Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Chesterton's Defense of Repetitious Rituals

The British writer G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was one of the most eccentric and famous twentieth century converts to Christianity. After a brief sojourn in the Church of England, he ended up in the Roman Catholic Church, a counter-cultural perch that informed his quirky views of just about everything toward the end of his life.

In researching my book, a friend recommended that I read a volume of his collected writings on economics, including a book he published under the title Outline of Sanity, which I did read and did enjoy. There, Chesterton defends his philosophy of Distributism, which he and his friend Hillaire Belloc framed as an alternative to both socialism and capitalism. In Chesterton's view, there was little difference between the two, because both led to giant bureaucracies with monopolies. (A contemporary Chestertonian would challenge anyone to identify major differences between navigating through government red tape and cellphone or computer companies' red tape. Both are giant, anonymous, remote, and have you over a barrel.)

The true alternative to these concentrations of power, for Chesterton, was to foster small, local forms of ownership and proprietorship, as in the Middle Ages. Although he could be accused of idealizing the peacefulness of the medieval economy, he was quite well-read in history, and his criticisms of modern economics are often trenchant (and occasionally tinged with nostalgia). Distributism's solutions are not always realistic, but its critique is spot-on.

More recently, I picked up a library copy of an earlier volume of G.K.C.'s collected works, composed of his writings on his conversion to Catholicism. In a book entitled The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic (1929), he responds to one of the common Protestant objections to Catholicism: the charge that it relies on empty, repeated rituals in its prayer and worship or what Chesterton calls "mechanical repetition." His response is worth quoting extensively, since it is so lively:
[A critic] says that we repeat prayers and other verbal forms without thinking about them. And doubtless there are many sympathizers who will repeat that denunciation after him, without thinking about it at all. But, before we come to explaining the Church's real teaching about such things, or quoting her numberless recommendations of attention and vigilance, or expounding the reason of the reasonable exceptions that she does allow, there is a wide, a simple and a luminous truth about the whole situation which anybody can see if he will walk about with his eyes open. It is the obvious fact that all human forms of speech tend to fossilize into a formalism; and that the Church stands unique in history, not as talking a dead language among everlasting languages; but, on the contrary, as having preserved a living language in a world of dying languages. When the great Greek cry breaks into the Latin of the Mass, as old as Christianity itself, it may surprise some to learn that there are good many people in church who really do say Kyrie eleison [Lord have mercy] and mean exactly what they say. But anyhow, they mean what they say rather more than a man who begins a letter with "Dear Sir" means what he says. "Dear" is emphatically a dead word; in that place it has ceased to have any meaning. It is exactly what the Protestants would allege of Popish rites and forms; it is done rapidly, ritually, and without any memory even of the meaning of the rite. When Mr. Jones the solicitor uses it to Mr. Brown the banker, he does not mean that the banker is dear to him, or that his heart is filled with Christian love, even so much as the heart of some poor ignorant Papist listening to the Mass. Now, life, ordinary, jolly, heathen, human life, is simply chockful of these dead words and meaningless ceremonies. You will not escape from them by escaping from the Church into the world. When the critic in question, or a thousand other critics like him, say that we are only required to make a material or mechanical attendance at Mass, he says something which is not true about the ordinary Catholic in his feelings about the Catholic Sacraments. But he says something which is true about the ordinary Court levee or Ministerial reception, and about three-quarters of the ordinary society calls and polite visits in the town. This deadening of repeated social action may be a harmless thing; it may be a melancholy thing; it may be a mark of the Fall of Man; it may be anything the critic chooses to think. But those who have made it, hundreds and hundreds of times, a special and concentrated charge against the Church, are men blind to the whole human world they live in and unable to see anything but the thing they traduce. (The Collected Works G.K. Chesterton, Vol. 3, [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990], pp. 216-217).
We can boil G.K.C.'s points down to four: 1) the charge of "mechanical repetition" overlooks Catholic tradition, which acknowledges and deals with this very problem; 2) ordinary human societies also have many empty rituals, such as addressing a letter with "Dear" or the rituals of government; 3) many of these secular rituals are quite empty in comparison to repeated practices in worship, which believers find meaningful; and 4) the people who make this charge (ironically enough) are themselves repeating this charge without thinking about it.

To this, one can add another point: all worship practices involve some element of repetition. No low-church evangelicals would propose getting rid of sermons, even though sermons are given every week (empty ritual!). All worship is liturgical in the sense that it involves a set of patterns and practices; and most churches repeat these patterns and practices weekly.

For anyone interested in the liturgical year, this is an interesting defense against the church of "mechanical repetition."

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