Sperging the Mass(es): more notes on neurodivergence and trad piety

Sperging the Mass(es): more notes on neurodivergence and trad piety May 30, 2023

So I recently spent an extended period of time around a group of trads who are very likely to find themselves somewhere along the higher functioning end of the Spectrum. This experience was quite frustrating, to say the least: their cognitive dissonance deeply disturbed me—partially because it forced me (a post-trad in recovery) to confront my own cognitive dissonance.

A disclaimer: I’ve advocated for neurodivergent people who find the Tridentine Latin Mass and other forms of traditional theology, piety, and spirituality to be safe havens in a world where we often feel misunderstood, excluded, and our sensibilities belittled (see my piece in the National Catholic Reporter). Everyone—with all of their quirks or handicaps—has gifts to contribute to religious communities, which ought to be valued and taken seriously.

But part of what perturbed me so—while watching veiled women with long skirts drop loudly to their knees and stick out their tongue in order to receive communion, men in suspenders pounding their chests ostentatiously for each mea culpa, bowing every time the name of Christ or the Trinity is mentioned, and many other noticeable acts that distinguished them from the rest of the crowd—was the fact that these gestures seemed to be done as a way to perform one’s distinctness, one’s spiritual superiority, from the others…to draw attention to the fact that they are among an elect group who truly understands the faith and what it means to be reverent in a way that others don’t.

Sadly, I remembered the self-righteous zeal that drove me to do the same things as a new con/revert…the pride masking as piety, self-referentiality LARPing as devotion. I once remember visiting a parish on a Sunday where I balked at the choir for “liturgical abuse” (they were singing Gospel songs) and refused to grab the hand of the young girl with Downs Syndrome next to me during the Our Father (also liturgical abuse).

Over time I’ve come to see the error in my ways. Most of my griping about liturgical correctness—much like most politically correct fanatics and other virtue signalers—was a form of self-indulgent, masturbatory performance art. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have charity, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have charity, I am nothing.” The greatest gesture of charity, of unity with Christ and neighbor, is not to exalt the ideal of liturgical purity, but to adopt a “when in Rome” mentality—which would’ve meant holding that girl’s hand or singing (and clapping [!]) along to the Gospel version of “Hail Holy Queen” (a la Whoopi Goldberg).

I still stand by creating spaces for neurodivergent people to be themselves and not feel alienated from others. But the problem is (as Pope Francis seems to be hinting at in Traditionis Custodes) when trads (both neurotypical and divergent ones) are encouraged to think their proclivities are normative (or even superior) and seek to gain power and influence over the Church (as I’ve indicated here). I’ve come to see how closed-minded, narcissistic, and suffocating trad communities like these can be, and (as much as I think he can chill a little bit with the TLM restrictions) understand Francis’ recent concerns.

It’s worth noting that much of the trad-wave is a reaction to misinterpretations of the Second Vatican Council. Much of my own trad-sperimenting was a reaction to my experience at bourgeois, assimilated, WASP-y Catholic parishes (I also wrote about this in NCRepCWRNCReg and in various Substack posts like this one). But ultimately, I’ve come to see that the best interpreters of Vatican II are the lay movements (Neocats, CL, Focolare, Sant’Egidio, etc) and (some of) the religious orders—as they are the only entities that seem to be able to maintain the tension between individual and community, subjectivity and objectivity, tradition and progress, freedom of conscience and fidelity to dogma, sanctity and social justice, without compromising the one or the other…and that the best Masses to attend are ethnic ones, where there is a sense of tradition (without feeling artificial), community (without feeling sentimental), and beauty (without feeling overly decadent or self-indulgent).

I’ll close this rant with an excerpt from Luigi Giussani, as quoted by an Italian priest during a retreat, which encapsulates the lay movements’ nuanced and compelling reading of Vatican 2 as being primarily about Christocentricity, community, and mission:

“Once this companionship, or this road, had an imposing perimeter, imposing from the point of view of the strength of the walls and of its aesthetic grandeur. There is nothing finer and more fascinating, in ages long past, than the monasteries. The walls were defenses against the enemies, even physical enemies. The beauty of the architecture [just think what splendid things we have throughout Europe, and also in the rest of the world] had only one rival – the beauty of the song and the prayer that sounded within those walls and under those vaults. Now, things have become more spiritual; now, things have become more subtle, apparently more inconsistent; no more walls a yard thick, no more architectural spires, those spaces that were enough to draw the soul upward, no more that captivating suggestion of the chant and the regular prayer. There is a companionship, our companionship, our friendship, a companionship in which all depends on good will, on the will of those making it up. This companionship must substitute those walls, it must trace the echo of those chants, of those prayers; it has to be able to inspire a look that makes tangible, at least in some way, the physical attraction of God in His reality in the world, the attraction of the sign of Christ, that attraction which is the sign of Christ.”

Christian communities today “must trace the echo of those chants.” Prayer and singing are reminders of “the truer dimension of life, which replaces the thick walls of the Romanesque, or Gothic, or even certain Baroque beauties. That is why lay nature is not a path to conformism, but it is a path to making an impact on the world, and to mission wherever we are called. Memory, change in relationships, a radiant face – herein lies the whole origin of mission…Mission cannot help but come from this face [from the radiant face]. Not from what you do, but from the face that you have.”

PS: a random (but not totally irrelevant) thought: the Kiss of Peace presents us with an interesting conundrum. Most bourgeois assimilated Novus Ordo parishes reduce it to a sentimental formality emptied of any substance whatsoever. I’m most drawn to the Novus Ordo as celebrated in the Neocatechumenal Way, where before the Kiss, community members have the chance to air out grievances with each other and ask/give forgiveness (a la Matthew 5:23), and then actually give each and every community member a hug and dos besos kiss. …I’ll take that or the many traditional liturgies (TLM, Divine Liturgy of St. Chrysostom) that totally omit the Kiss of Peace altogether over the sentimentality of bougie white suburbanites waving peace signs around to whoever happens to be looking.

photo taken in Montserrat, Catalonia.

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