Monday, November 18, 2013

Only Excellence

I have recently discovered Whit Stillman movies. I know, I know, what kind of gay Catholic doesn't know about Whit Stillman? Anyway, I have come to the conclusion that Metropolitan is a masterpiece. It may be one of the best movies of the modern age. I've watched it almost a dozen times now. It's great. Maybe I will write about it soon. You have to have a certain type of temperament to like it, I think. Namely, you can't be a liberal, but I recommend it to everyone. It's on Netflix, check it out. But this scene, so fantastic:

So I recently watched his Damsels in Distress, his most recent movie, and while not nearly as good as Metropolitan, I liked it. (I did not like Barcelona or Last Days of Disco, his other two, very much.) Anyway, you don't have to be familiar with the movies at all to appreciate this post. I want to pull out one quote from it to discuss, of all things, the Catholic Church:
The Lord gave us abilities—he requires that we use them: “Good. Better. Best. Excelsior! Higher!” Only excellence can glorify the Lord. Vulgarity is, in essence, blasphemous.
I may have mentioned it, but I attend (whenever possible (whenever I am not with my parents)) the Latin mass. I find modern Catholic masses to be absolutely horrible. Just really terrible. The churches look like spaceships, people don't care what's going on, the songs are embarrassingly bad, and the general feel is pathetic. I'm sure this comment alone will alienate a lot of people, but it's true. Whenever I have to attend a modern American mass, because I can't get away on a holy day of obligation or something, it is genuinely painful.

Now, do I think modern American masses are wrong or invalid? No. I don't. There is nothing invalid about them. And I'll bow before that Eucharist there as I will any Latin mass. I just mean, to steal the language from Damsels, that I think they are vulgar. When I see kids eating snacks and people on cell phones, when I see everyone raise their hands for the Our Father, when I see the relaxed hugging, I see not a celebration of the presence of God. I see a community get-together, a nominal church.

There is something that I don't think people quite understand about the mass. And I speaking from my opinion here, not any sort of authority. I don't think people quite realize that the mass is supposed to elevate them, to sanctify them in whatever way it can. In the presence of God, in the presence of excellence, we are made better. Let me explain.

I was recently at a festival. A sort of renaissance or medieval festival where they make it look like it was in the middle ages. You all know what I mean. And at the festival a group of people were doing some traditional dance. They pulled in people from the crowds to teach them how to do it. And it was lovely. Very respectful of the women, very organized, very beautiful. Looking closer to check out the people dancing, I noticed that all the men dancing were fat, mostly unkempt, and a little slobbish. But I didn't notice this when I looked at them dancing as a whole. They didn't seem so unappealing. They didn't seem so vulgar. The organization, the beauty of the entire thing changed them. It transformed them from slobs to gentlemen. Even if it was just make believe. Even if it was just for fun. They were different. They were better. And it was the dance itself that did this. The environment. What they were a part of, because it was excellent, made them better.

This, I think, is what mass can do. It can elevate us. Frankly, anything beautiful can elevate us. But the mass, the actual presence of the divine, can elevate us in ways that nothing else on earth can. This is why, I think, that when we perform mass, when the priest performs the ceremony, he do it with as much beauty as he possibly can. Because it is the most excellent thing we can do on earth. It is the most meaningful way in which we can glorify the Lord, and it is the most meaningful way in which we might receive some part of that glory.

I try to not be an elitist. That is, I try not to let a person's class, the way he carries himself, get in the way of my charity toward him. And I am generally very good at this. I am kindhearted, I help people, and I am always understanding of faults. But I think this world, genuinely, would be a better place if people sought excellence, sought excellence in all things as a means of glorifying God. Our entire religion has turned into an excuse not to be excellent. And I think that this cannot be right.

Sometimes, when I am sitting there at those masses, and people are casually walking in and out of the pews, like they're sitting down for some sort of a buffet, I think that the hardest thing for a modern Catholic to deal with is the death of his church. Every time I see a glimpse of the ancient tradition in a modern mass, it makes me a little bit sad. I don't think everything in the past was better. That's sort of besides the point. But I do think how we used to do mass, how mass used to humble us, how mass used to elevate us, was better. And it doesn't even necessarily have to be in a certain language to do this (though language, when it is not our own, forces us to be better). I just mean, when I go to a Latin mass (either ordinary or extraordinary), I see nothing but a desire for excellence. Something unlike anything else on the planet.

There's a lot that can be said about the second half of the bolded quote. That vulgarity is blasphemous. I doubt I would go so far, and I don't think it my place to, but I do think there is something to it. I do think the way in which we live our lives, the more excellent we can be, the closer we are to the divine. And I don't mean going to Sunday School even. I mean everything. As Stillman argues, I think, even in decadence:
VIOLET: Have you chosen a topic for your paper? 
FRED: Uh, “The Decline of Decadence.” 
VIOLET: You think decadence has declined? 
FRED: Definitely. Big time. Major, major decline. 
FRED: “How” or “in what ways”? 
VIOLET: Either. 
FRED: Okay, take the flit movement in literature, or homosexuality— 
VIOLET: What? 
FRED: Homosexuality. It’s gone completely downhill. Right down the tubes. [He makes the sound: “Whchht.”] 
FRED: Before, homosexuality was something refined, hidden, subliminated, aspiring to the highest forms of expression and often achieving them. Now it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts. 
[Violet looks a little shocked.] 
FRED: It’s pretty disillusioning. 
[Violet pauses in thought for a long moment] 
FRED: Not especially. But in another era, it would have had more appeal. Now, I just don’t see the point.
And I do, for what it's worth, think it's something that people crave. Excellence, I mean. I think they make excuses or think they're not good enough to be excellent. Whether in mass or in everyday life. But I do think it is what they are aimed toward by their nature. Some more than others, but everyone. 


  1. I find modern Catholic masses to be absolutely horrible. Just really terrible. The churches look like spaceships, people don't care what's going on, the songs are embarrassingly bad, and the general feel is pathetic.

    When I was younger, my first experiences with church were Byzantine masses - so even though I was way post-V2, I didn't really get the Novus Ordo until mass at my (Roman) Catholic school.

    I hated it on sight. It felt like I was taking part in some big joke. I didn't know what Vatican II was, or much else, but something simply did not feel right. It wasn't merely 'different'.

    And I really like that end exchange. Nowadays there seems to be an exceptional love of the out and out trashy. It's just weird. Like somehow people managed to even corrupt profanity too.

  2. I will say that it depends on the Novus Ordo mass. I have been to plenty that are like what you describe: nursery rhyme-style Creed, guitars, rainbow banners talking about the "HOLY SPIRIT", etc.

    But I've also been to plenty that are either beautifully simple (usually daily Masses with no hymns, etc.) or "high" masses (organ, incense, Latin and Greek prayers like the Kyrie eleison, etc.).

    It just depends on the church.

  3. Good to see you back. And a good message--I agree. It has more to do with standards than language, though. Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy has been presented in the vernacular from the beginning, and it remains dignified and beautiful. Modern Catholic masses (American ones, at least) are just representations of the modern (American) Catholic faith as a whole: disorganized, half-hearted and dismal. Vernacular mass is here for keeps, as it always should have been; but it need not come bundled with so much mediocrity.

    And I've never heard of Whit Stillman, either. I'll have to check him out.


    Like somehow people managed to even corrupt profanity too.

    Cursing--in the sense of hurling an abuse in the direction of another person--has always been condemned by Church writers. Even a simple "go to hell" is overboard. Aquinas counts this kind of cursing as a mortal sin, and I've seen it similarly attacked by the Church Fathers.

    Also, I'm not sure how profanity is relevant to the topic at hand. It has always been a vulgar, peasant-class trait, even in the ancient world. It's like the exact opposite of what Joe is praising.

    1. I'm not holding up profanity as some kind of virtuous thing, just as I don't think that Joe is holding up decadence as something that is praiseworthy. I'm saying that there are degrees of, for lack of a better word, quality and skill when it comes to even the profane. More skillful and elegant profanity is still profane, but it's still more careful and elegant than other examples of it.

  4. Why is it disdainful to hold each others hands during the Lord's Prayer in our celebration of the presence of God?

  5. If I may be so bold as to counter (somewhat) the thoughts above...

    "Do not say, 'Why were the former days better than these?'
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this."

    Eccl. 7:10.

    While I agree that excellence is a lost virtue in our culture, I'm not so sure things were ever that excellent in the church or otherwise. Sure, our culture values have shifted in some really bad ways, but also some good ones, too. In years past, could a gay Catholic have a blog (or a discussion group) about what it means to be a gay Catholic? Churches may have been more excellent during mass but a whole lot less excellent at dealing with people they didn't understand.

    In America, we've lost a lot of formalities and gained a lot of comfortability. At first glance, that seems to be a bad thing, and our culture has demonstrated some of that to be true. However, it is also true that simpler people have gained exposure to a lot more information, and a lot more people, than would have been the case in the past. While this is only my anecdotal experience, I would venture to guess that Christians now are more likely to accept, say, someone of another race than they were in the past, and perhaps more souls are even being saved as churches become more comfortable to those who would otherwise disdain them. Jesus' parable of the man rescuing a distressed sheep on the Sabbath comes to mind.

    1. I think I might respond that it's not a matter of numbers. My argument was not that being concerned with excellence would be beneficial to getting butts in the seats (though I would probably argue in the long run, it will be), but instead that it is simply better, regardless of its consequences. To evaluate the claim in terms of numbers or benefits of doing it a different way is, I think, to miss the point a little bit.

      As I said, though, I think that overall the effect with be detrimental. I can't imagine Protestantism lasting much longer in the modern world. And Catholicism will probably get very small some time after that. The only thing that will keep it separate is its aim for excellence, as is the case with anything, I think.

      But yeah, obviously it's important to help as many as possible and even to appeal to them as you can. But this doesn't mean that we have to wholesale ignore excellence. After all, my point was that the excellence of the above can elevate the masses. If the thing above isn't excellent, it doesn't matter how many people, whatever their race, you have in the seats.