Sunday, July 10, 2016

Memorizing the Readings

This weekend I was traveling out of state and went to Mass in a beautiful historic church from the late 19th century. It has preserved all of its original neo-Gothic decor; of course, a little table altar had been added in front of the high altar, but at least nothing had been positively destroyed.

The liturgy was novus ordo but was done very well as NO liturgies go. The priest in charge evidently cared a great deal about having things done "decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40). But during the readings something happened I had never encountered before. The lector who was doing the first readings had apparently memorized the entire reading. This allowed him to not look at the lectionary the entire time; he maintained a steady eye-contact with the congregation and projected his voice in a commanding tone. It was like he was reciting lines, not reading from the lectionary.

For a moment I really did not know what to think about this. In terms of objective quality of the delivery, sure it was better - he had all the emphasis at the right points, was more engaging to listen to, and delivered the reading in an objectively better manner than I have heard most lectors who are just kind of stumbling along over the words in the book. Obviously, taking the care to memorize the reading gave him a much greater familiarity with the text than if he were merely reading it, and it showed in the way he delivered the lines with confidence and depth.

But, it also bothered me some. Regardless of the objective quality of the "delivery", it felt like he ought to be reading out of the book. I thought to myself, "How would I feel if the priest had memorized the Canon of the Mass and delivered it without any reference to the Missal?" And that idea ruffled me greatly; it seems that the book, lectionary or Missal, is not simply there as an aid to help the priest or lector remember what he is supposed to be saying. The book is not like an incidental accoutrement to the liturgy; it is not a kind of glorified cue card that is there to remind the priest or lector of the words but can be dispensed with if they have their "lines" memorized.

Rather, the lectionary and Missal are the tangible representations of the Tradition. When the lector reads from the lectionary and the priest prays from the Missal, he is demonstrating that he is receiving what has been handed on. It is a kind of reverence towards the Tradition. And if I recall, Klaus Gamber makes this same argument in The Reform of the Roman Liturgy.

However well a priest or lector might memorize the words, it ultimately becomes a performance. That's why I noticed that this lector's reading had a certain sort of theatrical affectation to it that I found distracting.Ultimately I felt it was not something I liked. I would prefer the person reading drably rather than someone delivering memorized "lines" with great gusto. It seems like a more proper way of acknowledging that what you are doing is not your own creation- it's something you have received and are handing on.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Not being Catholic myself, it is impossible for me to come at this from the vantage point of Catholic Tradition and the role reading from the missal plays in living out that tradition. What I can speak to us the power of reciting Scripture one has hidden in their heart and has which has had a life changing impact on the one who memorized it. There seems to be empowering by the Spirit when we memorize and meditate on Scripture and then either recite it or offer it as a prayer. Maybe that's part of what you experienced. I am not arguing that this implies it should be done in your Mass, but maybe there are other venues in the Catholic tradition where it would be helpful.

Tom Healey said...

I sometimes wondered if it was essential for the priest to read from the lectionary rather than just say the words he probably remembers after so many masses. You just gave me the answer. It's the church's great tradition which is the source rather than making the mass self-referential. The bloodless representation of the Sacrifice of the Mass. It has nothing to do with theatrics or making the readings more interesting, or an appeal to feelings. As though this were a Protestant service.

c matt said...

But to be fair, Tradition itself was handed on largely orally, especially with respect to the Mass, was it not? Wasn't the Mass around (and celebrated) long before there were missals? In particular, communication involves much more than simply words - inflection and demeanor are a large part of it. I get what you are saying, but a dead-pan reading has its own drawbacks. Yes, you are handing on what has been given, but what has been given is more than mere recitation of words.

Boniface said...

C Matt,

There is something to be said for that. But even if prayers were once done by memory or without a Missal, it does not follow they should be done so now. But I am not so sure - the very earliest non-biblical writing - the Didache - contains a liturgical section with the readings and prayers for a Mass. Evidently reading the prayers is very, very ancient.

Tom Healey said...

TLM was imbued with the sacred, with reverence and ultimate mystery. Before the NO mass, it would never have occupied to Catholics, that the readings were "deadpan". In the presence of so much irreverence today, boring homilies, and all the rest of the Post Vat 'll liturgical debacle(and I'm not even including blasphemies like clown masses),what will most Catholics do?? Go with the flow!! The effects of Original Sin are very real.

Boniface said...

I dunno, Tom. Yes, the TLM is intrinsically more reverent, but boredom or something seeming "deadpan" is common to all humanity. I would be lying if I said I had never been bored at a Traditional latin Mass. I certainly have, and I have to believe in the long history of the Mass that others experienced boredom as well.

Joe Potillor said...

I'm with you on the uncomfortableness of not making reference to the actual text. It used to be one of my biggest irks when people would simply read off a text. I think in Liturgical contexts, it's a sign of humility, as well as as mentioned the receiving of the tradition handed on.

Konstantin said...

I think St. Alphonsus taught that priests should 'read' the Mass, not say it, that is simply reproduce what they have memorized. He is not only a great moral theologian, but also a great rubricist.

benjaminiperegrinus said...

I don't remember were I read this but, the same idea is behind the use of an MC. The reason prelates and popes have an MC is not because they don't know how to offer Mass but because they are supposed to serve not command the liturgy. It's the idea of the liturgy as a received thing, a vehicle of the faith. This is so disturbed now with the novus ordo and freewheeling.

Tom Healey said...

Ok. I agree. In my own writing, I usually end up filling in things that need correction or development, because there's no time restrictions unlike with com-boxes. With comments, I sometimes overlook things. Regarding boredom, Original Sin has tainted everything in our natures. My upbringing was in a very humble culture(my father was a fisherman with Grade Vlll Ed), so Mass(latin)was treated with great reverence in our small community of about 50 families. Boredom was a luxury we could not afford.

I overlooked that Catholics in the Post Vatll church, left the ethnic ghettos, got university degrees, careers. Got so much more sophistication than we had, that was, in addition to the lack of reverence and "do-it-yourself" liturgies, that have replaced the Latin mass in most parishes here in Canada and your country.

Marko Ivančičević said...

I'll play the devil's advocate here for a bit. He, probably wanted to reproduce the first hand apostolic experience, i.e. as if he himself was the Apostle telling those important words to that community. And i would say it is a noble sentiment, because the reader recognizes the importance of the text. Once, i was reading from the book of Apocalypse, and though i wasn't holding constant eye contact, i was trying to stress some vital points by infelction, intonation and pauses, and after the Mass, one of the concelebrating priests came to me and said that this was the first time that he "felt" the gravity of book of Revelation.

Now, on the other hand it is presumptive and even prideful to put confidence in one's own "theatrical" abilities rather than in the strength of the Scriptures themselves. That's why Church has always had lectors, and not mementors. And that's why she has always sung the readings, although even melodies make some logical and theatrical (character) distinctions.

Boniface said...

Marko,

I am not suggesting a lector should not look up now and then to make eye contact, nor that he should inflect his voice, pause, etc. to make the reading as smooth and engaging as possible. That's just part of good reading.

I am merely saying one ought not memorize the entire reading and have no contact with the text whatsoever.

Marko Ivančičević said...

Of course, of course, i agree. I wan't contesting your premise, rather, i was offering my insight.

Yes. Text is meant to be read. Homily is the time when one makes permanent eye contact. Not readings.

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

There seems to be empowering by the Spirit ...

That is a truthful observation only insofar as The Holy Ghost is prompting you to join the Church Jesus established (Matt 16:18).

Is He?

If not, what you think is empowerment by the Holy Spirit is inward intellectual projection or an emotional state you experience.

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Dear Brother Boniface, Was the Deacon sitting there listening rather than reading the lessons?

Instill anthropocentrism into the Sacred Liturgy and there is no telling what can happen.

Just be grateful he didn't say, "The Epistle of Saint Paul..." and then begin to cheer for Saint Paul by signing the letters P, A, U, L, with his arms and asking all to give Paul a big cheer,

Gimme a P

Gimme an A

Gimme a U

Gimme a L

What's that spell?

What's that spell?

Louder...

Louder....

Thomas McIntyre said...

This is why I never "prepare" the reading as lectors are often encouraged to do. I don't look down at the lectionary the whole time and endeavor to deliver the words well, but I make sure that I actually have to read them

c matt said...

I get what you are saying - there is a temptation/danger to insert too much of your own "personality" into a text and become too theatrical, and a large part of the readings is to precisely "hand on what you have been given," not infuse it with your own touch, so to speak. The best I can analogize to is a well played piece of classical music. A truly excellent musician will flawlessly present it to where he seems to be playing it as though he was intimately familiar with it and understood it, performing it exactly as the composer has written and intended. It is not a "remake" like so many pop songs that just sound horrible and butcher the original.

The connection to the text is important, I agree. The opening of the Missal and turning to the reading, having it in front of the lector, and actually reading it is crucial.

Anonymous said...

For my part, I think the fact that the lector nowadays is (almost always) facing the people, connecting with them, so to speak, via eye contact and vocal expression, is incongruous to the nature of the Mass. That is, the message, or sub-message, seems to be that the lector and congregation are "having a moment." Saying "Thanks be to God" at the conclusion seems almost like an after-thought. The lector's memorization of the reading only exacerbates this incongruity.

A propos memorizing parts of the Mass without reference to the Missal: in the good old days, deacons learning to say Mass *had* to memorize certain parts and not depend on the book: the prayers at the foot of the altar, the "Munda cor meum," the first part of the "Lavabo," etc. The altar cards were there in case of distractions or sudden memory-blocks. But of course these prayers were all said "submissa voce" and therefore avoided anything theatrical or self-referential.--Fr. Johnson

Boniface said...

But the Scripture readings were not memorized themselves.

James Joseph said...

I think you and I both know two things. Three things we forget. The lessons are not directed at the Congregation per second but a voice crying in the wilderness calling His People back from the Pentapolus and all of that land's false ways and promises. And, the Evangelion is preached to the Pagans that they might be exorcised from their masters. It is never about us individually but always directed to whole groups of the various peoples according to the time in illo tempore predetermined by Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Murray said...

When I was a new lector/reader, I used to practice the readings at home, not to memorize them, but in order to get the inflections and pauses in the right place. These days, I just read them over to watch for pitfalls like St Paul's notorious run-on sentences.

When reading, I proceed slowly using my "proclaiming" voice (deeper and more resonant than my conversational voice), but try to avoid theatricality beyond, say, pausing briefly to let a particular thought sink in. I look up once in a while, but try to avoid making it a "moment". It's not about me.

In any case, I'd be wholly disconcerted by a reader who recited from memory and maintained eye contact the whole time. It makes him the center of attention and distracts from the Word itself.

Boniface said...

Murray, I think your approach and sentiments are exactly correct.