This year marks the three hundredth birthday of one of the most influential art scholars ever to have lived. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, born in 1717 in the town of Stendal, was one of those intellects whose work created a new age, a new taste, a new way of seeing. After the death of such men, the world no longer looks the way they found it; they equipped their contemporaries with new eyes. Winckelmann’s influence cannot be over-estimated; it endures to the present day. Without Winckelmann, who sang the praises of ancient Greek art and extolled the white marble of its statues—unaware that, of old, they were painted in rich colors—not only should we have had no Classicism; we should have had no Bauhaus either. Certain principles of Winckelmann’s taste, which rejected not only the Baroque and Mannerism, but also medieval art, are still current, particularly among people who have never heard of him. Powerful influences are absorbed by a kind of osmosis. Though it is highly improbable that those who drew up the Conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum concilium had read Winckelmann, they were nonetheless educated people and were acquainted with many things beyond the fields of theology and liturgy. When we read the beginning of paragraph 34 of this Constitution, “The rites should bear the mark of noble simplicity,” it is impossible not to think of one of the key sentences of Winckelmann’s “Thoughts on the imitation of Greek works in painting and sculpture,” written in 1755: “The pre-eminent, universal note of the Greek masterpieces is a noble simplicity and a silent greatness.” Although Winckelmann had become a Catholic and assisted a Roman cardinal in acquiring works of art, he would no doubt have been taken aback had he known that his principles would be adopted into an official document on the Church’s liturgy. Indeed, we may well ask whether this influence was altogether felicitous. Though it may be true that, in the field of aesthetics, any error as to historical fact can be justified before a higher court insofar as it produces artistic fruit—and Winckelmann’s errors certainly bore fruit in abundance—in the field of liturgy, closely related to art though it is, the situation may be otherwise.

Applied to the traditional liturgy, the concept of “noble simplicity” was not entirely above criticism. Considering the highly complex structure that liturgy had acquired at a very early stage, what kind of measures could have been applied in order to arrive at “noble simplicity”? To stay with Winckelmann’s approach for a moment, there was no question of achieving this noble simplicity by demolishing the baroque scrolls and spirals, by undressing them of their ornate garments, replacing their curves with straight lines and stripping them of their ornaments. It was not a question of correction and reduction. It was the quest for a completely different spirit that would conceive the human form and the human milieu in a new way. For the Council Fathers, by contrast, there was no question, nor could there be, of creating a completely different liturgy. The liturgy was not an assembly of available material that could be refashioned, let alone created anew. Its legitimacy arose out of its tradition. If it was to be re-formed according to the new aesthetic and theological principles in such a way that it was no longer what it had been, the reform would have failed. We must remember that in Christianity, the religion of the Incarnation, theology and aesthetics are inseparably bound together—a law that is easily forgotten nowadays.

Once Winckelmann’s “noble simplicity” had become established in people’s minds, it wasn’t so easy—without infringing liturgy’s sacred status—to find examples where it had failed to correspond to this dictum. The result was a certain embarrassment, since the required simplicity could only be achieved, it seemed, by cutting and reducing. Accordingly, paragraph 34 announced that the rites should be “freed from unnecessary repetition.” This apparently straightforward instruction, however, concealed a difficulty that, on closer inspection, was insoluble. What is “unnecessary”?

Even in daily life this question raises problems. A table usually requires four legs, but does the existence of three-legged tables imply that the fourth leg of a four-legged table is unnecessary? Simone Weil often cites a response attributed to Talleyrand: When approached by a beggar who urged that, after all, he had to live, the minister retorted, “I see no necessity for it.” One might say that nothing is necessary; or, just as well, one might say that everything that exists is necessary, otherwise it wouldn’t exist at all. Diogenes, who wanted to free himself from all that was unnecessary and had kept nothing but a drinking cup, eventually threw it away when he observed a shepherd drinking out of his hand.

The fact is that human culture consists in the production of unnecessary things; but at the same time we could say that these unnecessary things are most necessary to express human dignity. In the field of art and literature—and formulated prayers constitute a category within literature—the question of what is necessary and what is unnecessary resists all attempts at a thoroughgoing answer. It is not that poetry is unacquainted with the “unnecessary” (to make things even more complicated) but that a decision as to what is necessary and what is unnecessary in a poem can ignite bitter disputes that result in different answers in any given century—or that may never be resolved at all.

In the traditional liturgy, the “Kyrie eleison” is sung three times, followed by a similar threefold “Christe eleison,” leading to another threefold “Kyrie eleison.” The Reform deleted one petition in each block, doubtless in order to follow the Council Fathers’ instruction to avoid “unnecessary repetition.” But did it go far enough? In what sense is a twofold repetition less unnecessary than a threefold repetition? Surely one could easily make a more radical change here? “Kyrios” and “Christus” could surely be combined in a meaningful way since both words refer to the same Person; wouldn’t a single “Kyrie Christus eleison” suffice?

Things could also be tidied up somewhat in the “Gloria,” a prayer that unites the Song of the Angels and the improvisations made by St. Augustine and St. Ambrose; the two saints were clearly a little distracted by the enthusiasm their task inspired! Jesus is twice called “Son”—surely once would be enough? We find the phrase “qui tollis peccata mundi” twice, and “miserere nobis” twice also, quite apart from other redundancies in the text. Surely it would be possible to produce a slimmed-down version without losing any of the content? And what of the priest’s greeting, “Dominus vobiscum”: Does it make so little impression on the forgetful congregation that it is necessary to repeat it constantly during the Mass?—to say nothing of the “unnecessary” repetitions in the “Agnus Dei” and the “Sanctus,” which contribute nothing substantial to the whole.

If we approach the many repetitions in the Roman Missal with a discerning eye, we naturally begin to surmise that what we have here are not rank proliferations and distortions, but highly intentional elements that follow a stylistic principle. We would have similar thoughts on examining the practice of prayer in the most ancient times, even outside Christianity. As Jesus has taught us, the heavenly Father knows what we need; so public prayer is not a matter of giving information, nor should it be weighed down with ideas. The same was true of the civilizations that preceded Christianity and that contributed certain elements to its forms of worship. The meditative prayers of India, with their endless repetition of a single syllable, are doubtless precursors of the most important prayer of all. Greek Orthodoxy expanded this in the “Prayer of the Heart”; this consists of the constant repetition of the words “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” until this prayer becomes established in the person praying, uniting itself to his or her breathing and heartbeat and so becoming a never-ending accompaniment of his or her conscious speaking and acting.

While it may not have the same power, perhaps, as the Prayer of the Heart to re-fashion the whole human being, the rosary goes in the same direction. The Church’s great Litanies, like the Litany of All Saints, that have come to form an element of particular liturgies such as the Easter Vigil and that of priestly ordination, explicitly celebrate repetition. Like folksong, they consist of an alternation of acclamation and refrain: the worshipper, caught up in this repetition, wishes it would go on for ever.

Here St. Paul’s injunction “Pray without ceasing” has found the only response possible; how could a prayer be “without ceasing” in any other way than by repetition? It is as clear as day: Contrary to the authors of the Constitution on the Liturgy with their over-intellectual approach, there is no opposition between “noble simplicity” and repetition. The opposite is true: Simplicity demands repetition—in poetry as in prayer. Today we are still amazed that the highly educated Council Fathers were not aware of this aesthetic law, which is also a spiritual law.

It is clear that, in their zeal for the abolition of unnecessary repetition, liturgists have produced features that do not make sense. For instance, the priest’s confession of sins at the beginning of the Mass, where the priest asks the congregation to pray for him, presupposes that the congregation should be silent and listen to him, so that it can answer his prayer by reciting the “misereatur.” Similarly, the priest must listen to the congregations’ confession of sins so that he may respond with his prayer of absolution. If priest and congregation speak at the same time, they cannot both be recipients of the pertinent prayer of forgiveness. To be consistent, the Reform should have cut out the phrase “et vos fratres”—but that would have vitiated the desired democratic accent.

We must examine the real motivation that lies behind the deliberate incorporation of repetition as a feature of the Church’s public prayer. It was not lack of imagination or complacency that motivated the author of the Book of Revelation to attribute the “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” to the four winged creatures before the throne of God. In all probability, the rhetorical technique of repetition, representing the song of praise that resounds outside and beyond the historical sphere, is intentional. Music, in few words and in fewer minutes, opens our minds to this understanding of repetition. I think of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin and its madrigal for two tenors: “Due seraphim clamabant alter ad alterum: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” (Two seraphim called to each other: Holy, Holy, Holy). This piece was composed for St. Mark’s Church in Venice, which has choir chancels on opposite sides of the central altar; the two choirs answer one another like mountain shepherds calling from one side of a deep valley to the other. In Monteverdi’s music, the Sanctus seems to dissolve into pure echo. If we may use an optical analogy: It is like a single Sanctus that is multiplied in a hall of mirrors, creating countless facets, yet all drawn from one origin. The threefold Sanctus seeks nothing other than to express eternity using temporal means.

Eternity is unimaginable, yet we are continually inclined to think of it as an endlessly long time—which it isn’t. It is not extended, stretched out, for then it would be measurable, whereas fundamentally it cannot be measured. It is a Now without motion, a Now without either past or future. Visionaries seem to have a grasp of it when they speak of a “falling that lacks all direction” or of a fire that embraces them totally yet has no spatial limits.

Language, by nature, must move forward, and so it uses repetition to imitate the stasis, the no-development that is an attribute of eternity, where a single Sanctus never fades away, as if it were the endless resounding of a struck bell. Recalling Wagner’s opera Parsifal—“Here, Space becomes Time”—we could (paradoxically) describe eternity as a limitless space in which everything that has happened is present at the same time and in the same place. So the threefold Kyrie stands for its endless repetition: In some ways it is the only prayer, since it contains the essence of our entire faith. In Greek Orthodoxy the Kyrie is the veritable backbone of the liturgy: The whole liturgy is held together—in a Now that wants to go on forever—by constantly reiterated Kyrie-catenas. The Roman liturgy has not forgotten this: Its three-times-three is a monument, as it were, to this endlessness that symbolizes the eternal unicity. Similarly, the threefold invocation of the Agnus Dei is linked to the eternity of the “marriage of the Lamb” that is celebrated as a never-ending Now in the heavenly Jerusalem, and with which our liturgies, celebrated in time, are one.

It seems then as if the aversion to “unnecessary repetition” that was written into the Constitution on the Liturgy is ultimately nothing less than a turning-away from the liturgy’s eschatological aspect. No doubt not all the Fathers had this inevitable conclusion in mind; nonetheless the reality of it, willy-nilly, has affected many liturgies celebrated according to the Novus Ordo.

In all fairness we should not omit to mention one possible interpretation of the prohibition of “unnecessary repetition”—although it seems too special to have found a place in such a basic document. The Tridentine reform of the Mass prescribed that the celebrant should pray all the prayers of the Mass he was celebrating even if a schola was singing the proper and ordinary, and even if a deacon and subdeacon were reading the lessons. This rule, at a time when in many places in the wake of the Reformation the liturgy had got out of control, was to make sure that the entire text of the Mass was actually read. In many places this resulted in the chant being regarded as having less significance. Since it was now guaranteed that the priest would perform the Mass in its integrity, it was only too easy for the texts of the proper and even of the ordinary to be replaced by hymns—which happened, for instance, in the whole German-speaking area. This parallel rendering of parts of the Mass, allowed or even encouraged for pastoral reasons, has inflicted grave damage on the liturgy and the way it is understood by the faithful. No wonder that people deeply attached to the liturgy become anxious whenever they hear the word “pastoral.”

Many monasteries understood the Council Fathers’ instruction to avoid “unnecessary repetition” in the liturgy as a signal to renew the role of Gregorian chant and to give added weight to the schola. The schola was not to be a decorative addition for special feasts—sometimes providing “concert” items that interrupted the liturgy; its singers were to be regarded as liturgical actors in a strict sense, clothed in appropriate liturgical garb and, according to the principle of subsidiarity, executing those parts of the liturgy that pertained to them. Their rendering of parts of the proper and ordinary of the Mass was carried out so fully and validly that the priest’s whispered repetition of these portions could be dropped, since the latter was “unnecessary,” contributing nothing to the completeness of the Mass. I have been privileged to attend monastic liturgies that were celebrated in this way, in beautiful and austere surroundings, and have observed that the priest did not pray all the prayers of the proper and ordinary—indeed, his celebrant’s sacramentary (mass-book) did not contain them, since, in the overall liturgical apportioning of roles, it did not pertain to him to pray the “Sanctus” and the “Agnus Dei,” just as he did not read the lessons read by the deacon and subdeacon. One cannot deny the logic of this severely liturgical approach. Its effect, in restoring the singers’ role as full liturgical agents, is undeniable. The great festive liturgy is seen even more to be a theurgic work (a work of God) in which, in imitation of the heavenly order, all degrees of the priesthood participate and the role of the actual celebrant is precisely circumscribed.

All the same, I find this radical consistency a little alienating when the priest is excluded from speaking the “Sanctus” only because it would be “unnecessary,” in a liturgical sense, for him to speak it while the schola is singing it. On the other hand, these serious and deliberate monks deserve praise for having found a way to understand and implement the Conciliar Constitution’s instruction.

In speaking, on this joyful occasion of the tenth anniversary of Summorum pontificum, about repetition in the context of liturgy, and in particular about “unnecessary repetition,” we must also consider the question of necessary repetition. This is particularly apt since it is precisely due to this motu proprio of Pope Benedict XVI that such repetition is finally possible again. I am referring here not to repetitions within the Rite, but rather to the repetition, the never-ending repetition—throughout the whole span of a human life—of the entire Rite itself. Rite (ritual) means repetition; the words are practically tautologous. The art of the spiritual life consists in continually discovering rite anew, in discovering its unicity in its ceaseless repetitions, in realizing again and again the uniqueness of the one, historical sacrifice of Christ that it re-presents. It consists in celebrating each Mass—as a famous rule enjoins us—as if it were the first, the last, and the only Mass. That is one side of it; but the other side is equally important: We are to let ourselves be carried by the Mass in its ceaseless repetitions, to let our desire for independent thought and feeling come to rest and repose in it, to discover—in the routine—the happiness of being-at-home. We are to forget our own self-will; we must no longer feel that our mind’s distractedness constitutes a spiritual failing, since it takes place within something great and total and is thereby in safe keeping. We can surrender the self-consciousness of doing something and having to do something. The most important thing the repeated Rite manifests to those who engage in it, is that it is stronger than they are; they gain by surrendering to it, and on the other hand they are sapping nothing of its power if perchance they are not up to such a surrender. After all, who can say he is always conscious of being at the Rite’s lofty level?

Those who were pledged with all their heart to the traditional Rite while not being willing to give up their connection with the official Church, have for too long had to put up with a constant alternation of hot and cold baths in their spiritual lives. Those who were devoted to the traditional Mass—and those alone—were required to cope with “bi-ritualism.” (A German poet said that “language is a deceitful maidservant,” and this technical, hateful expression brings out the whole dubious character of the requirement.) Since, in many places, permission to celebrate the old Mass was granted only sporadically and by way of exception, most of those attached to the usus antiquior had to accustom themselves to changing back and forth between the rites. Today, as a result of the motu proprio Summorum pontificum, we know that the traditional Rite could never be forbidden, because there is no institution in the Church, neither pope nor Council, that has the power to forbid it. Had there been clarity on this point, much grief, suffering, and dispute, much ecclesial quarrelling, could have been avoided. For while it is doubtless possible at a technical and intellectual level to pray in two rites with the same devotion, at the level of the soul and spirituality it is impossible in the long run.

The many rubrics that characterize the old Rite must of course be mastered and understood; but then they must also be forgotten again, having been transformed into flesh and blood. As is the case with music, a gigantic edifice of prescriptions gives way to an effortless entering-in to what is being presented, with the celebrant as the trusted and familiar guide, himself borne along by it all. The ideal is that he should celebrate Mass as if asleep, for only then can the Rite be experienced not as his action, but as the action of the Savior. How can this be achieved if he has to find his way between rites that differ profoundly from one another? Even having to think, “What do I do now?” is enough to destroy the ritual context. It was doubtless part of Pope Benedict’s plan, in issuing the two legislative acts whose anniversary we are celebrating, finally to provide greater access to a holy routine, precisely because he himself is convinced of the value of repetition in the Rite. This is something he knows from personal experience, and it may be this that prevented him from returning personally to the old Rite—in spite of his being aware, more than anyone, of its value. And although no doubt it will be a long time until all the priests and faithful who yearn for a life in the old Rite can enjoy the priceless familiarity that repetition brings with it without having to negotiate obstacles, we now have the legislative acts that open up this path and render illegal and illegitimate all limitations on such access.

Those attached to the old Rite have had enough to complain about in recent decades, but one should not be too quick to accuse them of being gloomy by nature. If there is reason for complaint, they complain. But if there is a cause for joy, they are able to rejoice in a very special way. For them there is no greater joy than to discover that the path opened by Summorum pontificum has produced real possibilities, facilitating a “holy routine” such as we have described, and that this routine has borne the very fruit that—as they had always insisted—can only thrive in repetition and familiarity. As yet there are not many such places in Europe and America, but all the same there are more than one could realistically have hoped. Summorum pontificum granted the possibility of a personal prelature for the old Rite, but as yet it has not been greatly implemented in the rest of the world. So it is all the more important that Rome itself should be the location of an international congregation that shows by example how the traditional Rite can develop once no obstacles are allowed to impede its daily celebration. Now, in a church that had been closed for decades, Santissima Trinità Dei Pellegrini (an auspicious location, since it was originally founded by St. Philip Neri), one can experience every day how Catholic worship (cult) can unfold into the world of the visible and give an idea of what Catholic culture is. It is not by chance that the word “culture” comes from the world of agriculture: Culture is an activity that has to be cultivated and repeated incessantly, like ploughing and harrowing, sowing and harvesting. This is something the modern intellectual just will not understand, i.e., that a spiritual act does not exhaust itself in a single insight, but in its incarnate form: In this meaningful form it constantly strives for repetition. Pope Benedict, as papal legislator, was aware of this; it only remains for Catholics throughout the world to take up his legislation and act upon it.

Martin Mosebach, a German writer, is the recipient of the Kleist Prize and Georg Büchner Prize. This essay was translated from the German by Graham Harrison.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Show 0 comments