On the reform of the reform

25 02 2021

I was listening to a podcast about Catholic liturgy, namely the idea of the “reform of the reform”. The podcast interested me because it recapitulated a phase of my life as a young Catholic man in the late 20th century. I grew up with very liberal, very free-wheeling liturgy as a Catholic in California. When I began to take my faith more seriously, I saw the problems with the ritual (or lack of it) at my local parish. I was not alone in this at the time. The podcast mentioned a book by Msgr. Klaus Gamber called Reform of the Roman Liturgy which I read in college. This podcast speaker claims that this book is among the first to call out the lack of continuity in the reform of Roman Catholic ritual in the late 20th century and thus advocate a reform of that reform towards a more traditional direction. This book was praised by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who later became Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict took many measures to make the reformed liturgy more traditional, at least when he celebrated it. He also allowed again the celebration of the old unreformed liturgy.


During these years, I would occasionally brush up with these attempts to make the modern Catholic liturgy “more traditional.” At one parish, I briefly became involved with a circle of folks who enthusiastically attended a Latin Mass celebrated according to the reformed Missal of Paul VI. Having grown up going to this Mass in English and Spanish, for me it was one of the most bizarre things I have ever witnessed. The aesthetics were somewhat familiar but it felt like they threw in all sorts of stuff that simply didn’t belong, like the bombastic chanting of parts that were clearly meant to be a somewhat mundane dialogue between presider and congregation. The whole spectacle seemed gratuitous: the proverbial trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. None of these adaptations sat well with me; I stuck to attending the old unreformed Latin Mass offered at the same parish.

I don’t really go to “normal” Catholic Masses anymore, which made me question my identity as a Catholic long before I went over to “Hindu idolatry”. If you can’t just figuratively waltz into any random branch of a certain institution and be at peace, chances are that your bond to it is rather tenuous. Why keep pretending otherwise? But I can’t help but use my new found “pagan” theological tools to analyze the discomfort that I feel attending the Catholic Mass. The issue boils down to one of regulated vs. spontaneous worship. The tension that Catholic liturgical theologians felt by the mid-20th century was that the liturgy was highly ritualized and misunderstood. That is to say, there was barely any life in it: it was often just ritual for ritual’s sake. And it employed borrowed imperial accoutrements to worship God, with lots of bowing, incense, genuflecting, a sacred language separate from mundane use, and so on. While one could say that these rituals borrowed from Biblical imagery of angels worshiping before the Throne of God as represented in the Book of Daniel and the Apocalypse, this was far from the religion of Jesus who called His disciples “friends,” (cf. John 15:15). The Last Supper in the Bible as well as early Christian liturgies (supposedly) were intimate love feasts which were a far cry from the ancient Temple liturgy and the High Pontifical Masses of the medieval cathedrals.

Changing topics abruptly, I learned of an odd paradox in Hare Krishna worship wherein the worship of Radha-Krishna Deities in the temples is not directly worship of the Divine Couple in Goloka Vrindavan, but more directly the worship of Lakshmi-Narayana “dressed” as Radha-Krishna. To explain this as simply as possible, Hare Krishna Heaven or the Spiritual World has multiple layers, and the one of Lakshmi-Narayana is called Vaikuntha, literally “the place without cares”. There, the Supreme Personality of Godhead is worshiped in opulence and reverence, as a king would be venerated in his court. That is why during pujas the Deities are offered incense, the lamp, the whisk, etc. These are all reverential signs of worship which would be familiar to some extent to those who study the Christian liturgy. That is how Christians of more ancient traditions and more “High Church” types conceive of appropriate divine worship.

In Gaudiya Vaishnavism, however, the Vaikuntha of Lakshmi-Narayana is not the “top floor” of reality, that would be Goloka Vrindavan: the Planet of the Cows. There, the original form of the Supreme Personality of Godhead resides: Shyamasundara Krishna, the son of Mother Yashoda and Nanda Maharaja, the dark blue cowherd boy. In Goloka, Krishna isn’t considered God, He’s merely Krishna, though He is the ultimate source of what we would consider, “God”. Thus, “worship” in Goloka Vrindavan is not the worship of the royal court or opulent temple: it is the spontaneous exchange of love between friends. The Vrajavasis feed Krishna, they joke with Him, they wrestle Him, they amorously interact with Him, but they don’t worship Him as God. That particular form of reverence is a barrier to real affection; in fact, the further down you go down the ladder of reality, the more you consider Krishna to be “God” properly speaking, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, etc. The less intimate, the less advanced, and the more “formal” the interaction becomes. That is worship as we see it.

In the material world, devotional service is then divided (simplifying here) between sadhana bhakti and raganuga bhakti. While this does not only apply to ceremonial, it has been a point of contention even in Gaudiya circles. The neophyte has to advance through sadhana: they must surrender to a spiritual master (the most important thing), as well as live by the regulative principles and try to take control of their senses. They have to purify themselves through spiritual exercise and surrender to their guru. Only after years, and likely lifetimes, of purification, only then perhaps they can achieve spontaneous devotional service, or raganuga bhakti. There they are able to achieve the level of “worship” of the inhabitants of the celestial Vrindavan: they are God’s friend, parent, or lover, not His worshiper. The foremost associates in this categories are of course the gopis: they are able to bind Krishna with their love. They have reached the pinnacle of love of God and of all reality, simply put.

The spiritual world and material world do not have an impenetrable wall between them, far from it. The material manifestation is the body of God Himself (virat rupa), and the Supreme Personality of Godhead has entered into each atom. More than that, there are nitya siddhas or those who are not subject to the modes of material nature who come and go out of material creation constantly. Their bodies and activities are not material in spite of appearances. The leftover food of the spiritual master or of the Deities (prasadam) is not regular food, but is spiritual in nature due to its association with them. Thus, the appearance of Lord Krishna in the terrestrial Vrindavan, in present day India, was a sort of invasion of the spiritual world into the material, and Vrindavan itself, as modern and normal as it seems, is itself spiritual in the present day.

Thus, just as in the worship of the gopis, the interactions of some paramahamsas (pure souls) may not seem appropriate from the point of view of “normal” people. I read with some interest the Back 2 Krishna’s blog series about the modern avadhuta Gaudiya saint, Vamshidas Babaji. An avadhuta is similar to the “fool for Christ” in the Eastern Christian tradition: an ascetic who shuns tradition and social mores to live at the margins of society constantly absorbed in God. Their worship and behavior in regards to religious norms can often seem abnormal if not shocking to the average believer. St. Symeon of Constantinople, for example, had to be chased out of churches because he kept throwing chestnuts at the lamps to extinguish them. Vamshidas Babaji lived in constant service to His Deities in the hut he constructed for them, however, his worship seemed odd and irregular to outsiders. He would feed Them at random times, he would chastise Them like naughty children, and if people stole from Them, he concluded that the Deities must have given the offerings away of Their own will. As one post in the series explains:

He didn’t follow any pancharatra rules of serving the deities either, no pujas, no bells, no dresses, he never put Them to sleep, nothing. I bet externally it appeared that he was playing with dolls. Hmm, maybe not, at least not like kids play with dolls these days – with houses, outfits, tea-sets and so on. He had one old, dirty looking cloth to cover his deities in the winter and that was it.

Most of the time he just talked to them, no one knew the content of those conversations and no one heard the deities talking back to him but, apparently, he told them jokes, they laughed, he complained about something, he disciplined them, and sometimes they had fights.

In spite of the strangeness of it, genuine Vaishnavas respected Vamshidas Babaji’s eccentric worship as something more to be admired than imitated. Because he was self-realized, Vamshidas Babaji could associate with his Deities as friends, he was above the formal systems of worship and behavior. He had lost interest in the material world and lived entirely on a spiritual plain, even in this life.

I’ve strayed a long way from the average Catholic Mass on a Sunday morning, but the message, however contrived it might seem at this point is: You can’t systematized genuine spontaneous loving service. By following the regulated and sober methods of worship and behavior, perhaps over the course of years or lifetimes, you might get to the level of pure love of God through the mercy of guru and Krishna. You can’t, however, jump the line or skip steps, or consider yourself worthy of doing so. The process is the process: one has to be patient. It may look rote and boring, but that’s because you are too absorbed in gratifying your material senses, so your spiritual senses are underdeveloped. There is no shortcut around merely constantly hearing and chanting the glories of the Lord (śravaṇaṁ kīrtanaṁ viṣṇoḥ) until you develop a real taste for them.

I may be trying to jam a square peg into a round hole here, but this is why I instinctively sided with tradition even as a Roman Catholic. Modern reformers knew that most Catholics in the pews were there out of obligation and may have been quite unenthusiastic about their faith. They thus sought to “bring people into” the service more, simplifying the ritual and making it more transparent. Understanding is a good thing, but watering down is not in my opinion. One cannot make people into saints by simply assigning them randomly the mood of a saint. You can’t assume people are “spiritual” when they clearly aren’t. A lot of purification and struggle has to take place first, otherwise you are cheapening the whole process. Eventually, people start leaving since they wonder what the point of it all is anyway.

I am certain that Roman Catholicism is a bonafide path toward God in spite of its many flaws. It’s not my path I’ve concluded, but I would never dissuade anyone from being Catholic. However, I wonder when I walk into St. Joseph the Normal Catholic Community during non-COVID times if Catholics even like being Catholic at this point. Judging from how lackadaisical they are about their own traditions, it’s not very convincing. I don’t think something can remain authentic for very long if it has to dramatically remake itself every so often because people seem bored or not engaged. The answer is to go deeper into the tradition, deeper into the asceticism, to find a true renunciation of the world and love of God.


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10 03 2021
David Dunley

One of my favorite incidents in the life of Sri Ramakrishna was his lila with the image of Ramlala (Ramachandra as a child) that he received from a wandering sadhu:”“That ‘father’ served the image for a long time. He took it with him wherever he went. He cooked whatever he got by Bhiksha and offered the cooked food to it. That was not all; he actually saw that Ramlala ate or wished to eat something or wanted to go for a walk or insisted on the satisfaction of a fancy, and so on. In the company of the image he was beside himself with bliss and always remained ‘inebriated’. I also saw Ramlala doing all that. I sat all the twenty-four hours of the day with the ‘father’, and kept gazing on Ramlala.

“As days passed on, Ramlala’s love for me went on increasing. As long as I remained with the ‘father’, Ramlala felt happy—he played and sported; but as soon as I came away from that place to my room, he also followed me immediately there. He did not remain with the Sadhu although I forbade him to come. I at first thought it was perhaps a fancy of my brain. How could it otherwise be possible that the boy (in the image) loved me more than him—the boy worshipped by the Sadhu for a long time, whom he loved so dearly, and served so tenderly with devotion? But of what avail were these thoughts? I actually saw—just as I see you before me—that Ramlala accompanied me dancing, now preceding, now following me. Sometimes he importuned to be carried in my lap. Again, when I took him on my lap, he would by no means remain there. He would go down to run hither and thither, collect flowers in thorny jungles or go to the Ganga to swim and splash water there. I said over and over again, ‘My child, don’t do that, you will get blisters on your soles if you run in the sun; do not remain in water so long, you will catch cold and get fever.’ But he did not give ear to my words, however much I might forbid him. Unconcerned he went on with his pranks as if I was speaking to someone else. He would sometimes grin and look at me with his two eyes, beautiful like the petals of a lotus, or carry on his pranks with a vengeance. He would pout both his lips and grimace and make mouths at me. I would then actually be angry and scold him, ‘You rascal, wait, I will give you a sound beating today and pound your bones to powder.’ Saying so, I would pull him away from the sun or from the water and then cajole him by giving him this thing or that and then ask him to play within the room. Again, finding it impossible to restrain his naughtiness I would sometimes give him a slap or two. Thus beaten, he would pout his beautiful lips and sob and look at me with tears in his eyes, when I would feel pained. I then took him affectionately on my lap and cajoled him. I actually saw and acted thus.

“One day I was going to bathe, when he took an obstinate fancy to go with me. What could I do? I took him with me. Then he would not come out of the water. He turned a deaf ear to all my pleadings. At last I became angry, immersed him in the water and said, ‘Be now in the water as long as you like’; and I actually saw that he panted and writhed under the water. Seeing him suffer thus and thinking to myself ‘What have I done? ’ I took him out of water on to my lap.

“It cannot be described how much I felt pained for him on another occasion and how much I wept. That day Ramlala was obstinately demanding something to eat, and I gave him some parched paddy not properly husked, in order to pacify him. I then found that his soft and delicate tongue got lacerated by the husk of the paddy as he was eating. Dear me! What a great pain I felt then! I took him on my lap, wept loudly and taking hold of his chin, sobbed out the words, ‘I was so rash and foolish that I did not at all hesitate to put such contemptible food into the mouth which mother Kausalya used to feed solicitously with such soft delicacies as butter, thickened milk and cream, lest they should hurt him’.” As he was speaking these words, the Master’s past grief burst forth anew and he became restless in our presence and wept so bitterly that we could not restrain our tears though we did not understand a bit of his loving relation with Ramlala.” http://www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info/sriramakrishna_thegreatmaster/srkgrtmaster_files/Sri%20Ramakrishna%20-%20The%20Great%20Master-46.html

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