Auden on modern liturgies

A letter from the late poet W. H. Auden to his pastor, on the occasion of the church–St. Mark’s Episcopal in New York City–adopting a more modern liturgy:

77 St Mark’s Place
New York City 3

Nov. 26th [year not given]

Dear Father Allen:

Have you gone stark raving mad? Aside from its introduction of a lesson and psalm from the O.T., which seems to me admirable since few people go any more to Mattins or Evensong, the new ‘liturgy’ is appalling.

Our Church has had the singular good-fortune of having its Prayer-Book composed and its Bible translated at exactly the right time, i.e., late enough for the language to be intelligible to any English-speaking person in this century (any child of six can be told what ‘the quick and the dead’ means) and early enough, i.e., when people still had an instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.

This feeling has been, alas, as we all know, almost totally lost. (To identify the ceremonious with ‘the undemocratic’ is sheer contemporary cant.) The poor Roman Catholics, obliged to start from scratch, have produced an English Mass which is a cacophonous monstrosity (the German version is quite good, but German has a certain natural sonority): But why should we imitate them?

I implore you by the bowels of Christ to stick to Cranmer and King James. Preaching, of course, is another matter: there the language must be contemporary. But one of the great functions of the liturgy is to keep us in touch with the past and the dead.

And what, by the way, has happened to the altar cloths? If they have been sold to give money to the poor, I will gladly accept their disappearance: I will not accept it on any liturgical or doctrinal grounds.

With best wishes

[signed]

W.H. Auden

HT: Meghan Duke and Joe Koczera

Auden is not referring to “contemporary worship,” of course, just the folky trendiness of modern-language liturgies (think Catholic folk masses as opposed to the Tridentine Mass; Lutheran Worship, as opposed to The Lutheran Hymnal, though not nearly so much).  I believe this letter dates from 1968 and probably refers to some of the trial orders of worship that would lead up to the 1979 version of the Book of Common Prayer.  Still, what we now know as contemporary Christian worship arguably had its theological beginnings in the worship innovations of these liturgical churches, which adopted the principles of being community-centered, using modern music, and being culturally relevant.

Auden was arguably the greatest poet in English in the generation after T. S. Eliot.  Whereas Eliot, born in St. Louis, gave up his American citizenship to become a naturalized British subject, Auden did the reverse, giving up his British citizenship to become an American.  Both had been known for cutting edged bohemian radicalism and then converted to Christianity.  I suppose I should also say that Auden, who was open about it, was gay, though I haven’t run across anything where he justifies his sexual orientation.

There is much good material here:  his rejection of the notion that liturgical worship is undemocratic; his defense of archaic language; his point that the liturgy is supposed to connect us with the past and with the dead, his exhortation “by the bowels of Christ.”

http://greesons.typepad.com/.a/6a0120a679bde1970b0120a85249c2970b-800wi

That eye-on-the-object look

W. H. Auden–another major poet who converted to Christianity–has written perceptively about vocation.  This is from his poem entitled “Sext,” part of his Horae Canonicae, poems on the canonical hours on Good Friday.  (It gets a little obscure towards the end, but he is referring to the medieval guilds, praying to the patrons of their particular crafts, each of which was thought of as a “mystery.”  The last stanza ties to the hour (“noon,” which is when “Sext” was prayed) and to the death of Christ.

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.

To ignore the appetitive goddesses,
to desert the formidable shrines

of Rhea, Aphrodite, Demeter, Diana,
to pray insted to St Phocas,

St Barbara, San Saturnino,
or whoever one’s patron is,

that one may be worthy of their mystery,
what a prodigious step to have taken.

There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

Where should we be but for them?
Feral still, un-housetrained, still

wandering through forests without
a consonant to our names,

slaves of Dame Kind, lacking
all notion of a city

and, at this noon, for this death,
there would be no agents.

via theskelfs: SEXT – one of WH Auden’s Horae Canonicae.

HT:  Laura via Comment magazine


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