Ignoble Simplism

According to the instruction Inter Oecumenici (1964), certain rites performed during the Mass were to be revised, that the services might “manifest a noble simplicity more attuned to the spirit of the times.” The noble simplicity apparently demanded that the so-called Last Gospel, the soaring prologue to the Gospel of John, was no longer to be said at the end of Mass, thus making it so that the only Catholics who might hear these words all the year round were those who attended the Mass during the day on Christmas. 

Perhaps it is assigned to some other Sunday also; I am not sure. In any case, it was elbowed from its place of honor—from its architectonic centrality. Surely it deserved that honor. No text in Scripture is more comprehensive. None expresses in such a concentrated way what Christians believe about the Godhead and creation, about the Incarnate Word and the salvation of sinful man; about the Cross and the Resurrection; about grace and truth and the light of faith.

I am guessing that the “noble simplicity more attuned to the spirit of the times” was a vague gesture toward the modernist urge to strip away all ornament, to reduce, to lay bare. Otherwise, I can make no sense of it as either a cultural or an intellectual judgment. In what way was life in 1964 simpler than life in 1864? In what way, unless one had embraced an always reductive ideology, was it simpler in 1964 than in 1864 to come to terms with the human story?

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Let us take the council’s words, then, as an aesthetic directive. What does simplicity mean when we are talking about works of art? The liturgy is more than a work of art, but it is at least that. As soon as we ask the question, we are in a field where, in our time, few professors of literature, music, art, or architecture are willing to venture—let alone a diocesan liturgical committee. For there is a difference between the simple and the simplistic; between the intricate and the cluttered; between the complex and the confused. Many an undergraduate paper is cluttered and confused and simplistic; while the work of Thomas Aquinas is intricate and complex and yet profoundly simple.

I shall try to let a few secular buildings shed light on the matter.

The other day I was “traveling,” by internet street-view, along the main thoroughfares of the seat of the county, as it turns out, both I and the current president were born: Lackawanna, Pennsylvania. Like many old manufacturing cities, Scranton is half as populous as it once was, though it has retained some of the noble buildings that graced its streets. The county courthouse is, from what I have seen, as handsome as any in America. Its park-like square is adorned with sculptures and monuments to Kosciuszko, Pulaski, and the great advocate for the welfare of coal miners, John L. Lewis. 

The old Masonic Temple—with an art-deco auditorium spacious enough, back in the day, for boxing and wrestling matches and big-band concerts—is now a center for the arts. And then, going north on Washington Avenue, you come upon an understated neo-Gothic structure built up of handsome blocks of stone. The faces of the stones are left in the rough, retaining their various earthen colors. The high, long walls, enclosing broad grounds within, are surmounted with granite and bronze, the latter having acquired its fine patina of pale green. The walls are crenelated, suggesting a fortress, and indeed the structure has turrets at the corners, protruding in semicircles from the walls. I have found the building featured on postcards from around 1900. It is the Lackawanna County Jail.

Nothing as beautiful as that jail has been built in Scranton since, say, 1964, as you can verify by continuing along the streets. You will see simplistic clutter everywhere—for plenty of new things have been built, but none of the buildings seem to have any coherent organizing principle, other than to look like a holding tank or a tourist trap. They resemble, rather, the new county courthouse and county jail—a two-for-one, evidently—built in my then-adopted county, Kent, Rhode Island. 

To call it ugly is to give it more credit than it deserves. A toad is ugly. You have to be something, to be ugly. But the new Kent County Courthouse is not a coherent artistic thing at all. It is a clutter of brick, glass, and steel rectangles and trapezoids, without order, and with the jail grounds appended to one side, like a tail or a cancer, with a lot of steel and barbed wire. The Lackawanna County Courthouse declares, in its form, “We stand for the noble ideals of justice and order.” The Lackawanna County Jail declares the same, in a minor key. The Kent County Clutter declares—nothing, except perhaps, “This is the bureaucratic place where your forms must be filed,” a place that is no place, for people reduced to functions.

We should, of course, build churches that are at least as handsome as the Lackawanna County Jail, but to do that we must consider again what makes for beauty, a word that does not appear in Inter Oecumenici. That is a subject for a hundred essays, but we have to start somewhere. Here is one place to start: beauty, to the degree that it is genuinely simple, demands an organizing principle, which gives each thing its place and therefore shines the light of clarity upon it. Nothing is ad hoc, an aside, a tack-on.

It is crucial to get this right. Sometimes the orderly is bare and plain; sometimes not, and sometimes we find the sublime just when what had been complex and interinvolved is finally resolved into simplicity. The baroque can be (and usually was) orderly, while the modernist can be (and often is) a mess. 

George Herbert is a baroque poet in whose works not a single syllable is out of place or unconsidered; the whole is present in each part, and each part derives its meaning only from the whole, as the poems move toward a climax that is stunningly clear: Childhood is health; Never was grief like mine; something understood; alas, my God, I know not what; so I did sit and eat. Or listen to Thomas Tallis’ polyphonic setting for Easter lauds: Dum transisset. There is no organ; you hear only human voices in an extraordinary intermingling of musical strands, with a special emphasis given to the youthful trebles. Yet I know of no work that so captures the deep mysterious stillness of the early morning on that eternal day, when Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb with the spices they had bought to anoint the body of Jesus. Compared with the order and clarity of Tallis, the Glorias commonly sung in the United States and Canada are hiccups and gestures here and there, without a coherent melody; the faults of the rococo without the decorative charm.

People are drawn to beauty in any and all times, though the spirit of the times in my life has been startlingly contemptuous of it. Let the Church lead us back to the green fields and not into the parking garages and state offices.

[Photo Credit: wpri.com]


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