Ever since I first tried to make sense of the radical changes within Roman Catholicism in the last 60 some odd years I’ve been drawn to try and understand how the externals–the signs, symbols,rituals and gestures of a religion–literally help prop up and imbue ones life with the content of the Faith. I guess I’ve always had almost an intuitive sense that externals matter a great deal, and that to change them is quite literally to change the religion. This was the instinct of the much maligned Old Believers and is the instinct behind the most staunch supporters of the Traditionalist movement within Catholicism. Even if they cannot articulate their disquiet in terms of Lex Orandi,Lex Credendi in the same thorough and academic fashion as the author of the paper I linked to, many Catholics still know intuitively that what they see at at old Latin Mass in a pre Vatican II chapel and what they see at the average Pauline Mass in a suburban parish built in the 1970’s is quite possibly a different religion and not just two different expressions of the same thing.
In a discussion with someone who told me that I’m wrong because there are devout Catholics who attend the New Mass at these surburban parishes doesn’t convince me of anything other than these devout Catholics have the Faith from praying traditional devotions like the rosary or after having read traditional Catholic books or having prayed extensively in traditional ways. In short, it is in spite of the new religion taught through the radically different signs, symbols, prayers, gestures and architecture of the post Vatican II Church. I feel the same way about many traditionalists. They hole up in chapels where the architecture, signs, symbols, rituals and gestures in use are no longer in vogue in the mainstream church, and so they literally hold to Catholicism as it was and not as it is. The cognitive dissonance this engenders is because intuitively they know that they practice a religion that no longer exists among the mainstream of their Church.
Let’s quote a few things from the document I linked to in order to flesh out just what Old Believers mean by ritual, signs and symbols and what the average modern means.
In modern understanding, particularly under the influence of enlightenment rationalism, the general tendency is to perceive a ritual act as an outward expression of an inner disposition, the form, as it were, that is given to a particular content; the objectified expression of a subjective -‘spiritual’meaning or disposition, the ‘symbol’ or ‘sign’ which represents a meaning or
belief.There may well be a correct doctrinal form for a given ritual, but this formis nevertheless detached from the doctrine it expresses in the sense that itoperates as a mode of expression for that doctrine. Thus, in semiotic terms, ritualactions constitute signs which express but are nevertheless distanced from that which they signify. The connection is indeed present and clear, but it is aconnection of expression, the sign or signifier expresses and represents the signified. It then follows, at least by implication, that the same meaning, subject or content can be expressed in a plethora of forms, objects and symbols: thestamp of authenticity is the subjective disposition rather than the ritual expression–the whole issue being understood in a rather dualistic fashion. Pages 81-82
According to the worldview of the Old Belief, the distinction between inner andouter, content and form, subject and object, the signified and the signifier, or thesymbol, is not as clear cut as dualist conceptual distinctions would make it seem. A ritual act like the Sign of the Cross for example, is not simply the outward
expression of a particular meaning or devotional disposition, the physical sign as it were, of a spiritual content, but is an integral devotional-theological act thoroughly permeated by meaning: an act which embodies rather than expresses meaning and which therefore is inherently and integrally meaningful. In this act there is a kind of identity between the signified and the signifier, not to be sure an absolute equality, an absolute or literal identity, but a kind of interpenetration, as it were–like a sponge soaked in water. The sponge is at once substantially different to the water and when it is soaked it does not become the water or the water the sponge, but it is nevertheless integrally permeated by the water. There is of course no question of ‘transubstantiation’ here as in the Eucharistic change (an issue we will return to shortly) but there is a mode of semiotic identity. The ritual gesture does not then simply represent or express some doctrine, meaning or spiritual content but is a meaningfulact: literally, an act full of, imbued with,inherent meaning. Page 82
Is ritual really all that important? Do architecture, icons, gestures and old prayers really matter? I would answer a wholehearted “yes” to all of these questions; all of these things matter much more than many would like to imagine.
I actually like to think that the Old Believers were onto something when they clung tenaciously to the rituals and gestures themselves as being integral to the Faith.
What do you think about this?