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Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Power Of Repetition–A Vision Of Eternity

Eternity is unimaginable, yet we are continually inclined to think of it as an endlessly long time—which it isn’t. It is not extended, stretched out, for then it would be measurable, whereas fundamentally it cannot be measured. It is a Now without motion, a Now without either past or future. Visionaries seem to have a grasp of it when they speak of a “falling that lacks all direction” or of a fire that embraces them totally yet has no spatial limits (Martin Mosebach, The Mystery of Repetition)
This passage was in reference to the Conciliar Constitution (Sacrosanctum concilium) of the Catholic Church and the influence of Johann Wincklemann.  The Constitution stated that “the rites should bear the mark of noble simplicity,”; and  it is impossible not to think of one of the key sentences of Winckelmann’s Thoughts on the imitation of Greek works in painting and sculpture written in 1755: “The pre-eminent, universal note of the Greek masterpieces is a noble simplicity and a silent greatness.”

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The drafters of the Conciliar Constitution understood the relationship between ‘noble simplicity’, repetition, and contemplation of the eternal.  Liturgy, and the chants and prayers devolved from it, are the means of providing the worshiper a prayerful metaphor for an all- and ever-present God. The Kyrie Eleison, a repetition of three phrases and three responses, was not structured thus by accident; nor are the stanzas and verses of any religious hymn or prayer. There is no way to know the Infinite, but the repetition of simple, elegiac, and spiritual verses suggests an existence beyond simple, secular, ordinary step-by-step procedure.

Those who would reform the Mass to make it more accessible, while respecting the principle of simplicity, find ways to simplify it.
Things could also be tidied up somewhat in the “Gloria,” a prayer that unites the Song of the Angels and the improvisations made by St. Augustine and St. Ambrose; the two saints were clearly a little distracted by the enthusiasm their task inspired! Jesus is twice called “Son”—surely once would be enough?
We find the phrase “qui tollis peccata mundi” twice, and “miserere nobis” twice also, quite apart from other redundancies in the text. Surely it would be possible to produce a slimmed-down version without losing any of the content?
And what of the priest’s greeting, “Dominus vobiscum”: Does it make so little impression on the forgetful congregation that it is necessary to repeat it constantly during the Mass?—to say nothing of the “unnecessary” repetitions in the “Agnus Dei” and the “Sanctus,” which contribute nothing substantial to the whole (Mosebach, op.cit.)
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I
n the interest of liturgical parsimony one might consider such excisions, Mosebach suggests the opposite.  The very act of repetition – in fact the more the better – is both a formalized supplication and an intimation of the universal.  A prayer whose verses are repeated two, three, or more times suggest one which could go on forever.  In fact a repetitive devotional stanzas can and should be seen as the first in an infinite series.
We are to let ourselves be carried by the Mass in its ceaseless repetitions, to let our desire for independent thought and feeling come to rest and repose in it, to discover—in the routine—the happiness of being-at-home. We are to forget our own self-will; we must no longer feel that our mind’s distractedness constitutes a spiritual failing, since it takes place within something great and total and is thereby in safe keeping.
We can surrender the self-consciousness of doing something and having to do something. The most important thing the repeated Rite manifests to those who engage in it, is that it is stronger than they are; they gain by surrendering to it, and on the other hand they are sapping nothing of its power if perchance they are not up to such a surrender. After all, who can say he is always conscious of being at the Rite’s lofty level? (Mosebach, op.cit.)
This, of course, is significantly different from evangelical Protestantism.  While preachers may read selected chapters and verses from the Bible, they are to invoke a reverence and spiritual state of mind which precedes the very personal and individual encounter with and acceptance of Jesus Christ. 

Repetitive liturgy has no place in charismatic or Pentecostal revivals.  Services are not designed to suggest the infinite, the nature of the universal divine, or the absolute divinity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity; but to encourage a very unique and emotionally powerful relationship with Christ himself.
Evangelical Protestantism is far closer to the American secular ethos of individualism, individual enterprise and success than Catholicism.  Catholicism, like Hinduism, encourages a contemplation of the divine rather than a personal relationship with it.  Both religions rely on rite, ritual, and repetitive devotional prayer to put the worshipper closer to the Infinite.

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Wincklemann’s sense of simplicity and repetition has implications for non-spiritual life as well.  In today’s individualistic, self-centered, and entrepreneurial society, repetition has no intrinsic or applied value. In fact, every aspect of such a society – economic, political, financial, and social – is based on reducing repetition to a minimum; to creating a lean, essential architecture of design and ideas.  Repetitive cycles of behavior – the same bedtimes, the same meals, the same wives and husbands, the same routines – are considered the domain of the least talented.

Devout Hindus think nothing of the sort.  Repetition is the most essential aspect to spiritual evolution.  Since the world is maya or illusion and that reality is nothing more than a chimera and a distraction from the true path of enlightenment, repetition is necessary for keeping the wayward soul on the right path.

A well-known Indian musician, a member of the Rajput gharana, and great-grandson of sitarists who had played at court, once told an American student anxious to progress past the fundamentals of the classical raga and move quickly on to an improvisational classical jazz idiom, that ‘all infinity is contained in one note’. He insisted that the student master the scales of the ragas, and the microtones of each note – to repeat them ad infinitum if necessary.

Image result for images 19th century rajput musical gharana

here is no point to refusing repetition and insisting only on innovation or simple difference.  There is every point to appreciating repetition as a call to the divine. 

It is hard to ‘embrace’ repetition, sameness, and routine in today’s society.  Time’s a-wasting, and much ground to cover.

In such a drive for uniqueness and difference; and at the very least a refusal to accept the tried, true, and predictable, we have lost our way.


Liturgy, chant, and the repeated stanzas of the Kyrie are the only buoys guiding our way in and out of the channel. 

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