Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Holy Writ

An astonishingly prophetic piece, written in October 1923, by the famed American iconoclast and journalist from Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, 1880-1956.
Apropos, since I was chatting with a fellow non-practicing Catholic about faith, etc. We are both "religious, not spiritual." Ironically, since I used to be a preacher and a theologian, a man for whom words were paramount, it is words about religion which bore me. I could happily attend a well-done Catholic ritual, but it is when the priest opens his mouth to preach that I begin to look for drugs or an exit. The worst, and most common, tendency among preachers is cheerleading, the kind of folksy uplift which is endemic to American Protestantism and which has infected a couple of generations of the holders of the apostolic succession.
When I do go to religious ceremonies over the last several years, outside of family obligations, I go to a Gnostic temple in the South Bay. The woman who presides there, who has become a good friend of mine, has had the great sense to make her homiletic remarks before the liturgy. She can be informal, humorous, professorial, etc. as she is moved. The talk stands on its own. Then she retires, vests and returns to begins the ritual...and never bothers us again. Nor does she try to. She retires into the ceremony, allowing us to do the same.
The service, although it is deeply heretical in content, is very traditionally Catholic in form and although a lot of the music is certainly not to my taste, I can sink into the ancient archetypal stream of sacramental consciousness without fear of being offended by some joke or exhortation. Once the ritual commences, it is the Soul that speaks and responds, that moves and acts, not any individual. Balm for me. If only the orthodox clerics would learn a similar modesty and respect.
H.L. Mencken
Whoever it was translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France. Contrariwise, the men who put the Bible into archaic, sonorous and often unintelligible English gave Christianity a new lease on life wherever English is spoken. They did their work at a time of great theological blather and turmoil, when men of all sorts, even the least intelligent, were beginning to take a vast and unhealthy interest in exegetics and apologetics. They were far too shrewd to feed this disconcerting thirst for ideas with a Bible in plain English; the language they used was deliberately artificial even when it was new. They thus dispersed the mob by appealing to its emotions, as a mother quiets a baby by crooning to it. The Bible that they produced was so beautiful that the great majority of men, in the face of it, could not fix their minds on the ideas in it. To this day it has enchanted the English-speaking peoples so effectively that, in the main, they remain Christians, at least sentimentally. Paine has assaulted them, Darwin and Huxley have assaulted them, and a multitude of other merchants of facts have assaulted them, but they still remember the twenty-third Psalm when the doctor begins to shake his head, they are still moved beyond compare (though not, alas, to acts!) by the Sermon on the Mount, and they still turn once a year from their sordid and degrading labors to immerse themselves unabashed in the story of the manger. It is not much, but it is something. I do not admire the general run of American Bible-searchers -- Methodists, United Brethren, Baptists and such vermin. But try to imagine what the average low-browed Methodist would be if he were not a Methodist but an atheist!
The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent astounding imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem. It is accused by Protestant dervishes of withholding the Bible from the people. To some extent this is true; to the same extent the church is wise; again to the same extent it is prosperous. Its toying with ideas, in the main, has been confined to its clergy, and they have commonly reduced the business to a harmless play of technicalities --- the awful concepts of Heaven and Hell brought down to the level of a dispute of doctors in long gowns, eager only to dazzle other doctors. Its greatest theologians remain unknown to 99% of its adherents. Rome, indeed, has not only preserved the original poetry in Christianity; it has also made capital additions to that poetry -- for example, the poetry of the saints, of Mary, of the liturgy itself. A solemn high mass must be a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big-top by a Presbyterian auctioneer of God. In the face of such overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone.
Preaching is not an essential part of the Latin ceremonial. It was little employed in the early church, and I am convinced that good effects would flow from abandoning it today, or, at all events, reducing it to a few sentences, more or less formal. In the United States the Latin brethren have been seduced by the example of the Protestants, who commonly transform an act of worship into a puerile intellectual exercise; instead of approaching God in fear and wonder these Protestants settle back in their pews, cross their legs, and listen to an ignoramus try to prove that he is a better theologian than the Pope.
This folly the Romans now slide into. Their clergy begin to grow argumentative, doctrinaire, ridiculous. It is a pity. A bishop in his robes, playing his part in the solemn ceremonial of the Mass, is a dignified spectacle, even though he may sweat freely; the same bishop, bawling against Darwin half an hour later, is seen to be simply an elderly Irishman with a bald head, the son of a respectable saloon-keeper in South Bend, Indiana. Let the reverend fathers go back to Bach. If they keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to translate the liturgy into American, that all the faithful may be convinced by it.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...