Thursday, May 08, 2008

Ad Orientem

I have done something that has been gnawing at me for months. I have read several books on church architecture that have concentrated on the concept of "relative space." The prevailing philosophy or our day is Relativism. Since all things are relative, then all things are equal.

In relative space, all spaces are equal, and no one place within a building is more important or sacred than another. Yet, despite all attempts to relativize liturgical space, Catholics still have an appreciation for the "sanctuary" or "chancel" as a particularly sacred and focus-worthy area. The "thrust-stage" arrangement of the altars of most churches, where the priest faces the people is conducive to gathering around and celebrating a sacred meal, but I wonder if that juxtaposition is conducive to reverence and, ultimately, faith. Given the great lack of faith that I've encountered in the course of my ministry I wonder if familiarity has not bred contempt rather than the theological virtues.
For a period of discernment that will be for I-do-not-know how long, we will celebrate the daily Mass ad Orientem. This is not for the purpose of making some statement against "the Spirit of Vatican II," nor is it an exercise in antiquarianism.

For most of the centuries of the Church, the Sacred Liturgy was celebrated facing East. Even where altars were set up so that they were free-standing, nevertheless the direction of the priest and people was toward the East (or to "liturgical" East where a church was not built on an eastern axis).

I found this so in Bethlehem, when I was on pilgrimage in 2006, and attended a baptism at the Syrian Orthodox church there. It was also the direction of the liturgy when I was a youth, before Vatican II.

The idea of the priest, standing at the head of the people and offering the sacrifice of Christ for himself, for them, and for the world, is an idea that we've lost by having the liturgy facing the people. I have found that so far I like this "new" way for these reasons:

  1. I am addressing prayers to God and not looking at people while I'm doing so. (This has always been a problem with Mass versus populi.) I have always been very careful about this anyway, when I celebrate facing the people. I try, unless I have to read the prayers directly from the Sacramentary, to direct my eye "Godwards," i.e., upwards, except for the prayer for peace that comes after the Lord's Prayer and which is directed (unlike the Eucharistic prayer and the collects that are addressed to the Father) to Christ. I look at the sacramental elements on the altar during that prayer as I've always tried to practice custody of the "liturgical" eye.
  2. The people don't have to be distracted by looking at me, and I don't have to be distracted by looking at them.
  3. It makes the chapel bigger by cutting down on the "footprint." In a small room this can be a great advantage, and I was able to relegate the original processional cross that was made for the chapel to be the p-c for Lent, and now use the original altar cross from the church.
  4. There is something ineffable about it that I experience as I offer the Mass in this way.

Of course, I turn toward the people and address them at the proper times. Not gonna just say "The Lord be with you." glancing back over my shoulder.

This will not in any way affect the arrangement in the church of the altar for Sunday and Holy Day Masses (the only days we use the church anyway).

Let us see . . .


Edward C. Dodge said...

In a word, Father,...SWEET!

In my own studies, especially in books such as Ratzinger's Feast of Faith and The Spirit of the Liturgy, and with help from some of Fr. Z's PODCAZTs, I have found myself yearning for ad orientem.

Cardinal Dulles remarked in an essay he published on that he once saw a sign taped onto the ambo. The sign read, "God Is Other People." He mentioned that he wanted to add a comma after "Other." Even in my own master's level theology courses, I have run into folks (mainly aging hippies) who think that EVERYTHING should be community, not realizing that if we ALL come to God (that is, if we, as you would put it, focus on HORIZONTAL worship), community is formed in the process. I think, though, that the "community is the reason for being here" is an unfortunate--but not all together surprising--result of versus populum. Proper catechesis might be helpful, but, as you've stated, when said catechesis is done, ad orientem is so much more powerful!

My parish, St. Edward's in LR, now has an altar cross. It's a good intermediary. I've experienced ad orientem in the extraordinary form the two times I have the opportunity to experience it. Fr. Z, by the way, if you've seen it, has posted several times on a priest in (South?) Carolina who has "turned the altar around," so to speak. That fellow has pointed out to his parish that VII did NOT mandate versus populum and that the GIRM rubrics actually rather assume ad orientem (although both are acceptable).

I think one of the most powerful images in support of ad orientem is from The Spirit of the Liturgy, in which Cardinal Ratzinger mentions that, once upon a time, the people in St. Peter's Basilica turned from the priest to face the east.

All of this to say, Father, bravo! For what it's worth, this layman affirms you and begs for your continued blessing by God as you pastor your flock. As Fr. Richard John Neuhaus--and Fr. Z--would put it, if we don't know who we are, we'll never have anything meaningful to say publicly.

May God be praised, now and forever!

Subimonk said...

Horizontal Catholic: God is other people.
Vertical Catholic: God is Other, people.
Camus: Hell is other people.

Edward C. Dodge said...

Actually, esteemed Father, Sartre told us that Hell is other people!

Of course, you probably figured that when I wrote horizontal, I ment vertical. Oops. I blame it on the noise of my pre-school homeroom!

Subimonk said...

Yes, Sartre is correct. I get those existentialists so mixed up I don't know whether they are or not.

Edward C. Dodge said...

Oh My! Drumroll, please! Give it up for the Padre!

By the way, did you see the CTA "liturgy" on Fr. Z's site? I couldn't get through it...

Dean said...


I have not had a chance to visit weekday mass to appreciate the ineffable experience, but talking with others that have, they concur with your experience.

I say why stop at just weekday mass, bring it on for Sunday and Holy Day Masses as well.

Subimonk said...

Dean, while I share the enthusiasm, I am not ready to do the extensive catechesis that would be required in order to achieve that end. Also, I do not know how the new bishop would take it, and, finally, it would envolve a complete spatial re-ordering of the sanctuary that has me stumped at this time. Because of all these reasons, I think that it's inopportune to change the church sanctuary at this time.