The Burnt Orange Carpet Liturgical Test

When I put the kids to bed, each night, we sing a hymn or two after prayers and the rosary. I will sing any hymn that I can parse out from the music, even if it’s one I wouldn’t want to hear at Mass. Indeed, I sing more of the ones I would not want to hear at Mass than not, partly because they outnumber the acceptable ones in the hymnal, and partly because I’m fond of many a hymn unfit for sacred worship – but good enough for a little devotion as the youngest fall asleep.

Sometimes, of course, this has ill effects. I was once rattling off “Blest Be the Lord” more or less from memory, and it triggered images of the burnt orange carpet that adorned the sanctuary of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in my youth. They later re-covered it – with teal carpet – in the nineties, that dismal period of artificial fruit flavors and the Clinton administration. It’s cardinal now, stately and chaste within our diminished horizons of comfort and mass-production. They have obediently read the signs of the times.

I look up the copyright of “Blest Be the Lord” and see it postdates me by only a year. That sounds about right.  It is one of many hymns composed by the Saint Louis Jesuits, whom I also look up, just in time to read of their farewell concert.  I can see why some people persist in thinking of post-Vatican II culture, teaching, and liturgy as prophetic, for only a prophet could utter words that he is – totally, utterly, blissfully – unprepared to account for.

Only a prophet could have the audacity to say, “Let us worship in this new manner,” and then carpet the sanctuary burnt orange, set a guitar ensemble stage right of the tabernacle, and, with a touch to their lips of the burning coal in the angelic tongs, set them all strumming, “Blest Be the Lord.”

There is another term besides “prophetic” for all this, of course. But like many who keep sitting in the pews, despite the recent exposures of malfeasance, perversions, and bureaucratic irresponsibility of the clergy and bishops, I’m one of those unimaginative and shrug-shouldered folks who says with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”

And, like Peter, I know the agony involved in cringing to look back upon what has shaped me and is at once a source of anguish and joy.

What would things have been like had tastelessness not entered the sanctuary? What is it about these base and platitudinous efforts to be “with the people” that at once repulses and intrigues?

Whatever the answer, this is the only Church I’ve ever known, and it’s an exquisitely painful pleasure to contemplate being at once immersed in something whose flaws are so obvious and to sense, just on the other side of the screen of time, cut off from it by only a tissue’s breadth, lies something so radically other in some ways and yet familiar in still more.

Here I am, a middle-aged father of five, singing “Blest be the Lord” of an evening, looking back with dismay at the features of the Church I have known, and I find it fraught with what others might call “historicism” and “immanentism.”

By historicism I mean that modern conviction that something is only authentic and true insofar as it is expressive of the present historical moment.  But the eternal always appears to us under the guise of the temporal, so that might not be so bad.  Just to vex me thoroughly, therefore, the contemporary Church had to make sure its historical expressions seem never to express anything that transcends the moment. Hence, immanentism: the limitation of reality to the present age, our present relationships, our aspirations to feeling whole, here and now, never later, and realizing justice on earth.

Now and again, I go hear a Latin Mass.  Not too long ago, I heard one in the basement chapel of St. John Cantius in Chicago.  There, a great sea of young people, clutching their breviaries, women in veils, knelt about me on the hard tile, contemplating the back of the priest as he offered the holy sacrifice of the Mass in almost perfect silence. Those around seemed at home here, by which I mean only that this – what a generation older than me would refer to with intolerant and vitriolic disdain as an antique, museum, and oppressive Church – has somehow become the one and only true Church of their worship.

With them, I could get used to it.  At the very least, what we now call the Extraordinary Rite more fully helps me arrive at a state of contemplative prayer that seems most condign for the reception of the Eucharist.  But their complacency in such silent splendor also reminds me of my own sense of being ill-at-ease, trapped between two worlds.  I recognize the superiority of old ways that were never mine, and, in my own way, feel quite at home and even nostalgicfor those pitiably modern Church interiors, the friendly and familiar vernacular from a compulsively smiling priest, the hand-shakes, the pony-tailed man near the front, who was evidently pulled from his Volkswagen to come and lead the music, with his special friend Janice padding in on her leather sandals to accompany him on tambourine.

A few weeks ago, my daughter asked if she could hear a Latin Mass.  As it happens, we were due to attend a High Mass in the Extraordinary Form (a wedding of two young Catholics no less), the next week at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, in Philadelphia.  And we did.  And then, this last Sunday, back in Michigan, we sat up near the front of that great boat hull, exterior of green corrugated tin, that is Saint Thomas Aquinas Church.  In both these places, we were as at home as we ever will be in this vale of tears.


James Matthew Wilson has published ten books, including, most recently, The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico) and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA). Professor of Humanities and Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas (Houston), he also serves as poet-in-residence for the Benedict XVI Institute, poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, and as series editor for Colosseum Books, from the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press. His Amazon page is here.