EORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL is so well known for his multitudinous English oratorios and Italian operas that it can be hard to remember he was a native German-speaker for whom both of those languages were acquired in the course of a colorful, productive, and largely successful career. It is also surprising that he set to music very few German texts in his life. One lovely exception are the Nine German Arias (HWV 202-210), to which I have been recently listening. The text of the aria “Süße Stille, sanfte Quelle” (HWV 205), written by Barthold Heinrich Brocke in 1721, particularly caught my attention:
soft source of calm tranquility:
when after this time
of vain labor
I see in my mind’s eye
that rest which awaits us in eternity.
To me, this poem perfectly captures the feelings one often has at a quiet low Mass. And while I am admittedly an ardent advocate of the sung High Mass and the Solemn Mass, I also know from long and grateful experience how the low Mass (especially on weekdays) can be an oasis of spiritual rest in the midst of our labors, a foretaste of that eternal resting in God that we long for if we are awake and alert to His reality and our destiny.
At Wyoming Catholic College we have a calm, almost whispered early morning low Mass each Saturday. It is so still in the church that you are strangely aware of silent things like the sunlight pouring through the windows. You hear the birds singing around the church as the daylight grows. As the age-old and ageless dialogue of the priest and servers wafts over me, I feel my soul grow calm in the presence of the Lord: the “still, small voice” of God speaks to me through the sacred liturgy. I understand better what Dom Guéranger once wrote: “The Holy Spirit has made the liturgy the center of his working in men’s souls.”
The Novus Ordo almost never allows for this kind of experience. After decades of experiencing it in the best possible situations, with priests of unquestionable orthodoxy and piety, appropriate sacred music, and so forth, that profound tranquillity, simplicity, silence, and otherworldliness, so characteristic of the traditional Low Mass, has proved ever elusive. I think the main reason is that the Novus Ordo is often demanding that you DO something, SPEAK or MOVE or whatever; you are never left at peace for long. It’s like having a schoolmarm who is always there poking you awake from your daydream and demanding that you get back to your long division problems: no time to waste! We’ve got work to do!
We modern Westerners are so inured to (one might even say seduced by) activism, we sometimes end up losing in our feverish work the graces we could have obtained in peace of soul, “waiting on the Lord.” Perhaps what we need the most is to let ourselves simply “be” in the presence of the Lord, abiding with Him, breathing with His breath, watching for Him to show Himself in some small way that is nevertheless immensely precious. It’s very hard to express what I’m talking about to someone who has not experienced a truly prayerful Low Mass―and for those who have experienced it, no explanation is necessary.
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