Book Review

Authored By: James McCoy

Book Review:


Reviewed by James McCoy

Mark Twain taught that "there is nothing in the world that can stand up to laughter," and Thomas Day levels most modern church architecture with explosive paroxisms of it. And having followed his merry demolition job and cheery constructive proposals, Catholics can understand why worshipping in many parishes today we feel like creatures in an Escher poster.

Day casts the first stone at modern American Catholicism's glass house of worship. "Environment and Art in Catholic Worship," one of the documents that orbit the National Conference of Catholic Bishops like satellites, wants church architecture to be not only humanly comfy, but also numinously awefull. The result is simply awful, for you can't have it both ways: to center on man is necessarily to marginalize God, Day argues.

The clearest example of this anthropocentric turn, as he points out, is the fact that in many churches the priest has replaced the Blessed Sacrament as the center of attention at our liturgies. In the place where the tabernacle used to be, nowadays the celebrant typically sits on a "throne."

Day's diagnosis for all that makes us feel disease in our contemporary experiences of worship is this idolatry of personality. And not just the priest is held up to be idolized, but also the totems of songleaders, readers, explainers and, in the end, us men in the pews.

This cult of self-worship was first investigated by Day in , (to which is sequel and secondary). In it he pointed out that our current liturgical custom of singing in the first person as if we were God (e.g., "I the Lord of wind and sky...") is completely without precedent in the history of Christian worship. But this occult self-worship is nothing more than the logical conclusion of sacred music, liturgy and architecture which center ever more on us men, instead of on our salvation.

Not only routinely ignored publications of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, but even the sacred teachings of the Second Vatican Council, are in for Day's artful commentary.

Having actually bothered to read its "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," Day lists pro-Latin conciliar statements such as "the Latin language is to be preserved," "steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts...of the Mass which pertain to them," and "the Church acknowledges Gregorian Chant as proper to the Roman should be given pride of place in liturgical services."

On the other hand, Day writes, "we have what looks like a small but militant army of opponents who insist that the last vestiges of Latin must be purged from the liturgy for all time, because this is what Vatican II wanted... Thus we have the odd situation where the Church's 'official policy' on Latin seems to be going in opposite directions at the same time."

And the traditional liturgy doesn't even gain the glory of a bloody martyrdom: "Instead, the liturgical use of Latin is treated the way an important but inconvenient figure (the "unperson") used to be treated in Soviet history books; it is simply erased from memory; it never existed ."

The joke, what's the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? (answer: you can negotiate with a terrorist), burst the bubble reputation of ultimate liturgical participation which the aging children of God consider their masterwork.

"Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, insofar as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors," C.S. Lewis writes in

Lewis prophesied that a generation will come which so absolutely rejects the traditional wisdom of all previous generations and so powerfully conditions "by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by education and propaganda" all subsequent generations that it is the "master generation."

The ultimate irony, as Lewis showed, is that this master generation, having abolished perennial wisdom, can only live as slaves to their own ephemeral feelings. And by that abolition (since, as Vatican 11 taught, man can only find himself in the sincere gift of himself to something which transcends himself) it will have brought about the abolition of man.

Day likewise ends in darkness. The final chapter is "What Does it All Mean?"

"We must surely be living in a dangerous era, when any religion begins to treat human beings as if they were...without imagination, without the gift of a soul, without art. We would expect (this of) dictators, radical political theorists and others who have a low opinion of people...but in religion this sort of thing is bad news. It means the end of that idea of a special, creating human "soul," and the beginning of an age when people in churches will be manipulated as if they were stupid machines-- easily turned on or off (with a gimmick) by smart machines. It means head for the hills."

Day insists that it's a category mistake to say that his critique is "conservative" or "liberal"--and he's right, because it's based on pure tradition. H.L. Menchen once wrote, "In a democratic society, it is not the iconoclast who seems most revolutionary, but the purist." This saying seems verified in the American Church, where iconoclasm has become the status quo.

McCoy is a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Catholic.

Taken from the April 21 issue of the Arlington Catholic Herald.

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