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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CwnfathXhU
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”?
FRED: Okay, take the flit movement in literature, or homosexuality—
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]
VIOLET: Are you...gay?
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.