This is the fourth in a series of six, to see the complete article, go here.
5. Liturgical action
One thing that has always struck me about the way that Eastern Rite Catholics worship is the more active engagement with the images during the liturgy itself. Attention sways to left and right as the Mother of God or Christ or the Patron Saint are addressed through their icons.
Many Roman Catholics do not have the facility of worshipping in conjunction with images in the way that one might see in an Eastern liturgy. I don’t know what is cause and what is effect here. It might be that the style of worship for a long time – the last couple of centuries perhaps – has been such that there is so little engagement with the art that there has been little point in having many liturgical images; or it might be that the emphasis on devotional imagery in churches has meant that the liturgy itself has becone disengaged from its surroundings because there was less and less to opportunity engage with art during worship.
Regardless of the reason, we have a situation today where even if great care is taken to choose beautiful, high quality art, and even if the liturgy is celebrated well, there is rarely a connection between art and worship. The art and architecture becomes at best a beautiful backdrop which creates and atmosphere that is appopriate to what is going on, rather than an integral part of a beautiful and gracefully liturgical ‘machine’ in motion.
I suggest that thought needs to be given to how we can adapt the celebration of the Mass so that there is greater engagement. Clearly this needs to be done with care and I would hesitate myself to make many suggests as to exactly what could be done during the Mass itself. I would rather leave that to liturgical specialist.
I do offer a few throughts for consideration, however. For example, the Eastern practice of putting out an icon of the Feast of the day and readings could be adopted so that all see it as they come into the church. Then, perhaps on processing in and out of the Church this could be incensed and venerated. The homilist could reinforce this by referring to the image – ‘this is why we venerated it when we came in’ and ‘this is why we will when we go out’. Furthermore there could be processions round the church building itself before or after Mass at which the images appropriate to the liturgical calendar are venerated and incensed. Congregations would develop the habit of noting which images were appropriate to any particular day and those thoughts would be with them during the Mass proper so that at the mention of, for example, the saint of the day during the Collect they would instinctively turn to look at the image.
I have pointed out in the past how I do not see how any artist can realistically expect to paint art that connects with prayer if he is not habitually praying with art himself. With this in mind I have tried to develop the habit myself during Mass of turning to face the statue or painting of the saint at the moment he or she is named audibly. Similarly, if we are addressing the Father in prayer, as in the Our Father, I try to remember look at the image of Christ, so that I address my prayer to the Father through the Son, the ‘image of the invisible God’, in the Spirit.
I have an icon corner at home so that when I pray the liturgy of the hours, I do so in conjunction with visual imagery. The book, the Little Oratory was written so as to develop in lay people this habit of engaging with visual imagery in the context of the liturgy in the hope that they might subsequently bring this habit with them when they pray the Mass.