Monday, April 25, 2016

"This place is terrible!"

The Introit Terribilis is also used for the feast of the dedication of Saint John Lateran in Rome, the Pope's cathedral and the first church built following Emperor Constantine's Edict of Toleration.
This place is terrible!

This is a translation a friend once gave me for the Introit sung at the beginning of the Mass for consecrating a new church building: Terribilis est locus iste. The fuller antiphon, drawing from Jacob's dream of the ladder, reads:
"Terrible is this place: it is the house of God, and the gate of heaven; and it shall be called the court of God."

The King James translation goes so far as to say, "how dreadful is this place!" Is it not strange how  these terms, once used to refer to the kingdom of God as a place of splendor and majesty, are now devolved into words we'd sooner use when expressing sorrow over someone's dog being run over on the street? 

It seems we've forgotten that the idea of the afterlife is a "terror to behold", and that the images in our churches are not always there to give us warm and fuzzy feelings of security. Sometimes, as with the icons of the East which stare into the depths of your soul, or the mad paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, we ought to feel a bit uneasy about our place in the universe. They invite us to step outside our comfort zones. And so, the liturgy addresses God as "King of awful majesty" (Rex tremendae majestatis from the Dies Irae, or sequence for Masses of the Dead). And it was these words; terrible, dreadful, and awful; which ran through my mind as I watched the following video. It's a re-enactment of a Palm Sunday procession as it have been seen in Chartres in the year 1190. The actual venue is the famous Cloisters of the Met Museum in New York City, and though it's not a true liturgical service, the vested ministers are real Capuchin friars. This may be of special interest to any of my Eastern Christian readers who observed Palm Sunday just yesterday.

My only nitpicks are the ministers' failure to sing the texts, and perhaps the use of female singers, but it's absolutely worth watching in any case.

See the video itself at this link.

(You may also wish to follow along with this program or listen to the opening remarks afterward.)

The spirituality which led to the development of these hallowed rites has long since given way to suffocation and then, ultimately, the total banality which most of us would suffer if we were to walk into any average parish down the street on a Sunday. The holy mysteries are now, for the most part, stumbled through with less grace and solemnity than my family picnics.... and worst of all, no one sees the problem with it.

I can only imagine the millions of keystrokes that have gone into explaining how to dig ourselves out of this cesspool of bad worship. While a return to rubrical authors and older liturgical texts is certainly important, it won't stick unless we allow the old rites; with all their smells, sounds, uneasy sights, and perambulations in and out of the church; to shape our interior dispositions. Good liturgy, should we be open to it, will instill in us the seventh gift of the Holy Ghost: the fear of the Lord, which, in the Catholic Encyclopedia, "fills us with a sovereign respect for God, and makes us dread, above all things, to offend Him".

Then, perhaps one day, we'll be able to genuflect before the Eucharistic Host at Mass, make an examination of conscience on our readiness to worthily receive Communion, and only after that, answer the question, "May I with right and conscience make this claim?" with (like the archbishop of Canterbury to Henry V in Shakespeare's play), "the sin upon my head, dread sovereign..." and then boldly step before the altar of God.


  1. Could you please tell me who the splendid looking priest is in this last post ? He looks the "real thing", and I don't just mean the setting and vestments.Thanks