January 3, 2012

Drops vs. Gushes, Etc.

One of the fascinating dynamics of my religious life in recent years has been my questioning of doctrines that I received and took for granted in my early training. Here's a convoluted path to an example.

On one of the evenings over the Christmas quiet, another friar and I watched the movie Black Robe. It's one of his favorites. One of the things I always note in the film is the way the Jesuits baptize with just the tiny amount of water that will stay on a fingertip or two.

It reminded me of one of the doctrines I was taught early in my religious life, which suggested that we had inherited a minimization of the symbolic riches of the sacraments, and that this needed to be strenuously and energetically corrected. Baptism ought to be by immersion, of course, but if this was not possible a whole lot of water ought to be poured. Altar bread shouldn't be boring wafers ordered from the church supplier, but made at home to look like bread. (Here is inserted the classic gag about the kid who, being tested before his first Holy Communion, said that he could believe that the bread became the Body of Christ, but that he didn't believe it was bread beforehand.) Confirmation shouldn't be a dab of Chrism on the forehead, but oil all through the hair and running down on the collar of Aaron's robes, as it were.

We were taught that the 'symbols were rich' and thus were to presented abundantly and sumptuously. Not that there's anything wrong with that as a principle.

On the other hand, why would someone believe that with a paltry few drops of water he was baptizing in a way that was in no sense deficient? I think, because the efficacy of the sacrament was believed in, and was known to be unrelated to what was made of the 'symbol.' The danger of placing a lot of emphasis on the sensual and conscious experience of the 'richness of symbol' is that these things can become a focus. Performance and showmanship can get to be too important. Is this not also the funny clericalism that is the danger of the Mass celebrated versus populum? (Which is not to deny that the Mass celebrated ad orientem doesn't also risk certain clericalisms.)

The GIRM does say that the "meaning of the sign demands" that the bread offered at Mass "truly have the appearance of food." (321) On the other hand, my experience says that the concern that altar bread resemble or taste like what we ordinarily have for bread is inversely proportional to the concern for caring for the sacred species after consecration. In other words, the more a group holds up the value of using what they think of as 'real bread,' the less concerned they are about consuming or caring for the Body of Christ that the bread becomes. So what's more important, the sensual experience of the bread or the sacramental communion with Christ?

13 comments:

Tim SJ said...

Having baptised 32 on Christmas Morning in a remote village in the Cordillera Mountains of the Phillipines - I have to say that my use of water was 'efficient' like my Jesuit brothers in Black Robe

Brother Charles said...

May God bless those newborn Christians!

Lynn said...

I hear what you are saying, and it makes good sense. However. . . . :) When I was confirmed as an adult convert, I really really appreciated that the priest's hands on my head were like a pile driver, and that he smeared a good teaspoon of chrism all over my forehead and it dripped down my face and I had to catch it with my fingers. I came from a minimalistic protestant evangelical tradition, and the more physical/sensate expressions of our Faith mean a great deal to me. I don't remember all the details of that Mass, but I remember the weight on my head, and I remember the slipperiness of the marvelously excessive oil and the glorious smell of balsam that lingered in my car and on my pillow for weeks afterward. You'll not be surprised to learn that when I am in and out of the sacristy I often take a sniff of the thurible, because I love that prayer is fragrant.

Drops will do, but I am blessed by the gushes.

Brother Charles said...

Later on the night I was confirmed I was standing around a barrel of beer back at the college campus. I remember one the other guys asking me about the smell. :)

libbiali said...

Are the people promoting the "sumptuous" sacraments the same people who are responsible for churches that look like barns?

I happen to think there's a lot of veiled aggression in a sacramental style that emphasizes personal violation. Everyone has a right to their tastes, but richness of symbol persists in a variety of presentations, not least those which are quiet, respectful, elegant, and to the point.

Lynn said...

I know with certainty in my case that there was no veiled aggression nor personal violation. My clergy know me well and knew what would be welcomed; it was more about my style than theirs, where "style" came into play at all (which wasn't much). I've never personally seen anything like you've described, but I can imagine it, and it's a shame that it happens.

Anonymous said...

Give the experience of some with the abundance of chrism at confirmation, it is probably a good thing that the traditional slap in the face by the bishop under the old rite was eliminated. Gushes in that rubric would probably be lethal!

Anonymous said...

When full baptismal immersion was last practiced in the Latin rite, and when was a loaf of bread used in the same rite instead of the wafer; or how far back historically has the Roman Catholic Church been using a communion wafer? Who used to make these before the church supplier? How has the church historically preformed the sacrament of Confirmation? Does Church history and Latin rite traditions have any role in these sacraments?

Lynn said...

Full immersion is still practiced in the Latin rite. My church does it every Easter.

Judy Kallmeyer said...

I for one am grateful that there was not a flood of chrism at my Confirmation. My word, what a mess that would have been. So much for bread and lemon! A shower would be more appropriate.

Fr. Moe believes in a flood of water at baptism as you well know. So nothing of symbolism lost there! I remember the days when the priest poured the water from a shell shaped vessel. Haven't seen a shell in a very long time.

Brother Charles said...

@Judy

The patrimony of the parish includes a very nice shell. It's somewhere in the sacristy, I'll bet.

pennyante said...

My parish uses a shell. In fact, it came from my home. A beautiful large one that I acquired somewhere long ago.

We were talking about a shell at a liturgy committee meeting and I said:"Oh, I have one!" And I gave it to the church... :)

Anonymous said...

The short answer isthe sacramental communion with Christ is the most(only) important.