July 18, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — One thing that confuses at Mass today is just what the priest is doing at the altar/table up front. Depending on the prayers he chooses, he is either offering a sacrifice to God or preparing a communal meal: Which is it? Similarly, if the priest is booming prayers into a microphone, is he speaking to God (Who has perfect hearing) or is he really addressing the congregation? Meanwhile, if the modern Mass is such an improvement over the old (as we hear so often), why have most Catholics in the West stopped attending it? Such questions troubled me until I fell in love with the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and then, a few years later, discovered the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) for myself.
Having thrown my Sunday lot in with the TLM, I began to peruse books about it. The best and most readable I have encountered is Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages by Peter Kwasniewski. As Kwasniewski is a traditionalist, he may feel embarrassed that I enjoyed his book more than the works of epochal Martin Mosebach (The Heresy of Formlessness), the masterful Michael Davies (Cranmer’s Godly Order, Pope Paul’s New Mass) and the excellent H.J.A. Sire (Phoenix for the Ashes). A good spiritual son to these fathers of the liturgical restoration, Kwasniewski has starred their works in his bibliography for our attention. Nevertheless, as a voice of the post-1970 generation, Kwasniewski gives old arguments new juice.
Dr. Kwasniewski (give it a shot — k’vas-n’YEF-ski is easier to pronounce than Wojtyła) is well-known in Catholic traditionalist circles for his writings on the New Liturgical Movement blog. He taught at the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, and now he teaches at Wyoming Catholic College. If Kwasniewski teaches as well as he writes, his students are very lucky indeed.
Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness argues on several fronts that the Roman Catholic Church is in a spiritual crisis that can be resolved only by a return to the ancient, slowly and organically developed liturgy of the Latin Church. Given the “hemorrhaging” of adherents from that Church and the maelstrom of confusion among those who remain as to what the Church actually believes, Kwasniewski is on very strong ground.
One of his most convincing arguments involves the human longing for something challenging, complicated, and mysterious in the worship of God. (Note the 50-year craze in the West for East Asian meditations.) Kwasniewski considers the traditional liturgy not as much the work of human hands as one of the greatest gifts of God to humanity. He argues that the Traditional Latin Mass, alongside the Marian piety and Thomist theology inextricably linked to it, is one of the guardians of authentic Catholic faith.
Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness is itself a beautiful book, both in form and content. Each chapter begins with a meditative photograph, and most end with a heartfelt prayer. Like any organic development, the book grafts the new onto the old. It begins with a Forward written by Mosebach and ends with young Kwasniewski’s most personal reflections. Mosebach delves into the legacy of Pope Benedict, and Kwasniewski faces the challenges offered by Pope Francis. Meanwhile, Kwasniewski is so adept at writing simple yet gorgeous sentences that I broke my pencil several times underscoring them all.
Take, for example, Kwasniewski’s conclusion that it is better to suffer the knowledge of what the liturgy of 1970 replaced than to have remained in blissful ignorance:
My spiritual life would never have grown as it did, nor my grasp of sacred theology, had it not been for the beauty, reverence and profundity of the traditional liturgy that I discovered as a young man, fell in love with, and now long for ceaselessly. I would not today be a Benedictine oblate praying the Divine Office, which is a source of tremendous vitality, light and consolation to me. My situation is far from optimal, due to the irregular availability of the traditional liturgy in my community, but I do not regret bearing the cross of knowledge, which has opened to me a whole world of wonders to which I would otherwise be blind. It is a flowering cross, and I imagine the same is true for many who love traditional ways.
Many of Kwasniewski’s chapters were developed from essays, so he repeats himself a number of times throughout the book. This is not a weakness — repetitions enrich both the Traditional Rite and the Holy Rosary, after all — but it adds to necessity of reading the book slowly, chapter by chapter, instead of in one great 300-page gulp.
Meanwhile, although there is much meaty scholarship here, the book is accessible to the serious and curious reader — for the most part. Although I studied theology for five years, I could not remember what an “anaphora” was, and I was stumped by the phrase “hylomorphic composition” until I consulted a professor of linguistics. I conclude, therefore, that this excellent book would be even better if it included a glossary.
Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages
Angelico Press, $19.95