It was a cold August morning in Aylesford,Kent, UK and we were staying at the most beautiful and peaceful Carmelite priory, first built in the 13th century, destroyed by Henry VIII in the 16th and rebuilt just sixty four years ago, in 1949. I was walking to the chapel for Mass, which was going to be celebrated according to the Traditional Rite. I had no idea of what to expect, as it would be my very first experience, in all of my 34 years, of the Church’s ancient rite of singing the Mass in Latin. I had, on many occasions, heard my mother exclaim of its beauty and express her desire for a full Requiem Mass at her death, which invariably ended with me rolling my eyes, at my often hip mother, and saying, “Latin? Isn’t that a dead language and who would want to hear that anyway? It would be positively boring.”
During our visit to Thessaloniki, Greece, some five days before going to Aylesford, we filed quietly, to the insistent tolling of some great bell, into a Greek Orthodox Church to observe (because we knew no Greek) a Byzantine Rite of Mass, something none of us on pilgrimage with Father Clovis had ever seen before. Initially, it all seemed very foreign, with the Sanctuary completely closed off from the church by a magnificent screen, called an iconostasis; with the priest moving back and forth in the sanctuary, within sight and then out of sight of the congregation. At the beginning of the Mass, the doors of the sanctuary were opened, but during the consecration of the Body and Blood, they were closed to the eyes of the faithful, so unlike that of the Catholic Church where everything is full frontal and exposed to the congregation.
From the moment the Mass began, I was enthralled with its solemnity, the incense, the vestments, the veneration and the singing (all in Greek of course) and I thought that it was the most beautifully, breathtaking moment of my life. Although I had understood not a single word of it, I left feeling that this must be how the angels worshipped God in heaven. As the priests and congregation expressed their devotion and love with bows and kisses of the icons, so the angels in heaven would, with their voices, pour out all their love in ecstasy to the Father. Love is, after all, less the spoken word and more the unspoken sentiment. Love is in the things we do even when we don’t understand why we do them. All we know is that it pleases our beloved and so we do it. I remember being unable to express to Father Clovis just how moved and touched I was by the entire experience, wishing that we had something as beautiful and angelic as that Mass in the Church.
And so, on that fateful morning in Aylesford, I was a little weary, expecting little, but ohhh, how God can amaze us when we least expect it! And, amazed I was to experience the heavenly singing of the Tridentine Mass. In that moment I fully understood what it felt like and meant to have my soul joined completely to God. I was so enchanted that it seemed to me that my spirit soared above the rafters and towards heaven, and so overwhelming was that feeling, that I could only cry because I felt so consumed and enveloped in love for God and in his love for me. And when it was over, I was transfixed.
So when Father Clovis informed me, just two months ago, that, with the blessing of Archbishop Rivas, he was offering a Gregorian Chant Workshop for two weeks (29 July to 8 August, 2013) taught by the renowned Nicholas Gale, I was ecstatic. The two weeks sped pass and from someone who could barely read the Latin and much less sing it, I was amazed that at the end I was able to both read and sing in that ancient and venerable language that declared Christ to be the King of the Jews.
What I have so come to love about the Latin Mass is that it brings us, or at least me, as close to heaven as I could possibly get whilst on earth. For when we sing the ancient chants, we are higher than every creature on earth and, though we are not yet heavenly beings, through the chant we share a heavenly space with the angels in our common adoration of our God. The Mass, sung in a language I do not speak, moves me to recognize, that truly the Mass is not about me but about God, for the simple reason that the Church’s music is directed solely to the worship of God. The contemporary Church has become so much about how one feels, the music one loves, the priest or preaching one likes and so much less about offering ourselves up to God, in union with Christ, joined to one another, in one universal voice of praise and thanksgiving.
A certain subjectivity has entered into the modern Mass causing us to forget its purpose and ours. In the ancient chant of the Church, our entire heritage, of over 2000 years, all our saints, their works and their love are brought forth. There the whole of our minds and our bodies are enwrapped in music and we all breathe, throughout the Church, one breathe, in kissing God with our mouth through the chant.
The Second Vatican Council, in Sacrosanctum Concilium declared, “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre- eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary and integral part of solemn liturgy.”
Therefore, in the spirit of Vatican II, all Bishops should make it their duty to bring back a sense of the sacred and the absolute holiness of the Mass through the Gregorian Chant.
The Catholic Church is imbued with so much history and love and those who don’t see it are those who willfully refuse to see, or those who just don’t take the time. There is great beauty in the Church that I love, and the sacred, ancient Mass, our heirloom, is one of its most beautiful jewels, of which the beautiful churches and great cathedrals are its setting.