Homiletic review

To my reasoning, there must have been some changes in the style and substance of parish homilies, over the last thousand years. I am no expert, as usual, but will consider two points in respect to which things have changed, externally. The first is the spread of literacy, compounded by book printing, mass education in the Scotch Presbyterian manner, and even the appearance of a periodical press. In electronic media, too, the oversupply of “information” has not altered the nature of human consciousness (some things never change), but has seriously twisted it.

The second is the art that was not merely on the walls of our ancient chapels, but in every dimension that could be seen, heard, touched, or in the case of incense, smelt and tasted. It was a composite art (as William Blake tried to recreate, if only around himself), and in this peculiar sense a “virtual reality” for the mediaeval pew-sitter — in which even shaped spatial volumes, materials and their acoustical properties, were deployed to a single, focused end.

I could not say this of any church I have entered, parish or larger, built in the last hundred years, or more. Notwithstanding Victorian attempts at period revival, and spiritual aspirations among certain major artists, architects, and musicians since then, we now have churches which are big boxes with decorations tacked on — themed, here and there, but still a jumble to the sensory organs in human head and hands. (I do not wish to condemn “best efforts,” though.)

To the creature alighting from a spaceship, perhaps, the mediaeval chapel would also be a blur. Too, this would be true for the newborn baby. He looks at what might as well be modern: a kind of pop-up “comic book” of unknown meaning. With “acculturation,” however, it becomes an integrated story, culminating in the Host at Mass.

In the absence of general literacy, no guidebooks or pamphlets. Preaching does that job, from the mother’s knee to what is delivered at the pulpit. The homilist provides the captions for the pictures all around: on glass and plaster, carved in wood and stone. He explains the narrative divine, in harmony with the music, the poetic liturgy. (“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”)

Always, there is narrative, whether or not it will be coherent. We, the over-literate spawn of much simpler and more reverent ancestors — less inclined to doubt God, and thus more inclined to fear Him — can see this even while glancing at the news. Crass ideology and salesmanship have replaced religion in our society; but storytelling remains in all content streams. We are surrounded by a cacophony of little dramas, that make little sense. We are, as the audience for stories, still mediaeval and will always be. The great majority continue to be peasants, however high-tech and urbanized. The worldly distribution of intelligence and talents continues as before.

From this angle, the only “evolution” consists in the quality of our attention. As I know from having travelled in illiterate realms, the unlettered man has a power of watching and listening which is extraordinary to an over-literate, like me. He need not take notes because he sees and hears directly. His memory for details is almost frightening, to a texting modern with camera and all our other recording implements — cripples’ crutches to the more natural man.

The world is full of stories, however disintegrative, but the homilist of a thousand years ago (give or take many centuries) is telling, in images and chapters, The Story itself. Our contemporary homilist assumes his auditors have that story recorded somewhere — “have the printout,” as it were, whether or not they will ever consult it. Rather than tell it, he comments on the story. For the modern mind is not attuned to things, but to comments on things. This facilitates his preference for quarter, half, or complete inattention, except in moments when money is involved.

The reconstruction of the Catholic Church, it seems to me, will require more than driving out the perverts, correcting heresies, or waiting for the last modernist to die. Rather it will need a recovery of attention, and restoration of distinctly Christian habits. The artists and musicians must get back to work. The homilist must resume his task, as moralizing narrator, rather than as a kind of Sunday pundit, with his fifteen minutes to compete with all the rest.