One of the more pernicious ideas that has entered modern conscience is that form doesn’t matter. That provided you get the “substance” right, it doesn’t matter how you do it. We see the tentacles of this odious concept intrude into all forms of life, whether it be the law, politics, or interpersonal relationships.
Perhaps no-where is it more readily evident, however, than in the sphere of religion.
I had the privilege to attend the Pontifical Solemn High Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (aka Tradstock); the first Extraordinary Form Mass held there in 50 years. Despite not being a a member of the Church of Rome, and indeed generally being quite critical of it (yeah, I’m a filioque hawk), I was still deeply impressed and moved by the beauty and solemnity of the event, and thought I would offer a few words of comment.
As tempting as it is, I shall not use this as an opportunity to opine on the beauty of the traditional liturgy, or the importance of ensuring the House of God is actually treated as such. Rather, I shall stick to the more abstract point of why such things are of importance. Specifically, that form matters.
So many people in our society say “well, it doesn’t matter about the external form, it’s what you intend that is important”.
Well no, it doesn’t work like that. Form does matter, and it matters greatly. Because the external directly affects the internal. The way we present ourselves, the way we act publicly, affects who we are. If the Sacred Mass is replaced with a caricature of what it should be, whether using puppets or dancing deacons (and don’t even get me started on the “Holy Ghost Hokey Pokey”), then this actually affects stuff. If you abolish ad orientem, and turn the celebrant into some sort of magician-performer playing for the crowd, then this has consequences.
The liturgical poverty of the Church of Rome in the last few decades has had profound consequences for the spirituality of their flock. The way you present yourself in the House of God has a direct effect on how you worship. The fact that this isn’t actually obvious to all really does baffle me.
Allow me to use an example. Persons unaware of how such things work often query why Orthodox fast, saying it’s simply following rules, at the expense of spirituality. The thing is, that these “external” things you do, this “rule-following” actually has an effect on your deeper spirituality. (I will not claim that engaging in a fast reduces my propensity to sin, but it does at least make me feel a lot more guilty about it!). A friend of mine once stated something along the lines of “if you wear a mask long enough, it seeps into the skin”. Truer words were never spoken. Because the more you are able to keep the form up, the more it affects the substance.
If you choose to throw away centuries of liturgical tradition simply because you think form doesn’t matter, then you throw away something that has the power to shape and affect who you are. You throw away the sanctity and spirituality of the Church – something created by God, and instead replace it with something created by man.
Without the form to guide us, with the form to mould us, we can have no true virtuous substance. As such, the question isn’t “form vs substance”. Rather, it is simply how without form, substance is nothing.
Form matters. A lot.