatness, distorting the saints, and generally rendering his religious life soft, weak, unnatural, and embarrassing. Examples of sentimentality meet us everywhere; we’ve only to glance at the popular spiritual-exercise leaflets, the average samples of “religious art,” or to read some of the meditations on Christ’s passion or on the poor souls in purgatory. One theme in particular has fallen under this deplorable influence: the Sacred Heart. By rights this devotion belongs to the profoundest level of Christian piety. Its expression should be huge with the magnitude of revealed truth and vibrant with the power of Christ’s conviction. It should be noble and pure. Instead, it is only too often characterized by an intolerable effeminacy and unnaturalness.
Much more could be said on the subject. At any rate, sentimentality is a force that must be reckoned with. For the sentimental believer participation in the Mass is extremely difficult. He finds the sacred act neither comforting nor edifying, but austere, coldly impersonal, almost forbidding. And for people like himself he is right. The Mass is austere. Its tremendous concepts are expressed tersely. Its action is simple. Its words are clear and concise; its emotion controlled. Its spiritual attitude is that of profoundest surrender, but still and chaste. Sentimentality tries to gild the lily by transferring its own trimmings to the Mass. The altar, never meant to depart far from the pure form of the sacred table, becomes a pompous welter of cherubs and little lamps and much glitter; the action is garlanded with gestures contrived above all to touch the emotions; the servers’ apparel is fussy and doll-like. Texts and music are of an ingratiating sweetness. In place of the missal’s powerful language, we find Mass “devotions” abounding in artificial conceptions and soft, unnatural sentiments. Thus the central truth of the Mass is lost. The Lord’s memorial becomes an “edifying” exhibition, and earnest participation in the sacred ceremony is supplanted by a touching “experience.”
The event which took place at the Last Supper in Jerusalem and the death which the Lord died on the cross both mysteriously interwoven, as His own words reveal are renewed again and again. Christ commanded: “As often as ye shall do these things, ye shall do them in remembrance of Me.” The Church accepted the command, obeying it through the centuries to the end of time. How does she “do them”? In the strict form of the liturgy.
How would such doing look had it been left to the religious sentiments if not downright sentimentalities of the pious? To have an idea, we really should examine some of the devotional leaflets. Everything would be extremely wordy and moving, the fearful and gruesome aspects of suffering would be stressed wherever possible, Jesus’ love would be the constantly reiterated theme. A pious importunity would accost Him, praise and pity Him, place all sorts of touching phrases in His mouth. The texts of the missal speak quite differently. They are clear and concise. Their tone is that of profound emotion, dignified and controlled. Jesus Himself is hardly addressed. Not at all during the Canon; briefly after the completion of the act of commemoration in the Agnus Dei and in the prayers before Communion always with great reserve. As a rule, the words of the Mass are addressed to the Father. There is no mention at all of the Lord’s feelings during His passion and dying. Veiled in deepest reverence, they stand mute behind the whole mystery.
As for the sacred action, we see from the Passion Plays how the sentiments of the believers would have developed it: in the direction of an elaborate mimicry of what took place in the room of the Last Supper and on Golgotha. When we consider the alternatives, we begin to realize what divine powers were necessary to create something as truly God inspired as the Mass is.
Here is neither mimicry nor sentimental, vicarious experience. What took place on Golgotha does not come to the fore at all, but remains eloquently silent behind the whole. The action is taken from the event in the Supper chamber, again not imitated but translated into a strict, stylized form that conceals as much as it reveals. The early Christians believed that it was proper to clothe the sacred in mystery. One reason for their attitude was the danger of persecution, which profaned it at every opportunity; but they also knew that mystery is the natural element of holiness. This element has been lost to us, or allowed to sink into the twilight of emotionalism and false mysticism. Possibly one of the most pressing tasks of the religious renewal is to rediscover genuine mystery and the attitude it requires, an attitude that has nothing sentimental about it and that flatly refuses to “facilitate” the demands of faith, preferring to guard its full austerity and dignity. In the liturgy alone may the only genuine arcane discipline still in existence be found and acquired.
The strict form of the Mass, then, aims at the exact opposite of what sentimentality desires. Sentimentality, desirous of being moved, employs to this end stirring gestures evocative of terror and helplessness, words dripping with feeling, exciting imagery, moving dialogue and the like. Nothing of all this is to be found in the Mass; thus the sentimental believer has three choices: he can relinquish all hope of establishing vital contact with the Mass and retire into his own sphere of private devotions; he can falsify its character, turning it into a kind of moving Passion Play; or he can courageously face his inclinations and bring them to heel. Sentimentality must be overcome; otherwise genuine contact with the Mass is impossible. The individual must discard once and forever the habit of judging it from his personal leanings and tastes, for its form is that which obedience to the Lord’s command has received from His Church. Of course, here too exaggeration must be avoided. Neither her ceremonies nor their wording should assume the absoluteness of dogmas; but this much is certain: the manner in which the Lord’s memorial is executed in the Church is the lex orandi, the norm of divine service. He who really wishes to believe in other words, to obey revelation must obey also in this, schooling his private sentiments on that norm. Then it will be clear to him that here a spiritual life of quite different dimensions from that of his personal piety is at work. He will come to know feeling that emerges from the profundity of God. He will enter the inner realm of Christ. He will experience in himself the powers that govern the inner life of the Church.

Romano Guardini
Meditations before Mass