Saturday, January 17, 2004

A bit more on geometry in worship Some guests took exception to my preference for antiphonal seating, or seating "in the round" as ideal for Catholic worship. Ad orientam seating places everyone, including the priest, toward "liturgical East," facing the rising sun. Theoretically, the priest is not "on stage" so much as at the head of the procession of the Pilgrim Church on earth, moving toward God. A vital and important image, I won't deny. As a student of geometry, I would suggest that antiphonal or seating-in-the-round also orients the entire assembly in one direction, namely toward the Real Presence on the altar, at the center of the church. The principle was used in explaining the placement of saints' representations in windows, namely that the "S"aints, as it were, surround the "s"aints who are then focused on Christ. God is not an external force to be aimed at (and missed, perhaps). God is, as the 139th Psalmist describes (5-10), close at hand no matter where we go, not far off in the distance, as Bette Midler's songwriters would have us think: Behind and before you encircle me and rest your hand upon me. Such knowledge is beyond me, far too lofty for me to reach. Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, you are there too. If I fly with the wings of dawn and alight beyond the sea, Even there your hand will guide me, your right hand hold me fast." I admit there is much to be said for the orientation of a pilgrim Church, which we certainly are, and which ad orientam liturgy celebrates. But I would advocate the use of processions to reinforce this reality. Processions accurately image the Church on the way, but not there yet. Mass is more a reflection of the heavenly reality: angels and saints joining the faithful in praise and worship of God. We have paused the journey, as it were, to celebrate Mass. So why would an orientation that clearly is processional and underscores the God Beyond be more suitable? The only good reason I can think of is: we've always done it that way. But history shows otherwise. I did use the provision that a "mature" worshipping community would better handle my preferences than an unprepared or unwilling parish. Either of my worship scenarios places more pressure on the priest, the musicians, other public ministries to set aside the staging of sanctuaries. Ideally, there is no performance. And one of the drawbacks to ad orientam is that ritual is staged in a stage area, even if the priest doesn't show his face. If the distraction of people sitting across the way were really a prime consideration, Catholics in traditionally rendered seating patterns would all strive to sit at the front or as close to the front as they could so they wouldn't see the backs of any heads. And we all know how common that sensibility is.

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