A reader sent me an article that appeared in the Catholic Register a publication of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown by its editor Monsignor Timothy P. Stein.
A long out of print book, The Enthusiast, tells the story of Father Ignatius of Llanthony.Father Ignatius was one of the more colorful, if not controversial figures of the 19th century Anglo – Catholic revival in England. Ignatius (Joseph Leycester Lyne) wanted to restore monastic life in the Church of England. He sought to establish a monastery of Anglican Benedictine monks. What he made, was a mess.Father Ignatius was without a doubt a man of deep faith, and was a well – known missionary preacher and evangelist. But in working to establish a monastery, he simply played at being a monk. He was more concerned with the external trappings of monasticism than he was with the interior conversion that should be the result of living a religious life. Father Ignatius was more in love with his religious habit than he was with the discipline of religious life. He loved to surround himself with statues, pictures, crucifixes, altars, sacred vessels, and all sorts of pious geegaws. If one candle on an altar was good – – two dozen candles were even better. In fact, two dozen candles were not enough for Father Ignatius; contemporary accounts state that there were no less than 250 candles on the high altar at Llanthony Abbey. Father Ignatius loved what some have irreverently termed “smells and bells.”
The Father Ignatius’s of the world are with us still. They are the ones who charge that the Catholic Church, following the Second Vatican Council, threw out the baby with the bathwater. They have made it their mission to retrieve the bathwater. They would like us to be drowning in it.Trappings of piety – – external symbols of religiosity – – are all well and good. They have nourished the faith of millions. But they are not an end, in themselves. They are but a means to an end. The bathwater is not more important than the baby.
“Smells and bells” and other assorted paraphernalia are supposed to help us nurture our relationship with Jesus. When they become a stumbling block, and prevent us from seeing Jesus, knowing Jesus, walking with Jesus, or when they obscure the path to Jesus for others, they must be put aside, or at least, reassessed. There were good reasons for throwing out so much of the bathwater. It had become murky. It was no longer serving a good purpose. It was time to take the baby from the bath, and move on.
Beware the bathwater! Hidden in its depths may be a dose of pretty poison – – the temptation to idolatry – – the temptation to worship fleeting forms while ignoring lasting, enduring substance. Don’t mistake devotion to exterior signs for an interior conversion to life in union with Jesus.Just be sure to keep a tight grip on the baby!
So what exactly is the evidence that they became a stumbling block and that removing them was a service to the Church and an enrichment to the liturgy? The bathwater parallel just does not explain much. It would also be silly to discharge the bath water before the baby was clean. You must let the water do its work first. Plus once you get rid of the bathwater what you end up with is a naked baby, perhaps a good parallel of what has been done to the liturgy as it has been totally stripped to ‘bare’ essentials. If we were already perfect a naked liturgy would be just the same to us as one with the "smells and bells". Speaking for myself I need liturgical training wheels. I need to be reminded of the transcendence of God. I need help in remembering that the Mass is a supernatural event. For me incense is a help and reminder of the prayers going up to the Saints as in the Book of Revelations. That "external symbols of religiosity" help me to internalize their meaning and the importance of them.
When will they realize that what has become a stumbling block is treating the Mass not as a sacrifice and the representations of Christ’s death on Calvary, but as a bit of entertainment fluff that imbues little theological meaning doesn’t work for use imperfect types. There is little doubt that often rituals become empty and lose their impact. The pre-Vatican II Church was not some idealized perfection and of course the richness of the liturgy was being lost on many. The solution though is not to discard what can be a help in our fallen state, but to re-catechise the deep meaning of those external signs so that when we experience them we are reminded of what they signify. Not as a substitute to the fuller meaning, but as a signpost that points us to understand and experience the deeper theological truths they signify. Sure we can forget that when we dip our fingers in the Holy Water and make a sign of the cross that we are renewing our baptismal promises. When we forget the answer is not doing away with Holy Water fonts, but reminding us of the import.