"A question of what our gods are"

Home | Join/Donate


Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy
Follow AdoremusSociety on Twitter

Online Edition:

April 2011

Vol. XVII, No. 2

In Praise of Poets and Liturgists with the Sacramental Sense

by Russell Shaw

Some years ago the critic George Steiner published a provocative book called Real Presences. As far as I know, Steiner wasn’t a believer, but his book was a respectful look at something he considered a serious problem: the loss of the sacramental sense in Western culture. It can be read as a kind of appendix to Charles Taylor’s later, magisterial work, A Secular Age, which reflects on the secularization process as a whole.

If Steiner was right — and I believe he was — this loss of sacramentality is the fundamental challenge facing both liturgy and poetry today.

“I can see far though I never use eyes,/The sight that I see with is not your affair…” These lines from a recent poem by a friend of mine, Pavel Chichikov (that’s a pen name, of course), express an understandable exasperation. Like poets generally, this one knows all too well that the special “sight” with which he views the world isn’t widely shared any more. It’s the sacramental sense, and it’s largely been lost.

I was reminded of these things while reading a new Chichikov volume, From Here to Babylon (Grey Owl Press). The poems are informed by a special sensibility — in this case, one with a deeply religious coloration — that goes beyond surfaces to the numinous dimension of reality. In modern times poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson have possessed this quality in an eminent degree. So does Chichikov. As in this, on a tree in winter:

On the stricken tree I saw the Christ
Leaning toward the current of the river;
Underneath the foolish soldiers diced
To win a spotless garment without seams —
They gambled with the little ivory flowers
That grew along the margin of the stream.

This is how poets see things. And it’s a way of seeing largely unappreciated now. Liturgy presents a similar case — a sacramental action requiring a knack for seeing in a certain way that few people today possess.

This may be why the liturgical reform envisaged by Vatican II hasn’t succeeded as well as hoped. Yes, liturgical abuses that cropped up here and there back in the 1970s did have something to do with it, but, offensive as the abuses were, the problem goes beyond a few clown Masses and readings from The Prophet.

At bottom, liturgical reform didn’t work so well because “active participation” in liturgy was widely taken to mean staying busy — reciting words, singing songs, shaking hands, doing this and that — instead of seeing with eyes of faith that which liturgy makes sacramentally present.

Now we’re preparing for the introduction, shortly before next Christmas, of still another English translation of the Mass. Critics of the new translation say they prefer the version now in use — pedestrian, flat, not much removed from everyday speech. The new English version may or may not touch transcendence (we’ll find out soon enough), but it tries. The big question may be how many people today are equipped to recognize success even if it succeeds.

In his new document on Sacred Scripture, Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict speaks of the Church’s need for the witness of contemplatives in a world “excessively caught up in outward activities”. Is contemplation the key to an authentic renewal of liturgy? Perhaps. If so, poetry, which looks beyond surfaces and seeks to share what it sees, has a role to play. We need poets like Pavel Chichikov for their own sakes and also to point the way in the great project of restoring the sacramental sense.

***

Russell Shaw, Catholic journalist and author, is adjunct professor of Communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and a Consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. The most recent of his twenty books is Writing “The Way”: The Story of a Spiritual Classic (Scepter Publishers, 2010). His bi-weekly columns appear on the Catholic Exchange web site (catholicexchange. com), where this column originally appeared. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.

***

Credit Card Donations

To donate by credit card:

1. Call our office to donate directly: (314) 863-8385, have your name, address and credit card number ready. If you would like automatic donations to Adoremus let us know what date(s) you would like to be billed on.

2. You may also donate by using Network for Good: http://www.networkforgood.org (follow instructions on site)

3. You may donate using PayPal below

US Membership Donation

Foreign Membership Donation


**Adoremus operates solely on your generous donations.**

Adoremus is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Donations are tax deductible.

Site Copyright © 1999 - Present by Adoremus
All rights reserved.

PERMISSION GUIDELINES
All material on this web site is copyrighted and may not be copied or reproduced without prior written permission from Adoremus, except as specified below:

Personal use
Permission is granted to download and/or print out articles for personal use only.

Quotations
Brief quotations (ca 500 words) may be made from the material on this site, in accordance with the “fair use” provisions of copyright law without prior permission.  For these quotations proper attribution must be made of author and Adoremus + URL (i.e., Adoremus or Adoremus Bulletin – www.adoremus.org.)

Attribution
Generally, all signed articles or graphics must also have the permission of the author. If a text does not have an author byline, Adoremus should be listed as the author.  For example: Adoremus (St Louis: Adoremus, 2005 + URL)

Link to Adoremus web site.
Other web sites are welcome to establish links to www.adoremus.org or to individual pages within our site.


Home | Join/Donate | Adoremus Bulletin | Archive | Index | Church Documents | Architecture | Posture | Music | Translation | What's NEW? | FAQ | Search Site | Site Map