What ornate vestments you have, Father! All the better to…

What ornate vestments you have, Father! All the better to… September 26, 2013

Because my computer has shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible, the Atheist round results from the Turing Test will probably run Friday or Saturday, once I’ve got a replacement.

Over at Fare Forward, I’ve taken a crack at reviewing Gary Wills’s book Why Priests? A Failed Tradition and, if you want a very quick glimpse of how I felt about it, here’s how the review kicks off:

The first priest that Garry Wills takes aim at isn’t a man in a clerical collar. It’s Christ.

A significant proportion of the book is spent disputing Jesus’s lineage as a priest in the order of Melchizedek (as laid out in the Letter to the Hebrews), but Wills isn’t trying to strip Jesus of titles. He means to recast Jesus in a role he respects more—not a priest, but a Jewish prophet.

One thing I found particularly interesting while sorting through Wills’s criticisms is how he views the luxury and pomp  that surrounds the priest at the Mass.  (There’s a good deal less of it when they are, say assisting the dying).  I’ve seen the standard defense of the Church’s art and wealth: “Man does not live by bread alone.”  The Church should be a place of beauty for the parishioners because we need access to the sublime, just as much as we need shelter.  For the Church to neglect either would be to not acknowledge the fullness of what sets us apart as humans.

But Wills’s book forced me to think more about the role that ritual and richly decorated vestments play for the priest as opposed to the laity.

Wills sees the pomp and circumstance of church as drawing our attention away from the God who became Man and directing it towards just one particular man, swathed in robes and standing front stage center. But when an actor puts on costuming and grease- paint, she does it to become someone else, both to the audience and to herself. A director I worked with once told me to start working on a show by getting different shoes, or, failing that, by putting a pebble in mine during rehearsals—anything to set this space off from ordinary life.

A priest doesn’t vest to draw attention to himself, but to what he does. In vestments, priests become a little anonymous. The sacraments work ex opere operato, from the work done, not the merits of the person carrying it out. The ornate robes tell us what work the priest is prepared to do, just as oxygen tanks and helmets mark out firefighters.

To read the rest of the review, click through to Fare Forward.


Update: Father Michael Duffy reflects on his experience vesting for his first Mass in response to the review.

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  • Martha O’Keeffe

    It’s interesting because a lot of the significance attributed to the vestments has been developed (and if you want to say “invented”, I won’t quibble) over the centuries, as the original rationale behind the various items was forgotten.

    For instance, the maniple (only found in Extraordinary Form celebrations or the Anglicans) was in its origins a handkerchief; in my copy of a 1964 Missal, it is described as:

    “The Maniple, worn on the left arm, signifies the fruit of good works, as a reward for painful exertion and struggle; it is a Priest’s duty to fear neither suffering nor labour.”

    So I’m not opposed to the Vatican II reforms (though I wish we still wore black vestments for funeral Masses; the older I get, the more conscious I am that I am not going directly to Heaven and I’d like a funeral that encouraged everyone to pray me out of Purgatory by reminding them of the necessity for crying out for the mercy of God) and I much prefer the Gothic chasuble to the ornate fiddleback style of the older days.

    But the trend for pared-down, throw on a macramé stole, ceremonies does not help inculcate reverence. If you’re going to do austerity, the Cistercians got there first; modern “concrete box” affairs masquerading as churches are not the same.

    And for many people, both in the past and in today, churches are one of the few places where they can easily access beauty in their lives. The poor of the past sacrificed their pennies to build the Victorian Neo-Gothic churches that the reformers post-Vatican II, in their misguided zeal, then ripped all the old statues, old altar rails, old carving, marble, candle stands, sanctuary lamps and even the tabernacle out of as fast as they could, all in the name of simplicity and relevance. That left us with cold, grey, concrete warehouses or carpet shops in place of churches. You could say the widow (of the widow’s mite fame) was being cheated out of her pittance by the institutional religion of her day, but perhaps a poor woman in reduced circumstances was proud that she, too, could contribute to building something beautiful to glorify God and that she, too, could enjoy the grandeur and ornate clothing and decoration and the gold and incense of the new Temple?

    And just to show that Bad Vestments are an ecumenical phenomenon!

  • Randy Gritter

    Does Wills not understand that Jesus is called prophet and priest and king? So arguing Jesus is a prophet does not really address the question of whether He is a priest. It seems like a false choice.

    • Clare Krishan

      wee quibble – name’s Will(no i)s, ie no relation to actor Bruce!

    • Clare Krishan

      “Gary Willis is an American bassist and composer known foremost as the co-founder of the jazz fusion band Tribal Tech.” Wikipedia

  • Christopher M. Zelonis

    First, I very much appreciate the parrot sketch references at the beginning of your post. “Pining for the fjooooooords?” Second, as a priest, I also appreciate the significance of the vestments. While vertically challenged, I do not (acutely) resent the fact that many chasubles cover nearly every inch of my person below the neck. My personal participation in the sacrifice of Christ is not thereby obscured, but rather enhanced. Third, if I wrote a review of this or any of his works, I might title it, “Whatchu talkin’ about, Wills?”

  • Cam

    “The Church should be a place of beauty for the parishioners because we need access to the sublime, just as much as we need shelter.”

    Okay two things. First, we can go all Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on our ethics here- the need that disadvantaged people have for shelter, food and necessities is surely more important than the need anybody has for fancy buildings and treasures.If the church providing for the aesthetic needs of its followers comes at the cost of providing less basic necessities for people, then something has gone wrong. At best, this is an ethical failing that can be ignored by the privileged- let’s not pretend it is one that can be justified.

    Secondly, there is no requirement of beauty that it be built with wealth. Landscapes are beautiful. Tiny wooden houses covered in flowers are beautiful. Purely on the basis of aesthetics, the church should not need to be about massive buildings, gold, marble, priceless art, etc. Unless, however, the aesthetic sense desired is not one of humble beauty but rather immense power and obscene wealth.

    “For the Church to neglect either would be to not acknowledge the fullness of what sets us apart as humans.”

    Wait you’re really running with that? If it’s important for some reason to talk about how much better humans are than fish or whatever this is supposed to be about, then we can do that with words. We don’t need to restructure the entire nature of our efforts and charity in order to make symbolic points. And again, how does ‘acknowledging fullness’ rate alongside ‘assisting day-to-day survival’?

    The very existence of this argument about shelter versus the sublime acknowledges that one comes at the expense of the other. If the Chuch could be aesthetically amazing without any cost or loss to other endeavours, then nobody would be having this conversation at all. For your argument to be effective, you need to explain why it’s moral to sacrifice shelter for the sublime to some extent. Merely saying that ‘the sublime is nice’ doesn’t cut it- it’s about priorities. Whose sublime experience will be prioritised over another’s shelter, and why is that okay?

    I don’t mind your argument that when Bob puts on a fancy robe he becomes no longer Bob, but a level 37 Grand Master Pontideacon, and this helps followers to engage with the ceremony and the religion itself rather than with Bob as a person. We could ask pointed questions about why the nature of religion is such that there’s a danger of engaging with the people in the ceremonies, not the ceremony itself. And we could also query whether these dangers are actually successfully averted by the robes and hat- the leaders of religious institutions often have considerable influence over their flock, regardless of whether they’re supposed to or not in the particular religion they belong to.

    But the important thing to bear in mind is how narrow this examination is – its not really a sufficient justification for ceremony in general, and it’s definitely a tiny fraction of a much bigger picture when it comes to examining the effects of pomp and ceremony on human rationality, even within the confines of catholic assumptions.

    • Dennis Mahon

      First, we can go all Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on our ethics here-
      the need that disadvantaged people have for shelter, food and
      necessities is surely more important than the need anybody has for fancy
      buildings and treasures.

      But the purpose of the Church is not to feed, clothe, or shelter anyone; those are secondary to the primary purpose of the Church – to save souls. And Beauty – of which those “fancy buildings and treasures” are important tools in the instruction thereof – is important in the salvation of souls.

    • Neko

      Excellent. Wills often laments that Jesus would be astounded by the extravagance of the church in his name. But this display of “immense power and obscene wealth” is consecrated to the glory of God. It is the stage for reenactment of the great wedding between Jesus and his bride the Church and is meant to be otherworldly and ecstatic.

      I have been to Mass only a handful of times in the past decades and the experience certainly fell far short of the sublime. And as with any art the Church descends into travesty (Cardinal Burke in his preposterous cape). But ideally, again as with any art, the aspiration is to facilitate that moment of excited consciousness. It would be a great cultural loss to abandon that desire, and in fact it seems impossible to do so.

      • Randy Gritter

        John 12:1-6:

        Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it.

        Actually in the Old Testament there are instructions to make worship vessels out of gold and many other precious materials for the temple and for the tabernacle and to build the ark of the covenant. God does not say use plain materials and give the rest to the poor. He says dig deep into your personal treasure and build something appropriate for your God.

        • Neko

          Randy, you missed my point. But since you are in a scripture-quoting mood today, I offer Isaiah 1:13-20.

          Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.

          Doesn’t sound like the LORD had St. Patrick’s Cathedral in mind.

          • Randy Gritter

            It does. But what is the solution? To cease worship? No, to cease worshiping hypocritically and start worshiping authentically. Buildings help but they are not enough. At the end of the day we still need to cooperate with God’s grace.

            Often the generation that has this issue is not the generation that built the ornate worship space. The people that made the sacrifices pleased God and were blessed. It is those who coast on the spiritual strength of their ancestors that can get into trouble. That is why it does apply to many Catholics today.

          • Neko

            Who proposed “ceasing worship”? You are being melodramatic. (Even Garry Wills, who would be content to rid the church of priests, doesn’t go that far.) The issue of how many resources should be allocated to art arises in every generation, and since art is inextricable from religion, or at least theological sentiment, the issue will always be with us.

          • Fr. Denis Lemieux

            The context of this quote is that they were doing all the rituals and NOT caring for the poor. It is a ludicrous misreading of the Old Testament to suggest that God wants them to skip the rituals and just care for the poor.
            Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, if seen globally as a single institution, does more to care for the poor by far than any other single institution. So your point is well missed.

          • Neko

            I’m well aware that the Catholic Church provides for the poor, have said nothing to the contrary, and interpret Isaiah to mean that ritual is not as important as doing the right thing (of course Jesus makes the point as well). Anyway, no one is saying ritual should be “skipped.” Quite the contrary, I defended not only ritual but extravagant ritual elsewhere on the thread.

            However, Wills certainly sees the Church’s worldly splendor as a stumbling block to communion with God, and the issue is an interesting one.

    • Randy Gritter

      First, we can go all Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on our
      ethics here- the need that disadvantaged people have for shelter, food
      and necessities is surely more important than the need anybody has for
      fancy buildings and treasures.If the church providing for the aesthetic
      needs of its followers comes at the cost of providing less basic
      necessities for people, then something has gone wrong. At best, this is
      an ethical failing that can be ignored by the privileged- let’s not
      pretend it is one that can be justified.

      You are assuming a zero sum here. That people have just so much “extra” money and it will be divided between sacred art and feeding the hungry. Just not the way it works. Jesus says love God with all you heart and all your mind and all your strength. Then love you neighbor. Why? Because once you have given everything you have the ability to give more. So if the beautiful church was not built the poor would have less. People would forget God and forget the poor.

      • Neko

        So if the beautiful church was not built the poor would have less. People would forget God and forget the poor.

        I am struggling to recall an incident when the lack of a fabulous building caused people to forget God. But I can think of a counterexample: Judaism survived by almost 2000 years the destruction of the temple.

        • Randy Gritter

          The Jews went 2000 years without building an impressive building?

          The point is that liturgy done well changes people. To do it well the community has to express the importance of it. An impressive building does express that. So does reverence and modest dress and a host of other things. We need to do liturgy like it really is what our creed claims it is. The building is one way we do that. It makes worship real. Real worship can move people to be changed by God. Those people can change society. That is very good news for the poor.

          • Neko

            Randy, please spare me the facile rhetorical questions. I agree with you that an impressive building can move people to worship, and you somehow missed my defense of aesthetic grandeur below. However, I wouldn’t pretend that is has much to do with ethics. Ethics would demand that I appeal not only to the Vatican but to the Museum of Modern Art and to myself to divest of treasure and give the money to the poor. Not going to happen, since I’m an idolator. What’s your excuse?

          • Randy Gritter

            I did miss you defense of aesthetic grandeur. What does it have to do with ethics? What does God have to do with ethics? It is both positive and negative. When I contemplate the goodness of God I am motivated to be good. It is a response to being loved and being shown how awesome holiness really is. On the other hand when I contemplate that I will one day be judged by God that can motivate me to be good too.

          • Neko

            Are you saying that despite what the Bible says about God/Jesus’s disdain for monuments and ceremony but explicit demand for charity toward the needy that luxury is still justified so that you may better contemplate God? As an aesthete I’m sympathetic with that view, but then you have, as Cam pointed out, prioritized your own spirituality over resources for the poor. It may be that the poor share your sentiment, but I have no idea about that.

          • Randy Gritter

            Since when does the bible say God disdains monuments and ceremony? Judaism is a religion full of ceremonies. Jesus didn’t change that. The early church continued to be full of liturgy and ritual. Now they were different rituals. Circumcision was replaced by baptism. Passover was replaced by the Eucharist.

            The other point is these are means and not ends. You can have ceremonies and monuments and still frustrate their intended end by just going through the motions. The bible does rebuke that. It never tells us to ditch all liturgy.

            It is almost never a choice between the poor or a beautiful church. People build ornate things. The question is more whether we build monuments to God or to something else. If we love baseball we build Yankee stadium. Nobody thinks it is immoral. If we love God we build St Patrick’s Cathedral. The fact that the poor exist does not stop us from showing love with our money. We need to love the poor as well. We will find ways to express all that love.

          • Neko

            Randy, did you not bother to read Isaiah below? Of course elsewhere in the OT God demands architecture and loves singing and dancing and festivity, so there’s that.

            The baseball analogy is good up to a point, but there was no injunction from the putative founder of baseball to distribute the profits to the needy (if only).

            You keep throwing up this straw man of “ditching the liturgy.” No one has said ditch the liturgy. The issue is whether it’s unconscionable to spend lavishly on church aesthetics and whether it’s disingenuous to appeal to the sublime to justify diverting resources from the poor. Your answer is that it inspires people to focus on God and that, after all, “people build ornate things.” On that we agree. Where we disagree is on the ethics. That’s OK, I think we’re done.

          • Randy Gritter

            I did read Isaiah. He does not disdain ritual because it is ritual. In fact, he disdains this ritual despite the fact that it is ritual. That is good ritual can produce good works but good ritual can’t fix bad works. At the end of the day your life still has to change.

            You keep using phrases like “diverting resources from the poor.” I keep saying that is not reality. Yet you just keep saying it.

            My parish built a new building recently. It costs $25M. Now if we had not built that building would the poor get the $25M? No way. In fact, since the new building we have more people coming to mass and guess what? Our collections for the poor have increased. So have we diverted $25M from the poor? I just don’t see it.

    • stanz2reason

      The following is from memory (so apologizing for any errors), but it seemed appropriate to the discussion and is one of my favorites…

      “Woman, your fine ointment,
      Brand new and expensive
      Could have been saved for the poor
      Why has it been wasted
      We could have raise, maybe,
      300 silver pieces or more
      People who are hungry
      People who are starving
      Matter… More… than your feet and hairrrr”

      “Surely you’re not saying
      We have the resources
      To save the poor from their lot
      There will be poor always
      Pathetically struggling
      Look at the good things you’ve got
      Think, while you still have me
      Move while you still see me
      You’ll be lost… You’ll be so sorry… when I’m gooooone”

  • Kristen inDallas

    Spending money on art really has two tangible benefits…. 1) Making art more freely accessible to the public and 2) keeping talented artists gainfully employed. Not everyone is built to sit in a cubicle and think about Wall Street. When we start to over-prioritize utilitarian objectives, real non-utilitarian-type human beings fall through the cracks. My grandfather was the last artisan stone cutter in the city… he spent his good years doing statues and fountains for prominent civic locations all over the place, but as time wore on city budgets tighten and the only work he got was from churches, even then only fixing what was breaking. They could only make ends meet when my grandmother took a job… which was a very rare thing back then. Anyway, that’s a dead proffession now, and I’d bet there are at least a few people on welfare right now that might have really excelled at that as a calling.
    Yes, we should use maybe 80% of our resources on utilitarian causes like feeding and sheltering the homeless… but we can’t stop asking why these people become homeless in the first place. We have to invest at least a little in looking for a cure, or we’ll never be able to keep up. I don’t know beyond certainty that the cure is a beautiful church, or a particular album of music or work of art that will change someone’s outlook, or the ability for a few more people to make a living following their passion. …but then again where would we be as a society if in the face of measles, we demanded that all available money be spent on caring for the sick and dying, and none invested in finding a cure, simply because we weren’t sure which one would work yet?