Last Tuesday evening (04/13) I went to the beautiful church of St. Simon and Jude in Prague to hear a stunning concert performance of the Weser Renaissance Ensemble, one of the most sought after ensembles in the world specializing in early 16th and 17th century music. The performance piece was a haunting mass by Flemish composer, Heinrich Isaac, entitled Missa Paschalis, and the ensemble consisted of one counter tenor, two tenors, one baritone and one bass accompanied by a coronet and four trombones. I felt completely carried back to an earlier time in history and into a rare and wonderful sacred space conjured up by the rich polyphonic music. It reminded me very poignantly of how rich the Catholic spiritual tradition has been to so many who have been touched by it in a mystical way and that this mystery has been communicated most powerfully through the Eucharist and the Mass, as well as through the witness of such martyrs to injustice as Bishop Oscar Romero and the Jesuits massacred in El Salvador. In these terrible times of revelation, we have to remind ourselves that the Mystery still exists within the broken container of the institution, even though we are being painfully weaned away from dependence on the structures of authority. These structures have weaved such a tangled, corrupt and suffocating web around the Divine Mystery that it has become obscured to many. It is time for the structures to fall away and the loud noises we are hearing in the streets today, both the anguished cries of the abuse victims calling out for justice and the hysterical, high pitched denials of the Episcopal and Papal enablers, are simply the clattering sounds of the superfluous scaffolding falling away. The authority system, having proven itself defunct, is simply no longer needed and must be dismantled, leaving the way open for a true reformation of the Catholic communion. It will not surrender its power of its own accord, it will not reform itself from within, so power and credibility must be taken away from it, thereby enabling us to experience the Divine Mystery that still lives within the living community of the Spirit. This community will still have the responsibility to pass on the tradition and to still act as a conduit for the sacred mystery, but new forms of organization need to rise from the ashes. As the Old Catholic Church so eloquently witnesses (along with other Spirit filled breakaway communities), there are ways of being Catholic outside the control of the Vatican system.
This is why I thought it appropriate to experience this rich, deeply moving spiritual music in a church in Prague which has been de-consecrated and is now used as a concert hall. It’s ‘sacred power’ has been taken away from it, the Eucharist is no longer reserved, and it has simply become an empty shell of great artistic beauty, but devoid of that unique Catholic mystical presence. As I looked at all of the ornate decorations, the statues, the paintings, the crystal chandeliers, I felt Saint Simon and Jude had become an apt metaphor for the present state of the Roman Catholic institutional and hierarchical system, a relic of the past devoid of sacred presence. As the scaffolding falls to the ground with a cacophonous clatter, the divine mystery is being set free, like an ecstatic bird, soaring, soaring through the air on great white wings.
This morning I received this email comment from a close friend of mine which expresses how so many ‘Catholics’ are now feeling today about faith and spirit and life:
A few weeks ago I felt a cord cut … a cord that made me feel tied to the Catholic Church… one that had guilt attached. Now, I feel the cord is cut and I am free just to be.
Something is happening and I am different.
Indeed! Something is happening, the cord is not only being cut, we are not only different – but we are all so much the better for it. Alleluia!
As a complement to the above experience, this afternoon (04/16), I treated myself to a lovely lunch at the trendy French Parisian Brasserie, La Provence, on Stuparska Street in Old Town Prague. Cream of cucumber soup, followed by salmon trout filet with creamy pumpkin sauce, a small carafe of French white wine, a lemon tart and cappuccino. A very lovely, peaceful experience on a gorgeous if slightly crisp, bright and sunny spring day in Prague. Following that, however, I made a visit to one of my favorite churches in Prague, St. Jacob the Bigger, with its magnificent baroque interior. St. Jacob’s has one of the most magnificent old organs of any church in Prague and is frequently used as a concert hall. However, in contrast to the more frequently used Sts. Simon and Jude Church in the Josefov neighborhood, one of the most frequently used concert hall churches in Prague, St. Jacob has not been de-consecrated and still harbors the Eucharist and gives off a distinct if delicate aura of holiness and sacredness. By my good fortune, a spontaneous organ concert was underway, most likely a practice session, but the sounds were truly magnificent and a number of pilgrims and tourists were held captive by the glorious strains of Bach and Handel and Czech composers, Petr Eben and Klement Slavický, among those I could recognize. The impromptu concert lasted for about 30 minutes and during that time I felt myself carried away with joy into a place of deep interior silence and peace, touched in the soul both by the music and by the aura of sacredness of this consecrated church. The feeling is distinctly different from the de-consecrated St. Simon and Jude, which has long since ceased to be a place of worship – or is the feeling simply the product of my imagination, triggered by the knowledge that the Eucharist is reserved in St. Jacob’s, but has long fled the scene in Saint Simon and Jude.? Is the feeling purely a figment? Not a bit of it. When I first entered Simon and Jude over a year ago for a concert, I had no idea it had been de-consecrated, I was only aware of a flat and empty feeling – an absence of presence – a decorative empty shell of great beauty and magnificent acoustics – but without that sense of sacred space that characterizes a blessed house of worship. This made me suspect the Eucharist was not reserved, so I looked around in vain for a sanctuary lamp and found none lit, then went outside to talk to the woman at the ticket desk and she informed me that the church had not been used formally for some years, so there was my answer. At some point the Bishop of Prague would have entered the sanctuary and uttered words to this effect:
“Lord God, in your great goodness you once accepted to your honor and glory this building, now secularized. Receive our praise and thanksgiving for the blessings, help, and comfort which you bestowed upon your people in this place.”
Back to Saint Jacob’s and the delicate sense of sacred presence that a consecrated church seems to emanate – this afternoon I felt immensely grateful for this great gift which the catholic tradition has bestowed upon us and passed onto us down the ages, a gift that outweighs all of the horrific scandals of recent days committed principally by episcopal prelates who dishonor this sacred presence. Be that as it may, the Presence survives within its ‘imprisonment’ and transcends the very grave limitations of the keepers of the keys of the institution. And the magnificent baroque interior honors this presence in one particular example of the human creative imagination – expressing through ornate richness the treasure that lies within. However, I also felt that as valuable as the magnificent chamber may be and as grateful as we may be for these beautiful churches and cathedrals that house the Eucharist – they are not absolutely necessary. The Presence survives outside them, within breakaway communities, within the Old Catholic Church, within home Eucharists, where ever ‘two or three are gathered in my name.’ The institutional church has provided a temporary home and place of worship, but the mystery of sacred Presence that is the Eucharist is not contained or controlled in any absolute sense by the hierarchy and its belief in the absolute power and superiority of the priestly caste and the necessity of an ordination rite that occurs within ‘the line of succession’. In these terrible times of scandal with the urgent cries for ‘reform,’ this to me is the most urgent reform of all – freeing the Eucharistic mystery from ecclesiastical control, because it is this illusion of control that gives the present patriarchal system its illusory sense of power. Break the illusion of control and we break the stranglehold of power and set the divine mystery free! We will always need structures of some sort and roles of humble leadership in a spirit of service, but the monopoly of power over the sacramental system must be revealed for what it is – an illusion of power that is not Christ like and that is not necessary for a truly catholic celebration of communion in the Spirit of the Crucified and Risen Christ.
Cross posted from Gay Mystic
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