Catherine Madsen

Excerpted from The Bones Reassemble by Catherine Madsen 


Chapter One  


The Power to Contain 


They do not accept their inheritance, and I inherit, not what they inherited, but their abrogation of their inheritance. 


—William S. Wilson, “Metier: Why I Don’t Write Like Franz Kafka” 


The more [work] realizes and transforms itself in its object, the closer it is to the imagination, to art, to culture; the more it is unable to bring forth an object…the more it approaches the condition of pain. 


—Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain 



     In criticizing recent liturgical language it is easy to appear merely petulant. Liturgists, who are used to a certain range of negative responses—from inarticulate resentment to the passionate defense of traditionalism for its own sake to accusations of heresy—are likely to see any criticism as belonging to one of those categories. Even an attempt to articulate clearly a sympathetic but critical stance is bound to appear to some readers carping, small-minded, opposed to creative experiment and to the reformers’ own cultural critique. As in national politics, a party that will not criticize itself assumes that any critic is automatically an enemy, motivated by mere partisan spite if not evil nature. But as in national politics, the situation is more complex. A feminist may object to the simplistic representation of her feminism, even by her allies; a liberal Jew or Catholic or Episcopalian may be demoralized not by the newness of the new liturgical style but by its lightness; a heretic who takes her heresy seriously is likely to be annoyed at seeing it weakly presented. An outsider, knowing nothing of the history of liturgy but longing for some public expression of a profound private experience, may be dismayed at “welcoming” liturgies which overtly invite but covertly repel strong emotion. It is apparently hard for liturgical reformers to grasp that even their natural constituencies want to see the work done right: that the very people for whom the reforms are intended can be exasperated, even permanently disillusioned, by seeing their own ideas badly expressed. 

            In writing liturgy that responds to the contemporary sensibility but is less physically and emotionally persuasive than the work of the old guard, modern liturgists have not yet created a real alternative to the old forms. They have only created an agonizing split between the politically acceptable and the physically and emotionally satisfying. The standard response to complaints has been, for thirty or forty years, that justice is more important than aesthetics, that beauty will be along later, that over time we (or at least our children) will come to love the new inept language as much as we once loved the old polished words. But such a response presupposes that justice and aesthetics are separable, that justice incompetently applied can achieve its purpose. To offer politically contrived grammatical changes and carefully inoffensive metaphors to replace the language of brokenheartedness and ardor and fear is to understand very little about liturgy. In being willing to live with bad work for a generation or two, modern liturgists have abdicated—or have not even been conscious of—a responsibility. They assure us that the problems will solve themselves in twenty-five or fifty or a hundred years; they have not understood the social and moral debilitation entailed in living one’s only lifetime with a liturgical language that cannot hold one’s experience. 

            The premise of this book is the relationship between experience and speech: that we are compelled to speak our experience, and that there is a reciprocal relationship between the quality of our speech and our comprehension of our experience. The problem for modern liturgy is not, as it has usually been styled, the replacement or archaic diction with “accessible” modern language, or of oppressive patriarchy by egalitarian feminism, or any other paternalistic (or maternalistic) program for making religion safe. The real problem for modern liturgy—as for modernity in general—is how to survive modernity. It will not be solved by the imposition of a political schema on a religious one, or by the undermining of a secular political order by a religious one, or by some specious “moderation” that tries to appease everyone and satisfies no one; so far as it is soluble, we will solve it by learning to speak once again as accurately as possible the language of brokenheartedness and ardor and fear. The very development of our language, its uses at moments of awe or moral reflection, its reemergence after great suffering—each of which I will consider in the following chapters—suggests that a profound language of prayer is intrinsic: that it is not too hard for us, neither is it far off, but already in our mouths and in our hearts.