Beauty Ever Ancient, Ever New
I’m the kind of person who might best be described as single-minded. When I become passionate about something, I really become passionate about it—to the point of focusing almost all my energies and efforts in its direction. My freshman year of high school, for example, I took an entry-level Spanish class and was instantly hooked. I wanted to become bilingual and was determined to do all I could to achieve this goal. When the school year ended, my study of Spanish only intensified. While other kids were outside playing, that summer for me consisted of devouring Spanish grammar books, eavesdropping on native speakers’ conversations in the supermarket, and driving my family crazy by attempting to go an entire day without saying a word in English.
Looking back, I can see how this passion for Spanish was only preparing me for what was to come. My faith has always been very important to me, and going twenty-four hours speaking entirely in Spanish is quite difficult for someone whose nighttime prayers are only known in English. Zealous to correct this deficiency, I quickly learned the Padre Nuestro, Ave María, and Gloria; in short, enough prayers to take pride in saying an all-Spanish rosary. There was something thrilling about this, and without abandoning my love of Spanish I set off to learn these same prayers in as many languages as possible. As it was the mother tongue of Spanish and the official language of the Church, Latin seemed a logical starting point, and by the end of my senior year the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and Gloria Patri found their way into my memory. As it turned out, I never got any further. Unbeknownst to me, I was at this moment on the verge of a greater passion, like an unsuspecting gardener whose spade hovers an inch above a buried treasure chest.
It perhaps goes without saying that my tendency to single-mindedness especially extends to my writing. Far from a way to escape or forget about my passion, writing for me instead serves as an outlet for it. If I had never unearthed what I did at the end of high school, my four years of collegiate writing might still be about—or even in—Spanish. But my spade did strike the chest, and this unsuspecting gardener’s bewilderment at hitting something solid soon gave way to curiosity, then enlightenment, then awe, and finally passion. I had discovered the Traditional Latin Mass, and it wasn’t long before this liturgical treasure began to fuel my writing:
A canon so untouched that it varied seven words in fourteen centuries. A hand gesture so precise that rulers could be calibrated by the distance between the palms. A code of rubrics so strict that violators could commit five hundred mortal sins in the course of an hour. Such were characteristics of the Roman Catholic Mass for over a millennium. By all accounts, this highest expression of Catholic worship was a stunning spectacle.
Written my freshman year, these were the opening lines of my Academic Argumentation final paper advocating the large-scale restoration of Traditional Latin Mass within the Catholic Church. When I initially discovered this ancient liturgy, however, these qualities—of timelessness, of precision, of awe—had caused me more confusion than consolation. I had been Catholic my whole life, but virtually all I knew about the Traditional Latin Mass was that it had been widely abandoned in the 1960s in favor of the more modern Mass in English that I attended on Sundays. So when I went for the first time to one of the few churches that offered it, I left feeling frustrated. The liturgy was beautiful, but I couldn’t fathom how something that had been so normal for my ancestors could feel so foreign to me. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before this otherworldliness, this sense of the sacred, this atmosphere of awe in the presence of God became for me the jewel’s most attractive shimmer, qualities I would emphasize almost two years later in my Minor in Writing gateway course re-purposing essay:
To attend Mass fifty years ago was like stepping into another world. You would have seen only the back of the priest’s Roman vestments as he stood serenely before a candle-lit high altar. You would have smelled only incense as it reached your nose amidst its ascent toward heaven. You would have heard only Latin, both chanted by the choir above you and spoken by the priest in front of you. Amidst the dead silence of the Consecration, you would have strained your ears in a vain attempt to make out the five whispered words—Hoc est enim Corpus Meum—by which the priest enacted the miracle. At the bells immediately following you would have raised your bowed head, and as the priest elevated the Host you would have elevated your eyes to gaze upon the tiny bread-like wafer which you knew was now the flesh of your Divine Savior.
More than merely describing the treasure I found in the Traditional Latin Mass, I believe these two passages—written two years apart—also reflect a very important aspect of my evolution as a writer. While my passion hasn’t changed, how I have described it over the course of my collegiate career evidently has. In the first piece, I focus exclusively on the characteristics of the Mass itself: the Latin language, the priest’s orientation, the Gregorian Chant. It is as if I’m explaining the Mass to someone who is no more than a casual inquirer. This sense of separation is something I cannot afford in the second piece, written as an editorial encouraging lapsed Catholics to return to Mass. By shifting from the inherent characteristics of the Mass to the experience of the person attending it, I am able to create a much more vivid image, conveyed directly to the reader by the use of the second person. I believe such a development is emblematic of my growing audience awareness and, I hope, of my increasing maturity as a descriptive writer.
While the above evolution was only fully realized after several semesters of writing, another shift in my writing occurred in just a matter of months—a shift in rhetoric, as reflected by a change in medium. When I discovered the Traditional Latin Mass, the true meaning of the Catholic liturgy suddenly came alive for me. As the characteristics of the ancient rite so perfectly express, Sunday Mass is so much more than a social gathering with nice music about God. Rather, as I wrote in the re-purposed editorial, each and every Mass is a true miracle:
Nobody can ever completely understand the Mass, so awesome is the reality Catholics believe it conveys. Quite simply, Catholics believe that the Mass is a sacrifice. It is the sacrifice of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, re-presented in an unbloody manner in order to perpetuate the merits of this sacrifice to all of humanity and for all time. In other words, at every Catholic Mass Christ is as fully present as He was on the cross because, in a mystical and mysterious way, the two events are one and the same.
Unfortunately, in modern times the reverence, mystery, and magnificence of the Mass are too often veiled behind guitars and folk music, feel-good homilies, and an overemphasis on the worshipping community to the exclusion of the transcendent God being worshipped. Somehow predicted to appeal to my generation, this change from the sacred to the banal has led Catholic youth to stop attending Mass in droves, as they conclude—and who can blame them?—that this hour on Sunday is hardly different from the other 167 hours of the week. The purpose of my editorial, then, was to encourage lapsed Catholics to return to Mass by attempting to explain—from the depths of my writer’s being—just what the Mass is.
In retrospect, I may have been trying to do too much. Words are incredibly powerful, yet I wasn’t sure if even the best of my writing could bridge the formidable gap between the mind and the heart. I needed something more, but I didn’t have it. Fortunately, others did. By re-mediating my editorial into a “Catholics Come Home to Mass” TV commercial, I was able to combine Mozart’s spine-chilling Dies Irae with several awe-inspiring pictures of the Mass and call it my own. This aesthetic argument, I have no doubt, was much more powerful than the eighty words of subtitles I composed to simultaneously flash across the screen.
Unlike the natural development of my descriptive writing, this evolution of medium was heavily resisted by my existing writer’s sensibilities. In a way, I felt like it was cheating to draw so heavily upon work that was not my own, and in my gateway reflection on new-media writing I even referred to this re-mediated video as the assignment which I “patently plagiarized.” To be honest, I’m still not completely sure how I feel about “writing” that involves so little actual writing. Nevertheless, I now recognize the power of digital media to convey a message, especially one for which my words alone are woefully inadequate.
The Traditional Latin Mass wasn’t the only thing contained in the treasure that has now become my passion. Having embraced this most prominent jewel, the light from its shimmer also opened my eyes to the entire riches of the Catholic Faith that lie tucked away in the chest. This was a Faith with which I was similarly unfamiliar, despite having theoretically been taught it week after week, year after year in catechism class.
This Faith was deeply challenging, yet mysteriously attractive. It was confident yet not arrogant, unwavering yet gentle, militant yet merciful, powerful yet completely dependent on Another. This Faith didn’t change with the times, but rather changed the times themselves. It didn’t seek to conform to the world, but rather to conform the world to itself. It was as intolerant of error as it was tolerant of those who held error. It was as thundering in its condemnation of sin as it was loving in its embrace of the repentant sinner. This Faith took reason and perfected it, took humanity and elevated it, took suffering and sanctified it—just as its Founder took flesh and saved it. Ultimately, as I wrote in my gateway “Why I Write” essay, this Catholic Faith sought and ever seeks to make known “not something created, but revealed; not something remote, but near; not a something impersonal, but a Person Himself, whose name is Jesus Christ.”
Accordingly, the evolution of my writing in this regard concerns the broadening of my worldview with regard to this catholic—meaning “universal”—Faith. Early in my college career I took several classes on European history which furthered my knowledge and understanding of the Western civilization built by the Catholic Church. However, it wasn’t until I took a class on Christian missionaries in Asia my sophomore year that I began to more deeply consider the global face of Catholicism. Creatively titled “Jesus Comes to Asia,” the course focused on the process by which Christianity was first brought to, and eventually exported from, the Far East. This cultural exchange especially characterizes my writing on the two historical novels we read for the class: Silence by Shusaku Endo and The Question of Hu by Jonathan Spence. Forced to go beyond Europe and the West, my character juxtaposition conveys a more worldwide perspective, a more universal perspective, a more genuinely “catholic” perspective:
In Endo’s novel, the Asian Christian convert, Kichijiro, comes to Asia. In Spence’s novel, the Asian Christian convert, Hu, quite contrastingly comes from Asia. Although its setting only a century after Silence renders the prefiguration somewhat premature, the reversal evident in The Question of Hu is nevertheless indicative of the transition that is to soon occur. That once in Europe “Hu begins to preach”—even if only mockingly or coincidentally—is a sure sign that soon Jesus will no longer just come to Asia. In just a matter of time, Jesus will come from Asia.
Although I wrote this essay as part of a take-home final exam, this expanded worldview did not end with the course. If anything, my writer’s evolution in this regard only continued, eventually finding its ultimate expression in my Minor in Writing capstone project, an in-depth feature on Catholicism in Far East Asia. By examining the issues of politics, inculturation, and evangelization on the continent, I hope to consider the relevance of Christ and the Church in a context and culture very different from my own.
In doing so, I will inevitably come face to face with the land first evangelized by St. Thomas the Apostle in the first century. Yes, I will undoubtedly unearth hardships along with hopes, tensions along with tranquility, rocks along with jewels. Nevertheless, despite the continent’s unique challenges, I am equally certain that my writing will be privileged to continue unfolding the Catholic treasure, perhaps from this angle shining even more radiantly than before.